Sunday Summary at Phillip Island: The Omnishambles – Adding Excitement and Confusion to MotoGP

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There is only one word which everyone would agree accurately describes the 2013 Tissot Australian Grand Prix, and that word is ‘eventful’. There are an awful lot of other words being used to describe it, some fit for publication, some less so, but nobody would argue with the fact that the entire weekend at Phillip Island was packed with action, controversy, surprises, and even the odd spot of excitement.

The tire issues suffered by both Dunlop and Bridgestone caused the Moto2 and MotoGP races to be shortened, and the MotoGP riders forced to make a compulsory pit stop. The pit stops certainly added an element of suspense, and even surprise, but they split opinion among fans, riders and paddock followers straight down the middle: half viewed the whole thing as a farce, the other half thought it made for a thrilling spectacle. The arguments between the two sides are likely to go on for a long time.

If splitting the race in two added plenty of suspense, it also added a great deal of confusion. That confusion was not aided by the fact that Bridgestone changed their advice to Race Direction after cutting open the tires used during the warm up on Sunday morning and finding further evidence of blistering.

With ambient temperatures some 10°C warmer than Bridgestone had been expecting when they selected the tires for Phillip Island, the rear tire was simply not coping with the stress of the newly resurfaced circuit.

The new surface was generating more grip, which was producing more heat, and having hotter ambient temperatures pushed the tires well over the edge. The race was shortened again, from 26 laps to 19, with riders only allowed to do 10 laps on each tire.

And here’s where a momentous mistake was made. More than one, in fact. It being so late in the day – the decision was only made during the Moto3 race, a couple of hours before the MotoGP race was due to start – there was little time to communicate the decision properly, and so an official communique was drawn up and issued to the teams. Instructions were put on paper, and then handed out by IRTA officials to everyone in MotoGP.

This was the first mistake of the day, and triggered a chain of events that would end up shaking up the championship. If a rider meeting had been called, where all of the riders and their key team members had been briefed, the exact rules and their consequences could have been laid out.

This, of course, is difficult, as getting all of the riders to be in one place is like herding cats, and Dorna is not in the habit of issuing the riders with stiff fines if they don’t turn up on time for official events as is usual in other motorsports series.

As it was, a piece of paper was handed out – one among many in a garage at any time, with time schedules, tire selection sheets, gearing charts, timing charts, official notices, and a million other sheets of A4 floating around – on which was written the rules, and the penalty for disobeying the rules.

The next mistake was made on one side of the Repsol Honda garage. A small group of people – four men, according to Marc Marquez, including Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez – gathered around to ponder the implications of the rules issued. They immediately seized on the following line in the newly arranged rules:

3. No rider is permitted to make more than 10 laps on any one slick or wet rear tyre. This means that a bike/tyre change before lap 9 will require a second bike/tyre change to finish the race.

That, according to their calculations, meant that they could do 10 full laps, and then pit on lap 11, as the Repsol Honda pit was situated before the finish line, and Marquez would therefore have only done 10 complete laps, coming in on the 11th lap, but swapping bikes before the 11th lap commenced.

They were wrong. In their haste to exploit the rules to the utmost without actually breaking them, they had overlooked the line before that, which contained an explicit definition of what was expected. It reads:

2. Every rider will be required to enter the pits and change to his second machine with fresh tyres at least once during the race. In normal circumstances this means that the rider must change machine only at the end of lap 9 or lap 10. (My emphasis).

That is perfectly clear. There is no misconstruing its intent. ‘At the end of lap 10’ is, quite simply, before you cross the line to complete lap 10. If you do not enter the pits, then you start on your 11th lap, your 10th lap having been completed.

Marquez did not enter the pits at the end of lap 10, despite Jorge Lorenzo doing so, the Yamaha man leading Marquez and directly ahead of him at the time. Instead, he pushed on for another lap, as instructed by his team, and pitted at the end of the next lap.

It would prove to be a very costly choice by his team. The rules set out by Race Direction – however convoluted and painful, a situation not really of their making – had been broken, and after a brief conference, the decision was made to exclude Marquez. He was shown the black flag, and forced to pull in and retire.

The reaction of his team and of HRC was telling. In a video on the website – thankfully free – the entire situation is shown, including the reaction of HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto, who expressed his disapproval of Race Direction’s decision in rather strong language. Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo took his complaint directly to Race Direction, issuing a fiery rebuttal and making their case.

It was to no avail. Honda had tried to game the wording of the rules, but Race Direction would have no truck with their attempt. Before he was made Race Director, Mike Webb spent many years as the MotoGP Technical Director, and was all too aware of how the teams would attempt to twist the wording of the rules to their advantage. That was the reason why Race Direction’s interpretation of the rules had been set out so explicitly.

It was also a totally unnecessary gamble. Marc Marquez went into the race at Phillip Island with a lead of 43 points. Wrapping up the title in Australia would have been very difficult, especially given just how competitive Jorge Lorenzo was at the track.

Even if Marquez had been able to beat Lorenzo – very far from certain, given Lorenzo’s blistering speed – he would have needed help from his teammate Dani Pedrosa. Getting one Honda ahead of an unchained Lorenzo was difficult, getting two of them in front was likely to be nigh on impossible.

And wrapping up the title at Phillip Island would have been nice, but for the real fairy tale, he should have clinched the title next weekend in Japan, at Motegi, the track owned by Honda, and in front of all of Honda’s senior management.

The nature of the track at Motegi massively favors the Honda, the Yamahas struggling with fuel consumption, and with the many heavy braking zones at the circuit. If Marquez and his crew had played it conservatively, and stayed within the strict letter of the law, taking the title at Motegi would have been a racing certainty. Instead, they gambled and lost.

That gamble has made Honda look bad, coming on top of other mistakes in recent years. On Saturday, an engine mounting bolt almost fell out of Dani Pedrosa’s RC213V during practice. Last year at Misano, Dani Pedrosa’s team committed a catalog of errors on the grid at Misano, which ended up costing Pedrosa his shot at the title.

HRC spend somewhere between 50 and 70 million euros a year to race in MotoGP, at least 20% more than Yamaha, and probably twice what Ducati spends. They have two of the three best riders in the world, and clearly the best racing motorcycle. Yet they are being let down by schoolboy errors and unnecessary risk-taking.

It could have been much worse. Marquez’s tire had already given him a couple of warnings, nearly highsiding him off at Lukey Heights, and sliding horribly on his final lap before pitting. Once he got off, the left-hand side of the tire was shredded, great chunks of rubber missing from the carcass.

Bridgestone had not been kidding when they said they couldn’t guarantee their tires lasting beyond 10 laps. Marquez’s tire looked positively dangerous.

Speaking of risk, the other mistake, if you can call it that, was extending pit exit further along the straight. This was done to slow traffic along the terribly narrow pit exit, only allowing them to accelerate once they had cleared the narrow path and were on the outside of the area leading on towards the first corner, the incredibly fast Doohan Corner.

The extended line caught Dani Pedrosa out – more on that a little later – but it also caused a horrendously dangerous situation when Marquez left the pits and rejoined. He looked back as he exited pit lane, but could not see anyone coming. Once he passed the white line, he gave it full throttle, accelerating as hard as possible before passing the line and entering the track.

This is where it got dangerous. Marquez hit the corner just as Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa arrived at the turn. He may not have seen them when he looked back, but as they were traveling at over 330 km/h, they were approaching fast.

Jorge Lorenzo ran a little wider into Turn 1 than he had done on previous laps, and found Marquez in his way. The two collided, but both were lucky to come away unhurt, apart from a heavy knock to Marquez’s arm.

Should Marquez be penalized for this? Both Lorenzo and Marquez admitted some blame for the incident. It is hard to award points, as once Marquez passes the white line demarcating the pit lane exit, he is on a hot track and racing. At that point, he is in the lead, and it becomes the responsibility of the rider behind – in this case Lorenzo – to only attempt to pass safely.

The fact that Marquez is not traveling at the same speed which Lorenzo is moving at becomes irrelevant; this is not the same as if Marquez had been a lap behind. In that case, he would have been shown the blue flag and been forced to move over. In this case, he was back in the race, and in the lead.

The real problem here is that the exit of pit lane feeds onto the fastest part of the circuit, normally less of a problem, but because of the extended exit, it put a rider onto the track going slower than he otherwise would have been. But it was a no-win situation for Race Direction: if they had left the pit lane exit as it was, it would have caused chaos as riders started battling on the exit road, in too little space. Both situations were dangerous, and everyone was lucky to come away uninjured.

Then there was Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda rider had exited pit lane and crossed the extended white line too early when he exited the pits. He was issued a penalty by Race Direction, and ordered to drop a place. Pedrosa was shown the penalty board the lap after Marquez rejoined, Pedrosa passing Marquez in the collision with Lorenzo.

Riders are given five laps to drop the position, and within three laps, Pedrosa had been passed by Marquez. The wording of section 1.21.3 containing the rules on dropping a position is not explicit about whether the position was ceded voluntarily or not, and Pedrosa’s loss of a position looked anything but voluntary. The letter of the law was satisfied, however, and Pedrosa had paid his penalty.

There were some questions over whether ceding the position to Marquez was enough, and whether he should have dropped behind Rossi back in 4th. The argument goes that Marquez had already infringed the safety rules by putting in an extra lap, and so was due to be excluded.

But when Pedrosa dropped behind Marquez, Marquez was still in the race and had not yet been shown the black flag. Race Direction’s decision on Marquez only came after Pedrosa dropped behind him, and so the conditions of Pedrosa’s penalty were fulfilled.

Of course, none of this would have happened if Bridgestone had brought tires which could actually last the race. Which could have happened if they had come to the track to test, something which almost every rider was at pains to point out. Valentino Rossi had harsh words for the Japanese tire company, pointing not only to a lack of testing, but also to the trouble with the tires this season.

So far throughout the year, all of the riders have only really been able to use the softer of the two rear tires which Bridgestone has brought to all of the races so far.

The riders are supposed to have a choice of two tires, but so far, only the soft has worked, Rossi describing the harder of the two options as ‘unusable’. Bridgestone has to work harder, Rossi said, and in the future, a fast rider needs to be sent to test a newly resurfaced track.

Despite the farcical nature of the shortened race with compulsory pit stops, there was plenty to enjoy and admire as well. Though I am no fan of pit stops – as Dani Pedrosa said in the press conference, motorcycle races are one stint, flat out – the grace and agility of the riders was a sight to behold.

Jorge Lorenzo had practiced a bike swap in morning warm up, but it had not gone well. So after warm up, he had sat in pit lane with his crew, being pushed in front of his pit box, then leaping off that bike and onto the other, several times. It paid off, the bike swap in the race being done in no time at all.

Differences in style were also interesting to note. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa favored the vault, jumping off the number one bike and landing on both feet, before leaping onto the second bike. Marquez went with the spin, swinging his left leg over the bike and then pivoting on his right foot, turning 360° until he was facing the right way to leap onto his second bike.

It was elegant, efficient and imaginative. Cal Crutchlow lost out in the bike swap, entering pit lane ahead of Valentino Rossi, but exiting behind. But Nicky Hayden emerged as king of the pit stops, swapping bikes over a second faster than any other rider, according to one estimate. He picked up three positions in the process, passing the two Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone.

If Honda come out of the Phillip Island race weekend with egg on their faces, Jorge Lorenzo and his team have demonstrated once again why they have two world championships under their belt. Lorenzo didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, his only minor misdemeanor being collecting a seagull during qualifying, and even then, he managed to catch it cleanly behind the neck, killing it instantly.

His team crafted the perfect strategy, and got the bike swap down pat. They did everything right, and came away with the 25 points they hoped for going into Phillip Island, as well as the bonus of narrowing the gap from 43 to 18 points in the championship. Lorenzo’s goal has always been to take the title chase to Valencia, and he took a step closer to doing that at Phillip Island.

Also worthy of praise was Bradley Smith. Smith has faced a lot of criticism throughout the season for his results, mostly as a consequence of being compared with Marc Marquez. But Smith has made solid progress every race, and at Phillip Island things started to come together. The gap to the front is still large, but Smith is slowly moving up the field.

He had his best weekend since the Sachsenring, and is having less and less trouble with the Ducatis. His next target is the other satellite riders, but he still has to find half a second a lap or so before he catches them.

Words of praise are also due for Aleix Espargaro. Espargaro wrapped up the CRT ‘Championship’, though no such title formally exists. Espargaro has been the head of the CRT field this year, and has worried the Ducatis all season. Race in, race out, he has been far further up the front than anyone expected, and pushing the riders on the prototypes. He got everything possible out of the ART, and even a little bit more.

He didn’t get the recognition he deserves this year, including from this website, mainly due to a lack of time to fully acknowledge his achievements. I made a note almost every race that Espargaro’s performance should really be mentioned, but time always caught up with me.

He clearly deserves to be on a more competitive bike, and his hope will be that the FTR Yamaha he will race next season will be a stronger package. There could well be a fair amount of fireworks between the two Espargaro brothers next season.

Was the race a success or a farce? A little bit of both. The best description I saw of the Phillip Island MotoGP race was the fine English word ‘omnishambles’, describing a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged. Fortunately, it all worked out well in the end, with everyone finishing safely in what could have been a monumental disaster.

The hastily improvised solution actually ended up providing a lot of excitement, though it was perhaps a little too manufactured to my taste. I noted a couple of weeks ago that motorcycle racing, like all professional sports, is an entertainment product. But the purity of the sporting contest needs to be guarded closely, to ensure the credibility of the sport, and add to its value as an entertainment product.

If the fans feel they are watching an artificial spectacle, they will stop watching. By all means make the current racing more exciting – dropping the fuel limits would be a massive improvement, and imposing spec-electronics would be another – but do not create spectacle where there is no need for any.

Pit stops – along with ship-to-shore radios – are manufactured spectacle, and pose a real threat to the riders, as the collision between Lorenzo and Marquez showed. Motorcycle racers are vulnerable and exposed, unlike cars, and the dangers they face should be kept to a minimum.

Most of all, though, after a thoroughly confusing weekend, I am left with a feeling of disappointment. MotoGP is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, its premier class. If this is the best MotoGP can do, what kind of a sorry state is the sport in?

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.