Happy hunting grounds for some, home turf for others. Austria welcomes MotoGP™ back for what could prove a pivotal weekend
After an adrenaline-fuelled Silverstone that saw Aprilia get back on the top step at one of their emblematic venues, it’s time to head for Austria and the Red Bull Ring – more common hunting grounds for Ducati and KTM. In fact, since the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix, the last five races at the venue have proven a pattern of Ducati – KTM – Ducati – KTM – Ducati in terms of wins. Those early Borgo Panigale days of glory on MotoGP™’s return to the Red Bull Ring aren’t necessarily over, but they certainly have serious competition. So does that hold some clues as to what awaits us in Styria this season?
In the red corner
Last year, reigning Champion Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) took the glory in Austria, and after a performance under serious pressure at Silverstone when he arguably had the luxury of not pushing to the edge, but very much still did, he must arrive as a favourite this year too. Now with a good advantage in hand after a tougher Tissot Sprint in the UK became a big opportunity to gain on key rivals on Sunday, there’s even less of that pressure now as well. Pecco must surely be the rider in the crosshairs.
Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing), however, took his first premier class win at the Red Bull Ring in 2021 – in fact, he started both races at the Red Bull Ring from pole in his rookie season, won the first and took a podium in the second. Now an even better rider and on quite a run of form come 2023, he’s the closest on the chase behind Bagnaia after the British GP shuffle. After getting battered back down the order on Sunday at Silverstone as well, it wasn’t a lack of speed that saw the number 89 lose out on valuable points, or really his own mistake. But the cookie crumbled that way and after losing 10 points to Bagnaia in the Grand Prix race at Silverstone, surely he arrives into Austria thinking it’s a good opportunity to gain some back… on Saturday AND Sunday.
The stakes are high
Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) will likely have something to say about that. The South African took KTM’s second and most recent home win at the venue in 2021, rolling the dice for one of the most edge-of-your-seat victories ever – and arguably one of the best. He’ll be absolutely elbows out to grab some more home glory for the Austrian factory, and teammate Jack Miller will be the same. They’ve had serious speed in 2023 too, wet or dry or sketchy, and already made a good few visits to parc ferme. If there’s one place both riders will be razor-sharp focused on some more trophies, it’s here.
That home glory on offer also extends to GASGAS Factory Racing Tech3’s Augusto Fernandez and Pol Espargaro, with both in the points at Silverstone too. The former hasn’t finished outside them all year, and the latter put together an impressive weekend on his long-awaited return from injury. What have they got in the locker?
There’s also not home glory, but title sponsor glory on the line for CrytoDATA RNF MotoGP™ Team… and right after Miguel Oliveira took his best result of the season so far, fourth, thanks to a truly impressive charge up from 16th on the grid. He only just missed out on the podium at Silverstone and will be aiming high, having also won at the Red Bull Ring in 2020 when riding with KTM. Teammate Raul Fernandez took a top ten at the British GP too, but he’ll be looking to keep moving forward.
That’s something Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) did in style at Silverstone. After qualifying 12th and storming to the win, he became the first rider to win from P12 or lower on the grid since the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix. And he did it beating the reigning Champion on the last lap. If that isn’t a confidence boost heading into the next round, such a thing probably doesn’t exist. Teammate Maverick Viñales was also strong at Silverstone and in that fight at the front, and both will want to show it’s not just the venue that suits them, but what they’re really capable of everywhere. Starting with another storming start, as both riders made good progress off the line last time out– and Aleix Espargaro said Aprilia’s work in the area was most definitely paying off. They’ll also have wildcard Lorenzo Savadori on track with them too, as that work very much continues.
Looking to hit back
Then there’s Marco Bezzecchi (Mooney VR46 Racing Team). Saturday was a good one as he took pole and then second in the Sprint as Bagnaia failed to score. But on Sunday, a first mistake in some time saw the Italian slide out when chasing Bagnaia, ultimately costing him 20 points to the Championship leader. He’s also been passed in the standings by Martin once again… but Austria is a chance to fight back. History says it will require quite a push to overhaul Bagnaia and Martin here, but Bezzecchi’s form this season has cared less for track records and more for unabating speed whatever the venue. Can he make a statement?
Another looking to do so, but on the flip side after a technical issue last time out, is Alex Marquez (Gresini Racing MotoGP™). The number 73 took his first Tissot Sprint win on Saturday, escaping and holding off Bezzecchi, and was right in the podium fight on Sunday before that issue caused him to need to pull in. With a new contract in his back pocket to boot, Alex Marquez will be arriving with expectations, in the best way. Enea Bastianini (Ducati Lenovo Team) is another arriving after a tougher Sunday. He pulled in after getting rear ended and will want the chance to show his steps forward as he gets back to full fitness and back in the groove. Can he upset the apple cart at the front?
Johann Zarco (Prima Pramac Racing) and Luca Marini (Mooney VR46 Racing Team), meanwhile, will want a lot more. Zarco had a good Sprint in fourth but then a middling Sunday, and Marini didn’t manage to fully challenge at the front at Silverstone. Can they turn that around in Austria? And can Fabio Di Giannantonio (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) home in on his fellow Ducatis?
Full factory reset
Silverstone was a tough one for Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP™ pairing Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli. For Quartararo, the wet qualifying in which he crashed out left him last on the grid, and it didn’t get much better in the Sprint. Come race day though, the Frenchman was on a real charge up the order, so there were some positives until a clash with Marini saw him lose and then run over his own fairing. Only a year ago Quartararo was fighting for the win in Austria too, something to remember as the Misano Test approaches and the 2021 Champion’s vocal expectations of some real progress keep hitting the headlines. Meanwhile, we now know Morbidelli is leaving the factory, which adds an extra arc of storyline. What can Yamaha find in Austria?
Finally, at Honda, the vibe seems to have changed. We know that Alex Rins is leaving the factory to replace the aforementioned Morbidelli – and we await confirmation of when Rins will be back this season alongside Takaaki Nakagami at LCR Honda, with Iker Lecuona subbing this weekend – but for the rest it’s all hands on deck at Honda.
In the Sprint at Silverstone, Marc Marquez rode behind Repsol Honda teammate Joan Mir to get a look at their bike in action. On Sunday the number 93 crashed out but had some positives to find from the weekend. The maelstrom of noise and rumours about the future, stretching all the way back to the German GP, now seems to have gone quieter, and in its place it seems there’s an eight-time World Champion rolling his sleeves up and accepting not defeat, but what’s needed in the here and now to get back to glory. Information. Kilometers. Direction. Is that the reality on the inside? We can’t know for now, so we’ll just have to watch this space…
SHOWTIME IN STYRIA
The CryptoDATA Motorrad Grand Prix von Österreich sees us return to usual order, with MotoGP™ last on the menu.
Tissot Sprint: Saturday 15:00 (GMT +2)
Grand Prix Race: Sunday 14:00 (GMT +2)