“We have to play our cards because we know our bike isn’t the fastest on the grid but we have a good pace through corner speed and I feel great in braking,” said Mir in Austria. “I can make a couple of metres on the brakes, but it is in the first metres of the exit where you can gain more. Every rider in the top ten knows how to brake late, so it’s more about how you use the bike for the exit, because there’s not many people who do this well. But if we start fighting with the Ducatis it becomes really difficult.”
Fabio Quartararo won the first two races of the year in the only way that really seems to work for an inline-four – get out front as soon as you can and don’t let the V4s get close enough to interfere with your corner speed.
This was how Jorge Lorenzo won the last inline-four championship: bolting from lights-out and running his own race, leading from the first lap to the last in all of his seven victories. It’s significant that this happened in 2015, when Ducati weren’t up to speed and Honda had got its engine spec wrong, causing Marc Márquez problems throughout the year.
There is little doubt that the inline-fours are being helped by Michelin’s 2020 rear slick. Mir crossed the line 1.4 seconds behind Dovizioso on Sunday. Previously the best result by an inline-four at Red Bull Ring had been Lorenzo’s third-place finish in 2016, 3.4 seconds behind winner Andrea Iannone.
Dovizioso wasn’t only happy about his first win of the year, he was also happy that he had reduced his braking issues, caused by the new rear slick, by adapting his riding technique. Not surprisingly, he wouldn’t tell anyone what he is doing differently.
Surely 80 points is an insurmountable gap for Márquez, but these days, who knows?
Meanwhile team-mate Danilo Petrucci struggled to seventh, still struggling with the new rear tyre.
“We are trying to ride with less and less and less engine-braking, to be less dependent on the electronics, because they are not working really good,” said Petrucci. “I always like to ride with a lot of weight on the rear and with a lot of engine-braking, to help me stop the bike. This was, let’s say, my secret when I was fast last year. But this is not possible anymore, because of the construction of the rear tyre, so I have to brake more with the front brake.”
Dovizioso goes into this weekend’s Styrian GP 11 points behind Fabio Quartararo, with the chance to take the championship lead on Sunday. Then it’s back-to-back races at Misano, where the inline-fours should have a much better chance.
And then there’s Marc Márquez. Assuming he returns at the first Misano race he will enter the arena perhaps 80 points behind Dovizioso or Quartararo, with nine races remaining. Surely that’s an insurmountable gap, but these days, who knows?
Has KTM found the perfect mix of V4/i4 performance?
Espargaro and KTM lead the race before the red flags came out
KTM’s 2017, 2018 and 2019 RC16 V4 behaved like most V4 MotoGP bikes – fast into corners, fast out of corners, but a bit of a nightmare in the middle. That’s what horrified Johann Zarco about the bike – trying to get it turned.
This year’s RC16 is nothing like that. “It’s like another world,” says Brad Binder. Either Binder or Pol Espargaró had winning pace at each of the first four races of 2020: at both Jerez rounds, where Binder’s speed was blinding, at Brno, where he won, and at Red Bull Ring, where Espargaró led the race until it was red-flagged. The Spaniard might have done the same in the restart, but he had used up his allocation of his preferred medium rear slicks, so he had to use a soft, which didn’t give the grip he wanted.
The 2020 RC16’s secret is V4-type speed – the machine was the second quickest MotoGP bike on Sunday, at 194.8mph, just 0.6mph down on the Ducati – and much-improved corner speed, similar to the inline-fours.
“Normally with this kind of engine the bike can make less corner speed,” said Espargaró at the weekend. “So we used more of a V-style corner: going to the apex, picking up the bike and using the power to exit fast. But now we have a very good feeling with the front, which allows us to release the brake a bit earlier than we used to, stop the bike where we need to and then carry on for more corner speed. It’s super-nice.”
If the RC16 continues to allow its riders to use more corner speed at upcoming races then we’ll have to assume that KTM has managed to solve the riddle that so far escaped Ducati and Honda. This won’t only be a chassis thing. As usual it will be a combination of factors: getting the chassis right, but also the engine’s off-throttle dynamics and engine-braking strategies, so that riders can roll into corners with extra speed.
Expect to see a lot of Ducati and Honda engineers examining every facet of the RC16’s performance out on track at the next few races, trying to work out what the Austrians have done.
Honda’s toughest MotoGP start since 1981
RC213V riders Alex Márquez and Stefan Bradl together in Austria
Honda has endured its toughest start to a grand prix season since the days of the oval-piston NR500 way back in 1981. It all went wrong on day one of the new racing season, when the factory’s top two riders got injured: Cal Crutchlow broke his left scaphoid in warm-up and Marc Márquez fractured his right humerus in the race.
Any factory will be in trouble when it loses its top two riders. “The reality is that we don’t have a top rider… you can’t expect to be always on top,” Repsol Honda boss Alberto Puig told Simon Crafar at Red Bull Ring.
Like Ducati, Honda is struggling with Michelin’s 2020 rear slick, but without one fully fit and fast rider to help adapt its RC213V to the tyre.
Last year Honda had corner-entry issues – remember Marc Márquez crashing out at COTA – which were soon solved. This year’s RC213V seems to have similar issues, most likely exacerbated by the combination of the new rear tyre and possibly extra inertia from the 2020 engine.
“If you can’t brake and then you’re floating in the middle of the corner then it’s always going to be a long race.”
“The inertia is pushing us all the time,” says LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow. “It feels like we have a lot of inertia, which is pushing the bike in corner entry, so you have to hold the [front] brake a long time, which makes the rear tyre lose full contact with the road.
“We sort of solved that last year with the 2019 bike, so maybe Taka [Nakagami, who rides 2019-spec Hondas] isn’t having the same problems we are having now.
“It’s all in the deceleration phase, then when you turn the bike and open the throttle you’re on the wrong piece of tarmac, because you haven’t stopped well enough and you haven’t made the corner in a good way. So it’s a vicious circle with braking, turning and exiting the corner.
“With the Honda we can usually gain time in braking, but when we have to brake earlier we lose a second a lap, because making time in the braking zone is the only way to go fast with our bike.
“Whether our problems are due to this year’s rear tyre pushing a lot more [into corners] we don’t know, but I also feel a lot of floating from the rear tyre in the middle of the corner. We need to improve this because it’s a big thing – if you can’t brake and then you’re floating in the middle of the corner then it’s always going to be a long race.”