The Red Bull Ring has faced much criticism in the six years since MotoGP started going back there, mostly about the safety of the riders on track. But one thing that gets overlooked is the circuit's propensity for generating drama off track. In 2020, we had Andrea Dovizioso announcing he would not be racing with Ducati again in 2021. In 2019, we had the drama with Johann Zarco splitting with KTM, with additional drama around Jack Miller possibly losing a place to Jorge Lorenzo, who would return to Ducati to take Miller's place at Pramac.
The year before, Yamaha had held a press conference in which management and engineers officially apologized to factory riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales for building a dog-slow bike that left them 11th and 14th on the grid. Spielberg was the place where Romano Fenati got into an altercation with the Sky VR46 Moto2 team, and was sacked in 2016.
So much discord and division. Perhaps the circuit is built on a conjunction of ley lines, or perhaps the Spielberg track was built on an ancient cemetery where the contemporaries of Ötzi were buried. Or perhaps the middle of a MotoGP season is when tensions generally reach boiling point. The latter explanation is the most likely, perhaps, though a good deal less entertaining.
Bouncing off the limiter
So for Maverick Viñales to be suspended by Yamaha for "unexplained irregular operation of the motorcycle" might be shocking, but if you had to pick a track where it would happen, it would have to be here. Spielberg is where the drama happens.
What did Viñales actually do? As I explained in the story when the news was announced, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider is accused of holding his bike on the limiter through several points on the various straights around the track in the final laps of the race. The evidence that he was doing this is everywhere: in first-hand reports from people at the track, from the analysis lap charts posted on the MotoGP.com results web page, and now, from an onboard camera video published by Dorna on the MotoGP.com website.
Why did Viñales do it? He complained of several technical problems after last week's race in Austria. He stalled the bike on the grid after the team had swapped a clutch for the restart. He complained of electronics issues, and of a dashboard which was stuck displaying "Pit Lane", the message used to warn a rider they are in pit lane and to proceed accordingly. It is not inconceivable that he grew so frustrated at the problems that he started to abuse it.
Storm long brewing
It is also possible that this was the final straw for Viñales in a long series of problems between Yamaha and the Spaniard. He has expressed growing frustration since winning the opening race of 2021 at Qatar. At Barcelona, Yamaha forced a change of crew chiefs on him, Esteban Garcia making way for Silvano Galbusera. At the Sachsenring, Viñales finished dead last, then went to pole position and second place in the race at Assen.
After the race in Austria last week, Viñales' father Angel posted various accusations against Yamaha on social media. Later that week, the Viñales WorldSSP300 team run by Angel announced they were leaving Yamaha with immediate effect, and would be seeking a deal with another manufacturer for the rest of the season.
Though the statement issue by Yamaha spoke only of evaluating whether to continue with Viñales after further analysis of the data, it is unthinkable that Viñales will return to the Monster Energy Yamaha team. The relationship between Yamaha and Viñales is irretrievably broken, and Viñales racing a Yamaha in 2021 would be a bad idea for both parties. Current paddock gossip puts a WorldSBK rider on the Monster Energy Yamaha for the next round at Silverstone, and then Cal Crutchlow to take over for the remainder of the season. That is just speculation at this point, however.
Viñales received some sympathy from his colleagues, but little understanding. Many preferred to avoid commenting at all. "We have enough problems inside our box to pay attention to others," said Marc Marquez, after a few cursory comments. Joan Mir took a similar line: "I don't like to speak a lot about this, because first, it's not my war, it's not my battle."
Aleix Espargaro summed up the feelings of a lot of riders. "Sincerely, I feel very sorry for Maverick, from the personal side," the Aprilia rider said. "I know him very well from a long time ago, we have very good relations, so I feel very very sorry. I've been training here with him the last three days with the bicycle and he didn't know anything. So the only thing I can say is that I feel very sorry."
Where Espargaro was a little less forgiving was in the question of dealing with frustration. "Sometimes I've also been very angry and I've had some bad reactions when I had problems, but you have to understand that this is a team sport," Espargaro said. "When I crash, they don't blame me, they don't hit me, so when the engine stops sometimes, it's frustrating but you have to think twice, and breathe, and I'm not saying that what he did is good in any case, but when you are hot and angry, anything can happen, but there are big plans behind us, as with Maverick with Yamaha or me with Aprilia. So you have to be clever sometimes and think twice."
Jack Miller had a good deal less patience with Viñales. Giving up the way Viñales did was antithetical to what being a motorcycle racer stood for. "No matter if I crash, if I've stalled the bike on the grid, no matter what happens, the race is never over," the factory Ducati rider said. "It's only over if you give up, because anything can happen, a red flag or whatever. But if you've got that mindset, then you've already given up, that's it, you know?"
Miller had continued on now matter how bleak the outlook on occasion, he said. "You've seen multiple times that I've picked my bike up and continued to race with the thing bent in half or whatever. Stalled the bike on the grid in the hottest racetrack that we go to in Thailand, I turned the bike off the grid, started from pit lane, pushed my *** off to try to get through to one point. Simply because that's what you do, you're a racer, that's what you get paid for, to go racing. To try to beat the next guy in front of you."
It was simply unacceptable, the Australian told us. "Sorry to say, but you're not doing what you get paid for, which is to race a motorcycle to the best of your ability. No matter the temper or whatever. I'm not saying either party is right or wrong, it is what it is, that's between them. But at the end of the day, it's a relatively simple thing. You get paid to ride a motorcycle. It's a simple as that, that's what it is. We're not here to be an influencer, we're not here to be whatever these idiots want to be. We're not here to do that. We get paid to race motorcycles. Full stop."
Been there, done that
Valentino Rossi was sad to see the situation get this far. "I'm very sad for this situation, from both sides," the Italian said. "Because Maverick is my friend, is a good guy, and also Yamaha is always my team from a long time. So I think it's a shame for everything."
Rossi has known some very dark times himself: the years at Ducati, the return to Yamaha, the disappointment of 2015, the struggle to be competitive last year and this. In those situations, Rossi explained, it was important to have good people around you, people you can trust.
"I've passed through very difficult periods sometimes during my long career," the Italian told us on Thursday. "I remember 3-4 times that I was really, really desperate because I don’t have the right result. I have a lot of pressure but I'm not able to gain, to have the result that I and everybody expect and I remember that I want always stop. I want stay at home."
"So I start and I push very much with my guys, with my entourage and my family and I say 'no, no, no, I don’t come. Next race I don’t come. I want to stay at home'. It's good, I'm lucky because all my guys from Uccio to Albi, Carlo and also my mother said, 'no, you cannot stop. Now you don’t understand from inside what will happen if you stop. If you stop the situation will be a lot, lot worse than now'."
"And I said, 'it's impossible that it's worse'. And they said, 'no, you don’t have to stop because it's a lot worse'. And I have to say thank you because sincerely they are right. After some years I understand that if in that moment I stop, the situation is a lot worse than trying to continue. So I think that it's important the people you have around." Rossi was grateful to have had people around him who could oversee the long-term consequences of his decisions, and give him the strength to push through the bad times and wait for better times to return.
The Red Bull Ring wouldn't be the Red Bull Ring if there was only one bit of bad news, of course. On Thursday night, news emerged that Malaysian oil giant Petronas would be withdrawing its sponsorship of the Petronas SRT team. The loss of that much sponsorship money means that the team will have to close its Moto2 and Moto3 teams, and focus solely on MotoGP.
According to reporting by Motorsport.com's Oriol Puigdemont, the team will also have to downgrade the level of equipment they get, running two B-spec machines. What that means in practice is probably that they will have two 2021-spec bikes for 2022, and receive little or no updates during the season.
This means a return to the previous era of Yamaha satellite teams, when Tech3 ran the show. At the end of each season, the bikes would be rolled out of the factory garage and into the satellite garage, and that was usually the last update the satellite team would receive. This looks like what will become of the future SRT Yamaha team.
The end of the Moto2 and Moto3 teams leaves their four riders without a ride for 2022. There have been rumors that Darryn Binder will be moved up to MotoGP, maintaining the tally of Grand Prix siblings to an astonishing (and rather worrying) six – the brothers Marquez, the brothers Espargaro, and the Binder brothers. If Valentino Rossi hadn't chosen to retire at the end of 2021, there would be eight, with Rossi's half-brother Luca Marini also in MotoGP next year.
Moving Binder up to MotoGP straight from Moto3 is a risk, of course, but his chances are probably better than those of Jack Miller, the last rider to do so. Then, Miller was placed on a Honda RCV1000R Open Class machine with the LCR team, an underpowered bike which was still hard to ride. The Yamaha M1 is notoriously easy to adapt to, at least as far as any MotoGP bike is easy to learn. From a Honda Moto3 bike to a Yamaha MotoGP bike is still a huge step, but not quite as huge as it could have been.
Why has Petronas withdrawn? Arguably, because the program has failed to nurture the kind of Malaysian talent which the Malaysian oil giant had hoped for. They started with high hopes, fielding Hafizh Syahrin in Moto2 and Adam Norrodin in Moto3. Norrodin had a year in Moto2, and Khairul Idham Pawi had a season in Moto3.
But this year, the idea of racing with Malaysian riders has been dropped in favor of the objective of chasing a title in Moto2 and Moto3. But neither Xavi Vierge, Jake Dixon, John McPhee nor Darryn Binder have been capable of challenging so far this year. And with no Malaysian talent in the pipeline, Petronas' rationale for racing has evaporated.
What has changed since last weekend – apart from the drama surrounding Yamaha, of course? Michelin have brought a harder front tire, in response to criticisms of the asymmetric front used at the Styria Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring. That move was welcomed by a lot of riders.
Ducati's Pecco Bagnaia, who ran the hard front being replaced in the race last week, was keen. "The new tire that they bring is the one that I prefer," the factory Ducati rider told us. "I always use it when we have this type of front tire, because it helped me a lot to brake the bike more. So it's a tire that I really like."
Brad Binder, who had suffered in qualifying without a tire hard enough to handle the braking stresses generated by the KTM RC16, was cautiously optimistic. "At the moment, as we all know, we're getting a harder option front tire, but whether it's going to work for us or not, we're still going to have to wait and see," the South African said.
"It is true we are missing support in the front," Binder explained. "It's making it very difficult for us to brake, because we have a lot of front locking and whenever we need to flick into the corners, we don't quite have the support. So it's making it really difficult for us to use the strongest point of our bike, which is corner entry. So far looking at the weekend, it's going to be interesting to see if we can make the harder tire work, because in the past, we always benefit more having a harder front tire."
Tough on tires
Michelin's hand had been forced into replacing the front tire by the photos of Miguel Oliveira's front tire after the race last week. That tire was missing a couple of large chunks of rubber from the surface, and Michelin replaced the asymmetric hard to avoid a repeat, and out of an abundance of caution.
Oliveira was careful not to claim this as a vindication for what happened to him last week. "I think I was quite polite and careful about what I said on Sunday," the Portuguese rider told us. "Now it is pretty clear after some photos published that two pieces of rubber came out of the tire. I don’t know the reason and for I am not the best one to be able to answer why this happened. The outcome is that they replaced the front tire for another one. Hopefully this will be safe and also performing for us. That’s basically it."
Oliveira was at pains to point out that the blame did not lie with KTM nor his own team. "It was not a failure caused by the team, meaning that temperatures and pressures were inside the margin that Michelin recommended. It was not a riding mistake due to pushing too much too early. The rush conclusion seems to be a tire defect. That’s what I think," Oliveira said.
The loss of a softer compound on the left side was not an issue, the KTM rider said. "We don’t have any warm-up tire problems here because the braking temperatures are quite high and even with low track temperatures the tires stay evenly heated on both sides."
Oliveira has been a public critic of the asymmetric front Michelin have used at various races this year, including the opening rounds in Qatar. "The story is that Michelin replaced a hard front tire that was between a medium and a hard. So they tried to replace this tire with asymmetric but this tire does not work from the first day we have tried it," he said. "Not only our comments, but other rider and manufacturers comments are that this tire is hard to comprehend sometimes and it’s not giving the right feedback."
KTM were racing the asymmetric hard for a lack of other options, Oliveira explained. "Here in Spielberg it was already working OK. But, let’s say if we had another choice, we would not race with this tire. This is something that we have been warning Michelin about since Portimao where this asymmetric option was the only one. What happened to me also happened to Iker Lecuona in Barcelona and he crashed."
That had been reason for KTM to point out their concerns to Michelin about the asymmetric front to be used at the Red Bull Ring. "Since Barcelona our team also warned Michelin that on this track – which is one of the highest demanding on the front for temperature and pressure – it would be on the limit for us but still they were not convinced that this allocation that would work here correctly. And it did work. It did for Brad and Iker and it just didn’t for me."
Oliveira did have some sympathy for the difficult task facing Michelin, in producing a tire that would work for every single one of the six MotoGP manufacturers. "It is quite a thin area we are dealing with because Michelin is required to bring tires that actually finished races and you can race on them and they are safe and can perform for all manufacturers. It is a thin line and it is not that black and white."
But Oliveira also felt that the switch to the asymmetric front had uniquely disadvantaged KTM. "For us the choice to go with the asymmetric front on tracks where we won in the past with the Hard tire is what leaves us a little bit sad and not really understanding why they have replaced it at tracks where we have won races last season. We feel that we were sacrificed a little bit for the rest of the grid and we were the ones that needed to adapt. To sum up the whole story, this is what is not too nice."
Second time closer
What can we expect from the second back-to-back race of the 2021 season? Comparing the times of the two races held at Spielberg in 2020 is difficult, because both races were red flagged. The restarted races were of vastly different lengths, the first Austria race 20 laps, the second just 12.
But take the first 12 laps of Austria 1, and compare where the riders stood at the end with the end of the restarted 12-lap race for Austria 2, and it is clear the second race was much closer than the first. Though both races had lead group with little to separate them – Andrea Dovizioso, Jack Miller, and Joan Mir in Austria 1, Miguel Oliveira, Miller, Pol Espargaro, and Mir in Austria 2, the gaps behind the leaders were closed up significantly.
In Austria 1, the front three were all within 0.241 at the end of the 12th lap. At the end of the 12-lap Austria 2 race, the first three across the line were separated by just 0.540, with Joan Mir a tenth of a second behind that.
But the riders in positions 4th through 17th were all much more spread out in the first race than in the second. Fourth place in Austria 1 was Brad Binder, 3.306 behind the leader on lap 12, Andrea Dovizioso. Fourth place in Austria 2 after 12 laps was Joan Mir, 0.641 behind race winner Miguel Oliveira. That difference was the smallest (2.665 seconds) between the two races for the riders who finished between 4th and 17th. The difference grew to over 7 seconds for 14th place between the two races, Alex Marquez being 14.749 seconds behind in Austria 1, while Johann Zarco crossed the line just 7.454 seconds behind the winner at Austria 2. On average, the riders who finished between 4th and 17th finished the Austria 2 race 5.022 seconds closer to the leader than their counterparts in Austria 1.
A week's worth of data will do that to you. That bodes well for a great weekend of racing at the Red Bull Ring. We will have to hope that is what transpires. It will be a nice distraction from the off track drama.
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