Spielberg Circuit is Ducati-land—three straights with hard acceleration at one end and hard braking at the other, connected by squiggles. The Ducatis excel at acceleration, top speed, and braking, even in comparison with the Hondas. In 2016 Ducatis were 1-2 here—the circuit's first year on the calendar—and in 2017 Dovizioso defeated the two Hondas of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa.

From the two dry and two wet practices three names emerged in FP4 and qualifying: Márquez on pole by 0.002 second, followed by Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo. The unanswered question was, which will prevail? The rest of the field, seeing these three fliers out of reach, resigned themselves to non-podium finishes.

Australian GP
Mixed weather gave the riders less time to sort their tire choice for Sunday.Courtesy of Honda

With only two dry practices, teams were denied their usual source of tire information: long runs to carefully compare times of tire drops among the usual “soft,” “medium,” and “hard”—arbitrary designations which imply that tire behavior has not fundamentally changed since the days of 500 two-strokes. More accurate, therefore, might be to call the three rubber choices “Bob,” “Frank,” and “Jerry,” names that imply nothing about their behavior. Get to know these guys; you might be surprised.

In the old days, the softer the tire, the quicker the lap time and the shorter the life. You chose soft if you thought you could get away at the start, build up an unassailable lead, and in the words of Mick Doohan, “Spend the last 10 laps sliding around.” You chose the medium or hard if you thought/hoped that your opponents would burn up their rubber in the early going, allowing you to forge ahead later on your more durable choice of black stuff.

Today, soft, medium, and hard no longer have such meaning. The tensile strength of rubber used to depend upon vague Van der Waals forces of short-range association between rubber chains and carbon black particles. Today it comes increasingly from actual electron-exchange chemical bonds between elastic-acting rubber chains and their anchorages on a myriad of tiny silica particles. In the words of former Dunlop engineer Dave Watkins, “Rubber used to be about mixtures. Now it’s all chemistry.”

Today, the old rule about soft meaning short-lived is refuted by how often riders go quickest in the final laps—often on softs. Tire-ripping Ducatis, lapping quicker on lap 20 than on lap 5, on softs? That means the old expectations just confuse the issue: riders now have to get to know Bob, Frank, and Jerry personally. Than meant that rain during FP2 and FP3 was a big problem. Putt-putting around on rains and spinning up on the straights tells the teams nothing of use if Sunday’s forecast is dry.

You also have to know that this weekend’s Frank, Bob, and Jerry are not the same guys from the previous weekend. Nope, Spielberg gets a special cooler-running carcass, asymmetric on the rear, symmetric up front. Plus we know Michelin has a long history of varying how a given tread compound works by applying more or less of it to a tire: thicker rubber runs hotter, thinner runs cooler. Be sure to keep all this in mind as you decide your tire choices. Oh, and one more thing—don’t forget the freshly applied Dunlop rubber from the immediately previous Moto2 race.

Jack Miller said, “With all the Dunlop rubber on the track, you can’t use all the power we’ve got. So you do have to start off sometimes a little bit lower.…” (which means clicking in a lower-torque engine mapping).

Add to that the fact that today’s race-time track temperature was 21 degrees higher than it had been when riders were gathering what limited information they had during FP4 and Q2. Then the temperature difference between warm-up (last chance for tire research) and race was 73 versus 109 degrees Fahrenheit, or 36 degrees Celsius.

As it says on college exam questions, “Contrast, compare, and discuss.” These men have been racing since they were children, and they seemingly remember everything. Their crew chiefs and tire techs have contributions to make. Someone’s going to get it right. Just as on Wall Street, only those who get it right will be invited on the talk shows.

Jorge Lorenzo
Lorenzo took the day at the Austrian GP.Courtesy of Ducati

Today it was Lorenzo, with soft/soft on his Ducati. When Márquez (medium/hard) took the lead from him on lap 2, Lorenzo stayed right where he was for the next 16 laps. Racers know that carving each other up lap after lap is a sure recipe for a third-party winner. Márquez lapped in the 24.3s until laps 9 and 10 when his times jumped, first to mid- and then to high 24s. Understanding what was happening, Márquez applied himself, extending what had been an 0.855-second lead on lap 8, to 0.970 on lap 12. But that was it, the edge had gone from Márquez’s braking and acceleration. Lorenzo was now able to reach and engage him.

Lorenzo said, “The soft rear was a great choice, but I had to manage it considering the heat…

“I’ve learned a lot about tire management. Brno was the final step and it’s not necessarily the case that the soft drops off more at the end; it depends on the riding style.

“I tried to manage the first part of the race but not too much as Marc was pushing hard. I waited for the right moment, when I saw he was starting to lose (pace). Once I passed him, it was a real battle to the line.

“…also key (was) the big improvement I made in the Sector 3, because yesterday was losing almost two-tenths there compared to Marc and Dovi. Then I made a big improvement in one afternoon (FP4). Trying to watch some videos, trying to understand which position of my body I need to change to be faster in that sector.”

Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo
Márquez set to the front earlier but was pulled back in and passed by Lorenzo.Courtesy of Honda

Márquez knew the strengths of the two Ducatis and hoped only one would be left at the end, probably Dovizioso’s. But it was Lorenzo’s.

“Today it was difficult to choose the tire,” Márquez said. “I was in between medium and hard but then I say, okay, I will choose the safe option for me because I know that the hard should arrive better in the end of the race.

“They [the Ducatis] need to use the tire because they need to follow me.

“I try to lead the race in the last lap. He overtook me in the main straight, then I try in turn 3. I lost [both ends]. I go in too fast and I lose [both]. I nearly crash and then I stay on the bike. I don’t know why, but I stayed there.

“I gave it all I had. I thought I had a good margin but the tire dropped and Jorge was able to close the gap.”

Was the critical factor crushing top speed? Lorenzo’s recorded best top speed in the race was 2-1/2-mph down from that of Márquez.

The critical factor today—sheer riding ability aside—was tire strategy versus tire strategy. What use are acceleration and braking if you lack the tire grip through which to fully express them?

Dovi’s tire gave up—his was medium/medium. His pace was equal to his teammate’s, but “Unfortunately I didn’t ride as I’d hoped to—the tires were done by the end. During the race I tried to get past Jorge but it was impossible because I was struggling in braking.

“We can stay there with the same pace but at the end maybe the tire choice wasn’t the best.”

In fourth was Cal Crutchlow, start to finish; “It was a lonely race, at the start for probably 10 laps I had plus two, plus two of a second on my board, and I thought, ‘Just go away—I’m happy alone.’ ”

Andrea Dovizioso
Dovi’s tires went away keeping him from pushing to the front.Courtesy of Ducati

Danilo Petrucci said, “The first three riders I knew were faster than me.

“I had to quit my race with Cal because he was a little bit faster than me.” (In other words, yes, I could have pushed harder, but that would only have destroyed my tire faster.)

This weekend’s social drama was a formal apology by Yamaha’s MotoGP chief engineer to the team, which has now been winless for 20 GPs. Rossi’s response was to say the apology was all very well but some effective action would be better. Despite losing most of FP1 to a broken rear sprocket, Rossi soldiered in his usual way, starting a lowly 11th and steadily strategizing his way past others to finish sixth—still second in championship points. His teammate Viñales, more or less demoralized since his early success on Yamaha gave way to the present troubles, was 12th.

Márquez didn’t win the race, but he did increase his comfortable point lead.