Friday Summary at Indianapolis: The Love-Hate Relationship with Indy & How Hondas Love Going Left

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MotoGP has a love-hate relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: most of the paddock love the place, the rest hate it. The way those feelings are divided is what is really interesting, though: the admirers of the track include most of the media, the teams and many, many fans. Those that hate the track are a small but well-defined group: anyone either wielding a camera or a racing a motorcycle have very few kind words for IMS.

So why the schism? It really depends on what you are doing at the track: the circuit has some of the best facilities of any circuit the MotoGP circus goes to all year, making the life of the media, the teams and the fans exceptionally easy. The photographers, on the other hand, hate the track because of the fences. As a circuit that mainly hosts car races, there are high chain-link fences all around the circuit, to prevent debris from wrecked four-wheelers from flying into the spectators.

At a few selected spots on the circuit, there are openings in the fences for photographers to poke their lenses through, giving them an unobstructed view of the circuit. There are lots of photographers and relatively few camera holes, leaving gaggles of photographers gathered around the available shooting spots like narwhals around a breathing hole in the arctic icesheet.

The other group that doesn’t particularly care for the track are the riders. Though the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is iconic in the very deepest sense of the word, “but the circuit we ride has nothing to do with the history of the place” as Casey Stoner likes to point out. The problem for the riders is two-fold, the layout and the surface. First, the layout: the road course inside Indianapolis’ legendary oval was laid out for the Formula One series when it first visited the track at the turn of the century.

The track incorporated a couple of sections of the oval: the front straight, the first half of what is Turn 1 on the oval, and most of Turn 2. The safety requirements of cars meant that both sections of the turns were taken at some speed, with the F1 final corner (Turn 1 for the MotoGP circuit) being particularly fast. Unfortunately, the safety requirements for a motorcycle racing track are very different from cars, the bikes requiring a lot more runoff in the fast corners.

And so the decision was taken to run the track in the opposite direction, a wise decision from the point of view of safety, and also meaning that the bikes cross the line in the same direction as the cars racing the oval during the Indy 500 or NASCAR Brickyard 400. But it also meant that the corners all now went the ‘wrong’ way, closing up rather than opening out, as they were designed to do. “It’s very hard,” Dani Pedrosa says of the circuit, “because the apex point is very late because we run in the opposite direction, so choosing the line is very difficult.”

His Repsol Honda teammate – an outspoken critic of the track – explains the effect that has on riding the bikes. “You’re constantly having to tiptoe around this track and it’s not a lot of fun when you’re just having to tiptoe this bikes round constantly. It’s basically like riding in the wet, and it’s not a lot of fun.” The switch to 1000cc bikes has improved it a little, as the added torque of the bigger bikes means that they can run a slightly long gearing and drive out of the corners for longer, Stoner explains.

The other problem the riders have with the track is the surface. Or rather, the surfaces, as there are two different types of surface being used at the track, a dark tarmac around the first sector, and a much lighter surface elsewhere around the circuit. Grip on the dark tarmac is good, according to the MotoGP men, but the white asphalt is very tricky indeed. “As soon as you hit that stuff there’s nothing there,” says Stoner, “there’s nothing to push against and there’s no grip.”

Conditions were made worse by very heavy rain on Thursday night, leaving damp patches and a very dirty track during morning practice. Times were very slow in the morning, and the damp patches caught a couple of riders out, Hector Barbera getting the very worst of it. The Spaniard highsided on a damp patch, and ended up with fractured vertebrae. It could have been much worse, however, given the way that Barbera was handled by the medical staff at trackside. Instead of being stabilized laying flat and shifted onto a backboard, he was picked up by shoulders and knees and lifted to safety, and onto a stretcher.

This is standard practice for car drivers, who are lifted this way while still strapped into their bucket seats. Motorcycle racers, however, don’t have bucket seats, and bending their spines in such a situation is a very bad idea indeed. The red tabbards signify that the marshalls involved are qualified emergency medical staff, but the incident once again highlights the need for improvements in training and briefing the medical staff. These are the best riders in the world, and they deserve the best protection Dorna can afford.

Grip or no grip, the Repsol Hondas are fast at Indy, helped by the fact that the circuit turns left for most of the time. The Honda RC213V has suffered vicious chatter all year, but especially since the introduction of the new front tire. However, the problem only really manifests itself in right handers, and as Indy mainly turns left – 10 lefts versus 6 right handers – that means a lot less chatter at Indianapolis.

Dani Pedrosa showed the potential of the bike, blitzing the afternoon session, with Ben Spies the only man within half a second of the Spaniard. Casey Stoner, too, felt he would have been able to get close to the pace of his teammate had he not been beset by a few problems – an electrical glitch, a stone in the chain, and then traffic in the form of the CRT machines he loathes so much – meant he was never able to put in a really fast lap.

Ben Spies is on form at Indy, the American fast both in the morning and the afternoon. Spies is still chasing a solid result and hoping for luck to finally run his way before he leaves Yamaha at the end of the year – the Texan remains silent on his future, though the latest and most intriguing report places him back with Suzuki in World Superbikes for 2013, while working on the bike ready for a 2014 return to MotoGP.

Teammate Jorge Lorenzo is a little worried about the distance to Pedrosa, though he believes that with a little bit of help from setup and a bit more from himself, he can close the gap enough to be competitive. His mission at Indy is to protect his points lead carefully, not conceding too much to either Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner. The nature of the chatter the Hondas suffer is such that while they benefit at left-handed tracks, they suffer badly at clockwise tracks, and with Brno and Misano coming up, they will have a tough time competing with Lorenzo.

The Ducatis, meanwhile, are still not able to profit from their top speed. They have two problems, turning and acceleration, and each is causing them to lose time. To improve acceleration, both Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi are working on creating more rear grip, but more grip at the rear causes the front to push, exacerbating the understeer the bike has. But without the rear grip, they are losing massively in acceleration, especially out of Turn 4 and Turn 16, Rossi said. “In the end we have big top speed,” the Italian said, “but we lose too much in acceleration to the other guys.”

With more rubber on the track, it should at least now be possible to start chasing a proper setup. With fair weather set for qualifying and race day, the teams will at least have time to get it right.

Photo: © 2012 Jules Cisek / Popmonkey – All Rights Reserved

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