Rider insight with Freddie Spencer: Austrian Grand Prix

by Freddie Spencer on 15th August 2017

Freddie Spencer gives his take on the last-lap decider at the Austrian Grand Prix and shares memories from over the years

Racing memories from Austria

I never raced at the Red Bull Ring, but I did race at the other track that was used for so many years for the Austrian Grand Prix: the Salzburgring. That was also a very fast circuit in its day and was one of the tracks that I always looked forward to, even though it was a little bit dangerous. I liked it because of the challenges it put on the riders, especially going up the hill on the back straightaway and the changes of direction at such a high speed. You had to be so precise and so early, putting the bike in the right position as you were changing up to fourth, fifth, sixth going up the hill. It was also nice having the power of the Hondas during some of those years, especially in ’85.

I have a couple of interesting stories about the first time that I raced at the Salzburgring, because it was the very first European round of the world championship in 1982. It was my first year of HRC, my first full season and it came after just one race in Argentina. So I show up there with my brand new motorhome and first thing, I couldn’t get it through the tunnel! We ripped the ladder off the back of it, so an auspicious start to my first European race in the world championship!

Anyway, we survived that, got the motorhome parked and everything was good and I woke up the first morning on the first day of practice and qualifying and I’ll never forget it. It’s up in the mountains, early in April so you can imagine it was still cold and I could hear rain on top of the motorhome. That’s what woke me up, actually.

I got up and ate breakfast and was getting all ready and it was about 15 minutes before practice was going to start when the rain that had been continuously falling turned to something a little harder on top of the motorhome. I recognised it from back in Louisiana when we would get sleet or even hail on the metal patio part on the back of my house growing up. My first reaction as I was getting dressed was they’ll call off practice, because obviously we’re not going to practice in this sleet or hail.

But just as I finished saying that, over the loudspeaker the announcer said “500 practice in 15 minutes.” It was funny because Mr Williams, a gentleman from back home who was accompanying me on this trip, said ‘well, I guess welcome to the world championship!’ That was my first memory of racing in Austria. It was an amazing, amazing event and the German fans – in all the German-speaking countries – it’s amazing how much they love racing. So it reminds me of that track when I look at how high-speed the Red Bull Ring is, but it isn’t that simple.

Challenges of the Red Bull Ring

The track is very challenging for the riders, even in those slower first, second and third gear corners because they’re all different. They require a different challenge to be able to judge your braking distance, get the bike slowed down and turned whilst not overcharging the corners (which we saw a lot at the weekend) and getting in a position to maximise the exit. One thing I think Dovizioso did so well was manage his entry speed and direction change to make sure he got off the corner consistently. In many ways he was better than anyone else over the entire race weekend.

Dovi delivers under the weight of expectation

After qualifying he talked about how he struggled, he really didn’t feel comfortable, and there was a lot of expectation that he was putting on himself and that he felt from everyone. That’s because of last year, when Iannone won the race and Dovi didn’t, and I think he felt he could’ve won the race last year at the Red Bull Ring. So this year there was a lot of that expectation, having already won two races this season, so he expected to do well there.

Jorge Lorenzo downplayed his expectations, because in the press the day before Rossi had been saying that this is really a place where Lorenzo should get his season turned around and if he’s going to have a chance of winning, it should be here. Lorenzo downplayed that a little bit, understandably, to take the pressure off a bit. But I know he felt after the test session they had after the Czech Grand Prix at Brno that he felt the new fairing is certainly helping him with front-end stability, direction change and on exit keeping the front wheel down. But certainly he had the inside feeling that maybe this would be the weekend that he’d get the first win on the Ducati, so going into the race there was a lot of expectations from the Ducati camp.

If you look at Valentino Rossi, his championship dreams for this year are not looking as good as they did at the start of the season expectation-wise and his team-mate, Maverick Viñales, has not really done much since those first three wins. He’d have wanted to get his year turned around this week, so from the Yamaha camp this was the mindset for them; Viñales needed to get back up there and Rossi needed to continue doing what he’s doing, which is amazing.

Márquez and Honda play the long game

In the Honda camp, with the result of Brno getting a first and second, they were going in feeling fairly positive about the Honda. I’ve talked a little bit about their struggle with acceleration off the corners, but that seems to be something that it has worked out a little bit. It’s probably something that’s just through electronics, but there’s only so much it can do because everybody uses the same electronics. Honda can certainly manage the wheelspin while not compromising acceleration off of the corner. Márquez came back strongly with that win at the Sachsenring and then of course at Brno with a great ride, and then going into this weekend Honda getting Márquez on to the podium would have been a great result.

Qualifying was pretty good: the two Ducatis were on the front row and Marc of course on pole with an incredible lap. He was able to do that by managing his aggressive style. As I’ve said, this race track doesn’t really reward that style like it does at Brno; you need to be a bit smoother and it’s very easy to be too aggressive on corner entry and hurt yourself at the Red Bull Ring.

The start of the race was exactly as I expected: Lorenzo got out front and tried to pull away. With he and Dovi on the soft rear tyre and Marc and Pedrosa choosing the hard, you would think that the hard tyre would take a few more laps to get up to temperature. There’s not a whole lot of difference between the soft, medium and hard compound tyres this year. The only real difference between the soft and the hard is that the hard takes a couple more laps to get up to temperature and it should last a little bit longer.

Electronics and tyre management

The riders can have a big effect on tyres and that’s always been the case. It was the same in my era. I’d usually run a softer tyre than everyone else and just manage it with throttle control, lean angle and making sure I didn’t put too much stress on the tyre too early in the race, unless it was necessary. It’s the same thing with spinning: it’s not the compound that you worry about so much as the carcass of the tyre; you worry about getting too much heat in too fast, because that’s what maintains heat in the tyre and really overworks the tyre and gets it beyond its comfortable working limit.

The latter can have such a huge effect, but in this modern era the electronics help the rider in so many ways. If they’re not real smooth, if they’re more of an aggressive rider, you can manage that aggression with the electronics – to a point. If you have to manage it too much, then it would certainly hurt the rider’s acceleration and hurt him being able to maximise his performance.

A last lap decider

So in the race Lorenzo got out front, but he was not able to really maintain that pace and the others closed with Dovi getting in the mix. It looked like Marc was just controlling it fairly easily, and I thought he had a better than 75 per cent chance of pulling this win off. But later in the race, especially in those last couple of laps, Dovi showed how he was really using his experience. That’s one thing I’ve been really impressed with over the last few years, especially last year and this year, just how well Dovi is making decisions out on the race track.

Going into that last lap, you knew what was going to happen. If Dovi was in front, Marc was going to pull an aggressive move at some point. Coming into the last two corners, after everyone had dropped back with the mistake from Valentino at turn one, nobody else was really in contention aside from Dovi and Marc.

You could see that Marc was going to try to make that pass going into the last corner and he picked up the throttle and got past Dovi, but he made the one mistake that you can’t make in that situation: to go in too far. That allowed Dovi to be able to ease up, square the corner and get a better drive and win the race, which was a great result for him and the Ducati. But Marc, he was fine with it. He has still got a gap on second place, so that was it. Great ride, great race. 

I’m looking forward to the next race, I hope you are too.

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