It has been an exhilarating, fascinating, infuriating, enervating three weeks in Grand Prix racing. Three back-to-back rounds, one at Brno and two at the the Red Bull Ring in Austria, have thrown up more surprises than we could ever expect. Three different winner in three races, new manufacturers on the podium, a host of unusual and long-standing records broken. There really is a lot to talk about.
One of the most surprising things is the fact that in the six races we have had in the space of the last eight days (disregarding the Red Bull Rookies for a moment) three, or fully half, have been red flagged, and a restart needed. The Red Bull Ring became the Red Flag Ring, as Twitter wits quickly dubbed it after a massive brake failure by Maverick Viñales saw his Yamaha M1 pierce the air fence at Turn 1 and cause the MotoGP race to be red flagged, for the second time in as many weekends.
Blame the track?
Qualifying at the Red Bull Ring proved as exhilarating a spectacle as ever, but like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's banquet, an absent specter took some of the attention away from a celebration of racing. A little over an hour after qualifying finished – delayed because Jaume Masia tore the fairing from his Leopard Honda Moto3 bike after crashing in Q1, then rode back to the pits dumping oil and water all over the track – a press release from the Repsol Honda team reminded us of the absentee champion.
Marc Márquez, the press release announced, would be out for another two to three months, to allow him to recover fully from the broken humerus he suffered at the first round of MotoGP on July 19th. Of course, the problem wasn't that break, but the aftermath: Márquez had an operation to plate the humerus a couple of days later, he was doing press ups the day after that, and tried to ride again on the Saturday after breaking his arm. It went OK for one session of practice, but he felt an unpleasant twinge in his arm, and a lack of strength, and so stopped.
It's groundhog day. The MotoGP paddock is back in exactly the same place and doing exactly the same thing it was doing a week ago. The coronavirus-curtailed 2020 season is big on repetition, and as a result, on disorientation. With no distractions at the track, everyone is starting to go a little stir crazy. What things will be like at the second race at Valencia, in the middle of the third run of three back-to-back races doubling up at some circuits, heaven only knows.
What does change from last Friday was the work to be done. Better weather and a weekend's worth of data mean that most teams are much closer to their base set up. (But no everyone: there are a few riders who are a bit lost, and grasping around for a solution). That leaves the teams free to experiment with the tires they weren't sure about a week ago, riders swapping between the soft and medium rears, for example.
"Not too much difference," Jack Miller said. "It is what it is. Don't get too focused on what worked the week before. You've got to keep an open mind. For example, I'm leaning towards the medium tire this weekend, but we need more analysis."
More time to work
2020 Austrian MotoGP Insight Part 3: V4s have been the dominant force for years and not only because they make more power. Plus, has KTM built the perfect V4? And Honda’s toughest start in decades
Last weekend’s Austrian GP was the perfect illustration of the difficulties that riders of slower, better-handling inline-four MotoGP bikes face when they are fighting with rivals using faster, poorer-handling V4 machines.
V4 MotoGP bikes make more horsepower because a V4 engine has a stronger crankshaft, less vibration and fewer pumping losses, while inline-four MotoGP bikes are more user-friendly in corners because an inline-four engine has a longer crankshaft.
Motorsport can be dangerous, as it says on the passes handed out by Dorna for MotoGP. We got a harsh reminder of just how dangerous it can be at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday. Both the Moto2 and MotoGP races had to be red-flagged after serious crashes left the track strewn with debris. There were some terrifying near misses, with not one but two riders having their helmets clipped by airborne motorcycles, and Valentino Rossi seeing first a Ducati GP19, and then his life flash before his eyes.
Fortunately, everyone escaped largely unharmed, except for some massive bruises and a few suspected minor fractures. All being well, everyone should line up on the grid again in seven days' time, to do it all over again. We may question the wisdom of that, but untrammeled ambition breeds courage, the will to win an appetite for risk. That is just the way motorcycle racers are wired.
In among the drama, motorcycle races were held. The crashes and disruption ended up having a significant effect on the races, and those races, in turn, had an important impact on the 2020 championship. New faces on the podium once again underlined that we are in a new era in MotoGP, as did the strength of the KTM once again.
It was one of those days. We had a fascinating FP4 session for the MotoGP class, where a clear pattern emerged for the race, followed by a thrilling and action-packed qualifying, yet barely anyone is talking about that at all. And all because early on Saturday afternoon, the bombshell dropped that Andrea Dovizioso will be leaving Ducati at the end of the 2020 season.
Though the news itself did not quite come as a surprise, the timing and nature of the announcement caught us all a little off guard. Ducati had said they had hoped to make a decision after the two races at the Red Bull Ring. But Dovizioso's manager Simone Battistella had already said he was having a meeting with Ducati management on Saturday, and Sky Italia TV tracked him down as soon as Battistella left the Ducati truck to ask how the meeting had gone. Battistella told them, and all hell broke loose.
"It’s normal to have a lot of questions and I’m a bit disappointed but this moment is not the right moment to speak about all the details," Andrea Dovizioso would tell us when we finally got to talk to him during his media debrief, held via Zoom. A debrief that was 20 minutes late, and started right in the middle of the qualifying press conference traditionally held at 5pm on Saturday afternoon. It was late because of all of the TV interviews Dovizioso had to do to explain himself, before doing it all over again for the written press.
No mood to talk
A short hop over the Alps – or rather, a short drive south, and then west between the Alps, to avoid the slow but spectacular progress over the mountain passes to the north of Spielberg – and the MotoGP paddock reassembles at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. From one of the best tracks on the calendar, plagued by financial problems, to one of the best-funded tracks on the calendar, plagued by the fact that, well, frankly, it's not a very good circuit for motorcycle racing.
The setting is spectacular, nestled at the foot of the hills rising from the valley of the river Mur and heading up to snow-capped peaks a couple of kilometers skywards. The circuit sits on a slope at the bottom of those hills, making for a surprisingly steep climb up to Turn 1, then up the hill to Turn 3, along the hillside to Turn 4, before rolling down through a huge Omega right-left-right combination to get back to the bottom of the hill, and the straight which runs along it.
But the circuit belies its heritage, as a spectacular but treacherous mountain circuit crossing hills and woods. And like many mountain circuits, there is little room for mistakes, with runoff limited at Turn 1, Turn 3, between the barriers from Turn 3 to Turn 4, and at the bottom of the hill into the final corner. In the dry, it is all just about manageable. But in the wet, it can be a terrifying place.
Hard rain is going to fall
Every MotoGP round has a lot going on, too much to capture on a Sunday night. But the Brno round of MotoGP was even worse than usual, with ten times the usual surprises, and a month's worth of stories and intrigue. On Sunday, I covered Brad Binder's win, KTM's journey, the state of the championship, Yamaha's engine situation, and Ducati's problems since the start of the season. Below is a round up of things I didn't get around to writing about.
It goes without saying that Brad Binder's victory was the biggest story to come out of the MotoGP race at Brno. A rookie winning in MotoGP in just his third race, and claiming the first victory in MotoGP for KTM – coincidentally, the first win for a manufacturer not from either Japan or Italy since Kim Newcombe won the Yugoslavia GP in 1973 on a König, something you can find out much more about in this highly recommended documentary series – is unquestionably a massive event.