Does MotoGP need something like sprint races to pack out otherwise empty grandstands? It depends on which you ask that question. On the evidence of Silverstone, where just 41,000 people turned up on Sunday, you would say yes, we need a change. Judge by the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, where 92,000 – pretty much a packed house – turned up on a gray and overcast day, when it looked like it could rain at any moment, and you would say that MotoGP is doing OK.
I spent a lot of time over the weekend talking to a variety of people about the way the sprint races will (or may) affect each MotoGP weekend, and so will save that subject for an in-depth look later in the week. But first, a few quick notes on the Austrian Grand Prix at Spielberg, which featured a demonstration of the pointlessness of team orders in Moto2, a further settling out of the order in MotoGP, and saw the end of the 2023 silly season start to approach.
No such thing as team orders
To start with Moto2, the Idemitsu Honda Team Asia squad dominated the race. Ai Ogura dispensed with Alonso Lopez early on in the race, and was soon joined by Somkiat Chantra. Chantra chased his teammate for most of the race, making the team, led by manager Hiroshi Aoyama, rather nervous. So nervous, indeed, that they put "P2 OK" on Chantra's pit board as they started the final lap.
Chantra either did not read his pit board, or read it and ignored it, and unleashed a scintillating battle through the last section of the Red Bull Ring, reminiscent of the classic battles between Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Marquez here before the pandemic. Chantra attacked up the inside in the penultimate corner, but left himself open to counterattack, which Ogura promptly did, getting back past and retaking the lead. The Japanese rider held off his Thai teammate to take the win, and the lead in the Moto2 championship.
That battle was a useful reminder that team orders have no place in motorcycle racing, mostly because they are invariably ignored in the heat of battle. And it serves as a warning of what teams will do should they ever get ship-to-shore radio communication with riders, as happens in car racing.
On to the MotoGP race, where the championship settled ever more firmly into its final shape. With victory at the Red Bull Ring, Pecco Bagnaia became the first Ducati rider since Casey Stoner, and the first Italian rider since Valentino Rossi to take three wins in a row. But more importantly than that, he took another 5 points out of Fabio Quartararo's championship lead, and 15 points out of Aleix Espargaro for second.
It was an impressive win, given how badly Bagnaia had been struggling since the start of the weekend. The nature of the Red Bull Ring – very high speed with a lot of hard braking and a few long and fast corners – forces Michelin to bring rear tires with a special heat-resistant carcass to Austria. But that different rear tire changes the way the bike behaves, and for a rider like Bagnaia, who uses the rear tire to help stop the bike, using engine braking and rear brake while the bike is leaned over, the different carcass needs time to set up and figure out. It took Bagnaia and his crew until Saturday afternoon to find a solution which allowed the Italian to ride as he wanted.
The decisive factor at the Red Bull Ring would be front tire choice, however. Most riders were caught between two choices: the soft front, which was ready to go from the start but needed careful management at the end of the race; or the hard front, which needed to be warmed up for two or three laps, but lasted better, had better braking stability, and was more resistant to temperature and pressure rises in the slipstream.
Bagnaia chose the soft front, as he knew and understood the tire, and was starting from the front row. "To be safe today, we chose to use the soft front tire. That wasn’t the best choice, I think, because I had a lot of front locking." While Bagnaia might believe the soft front was not the best choice, it was good enough to win.
There were two key moments in Bagnaia's victory. The first was at the start, the Italian taking the lead into the first corner, getting past Enea Bastianini and ahead of teammate Jack Miller. The second came several laps later, when Miller came past Bagnaia, and Bagnaia quickly struck back.
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