Saturday Summary at Silverstone: Of Tire Conspiracies & Windy Tracks

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The weather has been a cruel mistress at Silverstone this weekend, much as it has been every year MotoGP has paid a visit. The track is built around an airfield, and consequently sits on a plateau just enough above the surrounding area to catch any wind which may be about. On Saturday, that was a lot, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder all day, catching many a rider out, especially on the way into Brooklands. The wind also blew in occasional showers, though it blew them back out again just as fast, a small blessing on an incredibly difficult day.

Despite the conditions, three men braved the wind to take pole in each class, to varying levels of surprise. That Maverick Vinales should take pole in Moto3 is much as expected, Silverstone being the Spaniard’s third pole position in a row. Though his advantage is relatively modest, there has been no one to mount a serious challenge to his supremacy all weekend, and if he gets a decent start he will be a very hard man to beat.

Pol Espargaro’s Moto2 pole is hardly unexpected – the Spaniard is one of the main candidates for the title this year, and is looking particularly fearsome at Silverstone this weekend – yet it is his first ever pole in the class. A front row regular this season, things have really come together with the Pons team and the Kalex chassis, the bike performing exceptionally well in the windy conditions. Mostly, though, Espargaro’s performance is down to the man himself: he has led every session at Silverstone so far, his advantage over his rivals increasing each time.

The big surprise came in MotoGP, Alvaro Bautista snatching his first ever pole in the premier class. Luck – and judgment – were certainly on Bautista’s side, the San Carlo Gresini man timing his first fast run just right, the first light showers appearing shortly after he claimed the spot atop the timesheets. Though the rain may have hampered his rivals – Casey Stoner, in particular, was confident he could have gone a lot faster than he had, his crew finding a big improvement just before the rain came down – Bautista’s time was of itself highly respectable, and came on top of strong performances throughout free practice.

The improvement, Bautista explained, was down to a major set up change the team had found, moving the weight further forward and modifying the Showa suspension (Gresini is the only team on the grid using Showa, the rest are all running with Öhlins), changing the front fork internals to improve response at the front. They had intended to test the changes at the test after Estoril, but conditions there caused that test to be canceled and they had to wait until Barcelona. The changes worked on Monday at Barcelona, so it seems reasonable to expect Bautista to be much closer to the front, perhaps battling it out with the Tech 3 Yamahas from now on. With a seat vacant at Repsol Honda, Bautista’s timing is impeccable.

Elsewhere on the grid, things are not looking half as cheerful. Cal Crutchlow’s run of poor luck at his home Grand Prix continues, the Englishman crashing heavily in the morning, badly banging his ankle up, though fortunately without breaking any bones. He was discharged from hospital and is set to ride on Sunday, an improvement over last year, at least, when he was forced to miss the race with a broken collarbone. When he starts, he will have to start from the back of the grid, so a podium is out of the question. His main aim is to ride in front of his home fans, whatever the wisdom of such a decision.

Crutchlow was not the only rider to crash. A spate of riders either went down or ran into the gravel, with two spots being the main culprit. The first was on the way into Turn 6, Brooklands, where gusting crosswinds made it very difficult to get corner entry right there. Even when you thought you were inch-perfect, the wind would either pick you up and force you wide, or let off and make you fall into the corner, Jorge Lorenzo explained, that spot catching the worst of the wind at Silverstone.

The other trouble spot caught out both factory Ducatis, causing first Valentino Rossi and later Nicky Hayden to crash heavily, causing extensive damage to their Desmosedicis. The fact that both crashes were identical had the conspiracy theorists out in droves, wondering whether it was an electronics problem, or a tire problem, or something even more complex. Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa was convinced it was the tires, pointing the finger of blame squarely at the new construction Bridgestone which both factory Hondas despise so thoroughly. “You can see how many front-end crashes there were today,” Pedrosa said, explaining that he believed the root cause of the crashes was because the tire was much less rigid, and the teams were being forced to run more air in it to provide the stability they had lost from moving to a softer construction.

Enquiries among other riders showed Pedrosa to be in a minority of one, however. Even Casey Stoner, while criticizing the new front Bridgestone and reiterating his exasperation at the way the tire was introduced, said that he didn’t think the new tire was the cause of the crashes. The Ducati riders themselves put it down to something completely different. Nicky Hayden acknowledged that his crash had been a combination of pushing that little bit harder – the American had been fastest in the first three sections of the track, before crashing on his way into Vale – and the particularly difficult nature of that stretch of the track. For Valentino Rossi – Vale also crashed at Vale, a small but wry irony – the problem was the Ducati’s continuing lack of front-end feel, combined with the bumps, dips and rises that for that section going into Vale.

According to both Rossi and Hayden, the main culprit was the nature of the track. Just as you start to brake there, both men explained, there was a slight dip followed by a rise, right at the point where you are making the first move to start tipping it in for the final chicane. What’s more, Andrea Dovizioso had weighed in earlier, that part of the track is very slightly off-camber, meaning that there is less of the tire on the ground than you think there is. The combination of the front unweighting as it crested the slight rise and heavy braking had been what had caused his crash, Valentino Rossi explained, the new tires having nothing to do with it. It was easy to crash there, Dovizioso had explained earlier, as it was impossible to brake fully for that corner because of the bumps.

It really is only the factory Hondas who have the problem with the new tires, as everyone else is either extremely positive about them, or at the very worst, mildly indifferent. Polesitter Alvaro Bautista preferred the new tire, as it gave him better feedback, he said. Valentino Rossi denied they were using more pressure in the front to provide more support in the tire, as Pedrosa had claimed that everyone was being forced to do. Only Pedrosa and Stoner were doing that, in an attempt to provide some of the stability they had lost when the old construction had been scrapped. Though it is perhaps strange to switch to the new Bridgestone tire after five races, the decision had been taken much earlier, back in March after the IRTA test at Jerez. Logistical and production problems meant that limited quantities of the tire were available until now, making it impossible to do the switchover before the season began.

The change may not have been particularly well organized or well handled, but to lay the blame entirely at the door of Dorna or Bridgestone is neither fair nor accurate. The vast majority of the riders prefer the new spec tire, and only the factory Hondas are suffering with chatter from it. Honda’s problems have more to do with Honda than with Bridgestone, the bike having chattered from the beginning, though the new tire has added more chatter to the front of the machine. Pedrosa and Stoner’s campaign to gain sympathy for the injustice of Honda’s situation keeps foundering on the fact that it really is just the factory Hondas that are suffering.

How that will affect the race remains to be seen, but what is certain is that the Yamahas should do well during tomorrow’s race. Casey Stoner is certain to be up among the front runners, while Jorge Lorenzo is much closer to the front than he was at the end of the first day. The big question mark is just how well Ben Spies can do, the Texan slowly regaining his confidence in the bike as his team moves back towards a setting that he feels comfortable with. Spies looks strong, certainly, but his problem has been making too many costly mistakes on race day. A mistake-free race is the aim, to get his season back on track.

The Ducatis appear to be heading in opposite directions, Nicky Hayden improving while Valentino Rossi continues to struggle with a lack of front-end feel. Rossi’s situation refuses steadfastly to improve, and one is forced to wonder just how long he can keep up his enthusiasm for a road so obviously bestrewn with major obstacles and setbacks. Very soon, the Italian will have to ask himself whether it is not time to give up on every being able to ride the Ducati. What he does then is the million dollar question, and one which more and more people are starting to ask.

Photo: © 2012 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.