Last night, our time, the God of Death knocked meaningfully on the door of the Austrian MotoGP.
“Not today,” was the response.
George RR Martin, who wrote Game of Thrones, and whom I am paraphrasing, has not ever raced or even ridden a motorcycle. But I think he somehow understands the mindset of those who do.
The weekend began with what, in retrospect, was nothing but the banality of contract negotiations.
Ducati had stated it would make a call about its 2021 line-up in the very near future, and speculation was rife as to who might replace Andrea Dovizioso. Or even if there would be a replacement. Andrea’s relationship with the Bolgona factory had reportedly soured in recent times and the gossip was the factory was fielding calls from Jorge Lorenzo, considering Pecco Bagnaia, looking at Zarco, and possibly even considering the young lions from Moto2, most notably Bastianini and Rossi’s half-brother, Luca Marini.
But it was Dovi who settled it just after lunch on Saturday, and jumped rather than wait to be pushed.
So that was the most important thing everyone was talking about before the race. And it was important, and it was interesting. But in the context of what happened during the race, which overshadowed even Dovizioso’s stunning in-your-face-Bologna victory, it was less than nothing.
Pre-race expectations were all about Ducati. The factory had never been beaten at the Red Bull Ring. It is a viciously fast track, packed with brutal braking and fearless overtaking spots. Grip levels are high and it suits the Ducati monsters very well.
Factory KTM rider, Pol Espargaro had his own expectations. The previous round he’d been back-handed by his team-mate, rookie Brad Binder, or the Giraffe King as he has now become known as, who secured his first win after only three races.
As far as Pol was concerned, that shit was not going to happen again. He qualified in fifth, bracketed on the second row by Dovi and Mir, while the front row hosted Vinales, Miller and Fabulous.
On the third row were Morbidelli, Rins and Zarco. Rossi was languishing in 12th, while the Giraffe King found himself back in 17th.
Things did not actually look all that weird before the race. The Suzukis were strong, the Yamahas appeared stronger than expected, and the Ducatis looked to acquit themselves well. Pol’s KTM was also near the pointy end, and Oliveira’s Orange Meanie, starting in 11th, had good race-pace. HRC’s only hope was Nakagami’s Idemitsu Honda, now with added HRC goodness thanks to Marquez’s engineers, starting in 10th.
The race was running a touch behind schedule thanks to a massive accident by Bastianini in Moto2, which took out three other racers, Edgar Pons, Andi Izdihar, and former MotoGP racer, Hafizh Syahrin, who’d pulled out of a slipstream and instantly smashed into Bastianini’s pirouetting bike. This catapaulted Syahrin through the air like a missile, followed by some savage rag-dolling, a red flag, and a restart some half-an-hour later as the debris was cleared from the track. Happily, Hafizh was not badly hurt, but his spectacular accident served as a reminder of just how dangerous this sport is.
It was only a short time later that MotoGP said “Hold my beer and watch this.”
It all began peaceably. Miller and Fabulous were squatting together on the grass beside the grid, having a chat. The forecast rain had held off, and track conditions were “perfect” according to the Bradley Smith cheer-squad who double as the Pommie commentators on the Foxsport feed.
Miller got to Turn One first, followed very closely by Dovi and Pol, while Maverick put his bike in reverse and began his journey the rear of the pack.
Rins, Morbidelli, Fabulous and Rossi were all in a close conga line behind the leading three.
It was obvious by Lap Two that Pol was full of intent. He had an early crack at Dovi for second, While Miller kept the pace at the front rather timid, which allowed the chasers to bunch up behind him.
Vinales was shunted a touch by Mir in his journey to the back of the field, while Pol finally passed Dovi and made it stick. Then Mir passed Dovi and Fabulous passed Vinales. Their little exchange allowed Oliveira through to fifth, just behind Dovi in fourth and Mir in third.
Pol redoubled his efforts and lunged passed Jack to secure first. Jack had entered the race on soft tyres because he had run out of all the other compounds and was gambling on making an early break. But he had not counted on Pol’s feral determination not to be the shameful KTM rider at its home track. Vinales was now in the clutches of Rossi, while Fabulous enjoyed a brief off-track excursion which saw him rejoin the race in last place.
Dovi then capitalised on Miller’s tyre choice by taking second place from him, while Pol was certainly filling his helmet full of smugness out in first.
Then came the knock I referred to at the beginning.
Zarco, intent on being the True Glory of France, passed Morbidelli, ran a touch wide on one of the three super-fast straights, and then drifted back to the right and straight into Morbidelli’s 300km/h trajectory.
What happened next was spectacular and terrifying.
Both Zarco’s and Morbidelli’s bikes began disassembling themselves and hurtling through the air at ferocious speeds. And as Rossi and Vinales began to enter Turn Three, these two bikes flew either side of them, and over them…and how they weren’t both hit, decapitated, and vaporised is anyone’s guess.
The race was immediately red-flagged, much to Pol’s chagrin, and he sat pouting in his garage looking very put out. He had clearly not yet seen the incident which made his lower lip tremble so fetchingly.
Vinales pulled into his pit, his bike peppered with shrapnel. Rossi arrived, covered in petrol and oil and shaking his head. When he pulled his helmet off, he looked genuinely stunned. He later said it was the closest he had come to death in his decades-long career.
I’ve watched the incident a few times, as have fans around the world. It still does not compute. Death had never been closer to The Doctor and the Top Gun than it was on that day. Its avoidance was a miracle.
Morbidelli blames Zarco. Zarco feels himself to be blameless. Greater minds than mine can apportion blame, if such a thing needs to be done. (Quotes from all riders here)
I am just pleased no-one was hurt and utterly nonplussed at how such a thing was even possible.
Fifteen minutes later, with the exception of Morbidelli and Zarco, they all remounted and re-started for a 20-lap race. How Rossi and Vinales were able to do that is another thing I’m in awe of.
Pol restarted in Pole, with Dovi, Miller, Mir, Oliveira, Vinales, Rossi, Rins, and Binder arrayed behind him.
Everyone ran wide into Turn One, but Miller somehow ended up in front, but then Pol passed him, only to be passed back by Jack.
Vinales was running stone last. No-one can blame him, I guess. All the post-race chatter was about how close Rossi came to dying, but Vinales’s brush with Death was just as close.
Rossi and Binder were sitting behind Rins, Oliveira and Mir, as Pol, Jack and Dovi sorted themselves out at the front.
On Lap Two, the Giraffe King began to gallop and South African hearts once again soared like eagles over the veldt. He pulled a vicious pass on Rossi, then ran wide and Rossi regained his lost position. But only briefly. Binder passed him again.
Out the front, Miller and his perishing tyres stayed a second ahead of Dovi, with Pol in third, followed by Mir, Rins, and Oliveira.
Four laps in, Dovizioso figured it was time to start putting in fast laps. Pol was wrestling with Rins, but also demonstrating how his KTM was not lacking in horsepower as he kept the Factory Suzuki at bay.
Rossi and Nakagami were now behind Binder.
Six laps in and things began to get interesting. Rins was chewing on Dovi and both were lapping a second faster than Jack, whose tyres were clearly going off. Pol, now filled with desperation, started to make mistakes and ran wide on a corner, and then crashed out the next lap, taking Oliveira with him. Oliveira appeared to be looking for a big Austrian rock to beat Pol with as he stalked behind him at the edge of the gravel.
Dovi sailed past Miller, as did Rins, and the race got even more brutal.
Rins crashed out as he made an attempt to pass Dovi, and suddenly there were three very close riders at the front – Dovi, Miller, and Mir. Brad Binder had ridden himself into fourth and Rossi kept Nakagami at bay in fifth.
Rossi was catching Binder in the closing laps, Mir managed to put a move on Miller at the final turn to take second place, and Dovi sailed over the line, ensuring Ducati remained unbeatable at the Red Bull Ring, and himself with no contract with any team for next year.
An astonishing, heart-pounding race by any measure.
And we get to see it all again in a few short days.
Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.
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