It is hard to imagine two tracks more different from one another than Brno and Austria. From one of the most flowing and challenging circuits on the calendar, which caters to many different styles of bike and many different types of rider, to one of the plainest and simplest tracks which emphasizes braking and acceleration, and little more. The Red Bull Ring at Spielberg in Austria is an amazing facility, set in a stunning backdrop, but the track layout remains a simplistic and uninspiring affair.
"You can split the track in two parts," Johann Zarco explains. "The first part until Turn 4, that you have hard braking and then strong acceleration, you restart from the corner from almost no speed to 300 km/h." From Turn 10, the last corner, there is the front straight, braking hard uphill for Turn 1, then the climb up the hill through the narrow and fast kink of Turn 2, before braking for the hairpin at Turn 3, then following a gentle downward slope along the hillside down to another tight right hander at Turn 4. Gas-brake-gas-brake-gas-brake.
"Then second part with fast corners, but not many," the Monster Tech3 rider continues. The loop through Turn 5, then the omega of Turns 6 and 7, the kink of Turn 8, then the hard right of Turn 9, which is crucial for lining up the final corner at Turn 10, and back onto the straight again. "You get focused on four corners, and you are already finished the lap," Zarco said. "And I don't know, I like that, you repeat things many times, so it's a lot of concentration for a short time, and then you repeat it."
Short, fast, uninspiring
Spielberg is a brief and intense burst of speed, a close focus on lines and riding, and then back to outright speed again. A short lap, and the fastest one on the calendar, with the 4.3 kilometers being completed in around 1'24, at an average speed of 182 km/h. That speed places major demands on tires, especially the rear, with Michelin bringing a rear tire with a special construction to handle the heat generated by the high load imposed by the circuit. It is a track which places particular demands on set up as well. Your bike has to be able to accelerate well, and have good mechanical grip, but it especially has to be able to stable in braking, given the length of time the bike is actually on the brakes.
Hard braking poses problems in more ways than one at Spielberg. If it rains – and is due to rain heavily on Friday afternoon – the track can become treacherous. At least, that was the case last year, when it rained on Friday morning and ten Moto2 riders went down in as many minutes into Turn 1 and Turn 3. Those crashes got blamed on the rubber left on the track by the F1 cars, creating a tricky transition in the middle of the braking zone for motorcycles from asphalt to the much slicker surface created by the F1 rubber.
The circuit has attempted to fix those issues this year by sandblasting Turn 1 and Turn 3, to remove the F1 rubber from the track. That should fix most of the problems, but as Johann Zarco pointed out, we don't really know what the track is like in the wet for the MotoGP machines."We had crashes in Moto2 last year," the Frenchman said. "We, MotoGP, didn't ride in the wet, I think. But we have better rain tires than the Moto2 front. So at least we have the safety with our front tire, the rain one."
Motorsport is dangerous
The fundamental danger of the track remains, however. "When you go very fast and you have to brake a long time straight [vertical], the problem is that in that moment, then everything becomes dangerous," Zarco explained. "You usually don't crash when you are straight. That's why if they want to put space when you crash when you are straight, every track in the world would not be wide enough."
This is an issue common to several other tracks, and it isn't even the worst one for safety. Mugello is difficult because of the high speeds down the front straight, and the closeness of the walls. Circuit of the Americas has the same issue at the hairpin before the back straight, a lack of runoff at Turn 11. And Motegi, perhaps the worst offender of all, has a lack of runoff and the barriers close to the track at the end of its fast back straight.
Who benefits from the Red Bull Ring's insipid layout? Though it is a small sample size, the last two races at the circuit have been won by Ducatis. In fact, three of the six podium places so far have been filled by Ducatis, Andrea Dovizioso finishing behind then factory Ducati teammate Andrea Iannone in 2016, then beating Marc Márquez to the line in 2017. Coming off a one-two at Brno, Ducati is in excellent shape. The GP18 is faster and brakes better than last year's bike, and has the same outstanding drive out of corners. Jorge Lorenzo was on the podium on a Yamaha in 2016, then finished fourth on the Ducati in 2017, suggesting he will be as competitive as his teammate. And who knows where Danilo Petrucci can finish this weekend.
Their main objective is to try to beat Marc Márquez on the Repsol Honda again. That should be possible – and Márquez might even be willing to countenance it, given that his main concern is Valentino Rossi in second place at the moment. But the Honda is a good deal better than last year as well. Better acceleration and more horsepower have made the bike faster, and only the smallest amount of braking has been sacrificed to make this possible. Marc Márquez has shown he can win anywhere, so even victory at the Red Bull Ring is not unthinkable. And given the energy drink's sponsorship of the factory Honda team, more than welcome.
Yamaha face the biggest challenge, as the track doesn't really cater to the M1's strengths. The Yamaha turns well and holds a line, and is strong in braking, but over the long run of a race, its problems with tire management emerge, and acceleration disappears. Movistar Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales view the circuit very differently, however. "It is always a difficult track especially last year which I didn’t enjoy because we struggled very much," Rossi said. "On paper, it will not be the best race track and we will have to suffer a bit."
Viñales, on the other hand, really likes the track. "I like the track a lot, I enjoy it so much, so I hope that this helps me to enjoy on the bike," the young Spaniard said. "I think last year this track was quite good for me, this year the tire choice is going to be very important, because I think there are many choices for the race."
The big question surrounding Viñales is how his relationship with his crew chief Ramon Forcada will continue after their private friction spilled over into a public row at Brno. The media finally got a chance to talk to Viñales about that in Austria, and the Spaniard had been well-briefed, and knew that it was his job to play down the situation. "I think last weekend was more noise than it needs to be," Viñales told us. "It's the decision not only from me, from all the team, and I think it's really important now to focus on the job, still there are many races to go, and we need to be there in the championship. So we need to keep pushing, keep focus, and for sure I'm really excited for this weekend."
The Movistar Yamaha rider was confident he could continue working with Forcada until the end of the season, despite their differences, and the fact that he would have a new crew chief for 2019. "I think we both have the objective to make the Yamaha number one," he said. "We have to keep working, we have to keep pushing."
Viñales had been annoyed to be taken out by a reckless move by Stefan Bradl, and forced to miss the test. But he had come away with relatively few injuries from something which could have been a lot worse. "I wanted to do the test, because after the crash, you always want to be on the bike the next day," the Spaniard said. "But for me, I was feeling really bad with my shoulder, so it was impossible to go on the bike. I decided to go back to Barcelona, check what I hurt in my shoulder, finally, luckily it was nothing, just a little bit of pain. But I think I will be at the maximum on Sunday."
Pol Espargaro had not been so lucky at Brno, his big crash in morning warm up causing some worrying moments for the KTM rider. Though the official diagnosis was only a broken collarbone (and one which will not even need plating), the bruising to his spine was so severe that the swelling had started to compress his spinal cord, and cause him all sorts of problems, brother Aleix explained.
Aleix Espargaro walked us through Pol's crash on the KTM. "He said he changed a little bit the engine brake control, to try to stop the bike better and he locked the rear quite aggressively," the elder Espargaro said. "Then after the second movement he saw that the wall was very close so he decided to brake more and then he hit the ground very, very aggressively. Actually when I was in hospital I saw the helmet and I've never seen a helmet like it in my life. It was completely destroyed, the visor was half destroyed."
Immediately after the crash, Pol had been extremely concerned. "He said he was very worried because when he crashed, before he arrived in the hospital with Dr. Charte, he couldn't feel the arms and the legs. Nothing. So he said he was very worried. And then when he arrived in hospital and Charte saw him, they start to touch him and he started to feel pain in his arms, so when he felt the pain in his arms he relaxed a lot. But he hit the ground very, very aggressively."
That lack of sensation had been caused by the swelling in his spinal cord, Aleix explained. "I was there Tuesday and Wednesday, and Tuesday afternoon he couldn't touch anything with his hands, he had a lot of cramps in his arms and hands," the Aprilia rider said. "Every time they put the medicine in the vein he cried a lot, so they had to move it to the arm and don't touch him. It was quite scary. Yesterday we talked to a neurosurgeon and they told us he was very, very, very lucky. He missed it for just a little bit."
"So Pol for the first two days was very worried and had a lot of pain. I've never seen him that convinced to rest. He's not thinking about to race as we normally are because he was very worried. Yesterday night was the first time that he could start to touch things with his fingers. The first thing he touched was [Aleix' newborn son] Max and he was just asking to see Max so I go with him there."
"But he still has to be in the hospital still next week I would say and maybe when he goes home he will have to stay one more week in bed. We will see. The Doctors say they don't really have a lot of information about how the spinal cord will improve. They say in two-three days there could be no inflammation and perfect or it can be very long. So we have to wait because it's very dangerous if he moves or if he race or whatever before the inflammation is gone."
Pol Espargaro's injury is a major blow for KTM at their home Grand Prix, at the track owned by their title sponsor. With Mika Kallio out as well, thanks to a severe knee injury picked up at the Sachsenring, Bradley Smith is left to hold the fort on his own. On the one hand, that gave him an opportunity, he said, as all of KTM's resources, usually shared across two riders or more, would be dedicated to and focused on him. Smith's challenge is to take those resources, absorb the pressure, and deliver a result. It will not be easy, but duty calls. That is the downside of being a factory MotoGP rider, but it is a burden he is happy to bear.
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