until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


The surprise contenders to topple MotoGP’s lords of the Ring

by Simon Patterson
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Since MotoGP returned to Austria’s Red Bull Ring in 2016, there have historically been two kinds of racer who can challenge for the win: factory Ducati pilots and Marc Marquez.

And even Marquez hasn’t actually managed to beat the works Ducatis to a win here, despite coming agonisingly close.

But, with the reigning world champion out of action and Ducati still lost in its struggles to adapt to Michelin’s changed rear tyre, 2020 presents a golden opportunity for someone else to rise to the fore.

Andrea Dovizioso Ducati Marc Marquez Honda Austria MotoGP 2019

And there’s more reason than ever for one of the other contenders to make the most of Marquez’s absence and Ducati’s struggles, too, with the Red Bull Ring’s championship value doubled as the second of the abridged MotoGP season’s two races at the track comes up only seven days after Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix.

Perhaps most surprisingly so far, the lead contender to take on Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci isn’t on another Ducati.

“It’s just two straights and one corner – so I must be good at that one corner!” :: Joan Mir

We’ve only had a single, rain-struck and shortened, day of practice so far at Spielberg, but it was Suzuki that rose to the fore and looked surprisingly strong.

Previously somewhat discounted at the Styrian circuit thanks to the track’s long, fast straights and a design philosophy at Suzuka that favours cornering over power, both Alex Rins and Joan Mir looked impressively fast in the day first practice session both on single lap speed and on race pace.

Joan Mir, 2020 Austrian Motogp

And while it might be a track that doesn’t play into the hands of the GSX-RR, it suits Mir’s aggressive Marquez-like braking style to a tee.

Riding at the Red Bull Ring in the top class for the first time after missing last year’s race in his rookie season due to injury, he wasted no time in getting up to speed. A lap deletion for a yellow flag infringement slightly masked the pace he’d shown.

“We’ve just had one practice to try out a new track for me on a MotoGP bike but I’ve got good memories here of my first victory in the world championship and I enjoyed the day,” said Mir, who triumphed here in Moto3 in 2016.

Joan Mir Moto3 Austria 2016

“To be honest, I didn’t expect to feel so good, but it felt like it wasn’t the first time here for me.

“The base we have on the settings is already good so I was able to be fast straight away, but I was able to do a good time attack as well even if my fastest two were cancelled.

“It’s important to stop the bike well here, and I feel especially strong in that area.

“I was surprised with the times in the first sector too, because it’s just two straights and one corner – so I must be good at that one corner!”

It’s strange to immediately count KTM as a potential race winner, but it’s the other manufacturer that could well provide an upset this weekend.

It was Pol Espargaro rather than Brno winner Brand Binder who topped Friday’s times ahead of Dovizioso, and the Spaniard is out for revenge after what happened last time out.

KTM’s got the added benefit of being at another track that it knows intimately, with Dani Pedrosa completing a test on the 2020 RC16 bike only a few weeks ahead of MotoGP’s arrival.

Dani Pedrosa KTM Austria MotoGP test 2020

That information could well be key for KTM too, with limited track time as the weather gets involved – something that Espargaro alluded to after the opening day’s action.

“It feels good to be P1 on the first day, and we were at the level we were looking for in FP2,” he said.

“We expected some rain in FP2, so we got a lap time done in the first session – but so did everyone else.

“It’s just one session and one day so there’s much more still to come.”

The other rider who could well be an obstacle in Dovizioso’s plans to finally get his 2020 title challenge underway could be a fellow Ducati rider, after yet another impressive day for Johann Zarco on the Avintia bike.

Ending up sixth overall on combined times and already set to go straight to Q2 with wet conditions forecast for this morning’s third practice session, Zarco was able to pick up where he left off last weekend at Brno.

Riding the 2019 bike that Dovizioso took to victory 12 months ago, Zarco has the added benefit of being able to speed up his learning curve using Dovizioso’s data both from last year and this.

Johann Zarco, 2020 Austrian Motogp

“The base setting is good now, and we know now where I have to improve thanks to Dovi,” he said.

“We know he is going fast here and we can see where I need to improve compared to him – I know where I’m losing and I need to find the confidence to go as fast as him now.”

There could even be a dark horse in the form of a Yamaha rider – but not one of the trio on 2020 machines.

Franco Morbidelli showed last time out at the Czech Grand Prix that he can challenge for race wins, and with Maverick Vinales, Valentino Rossi and Fabio Quartararo still struggling, the Petronas satellite rider will waste no time in exploiting that.

The Red Bull Ring is never counted as a favourable track for Yamaha, but its satellite bikes have been on the podium for two years in a row, first with Zarco on Tech3 machinery in 2018 and then with Quartararo last time out.

However, there’s another issue that could also play a factor in deciding the order come Sunday: rain.

With a mixed forecast in Austria that seemingly changes by the hour (a result of the track’s location in a mountain valley), there’s an ever-present danger of a downpour.

Should that happen, the odds might fall back in favour of the factory Ducati riders, thanks to the presence of two of MotoGP’s rain masters on GP20 machinery.

If it’s fully wet then it’s hard to rule out Danilo Petrucci, and in mixed wet and dry conditions Jack Miller will thrive.

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