Saturday Summary from Phillip Island: The Rufea Team, Winning Attitude, & The Secret of Riding the Ducati
The three men on pole for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races.
The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.
The “Rufea Team”, as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain.
Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn’t spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record.
But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers’ father Julià.
Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row.
Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.
But it is about more than talent, despite the abundance of it the trio have. All three have got where they are by hard work – hours and hours spent training, and training at full intensity – and by their commitment to their goals.
Phillip Island is a very special race track. That has an upside – it rewards courage and talent, and has provided some spectacular racing – but it is also special in the more pejoratively euphemistic sense of the word. It challenges not just the riders, but motorcycle designers and racing teams as well.
Above all, it challenges tire manufacturers: with wildly varying temperatures, strong winds blowing in cool and damp air off the ocean, an abrasive surface, high-speed corners, more left handers than right handers, and the most of the lefts faster than the rights. It can rain, be bitterly cold, be bathed in glorious sunshine, or in sweltering heat. Try building a tire to cope with all that.
After last year’s fiasco, both Dunlop and Bridgestone tried to do just that. They came to the track in March to test tires and gather data to build tires for this weekend. The only minor problem is that the test came at the end of Australia’s long summer, and temperatures were much more congenial than now, as the country emerges from its Antipodean winter.
The tire selections brought by Dunlop and Bridgestone are much better than last year, but they are not quite perfect. At any other track, that wouldn’t be a problem. At Phillip Island, even being not quite perfect can land you in trouble.
The Grand Prix Circus has barely had a chance to catch its breath after Motegi before the next round starts in Australia. With a few exceptions, perhaps, a number of teams being forced to either take a much longer route to Australia to avoid the landfall of typhoon Vongfong, or else severely delayed until the worst passed.
Still, to call spending even more hours on a plane or at an airport for what is already a very long flight can hardly be regarded as a spot of rest and relaxation.
Still, they have now all gathered at what is almost unanimously regarded as the best racetrack on the planet. Phillip Island is everything a motorsports circuit is suppose to be: fast, flowing, and deeply challenging. There are plenty of spots for a rider to attempt a pass, or try to make up time, but every single one of them requires either exceptional bravery, or the willingness to take a risk.
The many brutally fast corners which litter the track separate the men from the boys: Doohan Corner at turn 1, where you arrive at a staggering 340 km/h, turn 3, now dubbed Stoner corner for the way the retired Australian champion would slide both ends through it at over 250 km/h, the approach to Lukey Heights, which drops away to MG, or the final two turns culminating in Swan Corner, speed building throughout before being launched onto the Gardner Straight, and off towards Doohan again. At Phillip Island, there is no place to hide.
The first major change to the 2014 MotoGP schedule has been announced. Though the dates remain the same, the order of the Asian flyaway triple header has been reshuffled, with Sepang moving from first of the three to last.
The Grand Prix classes will now head to Japan first, for the Japanese GP at Motegi on 12th October, before heading south to Australia for the Phillip Island round a week later, on 19th October. The weekend after that the MotoGP paddock visits Malaysia, for the last of the three overseas races at Sepang on 26th October.
In part one of our interview with Mike Webb, the MotoGP Race Director talked about the penalty point system and how it had worked in 2013. In the second part, Webb talks about the tire debacle at Phillip Island.
Webb explains what the teams were told about the rules and the penalties they would incur, and he discusses the incident on the exit of pit lane between Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo. He explains how Race Direction felt the dry flag-to-flag race went, and whether the situation could be handled any differently.
He also explains why penalty points are only handed out at the front of the race, while the battle mid-pack can be much fiercer than anything happening for the lead. Finally, Mike Webb casts an eye on the future, and explains the next steps towards improving safety, and improving communication with the riders.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island – likely to be known henceforth as ‘The Debacle Down Under’ – taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez’s disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez’s crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew.
Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn’t come in to swap bikes, but Marquez’s inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner’s crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez’s team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it’s over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. “We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],” Marquez said, but the plan had backfired.
“The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,” Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.