A week later, and back in the same place. Plus ça change pas... The same riders are back at the same track, in the same situation. So we should have the same result, right?
That's not quite what the data from Jerez says. Sure, the first two places were the same in both races. But behind that, the results were completely different between the two races, a week apart on the same circuit. Only 9 of the 22 riders on the entry list of the first race finished both races, three of them ending up injured in the carnage of the two opening rounds.
Only Pol Espargaro crossed the line within one place of his finishing position in the second race, ending sixth in the first race, seventh in the second. Only Johann Zarco's finishing position varied by two places, crossing the line eleventh in the first race, ninth in the second. The rest of the field either finished three or more places out of position, or crashed out – and there were a lot of riders who didn't cross the line one way or another.
The biggest name not to finish in either of the MotoGP races at Jerez was, of course Marc Márquez. The reigning world champion won't be at the second race at the Red Bull Ring, Repsol Honda announced earlier this week, and an eerie silence surrounds when he will be back. And so Honda languish in fifth in the manufacturer standings, and the factory Repsol Honda team is dead last in the team standings. Only Takaaki Nakagami is sparing Honda's blushes, and he is riding a 2019 bike.
Same track, same dangers
Much may change at the Red Bull Ring, but unfortunately for the riders, the one thing that won't is the Red Bull Ring itself. The incident between Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli, in which the two riders collided on the approach to Turn 2, were separated from their bikes at 300 km/h, which kept on going and flew across the track at enormous speed, nearly decapitating Maverick Viñales and passing within a meter or so of both Viñales and his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi.
For this race, a minor adjustment is being made. The wall on the inside of Turn 3 is being extended, with a tire wall and air fence in front, while a catch fence has been put above the the air fence to catch any flying debris. It is an improvement but not much of one, like seeing a gas station catch fire, and deciding to put a couple of extra fire extinguishers near the pumps to stop it happening again.
What would have happened if the new barrier had been in place last Sunday? The catch fence might have stopped Johann Zarco's bike from crossing the track, but Franco Morbidelli's M1 slid right along the edge of the track over the kerb, and ended up firing right between the bikes of Viñales and Rossi. Zarco's bike most probably would have hit the air fence, judging by the footage, and probably would have deflated it, just before Franco Morbidelli arrived there. The result might have been a little bit better, but not much. Viñales and Rossi would have dodged one bullet rather than two, and Morbidelli could have ended up hitting a deflating piece of air fence quite hard.
The underlying causes of the crash were not addressed: the fact that riders are leaned over hard for the left of Turn 2, while starting to brake hard for the right hander of Turn 3. The speeds are high, as are the braking forces, and riders are taking multiple lines on the approach to the tight right hander, to line themselves up as well as possible to get drive on the exit. Different bikes take different lines to find the drive that they need.
The corner itself needs fixing, that much we have known for some time: a similar crash happened at Spielberg – or Zeltweg, as the track was then known – back in 2002. Only this time, one racer lost control, and their car reentered the circuit and hit another driver full amidships. The saving grace for the factory Yamahas is that motorcycles present a much smaller target area than cars.
How to fix Turn 3? It starts with sorting out Turn 2. Straightening the kink might make a difference, but what you really want is for the bikes to be forced to brake hard enough for Turn 2 that a lot of speed has already been scrubbed off before they get anywhere near Turn 3.
Moving the problem elsewhere
But there is an additional risk here, as Cal Crutchlow explained to us. "One of the key things here is we cannot make the exit any faster," the LCR Honda rider told us. "Because Turn 4 is where we all have braking problems, where the heat of the brakes is a problem. So going down that hill, it's quite a steep downhill, we do not want to be going any faster than we are going now anyway. We're absolutely on the limit of stopping, with brake temperatures, with the tires, the bikes, and the riders, we're on the limit. So we don't want to push the limit any more just because they've altered Turn 3."
The condemnation for Turn 3 was universal, only the tone differing between riders. "I still don't think the corner's safe," Crutchlow added. Danilo Petrucci explained that the combination of speed, braking, and lean angle was the issue. "The fact is that in that part the only category, both cars and bikes, the only category that brakes in the middle of Turn 2 is MotoGP, because we arrive really, really fast. Faster than any other vehicle in the world at that part and we have to brake a lot of meters before when we are still turning."
The speed, lean angle, and braking also made it hugely challenging for the riders, Valentino Rossi said. "The worst point is Turn 2 and 3, which is a shame because it is a great point, I like it a lot and it is technical braking from one side to the other, but can be very dangerous."
"I saw the F1 crash before our incident and it’s the same," Rossi went on to explain. "When you have a small hairpin then you exit the opposite way and you arrive very fast, so this is very dangerous. The problem is modifying the track is never easy, you need to make a big job to modify Turn 2 and 3 in another way. It’s not impossible but we need to push a lot because it’d cost a lot of money for the organizer."
Money fixes everything
The organizer, in this instance, is the Red Bull Ring. The Red Bull Ring is owned by Red Bull. Red Bull is owned Dieter Mateschitz, Austria's richest man. Red Bull is a hugely profitable enterprise: in 2018, the company's net income was reported to be €741 million, on turnover of around €5.5 billion. If Red Bull wanted to make the Red Bull Ring safe, Red Bull would appear to have the money to spare. The question is, does Red Bull want to spend the money to make the Red Bull Ring safe?
Safe or not, it won't stop the riders from racing there on Sunday. Asked if the near miss on Sunday had made him rethink his future, and stop racing in 2021, Valentino Rossi gave an answer that is most easily summarized as 'lol no'. "I think that if I stop with MotoGP, anyway I will do something else that is dangerous," he said. "I want to race with cars, and make the 24 Hours. If you are a rider or a driver, it's a risk. So I didn't change my mind and I want to continue next year."
That racing isn't the only danger in life was evident during Bradley Smith's zoom debrief. The factory Aprilia rider appeared with a face looking as swollen and discolored as if he was giving a press conference after losing a middleweight boxing bout on points over ten rounds, in a fight that should have been stopped after three. Smith had been stung by a bee, and the allergic reaction had caused his face to swell up.
"I got stung by a bee on Tuesday. That’s why my face looks like it does," Smith said. "This is 48 hours later. You can imagine what it looked like when it happened." He hoped the swelling would be reduced enough on Friday morning to be able to put a helmet on. "We’ve already done all the checks with Shoei and if you had seen the pictures yesterday compared to today, I already expect tomorrow is going to be better."
The forced extended stay in the paddock was starting to take its toll on those inside the MotoGP bubble. Boredom was the biggest issue facing the riders, whose temperament tends toward the hyperactive at the best of times. "From a perspective of the paddock, it's boring," Cal Crutchlow said. "There is nothing to do. As in, we have stayed here all week, and we all mentioned here the other day, can you imagine the screen times on our phone?"
The rhythm of a race weekend was radically different, Crutchlow explained. "Normally we arrive at the circuit on a Wednesday or even a Thursday, you have your meetings, you have your press, then you have your massage, and you go for a cycle, and your day is done and you're ready to ride. Now we're here on Monday... I woke up a couple of days at 11:30, to try to drag the day out a little bit."
For more on the weird and bizarre atmosphere in the paddock, read Mat Oxley's excellent interview with Dorna TV commentators Matt Birt and Steve Day. It is a strange, lonely affair, with no fans, and little contact with anyone outside your own bubble. The MotoGP paddock is normally heaving with life, especially at the end of the day. Now, photographers send pictures of the paddock, deserted except for the rows of trucks. But at least there is racing.
The aftermath of various crashes were at the forefront of many people's minds, both riders and journalists. The war of words which started after Pol Espargaro and Miguel Oliveira came together on Sunday and ended up both crashing. Oliveira cast eloquent aspersions on Espargaro's ability to see inside the corner when he ran wide, while Espargaro kept mostly quiet after expressing his perspective, that Oliveira had crashed and taken him down.
The whole affair seemed to have settled down, until the riders spoke to the media again, and the whole cycle started again. Espargaro had been irritated by the way the incident had been viewed on Social Media. "Obviously I was a little surprised about how much people know about motorbikes and how easy the people talk about something they don’t know exactly," the factory KTM rider said with a hefty dose of sarcasm. "This is something I am really surprised about because when I want to talk about something at least I try to be informed about what was going on."
Espargaro felt people were taking Oliveira's side because Oliveira had spoken out, while he had tried not to say anything for the sake of harmony inside KTM. "For example in Miguel’s side he was complaining and when one rider is complaining the other rider has the fault," Espargaro said. "Instead of thinking ‘maybe the other one doesn’t want to fight with a teammate inside KTM factory racing…’ which is the most intelligent thing."
Cain and Abel
He hadn't wanted the public spat, Espargaro said. "We are teammates! And in the end the first thing you learn in this MotoGP world is that you cannot fight against your teammate because the factory [that] is paying you doesn’t want it. It is a very bad image." He had done his best to calm down immediately after the crash, he explained. "Instead of going into the pitbox when I crashed I went into my motorhome straight away and I took a cool bath and then afterwards I went into the pitbox, saw the guys and we were talking about it. I think this is what we all need to do: cool down, especially when it is a matter of teammates."
Oliveira, on the other hand, was sticking to his guns. Espargaro had run wide and opened the door, and Oliveira had seized the opportunity offered. "The line Pol did was not his normal line. He for sure did the same the lap before. He went wide. The same story. Mir overtook him on inside. And my opinion is if you are racing and you go wide you need to expect someone is going to take advantage of your mistake," the Tech3 KTM rider explained. "I don’t need to really wait… my point of view is that I don’t need to cross my fingers. If I am in the inside of the corner I will try to look on the other side of the bike to see if someone is there. I know he is there. When the rider goes wide usually there is someone there to take your place."
Oliveira and Espargaro were both called to the FIM Stewards, who declared the issue to be a race incident, with no further action taken. Both Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli were also called up before the Stewards, appearing separately, but with Ruben Xaus accompanying Zarco, and Wilco Zeelenberg attending with Morbidelli. The Stewards issued a press release on Thursday saying that they would be issuing a statement on Friday, in an odd piece of meta communication.
Zarco vs Morbidelli
Johann Zarco proclaimed his innocence, saying he did not believe he deserved any kind of penalty. "From my opinion there should not be any penalties because I didn't do anything crazy and I explained everything correctly – that nothing was crazy," he said. "I explained everything well, even we had good proof with the data. I hope they understood it, because they were not really answering, but let's see what the decision is."
Franco Morbidelli first took back some of the strongest words he had said in the aftermath of the crash on Sunday evening. "Before you ask me I will tell you that I am sorry about what I called Johann after the race. It was a too strong statement," he said.
But that didn't mean he was backing down. "It remains the fact that Johann made a mistake. It remains the fact that Johann’s mistake or Johann’s action could have ended way worse than how it ended. It is still a mistake. I don’t know his feelings. I’m not in his head. I can’t judge what’s going through his mind. I can just judge his actions."
Morbidelli explained what he felt Zarco had done wrong. "Clearly Johann took a funny line, a line that nobody has been going – never, not even once in the weekend – a super tight light into T3 just to cut ground to overtake me. So it was the aim was to cut ground to overtake and then the braking we think about it later. The problem is that when he cut the ground he didn’t overtake me completely and he still went wide after the corner. We couldn’t avoid the collision. I couldn’t avoid because I couldn’t go any further on the right, I couldn’t go anywhere else, I couldn’t go on the inside, because there was no space to go inside and I couldn’t go outside because I would’ve ended up on the grass. So I think the accident is pretty much this."
Most of the riders saw it the same way as Morbidelli. "On the Zarco incident, I believe that last week, maybe I was a little wrong, because I did say it was a racing incident," Crutchlow told us. "But if you actually look, he was never stopping for that corner anyway. There's no way. Because if you look at the trajectory of that bike, he was already going towards the grass. So he was either going to go on the grass on his own, or he was going to go so tight into the right hander, he wouldn't have made the corner. He would have just gone straight off the end of the track."
Justice for all
The real ire of the riders was aimed at the panel of FIM Stewards, consisting of Freddie Spencer, American FIM official Bill Cumbow, and a rotating third member drawn from a pool of other FIM officials. "I have many doubts about the panel of Stewards," Aleix Espargaro said. "I don’t agree with many things. We can improve on many things. But it doesn’t depend on me. For sure I can understand it’s easy for them. But it’s also not easy for me to put the Aprilia in the top ten. It’s not for easy for my engineers, it’s not easy for my wife to be a mum. For everybody it’s difficult. We have room to improve."
The real issue was a lack of consistency, Espargaro said. "It’s not just me. Every rider in Safety Commission isn’t super happy. I know it’s not easy but for the riders and what we are asking, and what makes us feel uncomfortable, we think it’s always different, not always equal with the same actions. It depends if the rider crashes or not. It depends if the rider is leading or not. It depends if the rider is in Moto3 or MotoGP. The rule is the rule. It doesn’t matter if it’s two guys fighting for 20th place in Moto3 or whether it’s Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi in MotoGP. The rule is the rule. It has to be more equal."
Danilo Petrucci felt exactly the same way, despite having been hauled up before the Stewards for a collision with the self same Aleix Espargaro previously. "I think most MotoGP riders are not happy about what Race Direction does, especially because there are many accidents, especially that happen not at the front, that are not judged like the guys at the front. There are some accidents in MotoGP that are judged differently to Moto3. We have to talk tomorrow in the Safety Commission, for sure there are many things to fix about that."
Cal Crutchlow simply refused to answer when asked about Freddie Spencer as head of the FIM Stewards, making his displeasure with the setup very clear. Aleix Espargaro said what was needed was someone with more recent racing experience. "Full credit to Freddie Spencer. Full respect to him," Espargaro said. "But when was last time he rode a MotoGP bike? Not easy. But I think we need a position of somebody who rode a MotoGP six, seven, eight years ago that has been a rider in the maximum class but also understands a bit the MotoGP feeling. This would help a little bit more. I repeat it’s not easy to do this job, especially in this year when equality of all riders and bikes in this class is maximum."
Change is not always progress
The FIM Panel of Stewards was brought into being to deal with incidents after the fallout of the Sepang 2015 clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. Before then, Race Director Mike Webb handled all such incidents. The move was meant to allow Webb to focus on the safe running of the race, without being distracted by the need to hand out penalties. The change has certainly left Webb free to get on with running the race. But it doesn't appear to have improved the handling of penalties, which was its raison d'etre in the first place
Maybe having Mike Webb run the show wasn't such a bad idea after all.
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