From the forests of Brno to the rolling green mountainous hills of Spielberg, MotoGP has arrived at stop number 11 on the 2017 calendar, the Austrian Grand Prix.
Much like Brno, the Red Bull Ring is home to elevation changes, with an altitude difference of 65 metres from the highest point to the lowest. Over just 10 corners riders will reach the highest average speed on the calendar, as well as some of the hardest braking zones and strongest acceleration points, giving the Austrian circuit the highest average deacceleration per lap in the season of 1.3G.
It’s stop-and-go nature means the engine performance and top speed hold special importance along with stability under braking. Turn 1 of Castrol Edge is the hardest braking point, followed by turn 2, which sees the slowest final speed after braking of 64 km/h and turn 3 where riders brake for the longest distance, 251 metres.
The track is hard on tyres and Michelin have come prepared with asymmetric rear slicks, harder on the right shoulder for extra durability, in soft, medium and hard, with the same for the front slicks only they are symmetric. In case it rains, and it looks like it might on a couple of occasions over the weekend, the wets will also be asymmetric like the rear slicks.
But no matter what the weather does there is one manufacturer that, on paper, looks perfect for the Red Bull Ring and they won there last year. Ducati holds the crown in top speed and acceleration and in 2016 they dominated, although some of that can be attributed to a summer test they conducted, giving them a setup before the weekend started. This year things could be a bit closer, especially with teams having an extra day at Brno this week where many of them focussed on acceleration and braking in preparation for Austria.
There’s also the issue of wings. Reducing wheelie is important for the hard acceleration zones but comes with the negative of affecting top speed. In the Brno test Andrea Dovizioso tried the new Ducati aero-fairing and while not as enthusiastic about it as team-mate Jorge Lorenzo who has had his front-end confidence boosted, he was happy enough and said: “It could give us a good advantage in Austria”.
Honda struggled in 2016 but as pointed out by Marc Marquez, the same could be said of Brno, where he won last Sunday, although undoubtedly aided by a test and the track conditions. They should be closer to Ducati this year but how much closer remains to be seen.
At Yamaha, they were the only non-Ducati on the podium last year with Jorge Lorenzo finishing 3rd. In the Brno test, both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales tested their aero-fairing and both were fairly happy, although Vinales says he won’t be running it this weekend as they want to test it more, while Rossi thinks they’ll give it a go at some point. Like Honda, Ducati shouldn’t be running away from them in Austria but the margin is uncertain, although the two Yamaha factory riders could be helped by the carbon forks they tested in Brno.
Suzuki is now home to 2016 race winner Andrea Iannone but it’s pretty unlikely he’ll be on the top step this year. They could struggle slightly in Austria with the acceleration requirements but a return to a happy hunting ground could be a welcome confidence boost for Iannone. Aprilia meanwhile showed good pace in Brno with their engine improvements and Aleix Espargaro is fairly confident of a decent result, although team-mate Sam Lowes will have to continue working on his braking issues to really show his potential in Austria.
Of course, the Red Bull Ring is home to one factory MotoGP team with KTM returning to Austria for the first time since they joined the premier class. They will have 3 riders on the grid with Mika Kallio joining Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith. After getting their first top 10 in Brno, they can continue improving this weekend and I think they could have another positive performance.
With the factory Ducati team the favourites on paper, the satellite Ducati teams should also be making their presence known at the Red Bull Ring. Turning can be an issue for the older Desmos but that won’t be an issue in Austria and their engine power could be moving them into the top 10 and for Pramac’s Danilo Petrucci who is on a GP17, it could be another strong weekend.
The top 5 in the championship is still the closest we’ve ever seen with the current scoring system, with 31 points now covering them and Marc Marquez leading by 14 points from Maverick Vinales. Maverick expressed the state of things for all the top 5 when he said “we know that we have to be on the podium at the next races”, unfortunately, there are only 3 places up for grabs so every point counts and mistakes could prove incredibly costly.
Will Ducati reign supreme at the Red Bull Ring again this year? On paper, it certainly looks that way and Dovi has already won twice this year, plus Jorge Lorenzo has renewed confidence and is ready to fight. But Honda, Yamaha and the satellite Ducatis will all be right there, and it probably won’t be as easy as 2016. There are few certainties in MotoGP this year and a Ducati win isn’t necessarily one of them.