It is a good job it will be dry on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring. Because if it were to stop raining half an hour before the race started, the rest of the field wouldn't see which way Marc Márquez went. That is the conclusion we can draw from Saturday morning in Austria, when FP3 started on a wet track with a dry line forming. Márquez waited patiently in the pits for half an hour, then when the dry line got wide enough, went out on slick, and destroyed the field, lapping 2 seconds or more faster than anyone else.
It was a display of just how useful all that riding flat track has been to Márquez. There is no one quite so good at searching for grip on a sketchy surface, and clinging so precisely to the thin line of drying track which offers grip. It was a repeat of his superiority in Argentina, only in that race, his superiority was marred by a reckless disregard for his fellow racers on track. He did much better in FP3 on Saturday.
The poor conditions caused major headaches for those riders stuck in Q1 after the FP1 session on Friday morning. The weather meant a lost session, with no chance to improve their time, and no real lessons to be learned from a track that was changing all the time. It left Valentino Rossi with no option than to try to make his way through to Q2 in Q1. That didn't happen, and Yamaha had their worse qualifying performance since Valencia 2007. You can read about the fallout from that, the reasons behind it and what Yamaha are doing to fix it, in this story on the situation at Yamaha.
For the Movistar Yamaha factory team, qualifying for the Austrian MotoGP round at the Red Bull Ring was an unmitigated disaster. Maverick Viñales qualified in eleventh place, while Valentino Rossi failed to make it out of Q1 and will be forced to start from fourteenth. It was the factory Yamaha team's worst dry qualifying result since Valencia 2007.
Comparing times from qualifying at Spielberg in 2017 with times from Saturday illustrate Yamaha's predicament quite clearly. Times for the front row riders between this year and last are pretty much identical, as were the times set by Johann Zarco in 2017 and 2018. But Maverick Viñales was half a second slower this year than he was last year, and Valentino Rossi was four tenths slower.
The problem is a familiar one. The factory version of the Yamaha M1 is difficult to control in acceleration, and uses up the rear tire too much. How badly that affects the bike varies from track to track, but the Red Bull Ring is the Yamaha's kryptonite: at a track where most of the corners are from low gear with hard acceleration, the M1 is losing out very badly.
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto2 class in Spielberg:
Results and summary of qualifying for the MotoGP class in Spielberg:
With the track still sporting some damp patches to begin with, the final practice session for the premier class was also their one opportunity for the day to find a race setup in the dry. Unlike FP3, Marc Marquez took no time to start putting in the laps on a soft rear tyre and riding around consistently in the 1:24s. The Spaniard took the lead and never let it go, with only Jorge Lorenzo getting in his comfort zone and the rest of the pack over seven tenths down halfway through FP4.
Results and summary of qualifying for the Moto3 class in Spielberg:
Rain flags were back out as soon as the lights turned green at the end of pitlane and one man who was eager to see that was Remy Gardner, who once again shone in the difficult conditions and planted his flag at the top of the timesheets, claiming the territory for most of the session. With rain coming and going throughout the afternoon, the riders made the most of the dry patches in the final third of FP3 to advance on the timesheets.
The premier class started their day with a damp track and the appointed favourites from Friday let their colleagues take over track drying duties at the start. Valentino Rossi did a great job of that to set himself up at the top of the timesheets after the first 15 minutes but the constant improvement in track conditions saw that benchmark quickly shattered by more or less familiar names, from Jorge Lorenzo to Xavier Simeon.
Some spits of rain set the scene for the first action of the day and with the forecast looking the same for the rest of Saturday, riders perhaps begrudgingly took to the track. The lightweight class was riding in fully went conditions for the first time this weekend and the situation was complicated by different conditions in various sections of the track.
We knew it was going to rain at some point on Friday, the only question was when. Well, not quite the only question. The other question was, if it did rain, would the MotoGP riders go out and ride in the rain? Or would they deem the Red Bull Ring to be too dangerous to ride in the wet, and sit out practice, as they had threatened when rain had caused Moto2 riders to fall like skittles last year?
It started to rain in the early afternoon, right at the end of Moto3 FP2. Thankfully, not heavily enough to claim too many casualties, though Nicolo Bulega did suffer a massive highside after the checkered flag had fallen, his bike flying through the air and clouting Nakarin Atiratphuvapat around the head, the Thai rider trying to fend off the airborne KTM with one hand, while trying not to fall off with the other.
From that moment on, the rain started to pelt down. A rivulet started running across pit lane exit, and standing water formed on the steep downhill sections of Turns 1 through 4. It rained so heavily that MotoGP FP2 was delayed for 20 minutes or so, as the safety car circulated testing conditions. But the session was eventually given the green light, and riders were free to enter the track. Would anyone attempt it?
After torrential rain messed with the premier class session, Moto2 got to splash their way through a downpour of their own in the initial stages of FP2. Some of the rain masters of the group snuck some fast laps in the first five minutes, when the visibility worsened and encouraged most of the pack to retreat to their garages. With half a dozen laps under their belt and a quick rest, the field resumed action in the final 20 minutes as rain eased only slightly but enough to allow some competitive times.
The skies opened generously just before the premier class’ second session of the day, which meant the start got delayed significantly. More importantly, it also meant that FP1 results proved crucial as FP2 was a washout and FP3 was predicted to follow suit. Even when the sky showed a few blue hints and the countdown for FP2 did eventually start, water was still intruding on the tarmac and no one looked tempted to sample the conditions.
The weather had threatened to interfere in proceedings from the first time we glanced at a forecast for Spielberg and that threat became reality ten minutes into the first session of the afternoon. Spots of rain in the first sector saw Moto3 riders halt play after only four laps on the board but we still got some action in the final twenty minutes, once the light shower eased and the track got busy once again.
The clouds were still at a safe distance by the time the intermediate class came out to play, although parts of the circuit looked darker and darker as things progressed. Last year’s poleman Mattia Pasini had another one of those sessions where he shot into the lead soon after the start only to fade throughout the session. The Italian was first demoted by Fabio Quartararo as the Frenchman made a return to the sharp end but it was a fleeting success once Pecco Bagnaia came to the fore to grab the headlines.