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Talking points ahead of the Austrian MotoGP™

Thursday, 17 August 2023

A class act is back, a champion's form is ice-cold and contract talks are hotting up as the world championship sets up in the stunning scenery of Spielberg this weekend.

Suppose consistency is the key to a MotoGP™ world championship. In that case, Pecco Bagnaia's title defence is well and truly on track as the world's best on two wheels head for the Red Bull Ring for this weekend's 10th event of the season, the Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix (August 18-20).

Ducati's leading man has combined searing speed with minimal off days so far this year, and a season-high 41-point lead atop the standings is his reward ahead of the weekend that officially marks the halfway stage of the 20-race campaign. In 18 races (Sprints and Grands Prix combined), the 26-year-old has seven wins among 13 podiums and hasn't finished lower than second in four straight Grands Prix.

Consistency, did we say? Fortunately for Bagnaia, that's been Ducati's story at the Red Bull Ring too, where the layout of three long straights interrupted by a twistier infield section plays perfectly to the strengths of the Bologna bullets. Since the circuit came back onto the schedule in 2016, Ducati had won six of seven races – the only one that got away coming when KTM's Brad Binder stayed out on slick tyres in a 2021 deluge and tip-toed to a second MotoGP™ victory.

Here's what we're watching in Austria this weekend.

Oliveira is back

It's been a painful switch from KTM to Aprilia for Miguel Oliveira on both the points (he's 15th in the world championship with 40 points) and pain scales; Oliveira was taken out by Marc Marquez in Portimao and suffered right leg ligament damage, and sustained a dislocated left shoulder after Fabio Quartararo clattered into him at Jerez. But things are looking up for the genial 28-year-old, who comes to Austria off a season-best fourth at Silverstone.

It wasn't just that Oliveira finished fourth on a day when all four Aprilias had top-10 results for the first time and factory rider Aleix Espargaro won the race – it was how Oliveira got to within 0.070secs of a first rostrum visit this year, the Portuguese rider storming through from 16th on the grid.

When he's fit and firing, Oliveira is one of the canniest racers on the grid, and has a smart win in MotoGP™ on his Red Bull Ring CV, taking advantage of Jack Miller (Ducati) and Pol Espargaro (KTM) squabbling at the last corner to steal the first of his five premier-class victories at the 2020 Styrian Grand Prix.

With Aprilia now on the 2023 winners' list, expect Oliveira to play a more prominent role in the season's second half.

Yamaha's woes laid bare

Rewind 12 months, and Quartararo took arguably his most impressive podium of a season that featured three wins and a runner-up world championship result when he split Ducati duo Bagnaia and Miller in Spielberg, the Frenchman ambushing the Australian with a superb move at the newly-installed chicane that splits the run between Turns 1 and 3.

A second place at a circuit that was arguably Yamaha's worst on paper was a sign of Quartararo's quality but a fond memory that's fading for the Frenchman and his beleaguered factory. After Espargaro's success at Silverstone, Yamaha is the only one of the five MotoGP™ manufacturers not to win a Sprint or Grand Prix this season, Quartararo and the recently-sacked (for 2024) Franco Morbidelli managing just two podiums between them.

Seeing the 2021 world champion qualify last at Silverstone last time out was jarring; while that particular session was turned into a lottery because of incessant rain, it summed up Yamaha's season succinctly.

"The only one I could really overtake was Franco, because we use the same bike and I can carry the same line as him," Quartararo said after the British GP main race, where he ran as high as seventh before accident damage saw him drop to 15th.

"When I am behind all the other bikes you catch them under brake (but) they go on acceleration, you have never an opportunity to overtake them."

The off-season shuffle

MotoGP™ contracts for the following year are typically sorted before the series leaves Europe for its annual foray through Asia, which means there's just as likely to be as much focus on what's happening off-track as on it for the foreseeable future.

The announcement that Yamaha had signed currently-injured LCR Honda man Alex Rins to replace Morbidelli for 2024 came to light before Silverstone, and while the off-season dominoes haven't toppled yet, they're certainly teetering.

Morbidelli will surely be brought into the VR46 fold alongside Luca Marini, which makes sense if Marco Bezzecchi parlays his 2023 race-winning form into a full-factory ride at Pramac Ducati next season. Which leaves space and an opportunity for Johann Zarco to head to LCR to take Rins' place, which the Frenchman acknowledged at Silverstone. "To have Honda come to you and say that we want you as an experienced rider – it is not a crazy idea, if this happens," Zarco said.

With Austria preceding only Catalunya and Misano before MotoGP™ heads out of Europe for seven rounds, contract whispers will undoubtedly get louder from this weekend.

Austrian MotoGP™ fast facts
Circuit name/location: Red Bull Ring, Spielberg
Length/laps: 4.32km, 28 laps (MotoGP™), 23 laps (Moto2™), 20 laps (Moto3™)
Grands Prix held/debut: 8, 1996
Most successful rider: Andrea Dovizioso (three wins)
2022 podium 1st: Pecco Bagnaia (Ducati), 2nd: Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha), 3rd: Jack Miller (Ducati)

The 2023 Austrian Motorcycle Grand Prix will be available to watch live on Foxtel and Kayo. See our What time does the 2023 Austrian MotoGP™ start in Australia article for timings.