The VROOM Blog – #AustrianGP – Bagnaia claims another perfect weekend at the Red Bull Ring

 In Blog, MotoGP, News

The 2023 MotoGP season has now officially reached the half way point, following the conclusion of the Austrian GP this weekend. The Red Bull Ring – or Spielberg, if you happen to be sponsored by the other energy drink – was the host of the 10th round of the season, and we saw Pecco Bagnaia dominate the weekend taking pole position, winning both the Sprint and the main race, as well as setting the fastest lap in both races.

Before we get into how the weekend went, we should cover all the news that there has been since the last round at Silverstone. Reigning World Superbike champion and current championship leader Alvaro Bautista will return to the MotoGP grid for a wildcard appearance with Ducati at the Malaysian GP. Bautista has completed two successful tests on board the MotoGP machinery, and will race at Sepang with the racing team two weeks after the conclusion of the World Superbike season.

Alex Marquez has been confirmed as remaining at Gresini Ducati for 2024, while Gresini have also confirmed that they will continue to use Ducati machinery for 2024 and 2025. The second Gresini seat is still a hot topic of conversation, with Franky Morbidelli, Tony Arbolino, Jake Dixon, and even Marc Marquez all having their names linked to the seat currently held by Fabio Di Giannantonio heading into the weekend. As the weekend progressed though, so did the rumour mill! Tony Arbolino is now sounding more likely to remain with MarcVDS in Moto2, while Jake Dixon might win the seat due to the powers that be apparently wanting a British rider in the premier class.

This kind of thing really annoys me. I don’t think that riders should be given rides – or indeed overlooked for rides, because it works both ways – based on their passport. I couldn’t care less what nationality riders are – MotoGP is the pinnacle of motorcycle racing and should be a field of the most talented riders in the world, and if that means a grid with large numbers of Spanish and Italian riders then so be it. These countries have the infrastructure in place to nurture talented riders and bring them to the level required to ride in the World Championship, and so they have more riders in the MotoGP paddock.

I’ve mentioned before that Michael Laverty is working on this for British riders, with his Academy having riders on mini bikes, all the way through to Moto3 in the MotoGP paddock, but its going to take time for this to work, and for riders to make their way through to MotoGP.

It’s not just British riders either – you could argue that Taka Nakagami has only kept his ride for so long because he is Japanese, and the next Japanese talent coming through is Ai Ogura who keeps refusing to move up to the premier class! I mean no disrespect to the likes of Jake or Taka, but it seems unfair that arguably more talented riders miss out on an opportunity in MotoGP due to their passports.

KTM took the opportunity at their home race to confirm a contract extension for Brad Binder through to 2026. Brad was already signed up for next season, but KTM have taken the step to extend his contract again. Binder has been with KTM since his time in the Red Bull Rookies, and is the first rider to move all the way through the KTM GP Academy scheme, moving from the Rookies to the Ajo team for both Moto3 and Moto2 before making the step into MotoGP in 2020 with the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team.

Augusto Fernandez was making comments at the beginning of the weekend that suggested we should know about his future sometime throughout the weekend, and then he did say that he had been told he is going to remain with the same team next year. When asked to clarify if he meant in MotoGP, he smiled and said yes, although as I write this there has been nothing official from KTM.

Alongside Augusto at GASGAS Tech3 is Pol Espargaro who also confirmed to the media this weekend that he is contracted for next season with the team so he is not at all worried about the talk surrounding the security of his seat as the media continues to report that Pedro Acosta will be moving to MotoGP with KTM next season.

KTM has a major headache for next season with 5 riders and only 4 seats available – Jack Miller also confirmed that he is on a two-year deal so will remain where he is for 2024 – and they don’t want to lose Acosta to another manufacturer as they did Jorge Martin when he signed for Ducati in MotoGP.

There are currently two empty grid slots in the premier class following the departure of Suzuki, but Dorna say those slots are reserved for a Factory team, so KTM are unable to take them and run another satellite team. KTM had been talking with Gresini, LCR and RNF to discuss potential switches to KTM machinery, but Gresini opted to remain with Ducati, while LCR and RNF both have contracts with Honda and Aprilia respectively for 2024 with KTM saying that they are not interested in poaching teams who are under contract.

KTM and GASGAS both fall under the Pierer Mobility AG umbrella, and so there is talk that they could technically take the two grid slots with another of their brands such as MV Augusta or Husqvarna. Herve Poncharal confirmed that the Pierer Mobility Group management have been talking with the riders, and with Carlos Ezpeleta to find a solution, and it will certainly be interesting to see how they solve this…

Ducati are also the subject of much speculation – there’s the Gresini seat, but there was also lots of talk about Marco Bezzecchi and whether he will remain at VR46 or move to Pramac Racing, with the theory being that the move to Pramac would give him Factory machinery, and make space for Franky Morbidelli at VR46.

There was much talk throughout the weekend that Johann Zarco was going to jump from Pramac to LCR Honda, and by Sunday morning the French media were reporting that it was a done deal. On Sunday evening Pramac announced that they would be parting ways with Zarco at the end of the season, and then Zarco spoke to several media outlets to confirm – despite anything official from LCR – that he would be moving to LCR Honda. LCR did finally announce on Tuesday afternoon that they had signed Zarco to the Castrol side of their garage for 2024 and 2025.

As you can imagine, there are lots of questions surrounding why you would jump from arguably the best bike on the grid, to the one considered to be the worst, but Zarco pointed out that even if he resigned with Ducati, it looked like being a one-year deal, with no guarantee that he would remain in the Pramac team, whereas he is getting a 2-year deal with Honda. He also pointed out that even if Honda don’t have the winning bike now, they are Honda and they have the power to come back, with the Frenchman saying he would be proud to be a part of that.

Zarco’s departure from Pramac throws up more questions, and with Bezzecchi saying that Valentino Rossi is putting pressure on him to remain in the VR46 squad, and Valentino himself telling the press that the goal is to retain both Bezzecchi and Luca Marini for 2024, will we see Franky Morbidelli take up Zarco’s slot at Pramac? I would love to see him there – you know I’m a big fan of his – and I’d love to see what he can do on a Ducati. For his part, Franky was his usual evasive self when asked about his future on Sunday evening, asking for patience from the media, but he did say ‘yes’ when asked if he thought he would be a good fit for the Pramac team. Bezzecchi says that Valentino pressuring him is something that he really appreciates – not everyone is pushed by the GOAT – but he has already made his decision. He wouldn’t say where he is going, but did say that he would be sharing news soon.

Lorenzo Savadori – who was confirmed this week as continuing as Aprilia test rider for 2024 – was in at Aprilia for another wildcard appearance this weekend, while Iker Lecuona was once again in at LCR in place of the injured Alex Rins. Rins himself was back in the paddock this weekend to spend time with his team as he continues his recovery.

The latest in camera innovation was on display this weekend as Marco Bezzecchi debuted the ‘back cam’ on his Dainese leathers during FP1 on Friday morning. The camera is embedded at the bottom of the hump of the leathers and gives yet another on-board view from an interesting angle.

Marc Marquez was out on track testing the new Honda aero back-to-back with the current one, while Yamaha were also using new front aero. Augusto Fernandez crashed at turn 2, while lots of riders were having issues and running through the gravel at turn 4.

With 4 minutes remaining in the session, Marc Marquez crashed at turn 4 and remounted throwing stones all over the track. As the chequered flag came out, Johann Zarco set a time that was 0.399 seconds quicker than anyone else had gone, demoting Fabio Quartararo to 2nd place. Viñales was 3rd, with Alex Marquez and Marco Bezzecchi rounding out the top 5.

Friday afternoon saw the rain flags make an appearance half way through the 60-minute Practice session, but there were only a few spots of rain – nothing heavy enough to have any impact on the times the riders were setting as they tried to secure a slot in Q2. Enea Bastianini crashed at turn 2 with less than 15 minutes remaining of the session as riders started improving their times and knocking each other out of the coveted top 10.

With 9 minutes left on the clock, Miguel Oliveira jumped to 2nd place to make it 3 Aprilias in the top 4 – Maverick was 1st ahead of Miguel, Marc, and Aleix. It didn’t last long though, with Bagnaia jumping to 1st place and Binder to 2nd. Marco Bezzecchi set a new all time lap record to go to the top of the times, before Marc Marquez had a fast lap baulked by a slow-riding Pol Espargaro. Pol was later handed a 3-place grid penalty for the GP race for being slow on the race line during the session. Bezzecchi’s Ducati broke down with less than a minute remaining of the session, but he still held on to the top spot to lead the charge through to Q2 ahead of Viñales, Bagnaia, Binder, and Zarco. The top 10 was completed by Jorge Martin, Aleix, Alex Marquez, Fabio Quartararo, and Oliveira, while the others would be left to fight it out in Q1.

FP2 on Saturday morning saw crashes for Brad Binder and Fabio Di Giannantonio, but Binder wasn’t held back and went on to top the session from Bezzecchi and Viñales.

Q1 got underway, and it was hard to call who might head through, but after the first set of runs it was Jack Miller and Pol Espargaro who held the top 2 spots with Luca Marini and Franky Morbidelli hot on their heels. Everyone headed out on fresh rubber for their second runs, and with just 50 seconds left on the clock, Luca Marini pulled himself up to 1st place, with Jack Miller pipping him with less than 20 seconds to go. No one else was able to better the times of Miller and Marini, meaning that they would be heading through to Q2.

There was a fair amount of movement at the top of the times in the early stages of Q2 – as well as a crash for Aleix Espargaro, who was able to remount and continue – but as the riders headed down pit lane for new tyres, it was Viñales, Bagnaia and Quartararo who held the top 3 places.

The final few minutes of the session were frantic, with riders setting red sectors and fast times one after another, but it was Bagnaia who came out on top to take pole position, with Viñales and Binder joining him on the front row. Miller, Alex Marquez, and Marini would make up row two, while rows 3 and 4 would be made up by Bezzecchi, Oliveira, Quartararo, Zarco, Aleix, and an irate Jorge Martin. Martin had his best lap time cancelled due to exceeding track limits, and it was one of those ones where he barely skimmed the green, but evidently the sensors were working this weekend and so he was penalised…

The riders lined up on the grid ahead of the Sprint race, and it was hot, unlike Maverick Viñales’ start to the race. He had a terrible start that saw him swamped by those around him as he struggled to get his Aprilia off the line. Bagnaia made the most of his pole position and led into turn 1, but there was carnage unfolding behind him as Jorge Martin – probably still furious following his lost lap time in Q2 – started a chain reaction that wiped 6 riders off the track. Bezzecchi, Oliveira and Zarco all crashed, while Quartararo, Bastianini and Viñales were all sent wide through the gravel before rejoining at the back of the pack. Marco Bezzecchi and Johann Zarco were able to remount their Ducatis, but Bez was unable to continue the race, pulling into the pits at the end of the lap.

Race direction announced that the incident would be reviewed after the race, and so we carried on, with Bagnaia still out front ahead of Binder, Miller, Marini, Martin, and Alex Marquez. Pol Espargaro was running in 7th place on his second weekend back from injury. Taka Nakagami crashed out of the race on lap 3, while Jorge Martin was handed track limits warning. By lap 5 there were six more riders – Viñales, Mir, Lecuona, Savadori, Augusto Fernandez and Raul Fernandez – on track limit warnings!

On lap 6, Luca Marini passed Jack Miller into turn 1 to take 3rd place, while later in the lap Jack ran wide and allowed a charging Jorge Martin through. Lorenzo Savadori crashed out at turn 4, and replays showed that the crash followed contact with Fabio Quartararo, for which the Yamaha man received a long lap penalty. Jorge Martin barged his way through on Luca Marini for 3rd place, but he made contact with Marini causing him to crash out of the race.

Meanwhile, Alex Marquez had passed Miller for 4th place. On lap 9 of 14, Augusto Fernandez was handed a long lap penalty for exceeding track limits too many times, before Race Direction continued their clown-show consistency by declaring there would be no further action taken regarding Martin knocking Marini off. While it could have been viewed as a racing incident and been left unpunished, so could the Quartararo / Savadori incident. Surely if one of them was worthy of a penalty then so was the other? Luca Marini said as much himself after the race, saying that these things happen in racing, but that it would be nice to have some consistency from Race Direction.

By now, Bagnaia was leading by almost 2 seconds from Brad Binder, with Jorge Martin running in 3rd place ahead of Alex Marquez and Jack Miller. Fabio Quartararo completed his long lap on lap 12, before Johann Zarco retired to the pits.

Bagnaia took the Sprint win ahead of Binder and Jorge Martin, with Alex Marquez, Miller, Pol, Aleix, Viñales, and Franky Morbidelli rounding out the point-scoring finishers.

Jorge Martin claimed post-race that he didn’t know what had happened in the first corner incident, but that he had expected to receive a long lap penalty for the contact with Marini. Race Direction handed Martin a long lap penalty for Sunday’s race as punishment for causing the first corner incident, and the Gresini racing team’s social media admin was particularly salty on Saturday evening, posting comments about bowling balls and skittles, as well as the length of time it took to come to the decision to penalise Martin. The team’s official press release on Saturday pointed out that they felt if Martin had been penalised during the race, then Alex Marquez could well have scored a podium.

Warm up on Sunday morning saw Jorge Martin crash as he practiced the long lap penalty he would have to take during the race, and it showed how potentially dangerous the placement of the long lap is at the Red Bull Ring. It isn’t a loop around the edge of a corner as it is at most other circuits but has a kink in it which meant that when Jorge crashed on the change of direction, he and his bike were sent back across the track and into the path of following riders. Thankfully, there was a bit of a gap between him crashing and anyone following so any possible incident was avoided, but that could have been horrendous if it had happened during the early stages of the race.

Enea Bastianini topped the session, ahead of Quartararo, Alex Marquez, Viñales, Aleix, and Morbidelli.

The RNF Aprilia team – who I would argue have the worst livery this year – rocked up to the grid with a new pink and blue livery apparently inspired by the new Barbie movie. While I liked the combination of the colours, I didn’t like how they had put them together, and the fact that the riders were still wearing their awful green / blue leathers probably didn’t help the look!

It was hot again on the grid, with many riders opting to sit at the side of the track in the shade rather than on top of their bikes as ‘VIPs’ and the media bustled around. Once again, Bagnaia made the most of pole position and took the lead ahead of Binder and Marini – although Marini had a big moment into turn 1 and lost 3rd to Miller – and that was basically it for the championship leader, he led from lights to flag and there was seemingly nothing anyone else could do about it.

Alex Marquez moved through on Marini for 4th place as Bagnaia and Binder pulled away at the front. Jorge Martin was given notification that he could carry out his long lap penalty, which he completed on lap 4, dropping to 13th place behind Franky Morbidelli. Alex Marquez was a man on the move, this time passing Miller for 3rd place.

Brad Binder was all over the back of Bagnaia in the early laps, but there didn’t seem to be a way through for the South African. On lap 7 Miguel Oliveira’s run of terrible luck continued as he retired to the pits, while Franky Morbidelli moved ahead of Pol Espargaro for 13th. Jorge Martin was making his way back through the pack, and by lap 13th he was up to 8th place, while Jack Miller seemed to be going backwards, finding himself in 9th place as Joan Mir crashed out of the race at turn 3.

Bezzecchi was making hard work of passing Alex Marquez, twice passing him at such a speed that he was unable to hold the line and ended up running wide, while Fabio Quartararo was quietly making his way through the field and was up to 9th place by lap 20.

On lap 22 Bezzecchi was finally able to make the move stick on Alex Marquez, passing him for 3rd place at turn 9. Bezzecchi immediately started to pull away from Marquez, and his VR46 team mate Marini was soon through on the Spaniard too. Iker Lecuona and Pol Espargaro were both hit with long lap penalties on the penultimate lap, meaning that they each received a 3 second penalty post-race as there wasn’t time to complete the long lap.

Bagnaia won the race, and was joined on his 50th GP podium by Brad Binder and Marco Bezzecchi, while Marc Marquez finally finished a Sunday race! It was Marc’s first race finish (the Sprints don’t count…) in 301 days. Brad Binder’s 8th MotoGP podium sees him equal Paddy Driver as the South African rider with the most podiums in the premier class.

We have a weekend off before the MotoGP paddock reconvenes in Barcelona – I wonder if the music will have stopped in the silly season game of musical chairs by then?

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