MotoGP is about to enter the toughest stretch of the season. Three races on three consecutive weekends is tough enough.
But three races separated by three, seven plus hour flights, kicking off with a race in a time zone seven hours ahead of the place most riders live. So riders, mechanics and team staff all start off a triple header struggling with jet lag and facing a grueling schedule.
And they are thrown in the deep end from the very start. Only the MotoGP riders can afford to stay at the Twin Ring circuit near Motegi. Most of the team staff stay in Mito, an hour’s drive from the track, meaning they have to travel for two hours a day.
Up in the hills in the middle of Japan’s main island, and sufficiently far north for temperatures to drop in the fall, Motegi is notorious for poor weather. It is usually cold, often damp, and sometimes ravaged by typhoons.
It is not just challenging on the riders and teams, however. The road circuit which sits half inside, half outside the oval course, giving the Twin Ring its name, is like Le Mans on steroids.
A series of straights of varying lengths, connected by a series of precisely engineered corners, as befits a circuit designed specifically as a test track.
Momentum. That’s what the last race before the Australasian triple header is all about. Momentum heading towards the end of the championship. Coming out on top and carrying it forward to Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang is vital.
The deal may get done on one of the flyaways, but Aragon is the place where the riders put their chips on the table.
All three races on Sunday had a huge impact on the MotoGP championship. In the first race of the day, a title was settled. In the second race of the day, the championship was blown even further open.
The final race of the day saw another brick hammered into the wall of Marc Márquez’s third MotoGP title, and further cemented his legacy. It was a good day’s racing.
There are a lot of ways to win titles, but the way the 2016 Moto3 championship was settled was about as fitting as it could be. At the end of a classic Moto3 race, where a strong group battled for control until the final four laps, four men broke away from the pack.
That group consisted of Brad Binder, the two men who could still mathematically challenge Binder for the 2016 title, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Navarro, and rookie revelation Fabio Di Giannantonio.
Could there be a ninth winner in nine MotoGP races? On Thursday, the massed ranks of MotoGP riders had elected Andrea Dovizioso for the role.
“I’m happy they said my name,” Dovizioso told us journalists on Friday, “but they have put a lot of pressure on me. Because I have to win this race, and today wasn’t the best day for me to try to think about winning…”
The Ducati rider had struggled with a lack of grip on the track, adding to the fact that this is not a great track for Dovizioso.
“This track doesn’t have the best characteristic for my style,” he said. Dovizioso’s strength lies in hard braking and quick turning, and there is not enough of that to suit the Italian. Add low grip to that, and he faces an uphill struggle.
Dovizioso also faces Aragon with a new teammate. Andrea Iannone has once again been forced to withdraw, the T3 vertebra he injured at Misano causing him too much pain to continue. He could manage three or four laps, before needing to return to the pits and get some rest.
With 22 laps coming up on Sunday, Iannone quickly understood that would be too much. Michele Pirro was already on standby, and once FP1 made it clear that Iannone would not be able to ride, Ducati’s test rider was put on the bike.
Is there such a thing as momentum in sports? Athletes – that includes MotoGP racers, who are in peak physical condition and should be considered as such – believe strongly in momentum. Statisticians disagree.
Momentum exists for as long as a team or an athlete keeps winning, or achieving success. Once they stop, then the momentum is gone. But there is never an explanation for why they lose it, and why something tagged as momentum should so suddenly disappear.
Whatever statistics may say, if athletes believe momentum exists, then momentum matters. And if there was a moment when momentum matters, it is going into the three-race flyaways.
After Sunday night, the MotoGP grid faces a brief break, and then three races in three weekends with long flights in between. It is the toughest part of the MotoGP schedule, and it helps to go into it with a strong mindset.
A good result on Sunday will help a lot in that respect. If that is what momentum is, then momentum matters.
With seven races to go, and three to be held over the next four weekends, the MotoGP championship is entering a crucial phase. Marc Márquez’s 53-point lead over Valentino Rossi means finishing on the podium for the rest of the races would be sufficient for him to clinch his third MotoGP title.
The two caveats being that Valentino Rossi must win the remaining seven races, and Márquez must finish second on at least three occasions.
Márquez also has a lead of 59 points over Jorge Lorenzo. Just two second places among seven podium finishes would be enough to ensure he beat Lorenzo to the championship. Though once again, Lorenzo would have to win all seven remaining races.
A likely scenario? Not really. The chances of either Lorenzo or Rossi winning seven races in a row are very close to zero. The remaining seven races could conceivably all be won by a Movistar Yamaha rider, but the most likely scenario in that case would be both Rossi and Lorenzo swapping victories each week.
An even more likely chain of events would be Rossi, Lorenzo, and Márquez taking it in turns on the top step. And if Márquez finishes ahead of either Rossi or Lorenzo, that swings the pendulum in further in his direction.
There were a lot of firsts at Brno on Sunday. Perhaps the most consequential was the fact that we saw the first wet race in the MotoGP/500 class ever to be held at the Masarykring, the modern purpose-built circuit which replaced the old road circuit at Brno.
That had a lot of knock on effects: we saw a surprise winner in the premier class, a shift in the championship, and a long race of strategy, where some riders got it spot on, and others got it horribly wrong.
All this without the race even having to be restarted, or riders having to pass through the pits. Though of course, some did…
The MotoGP race was both fascinating and entertaining, and an object lesson in how changing weather can make morning warm up lead riders down the wrong path.
On a sodden track, with the rain still falling heavily in the morning, there were serious concerns among some riders that the softest compound wet tire which Michelin had brought was not going to be soft enough to provide enough grip.
“This morning with the extra soft the tire was completely new after nine laps,” Andrea Dovizioso said.
It rained throughout the Moto3 race – which provided enormous entertainment, a first-time winner and another first-time podium visitor – and kept raining during Moto2 – a less exciting affair, but one which still managed to shake up the championship.
The rain eased off on the final laps of Moto2, then just about stopped in the break between the end of the Moto2 race and the start of MotoGP. It was a welcome development for us hacks: chasing through the paddock to talk to Moto3 riders after the race, we had endured a soaking.
The same run down to the other end of the paddock in search of Moto2 riders was a far more pleasant affair. The need to scurry from garage to garage under the shelter of balconies was gone.
After he and his teammate Jorge Lorenzo had looked well in control of proceedings after the first day of practice at Brno, Valentino Rossi warned the media against drawing premature conclusions.
“I think it’s just Friday, it’s a long way to Sunday,” he said. We in the media ignored his warnings, of course, and painted a technicolor picture of a race where the Movistar Yamaha riders took back a hefty bunch of points from Marc Márquez, reigniting the championship.
Then Saturday happened, and Valentino Rossi turned out to be right again (and not for the first time, I might add). Friday had been just Friday. It was indeed still a long way to Sunday. Saturday, a stepping stone on the way to Sunday, helped turn a lot of things around.
Jorge Lorenzo is still fast. So is Valentino Rossi, though not quite as fast as he had hoped. Andrea Iannone is a genuine threat for the podium, or even his second win in a row.
Maverick Viñales could still get up front and complicate things, though he has a hill to climb after a problem with the brakes saw him qualify on the third row of the grid.
But any illusions the Movistar Yamaha men had of clawing back points from Marc Márquez will have to be shelved. Not only will the Repsol Honda rider start from pole on Sunday, but he also has the race pace which was missing on Friday.
All thanks to a breathtaking lap of Brno, and a large set of wings which helped cure some of the worst problems with the Honda RC213V.
Ducati’s return to MotoGP’s winner’s circle, Johann Zarco’s decimation of the Moto2 field, and how Romano Fenati lost the most-coveted Moto3 ride in the paddock…if we’re talking about all these things then it must be the Austrian GP, and it must be Episode 35 of the Paddock Pass Podcast.
This installment of your two-wheeled racing addiction sees David Emmett, Neil Morrison, Tony Goldsmith, and Scott Jones covering all the major topics from MotoGP’s first stop at the Red Bull Ring, along with some pointed insights.
The Austrian track is officially the fastest circuit on the GP calendar, and unofficially it might be the most picturesque as well. The guys talk about the new venue, and the racing it produced. There’s a lot to cover though, so the show is a healthy hour and thirty minutes. We think you’ll enjoy it though.
As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook, Twitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!
The rain finally came at 7:30pm, just as we were leaving the track. From Saturday night, the threat of rain at 2pm on Sunday – race time, local time – had hung over the Red Bull Ring in Austria, scaring riders at the prospect of racing on the circuit in the wet.
Though everyone feared the effect of the rain on the excessive asphalt run-off, some were more worried than others. After two dismal results in the wet, Jorge Lorenzo had to get his championship back on track. In the cold and the wet, Lorenzo struggled. In the sun, Lorenzo could shine. Even against the Ducatis.
He got his wish, as did the reported 95,000 people in the crowd, who had flocked to the Austrian circuit for their first taste of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in the country for the better part of twenty years.
And what a taste it was. A brutal, thrilling opener of a Moto3 race, competitive to the line, with a new and popular winner. A fierce fight in Moto2, which took two-thirds of the race to settle. And a scintillating and intense MotoGP race that had the crowd holding their breath.
The Spielberg track may not be a classic motorcycle track, but it produced some fantastic racing from the Grand Prix bikes.