Austrian MotoGP – An apt day to count all blessings
August 18, 2020
It has been more than 36 hours since that moment in the red-flagged Austrian MotoGP, and it makes it tough on so many grounds to try and wrap words around it. But to start, it should not be wrong to think, maybe the blessings one earns does count. By now, you must have read about and watched the crash of Zarco and Morbidelli more times than one would like. You would also still be having goosebumps, and still be closing your eyes wincing in imaginary fear and looking at the various angles of what can only be described a miraculous escape for both Monster Yamaha riders, Rossi and Vinales. These last 36 or so hours have given all of us a time to reflect on what could have been the darkest day of MotoGP.
Maybe this why I am not too inclined to talk much about the crash, as a lot more happened on the day and before it (more on that later). The re-started Austrian MotoGP was an intense and hugely significant race. What came out of it, in the end, has left the championship wide open where at least 5-6 riders can end up winning the title. And, believe it or not, it still leaves Marc Marquez, to have a fighting chance to defend his world title when he (expectedly) returns for the Misano Race 1 in mid-September. Maybe this is the 2020 effect, this year, all bets are off and anything is indeed possible.
Undaunted Dovi and the art of dropping a bombshell
On Friday, talking to Spanish media, Ducati Team Manager Davide Tardozzi, said Ducati will decide upon Dovizioso’s future after the Styrian MotoGP, the second race at Red Bull Ring on August 23. It had seemed to be a rather strange time to declare something like this. First, it was just Friday, two days before Ducati Corse was to start the defense of their incredible 100%-win record at the Red Bull ring ever since the first race at the circuit in 2016. They had never won on a single track for five consecutive times, and they were coming off from a disastrous Brno race, with their top rider, Dovizioso relegated to fourth in the championship tally. It did not make sense adding extra pressure in the mix most thought. When asked about it, Dovizioso had implied it was nothing new and you cannot add any more pressure over the situation.
So, he decided to pass on the pressure to its source itself. On Saturday, it was known that Dovizioso’s manager, Simone Battistella was to meet Ducati Management. And then came in the bombshell announcement that Dovizioso has decided to not continue with Ducati beyond 2020. In one swift move, Dovizioso had turned the tables on the Ducati management and returned all the pressure that he was being exerted upon with kindness. It is still unknown what the future holds for the Italian as his manager has clearly said that there is no Plan B and Dovizioso would like to concentrate on this year’s championship. Lovingly called the Professor, Dovizioso is a smart, experienced, and a deeply analytical man. He sure knows what he is doing, and maybe the story has just only started to unfold.
Dovizioso’s surprise announcement had not only sent Ducati Management hiding for cover but also has stunned his fans and followers. Inf act, Jack Miller, who would have been his teammate in 2021 was also among the ones left gobsmacked by the announcement. In the qualifying press conference, he said, “He’s made the decision. You got to back it. The guy has been here for a long time. He knows what he’s doing. First of all, I want to say thank you to him for eight years he’s put into the Ducati and we have this competitive package we have now I think a big part because of him. I made a joke with him once he did it. I popped over the garage and poked my nose in and said, “What happened, mate? You didn’t want to share a garage with me?” It’s a shame, but I’m not Ducati management.”
Later on, Tuesday, on one MotoGP Instagram feed, where the creative asked ‘What will Dovizioso do in 2021?’ Miller made it a point to comment which you can read below. This tells a lot about Miller as a person while also signaling towards his significantly increased nervousness around next year. He knows being a factory Ducati rider is a game of intense pressure, it is a fact that is hidden from no one. Miller would have counted on being the Rider no. 2 behind Dovizioso as he eased into the environment. With now Dovizioso gone, he will be the Rider 1 and he does not seem sure about how to process this. Ducati needs to help Miller through this. It is imperative to their success together.
Austrian MotoGP – Surprise Qualifying
Ducati Dominance at the Red Bull ring is a known entity in MotoGP. However, every passing year, the rivals have continued to inch closer and closer. Last year, Dovizioso had managed to fend off the intense run to victory over Marquez in the last corner. In 2020, even though Marquez was not at the track, the field had come much closer than in the past. One on hand was the KTM onslaught, the RC16 having become a proper race-winning motorcycle, and has been developed extensively on this exact track. Then there were the stunning Suzuki’s of Rins and Mir, both riders making the most of the brilliant handling and increased horsepower of the 2020 Suzuki Ecstar GSX-RR. The Yamaha’s were on the other hand were not expected to pack enough punch to offer serious fight to the Ducati’s.
However, much to everyone’s surprise, at the end of the all-important Q2 it was the M1 of Vinales on Pole, followed very closely by Miller in second while the Championship leader Quartararo completed the front row. Vinales had found something overnight, he looked dejected and confused on Friday, but in FP3 he managed to find enough pace to enter Q2 directly and from then continued towards a stunning pole. Last year’s race winner Dovizioso managed to put his GP20 in fourth place. Pol Espargaro was in the middle of the second row while Mir slotted himself in sixth.
In terms of race pace, it was a close call between Dovizioso, Pol Espargaro, and Alex Rins, with Dovizioso mentioning Rins to be the one to look out for. What we knew was that the race was going to be a closely fought one. It had all the makings of another result that would be fought down the wire. It also meant that the race would be intense, as riders try and makeup places, they would try to make passes, especially in the parts of the track that favours the brave. Just like the end of the Turn 2 as you break into a tight Turn 3 at the end of the straight. It is a corner that has been flagged to be dangerous by a lot of people who were to race on it as well as who did not, but knew what they were talking about. They said, it was a place waiting for a disaster to happen, and this is exactly what happened.
Austrian MotoGP – The Crash
A lot of distressing things came to the fore at the Austrian GP, but by far, having two red-flagged races has to be the most worrying of them all. Even before the MotoGP race, a horrendous crash at the same Turn 3 in the moto 2 race made up for frightening visuals. On Lap 3, Enea Bastianini, the Moto 2 championship leader coming into the race, while coming out of Turn 2, opened up hi throttle a fraction earlier and was highsided from his Italtrans Kalex. In itself, it was a normal mistake that can occur at the corner at the hands of any rider.
Unluckily, the highside had thrown Bastianini into the middle of the track along with his bike sliding into the racing line. Bastianini first managed to save himself from incoming riders and jumped to the side of the track. That said, Bastianini was among the leading group of riders when he crashed. This meant, his bike, that now laid in the middle of the track positioned dangerously in a slight dip after Turn 2, would not be visible to the fast charging riders behind him. Surprisingly, many did manage to miss the bike but the Malaysian Hafizh Syarin accelerating in the slipstream could not see it and slammed directly into the bike.
The fast-paced crash saw the front of the Syarin’s bike disintegrating in the air as he was thrown over an extraordinary distance. He landed hard on his back and slid further many more meters. A few other riders too were involved in the aftermath of the crash, while Aegerter managed to masterfully escape getting hit by the air-born front section of Syarin’s bike as well as not hitting Syarin who laid in front of him. It is was a great thing, that even after such a crash. Syarin got away with only a minor hip fracture while also sustaining some very serious bruising.
The whole paddock had seen the crash and so did everyone on the other side of their screens and were glad there were no serious injuries to anyone in Moto2. But as is our short attention span, we all had quickly shifted our focus on the MotoGP race. The race did go further than when the Moto2 one was Red Flagged, but it would not complete its allotment of 28 Laps. At the start of the Lap 9, as a bunch of riders continued their run up the hill where the slight kink called the Turn 2 ends in a tight right Turn 3, Zarco, to defend his place and a slightly wider line he had been carrying on the turn had cut right and started to brake for the Turn 3. He, however, had just only overtaken Petronas rider Morbidelli, and due to the hard braking and the slipstream, it meant there was no space or time for the Italian to respond.
This resulted in Morbidelli’s front tyre clipping at the rear wheel of Zarco’s Ducati GP19. What followed was both riders falling off from their motorcycles, slide across the track, and then the gravel trap at a fast pace. However, their bikes had a different trajectory, Morbidelli’s M1 slide rapidly across the track missing the gravel trap and the air fence on right, while Zarco’s GP19 remained straight, becoming a ghost bike prancing forward at a ferocious pace. As the M1 sped towards the apex, the GP19 had the very edge of the air fence in between it and the exit of Turn 3 in the target. Almost simultaneously, on one side Morbidelli’s M1 had started barrel rolling and Zarco’s GP19 had smashed into the air fence.
Somehow the M1 found the exact middle point of the small gap between Vinales and Rossi to pass through. The Italian veteran in the front seat, rather too close, just within centimeters of the passing bike, escaped miraculously from what could have been an extraordinarily severe accident. Just a few feet further, his team-mate Vinales, showing the incredible presence of mind and understanding of his surroundings, managed to not just hear the crashing GP19 into the fence but also managed a monumental display of rapid reaction time in ducking of cover (with his hands on his head, while his M1 was at lean and accelerating), from the disintegrating GP19 that flew over his head.
Both Rossi and Vinales had escaped, by a whisker from what could have been the worst moment of MotoGP. That they came out not just alive but, on their feet, still pushing on their respective motorcycles can only be defined as a massive stroke of luck, a miracle. As for Zarco and Morbidelli, it was the Italian who had suffered a lot more as he had to make a trip to the medical center for evaluation, where he was found to be only battered and bruised while being conscious through the process of the crash.
However, on Tuesday, around 2 days after the crash, it was announced that Zarco has suffered a fracture in his wrist and he will be operated upon in on Wednesday. Zarco has said, he would be on the track on Thursday, but would only ride if he feels ok to do it. Also, both Zarco and Morbidelli have been called by the stewards to give their side of stories on the crash.
The crash once again showed how much advancement has occurred in recent years regarding rider protection. As gut-wrenching watching the crash was, it was a sigh of relief that everyone got out relatively alright.
And then they lined up again
Within 20 minutes or so, the remaining 20 riders had lined up on the grid for the re-start of the race. Rossi and Vinales, who had survived a potentially life-threatening accident by a width of their hairs, lined up on P6 and P7, respectively. The grid positions for the shortened (20 Laps) race restart were decided by the standings on Lap 8 in the original race before the red flag. The starting row now was made up of Pol Espargaro (P1), Dovizioso (P2), Miller (P3), Mir (P4), and Oliviera (P5) ahead of Monster Yamaha riders.
The biggest loser of the start was the championship leader Quartararo, who in Race 1 had first messed up his start and had then run off at Turn 4 while trying to pass Oliviera and was sent to the back of the field in P22 by lap 6. The French Petronas rider has suffered from brake fade, something he would again suffer from after the re-start as well.
Coming to the re-start, starting from P1, Pol Espargaro made a good start however, Miller’s proved to be better as the Australian passed the KTM rider from the inside. Even though the Pramac rider went a bit wide, but he still was able to hold his advantage based on his GP20’s drive down the straight. Miller interestingly was on a soft front and soft rear tyre setup, his hand forced since he no longer had a new medium front left for the re-start. With such a setup, the only way Miller could think of a good result was by pushing as fast as he could from the start and create a gap that he could manage once the tyre dropped. Dovizioso happily followed in third.
Further back in the grid, Vinales’s day did not seem to get any better. As if the horrors of the red-flagged race weren’t enough, he was seen dropped down the pack to the last place at the start. From thoughts of another Yamaha engine failure to Vinales still being spooked by the events of the crash were thrown in. Later, Vinales would tell the media that he suffered a clutch slippage in the initial laps. Rossi was doing much better as he tried making as many places as possible. The third Yamaha rider on the grid, Quartararo, on the other hand, had already started making further progress from the back of the grid. But, for both Vinales and Quartararo, current 1-2 in the championship, the race was now a case of damage limitation.
By Lap 4, Miller was already ahead by more than a second over Dovizioso who has dispensed off the KTM rider challenge. Pol Espargaro, was looking far more erratic than the first race, was having a difficult time keeping his RC16 from going wide into Turn 3. He was also having to deal with both factory Suzuki’s of Mir and Rins has they swarmed all around his rear wheel. The three and their fight for the final podium position meant Dovizioso had enough time to start progressing towards Miller, in the process, setting the fastest lap of the race at the time.
Shortly after, Rins disposed of Pol Espargaro and was heading towards Dovizioso rapidly. On Lap 7, he set the fastest lap of the race. A lap later, at the front, Miller tyre choice had started to show its side effects and his lead over Dovizioso had fallen to just 0.4 of a second. Rins too was not far behind the two by then. Now with the trio of Miller, Dovizioso, and Rins making a gap of over a second above the following group headed by Pol Espargaro and Mir, it started to look like the factory KTM rider has become more and more agitated as he looked to reduce the gap to the front. Finally, the erratic ride by Pol Espargaro, much to the sadness of his team ended on Lap 9 when he went wide into Turn 4 and returned to the track only to find fellow KTM rider Oliviera at the exact spot.
And it was a catastrophic end of the race for both KTM riders at the team’s home track. Till that point, Oliveira was showing consistent pace and was poised for a safe top 5 finish, at the very least. The Portuguese rider just does not seem to catch a break and has now found himself being taken out as many as three times by his team-mates within a year. Oliviera, when not being used as target practice, has almost always shown a pace good enough for the top 5 consistently. The factory KTM squad in 2021 continues to look like a serious threat for the championship.
As the replays showed a furious Pol Espargaro walking angrily away from an aghast and bewildered Oliviera, Dovizioso had Miller within the sniffing distance while Rins followed him in close contention as well. Pol Espargaro later told the media that just like Miller, he too had run out of his tyre allocation and had to start the restarted race with a soft rear as against his preferred medium. Mir, Rins’s team-mate had also picked up pace after the two KTM decides to park themselves for the race and was coming in fast as well.
Rins knew he had no chance on the straight to pass on a Ducati and that he would need to pass Dovizioso around Turn 6 to give himself and his Suzuki’s incredible corner agility a chance to make enough of a gap that he could maintain on a straight. However, Rins had a moment at Turn 6 when he tried covering up the distance when his front almost folded.
Dovizioso did not take long to pass Miller who was now finding it hard to keep a tight line and trying not to fall on his rapidly deteriorating tyres. Rins too followed Dovizioso and Miller suddenly fell back to the last podium position while a rapidly charging Mir meant his podium was under threat. Next lap, Rins, trying to pass Dovizioso at the same Turn 6 on the inside could not keep his Suzuki in control and the front folded, this time there was no way for Rins to save it, and a stunning victory was not to be. With Rins out of contention, It was now a Dovizioso, Miller, and Mir making up the podium places.
It also meant that now Brad Binder, the rookie and the race winner from Brno was in the fourth position around two seconds behind Mir. Binder had started from P17 in the red-flagged race, and now he was having another fine ride into Top 5 proving he indeed is a fine Sunday rider. By the end of Lap 13, with only seven laps to go, the top three were closely matching each other. While at the back, LCR Honda rider Nakagami was having a spectacular ride again in fifth. Rossi was following close in heels in sixth. By this time, the championship leader Quartararo has also reached eight in the standings. Vinales was now in points finishing position but a low thirteenth was not showing what could have been as he had just set the fastest lap of the race.
Dovizioso, the master of tyre and race management, started to make a gap from Miller and Mir when there were less than five laps to go. Now, Miller was in unknown territory as far his tyres were concerned and he was trying his best to not let Mir pass through. By the end of Lap 16, Dovizioso was almost a second ahead of the duo and was on his way to a spectacular victory. When he crossed the line at the end of the race, he got his fourteenth race victory with Ducati and the Italian factory got its 50th premier class victory. In what should be a stroke of irony, Dovizioso had not only kept Ducati’s 100% race win record at Red Bull Ring intact, but he had done it in style, masterful tact, and in the process showcasing he is the tallest rider at Ducati by far.
Coming back to the race, Miller and Mir had fought a tight race which saw Mir try many times to pass Miller, but miller showed a mature smart race craft every time to let Mir had the honours. However, with just two corners to go in the last lap, Miller went a just bit too wide letting Mir’s Suzuki pass through. It would be the first podium for Mir, it had been coming for long and when it arrived, it arrived with a promise of more in line. Mir has finally started to become a regular podium contender now. He has also managed to better his qualifying, something that has hurt him the most previously.
It was also the first podium for Miller and a surprising first points finish for the Australian at the track. Brad Binder crossed the line in a spectacular P4, as the top KTM at KTM’s home race and at a track where he rode a MotoGP bike for the first time. He had missed KTM’s test here due to being stuck in South-Africa after the lockdowns. The South-African now in fourth as well in the points tally for the championship. He is turning out to be a title contender already. Valentino Rossi came in at an outstanding P5. A result made even more so monumentally special after the brush with death he had only an hour back.
Nakagami finished P6, another strong result putting light on the sheer talent that the Japanese rider has. He deserved more support from Honda and he might turn out to be a much better prospect in the future. Petrucci took P7, just 0.036 seconds ahead Quartararo in P8. P9 went to Lecuona, who finally managed to finish a race and that too in the top 10. The 20-year-old finds great support and confidence in Tech 3 KTM team boss Poncharal, a man who is not known to be wrong about a rider. Vinales took P10, a disastrous result for the Monster Yamaha rider that saw him a loose second position in the championship to Dovizioso who is 8 points ahead of the Spaniard now.
The remaining points finishes were taken by Aleix Espargaro (P11), Ducati test rider Pirro who is substituting or injures Bagnaia took P12, Smith (P13), Alex Marquez continued his point finish run at P14 while still recovering Crutchlow was in P15. Rabat and Bradl finished outside points in P16 and P17 respectively.
There is a lot more that needs to be talked around the Austrian MotoGP, especially around the mentality of the riders around such horror crashes. I would take up the topic in the gap between the Styrian MotoGP and Race 1 at Misano. There is a lot more coming around MotoGP here soon enough. Stay tuned.