It's now time to put away the summer 'toys' for the big guns of MotoGP™ competition, with the enthralling 2016 championship set to resume this weekend at a new circuit on the calendar – the Red Bull Ring at Spielberg in Austria.
The fairly straightforward but picturesque layout – located 200km from Vienna – is 4.3km long with just 10 turns, and will definitely reward machines with strong acceleration, top-end buzz and stability under brakes.
One marque which appears to have all those attributes is Ducati, with its factory pairing of Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso the fastest two riders on track at a recent two-day Red Bull Ring test session, ahead of Australia's Casey Stoner on another machine from the Bologna-based team.
Hector Barbera (Avintia Racing Ducati) was fourth from Movistar Yamaha men Valentino Rossi and world champion Jorge Lorenzo, while Repsol Honda duo Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa weren't in attendance.
An intriguing participant at the test was KTM, which posted some extremely respectable times on the machine that it will start campaigning in 2017 with Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro.
While Ducati may be rubbing its hands together at the spectre of its first MotoGP™ win since Stoner way back in 2010, Iannone and Dovizioso are already done and dusted as far as championship aspirations are concerned in 2016.
Instead, it again looks likely to come down to a battle between Marquez (170pts), Lorenzo (122) and Rossi (111), with Marquez holding all the aces after finishing on the podium in eight of the nine races run so far, which included a last-start win at Sachsenring.
Red Bull Ring won't be a totally new frontier for Marquez, as he and Pedrosa rode promotional laps of the circuit in early June on Honda's MotoGP™ replica RC213V-S road bike. And the Spaniard's a fast learner, so he is expected to be straight on the pace when practice begins on Friday.
Marquez now has 53 MotoGP™ wins to his credit, just one behind Aussie five-time world champion Mick Doohan.
"A quite hectic and challenging second half of the season is about to begin, requiring our total concentration and a lot of hard work," said Marquez. "Now I really look forward to getting back to racing my bike and to riding again at the Red Bull Ring. It’s a circuit that’s quite enjoyable; some things about it remind me of Austin in that you have to brake very hard and stop the bike and turn quickly, but then there’s the last part that’s faster.
"When you approach a weekend at a new circuit, it’s different and you have to be able to adapt as quickly as possible. I’m also proud to race there because my fan club will join us with many Austrian fans. I’m sure we'll have a great weekend and hopefully sunny weather.”
Lorenzo has won the same amount of races as Marquez in 2016, but his form has tapered over the last few rounds – his wet-weather tracking particularly pedestrian – while if Rossi is to win his eighth MotoGP™ title he will have to be the first person since Aussie Mick Doohan to achieve it after three season DNFs.
Maverick Vinales and Aleix Espargaro (both Ecstar Suzuki) should also be in the Austrian mix, as well as Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Aussie Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS Honda).
Miller has been enjoying himself over the last few weeks at his base in Andorra, which has included some motocross riding with Aussie Dakar Rally winner Toby Price and supermoto-sliding antics with former MotoGP™ and world superbike rider Ruben Xaus.
“After a relaxing summer break I’m raring to get started again in Austria and build on the performances of the three previous races," said Miller. "I ended the first half of the season really strongly, so it will be important to keep the momentum going. It was nice to try the track out in Austria before this weekend at the recent test and I was able to put in a really strong race rhythm there.
"We need to wait to see what the tyre allocation is from Michelin but tyre life at the test was not an issue for me. It will be an interesting race because it is a horsepower track. That might help the red bike a little more than our package but like always I’m ready and motivated to give it a good go.
"This is the first race this year that I am going into with a lot of confidence and at 100 per cent fitness with a good feeling on the bike, so I’m really keen to get going again.”
Other than the big three – Marquez, Lorenzo and Rossi – Miller is the only other rider to win a race in 2016, with his wet-weather heroics at Assen producing one of the most popular victories in recent times.
Meanwhile, Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) arrives in Austria after a second successive victory in the iconic Suzuka 8 Hour world endurance race in Japan, and he'll again be pushing to be the lead Independent Team rider.
New circuits always throw up surprises, and it wouldn't be a shock if some of the lesser Moto2™ names come to the fore in early practice. However, with the type of form that world champion Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport) is in at the moment he's again going to be the man with a target on his back.
The MotoGP™-bound Frenchman holds a comfortable 25pt cushion over Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40), who was equal on points with Zarco until he crashed in Germany. Rins will also move to the premier class in 2017, so this isn't the last Zarco-Rins battle we're likely to see.
Like Rins, Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2™) arrives in Austria looking to get his championship challenge back on track. The Brit recently got a chance to sample the Aprilia RS-GP MotoGP™ bike he'll campaign in 2017, but his immediate focus will be trying to close the gap to Zarco, who's 30pts in front of him.
Behind the leading trio are a number of riders, including Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten), Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia) and Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP), who have shown the speed and ability to fight for the win.
Like Marquez, Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) holds a comfortable championship lead (47pts), and is one of only two riders to win more than once this season.
Even with his leg still healing, Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0) managed to claw back 1pt on Binder in Germany. He’s had the entire break to continue his recovery and begins the final nine races of the year determined to win. With the points difference as big as it is, win is all the young Spaniard can do.
Behind the leading two are six Italians all fighting for national pride. Romano Fenati (SKY Racing Team VR46) currently leads them in third place overall, but with only 35pts splitting all six it’s not over just yet. In fourth, Francesco Bagnaia (Pull & Bear Mahindra Team) poses the most immediate threat to Fenati’s ‘top Italian' crown, with rookie Nicolo Bulega (SKY Racing Team VR46) also having proved a force to be reckoned with in his first year.
The three world championship races at the Red Bull Ring will be held over the following distances and times:
- MotoGP™: 28 laps, 120.9km, starting at 2:00pm local time (10:00pm AEST)
- Moto2™: 25 laps, 108.0km, starting a 12:20pm local time (8:20pm AEST)
- Moto3™: 23 laps, 99.3km, starting at 11:00am local time (7:00pm AEST)