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."
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto2 class in Spielberg:
Results and summary of qualifying for the MotoGP class in Spielberg:
Dry but hardly sunbathing weather invited the MotoGP class to do some race simulations. After Marc Marquez’s FP3 run on the hard rear tyre planted some question marks around the paddock, FP4 was a jumble of all combinations imaginable.
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto3 class in Spielberg:
Probably rejoicing that the Friday rain-washed fiasco didn’t look like repeating, the intermediate class did not waste any time in getting up to speed and challenge least year’s times. Well, Tom Luthi was at least, the Swiss rider already about half a second away from the pole time record ten minutes into the session and first man into the 1:29s. The Swiss rider failed to improve on his early time but it was safe enough insurance of top position.
All the weather worries of Friday proved unfounded, the MotoGP class joining the track in a lukewarm morning offering forty-five minutes of opportunities to ensure a direct Q2 spot.
Marc Marquez used that time to sample the hard rear tyre and managed consecutive improvements of his personal best time to climb up the overall timesheets and lead FP3. The Spaniard set a series of mid to high 1:24s on the tyre, before switching to some new rubber in the final ten minutes. That helped the Honda rider improve further, Marquez putting almost half a second into his pursuers on his final lap.
The distinct lack of clouds must have been a joyful sight for the paddock, especially the part than needed to sample the track for fourty minutes. With the much nicer conditions, the riders were fast to significantly improve their Friday times.
Already owning the fastest lap around the Ring, championship leader Joan Mir set his sights on improving that record and started by setting himself up at the top of the timesheets. The Leopard rider got close to his pole record on several occasions but his exuberance over white lines saw some of those times cancelled. While the second-place roulette kept moving throughout the session, the Spaniard’s time was rarely challenged.
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.
After suffering the worst of FP1 conditions, the intermediate class lucked into a dry track for their second practice session.
Tom Luthi looked distinctly average until he made a swift late jump into the lead, but was denied at the final try by Morbidelli, the championship leader going three hundredths of a second faster than his Swiss rival.
With the tarmac only feeling like turning the heating up to 24 degrees, the start of MotoGP practice was complicated by the section of track around turns three and four taking its time drying out. Only a handful of riders tested the conditions in the first ten minutes, on a mix of slicks and rain tyres, while most riders were waving to the cameras from their fully dry seats.
The action unfolded in the final half an hour, all riders taking to the track in dry trim. With red sectors coming in hot in the final five minutes, Marquez was dethroned while he was going all rodeo into turn four. The gaggle of Ducatis that we expected to steal the show took its time to put it all together but Andrea Dovizioso got it right on his very last lap to top the session by over two tenths of second.
The rain that soaked the end of FP1 and caused a bowling session mid-Moto2 had stopped by the time the lightweight class reconvened for afternoon practice. With rain tyres on a drying track, half the grid decided to bide their time and wait for drier times, the likes of Mir, Ramirez, Fenati or the RBA duo only joining with a dry setup in the final fifteen minutes.
Aron Canet lit up the timesheets in the final five-minute dash in much improved conditions, before coming across a rain shower in turn three. That settled the hierarchy with three minutes remaining of the session, the young Spaniard keeping top position by over three tenths of a second.
Danny Kent is to make a return to the Moto2 paddock for 2018. The 23-year-old Englishman is to race for the Speed Up team in Moto2 for 2018 and 2019.
The deal has been something of a coup for the former Moto3 world champion. Kent split with his Leopard Moto2 team at Austin, after disagreements with the team over bike setup and preparation. Since then, he has replaced Iker Lecuona in the Interwetten team at Mugello, raced as a wildcard and replaced Niccolo Antonelli in the KTM Ajo Moto3 team, and is this weekend replacing the injured Marcel Schrotter in the Dynavolt team.
After the rain kept away from the rest of the classes, the Moto2 boys were less lucky and got to be the trail-blazers for the rain tyres coming out of their covers. The intermediate class only got a handful of laps in dry conditions before heavy rain and touches of hail hit the track only fifteen minutes in.
After a lull in proceedings while the teams were preparing for the weather conditions, action restarted in the final twenty minutes. Although useful experience for the riders, the rain meant that the lap 6 fastest time in the dry by Miguel Oliveira could not be improved on, the Portuguese rider leaving Dominique Aegerter by over a tenth of a second. Championship leader Franco Morbidelli was close behind in third, the rest of the field over four tenths away from the leader.