Notes from the first WorldSBK race in Germany from our man on the ground:
The Brno round of MotoGP turned out to be a veritable bonanza of aerodynamic developments. Honda turned up with their previously homologated fairing, and Yamaha debuted a new fairing with a modified upper half at the test on Monday. But it was Ducati who stole the show, with a radical new design featuring a large side pod which looked remarkably like a set of wings with a cover connecting them.
That fairing triggered howls of outrage from fans. How, they asked, was this legal? The fairing appeared to have two ducts which came out at the top at right angles, then return to the fairing at right angles. That turned out not to be the full shape of the fairing, when Danilo Petrucci sported one where the bottom half of the side duct extended lower. It seemed to be a blatant breach of the rules.
The problem, MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge explained, lay in part with framing of the rules. When Dorna demanded a ban of the original winglets, they sat with the manufacturers to draw up a set of regulations which would limit aerodynamics and eliminate the risks, yet at the same time would allow some amount of development. That proved impossible to do with the manufacturers so split among themselves, and so Dorna had to try to come up with a set themselves.
All the old certainties about MotoGP are gone. A few short years ago, MotoGP had a consistent, simple internal logic that made it easy to explain. All that is now gone. The things we believed were universal truths about racing have turned out to be mere mirages, disguising an ever-shifting reality. And that has made racing mind-bogglingly good.
A case in point. The Red Bull Ring at Spielberg in Austria has a pretty simple layout. Straight, corner, straight, corner, straight, corner, long loop which comes back on itself, straight, corner, short straight, corner, and we're back at the beginning. The track is all about horsepower and the ability to accelerate hard, then brake hard. The racing here should be rubbish. The rider with the fastest bike should be able to escape and cruise to victory by tens rather than tenths of seconds.
Yet on Sunday, we saw three gripping races, where the results were long in doubt. The winner of the Moto3 race may have been well clear, but the freight train behind it scrapping over second made for compulsive watching. Moto2 cooked up another cracker – the fourth in a row, a sign the class is changing – which only really settled in the last four laps. And the MotoGP race became an instant classic, one which make any collection of top ten races of any era. It truly had everything: a large group battling for the lead, then a smaller group slugging it out, three abreast heading towards a corner. There were hard passes, missed passes, and a wild last-corner lunge to attempt to snatch victory.
The weather is looking up at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, and that is a good thing. First of all, it provided a fascinating day of practice and qualifying, with more than a few surprises and plenty of data to chew over. But secondly, and far more importantly, it meant that riders were out on track riding, and returning to the pits safely after doing so. If the weather had turned, and rain had fallen, that might not have been the case.
The reason for that is simple. The Red Bull Ring is not safe in the wet. That was the consensus of the riders at Friday night's Safety Commission. It is not particularly safe in the dry either, but in the wet, it is so bad that everyone said they would not ride if it rained. "Everybody yesterday in the Safety Commission said they would not ride in the wet," Aleix Espargaro said.
It was a point which Cal Crutchlow had made on Thursday, even before practice began. He reiterated it on Saturday. "If it rains I ain’t riding," he told the media. I have no interest, because there are barriers everywhere. As you saw, everyone was crashing in a complete straight line and they were going to the left at a right hand corner. It was just ridiculous. Until they move the barriers back, I have no interest to ride here in the wet."
We were promised a storm on Friday, and we got one. But it was a media storm, rather than a thunderstorm, with riders finally free to speak about the situation at Aprilia. That's not to say the weather wasn't an issue: rain fell during Moto2, wreaking havoc on the field. That would have as many repercussions as the fallout from Aprilia's decision to dump Sam Lowes. It was an eventful day indeed.
First, to get the Aprilia story out of the way. Last night, it emerged that Aprilia had finally made a decision on Sam Lowes. The Italian factory had decided to drop the Englishman after just a single season, rather than keeping him for the full two years of his contract. It was a move which had been telegraphed at the Barcelona test, when Aprilia Corse boss Romano Albesiano admitted that dropping Lowes was a possibility they were considering. So for it to be announced in Austria was hardly a surprise. In part because Lowes' contract stated that Aprilia had until 15th August to make up their minds.
There was little surprise at Aprilia's move. Sam Lowes and Alex Rins have been vastly outclassed in their rookie years by Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger. Rins has had an excuse, having spent so much of his first year in MotoGP being injured. But viewed from the outside, Lowes has no such excuses. He is on a factory team, and his teammate is showing him up badly. Aleix Espargaro is regularly in Q2, and has shown pace to challenge for the top 5 on occasion. Lowes has been in Q2 only once, and has just two points to his name.
The riders will have been off the bikes for about 80 hours before they take to the track again at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Back-to-back races are always tough, but doing back-to-backs with a test in between can be pretty brutal. At least everyone will be sharp when practice starts on Friday.
The Red Bull Ring is a unique track, though how you interpret the word "unique" is very much up to you. In one respect, the Spielberg circuit is just a few straights connected by sharp corners, with a replica of the Sachsenring's Omega curve thrown in for good measure.
On paper, it looks pretty dull, yet it is surprisingly popular among the riders. This is in part because of the stunning setting, and elevation changes that add charm to the circuit. But mostly, it's because it's a very, very fast circuit. And there is nothing that a motorcycle racer likes more than going very, very fast on a motorcycle. Oddly enough.
Monday was the next episode in a busy ten days for MotoGP. After the Czech Grand Prix, Brno played host to the traditional post-race test, with all the MotoGP paddock bar the satellite Ducatis taking part. After a mixed weekend of weather, conditions were absolutely perfect, with warm (but not hot) temperatures, clear skies, and a track that got better and better as the day went on and bikes laid down more rubber.
Flag-to-flag races. You either love them or hate them. For some, flag-to-flag racing adds an extra dimension to MotoGP, rewarding teams and riders who are smart with their strategy selection, bringing much greater rewards for those who are prepared to take calculated risks, while also carrying a much greater punishment if you risk too much. It is not enough to get the setup right for the conditions, teams also have to assess how conditions might change, and riders have to judge the optimum time to come in and swap bikes. It places a greater emphasis on teamwork, rather than just the rider.
For others, however, flag-to-flag races are just a lottery, the outcome decided largely by chance. Victory goes not necessarily to the fastest rider on the track, but to the one who gambles correctly on the right tire, the right time to pit, on how the weather develops. The team has too much influence on the outcome, relegating the rider to a secondary role. It isn't the fastest rider who wins the race, it is the luckiest rider.
Unsurprisingly, there is often a correlation between how you feel about flag-to-flag racing and how your favorite rider performs in those conditions. My favorite rider is a master strategist, backed by a canny team. Your favorite rider is a lucky devil who fell face first into a bucket full of horseshoes, and wouldn't have won if it hadn't been for the team doing all the hard work and telling them exactly what to do and when to do it.
If the weather has been the bane of MotoGP this year, then Saturday at Brno made up for an awful lot. The day started out with clear blue skies, and stayed that way just about all day. It was still bone dry and warm when we left the track as darkness began to fall, though the occasional cloud could be spotted here and there. It was a great day for racing motorcycles.
It was apparently also a great day for crashing motorcycles. In the first session of the day, 40 minutes of free practice for the Moto3 class, 15 riders crashed, all going down like skittles. Next up it was FP3 for MotoGP, and a further 7 riders hit the deck. Moto2 followed, and 6 more went down. By the end of the day, there had been a grand total of 48 falls.
To put that number into perspective: on Friday, in much dicier conditions, there were only 9 crashes. Over all three days of the 2014 event at Brno, there were 46 crashers. If there are three more crashes on Sunday – and it's race day, when risks offer better rewards – then the Automotodrom Brno will seen more crashes than in the previous seven years. They really were going down like flies.
MotoGP is back, and so naturally, so is the rain. The weather continues to plague Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the weekend starting off in the pouring rain making for a wet FP1. Despite the heat, Brno is slow to dry, and so the MotoGP bikes started FP2 on a damp track with a dry line, the track ending the session almost completely dry. Hardly an ideal start to the weekend, if you are focused on finding the best setup possible for the race on Sunday.
Not everyone sees it that way, however. For Johann Zarco, it was nice to ease himself gently back up to speed. "Restarting the season in wet conditions was good for me," the Frenchman said. "This way we start the season slowly, and that's good for the feeling." It also reduced the advantage of the big teams who can eke out an advantage in stable conditions. "Also because we didn't do a test here, maybe it was better, because if we have a dry track for all the weekend, there are many teams which can work, work, work and be so strong at the end of the weekend. And for our situation as a rookie, it's good to have this tough weather."
The wet weather also made it a little easier on bodies which had not ridden a MotoGP bike for four weeks. "Especially it's difficult about physical condition," Valentino Rossi said on Friday. "Because it's one month without the bike, in the beginning you have some pain in the hands, in the legs. But it was not so hard to arrive to a good level, especially in the wet." The training he had been doing for the past couple of weeks – including running a VR46 Master Camp for Yamaha's riders in the WorldSSP 300 class – had helped him prepare. "It's a long break, but in the last weeks I train a lot on the bike, and sincerely, in the last ten days you always think about FP1. So you watch video, try to understand, try to remember the way to ride."