Embarrassing. No other word for it, really. Well, apart from incompetence on the grandest scale. Pretty much everyone involved in the upper echelons of MotoGP was responsible for Sunday’s travesty of a race: Bridgestone, Dorna, the FIM, the Grand Prix Permanent Bureau, the Grand Prix Commission, IRTA, Race Direction, safety officer Franco Uncini and safety advisor Loris Capirossi. They all failed in their duty of care to the riders, putting them in all kinds of danger because they hadn’t done their jobs properly.
We all make mistakes, but this was several dozen well-paid, experienced professionals failing to spot a disaster in the making.
Phillip Island hosted its first Grand Prix in 1989. Ever since it’s been well known that the track eats tyres for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Well, it eats the left side of the tyres, which is why asymmetric tyres were used there before pretty much any other racetrack, with the exception of Daytona, with its Stateside-style banking, taken at full speed with huge g-forces going through the tyres.
Anti-clockwise Phillip Island features seven left-handers, but it’s the last two lefts – Turns 11 and 12 – that really burn rubber. Taken in third and then fourth gear, the riders are building speed, using high lean angles and big handful of throttles as they fire out of 11, then lay it into Turn 12, where they need the fastest exit for the start/finish straight. The result is massive friction and thus sky-high tyre temperatures that can lead to delamination or tearing.
Bridgestone aren’t alone in suffering Island ignominy. It happened to Dunlop in Sunday’s Moto2 race (which was reduced by 50 per cent because the tyres wouldn’t last any longer) and it’s also happened to Pirelli in World Superbikes and Supersport.
In the days of tyre wars, the competitive urge made sure that tyre companies tested at Phillip Island every year, because they knew it was their biggest challenge, from both performance and safety points of view. Thus they couldn’t afford to get it wrong.
So why didn’t Bridgestone test at Phillip Island, even though they knew the track was resurfaced with extra-grippy asphalt last December, which would create more friction and therefore more heat in the tyres? Presumably because, like everyone else, they’re trying to save money. Bridgestone have no one to beat in MotoGP, so inevitably they want to win the race at the lowest possible cost.
When the tyre war raged – before the global financial meltdown – no expense was spared. Michelin often made new tyres during race weekends in Europe. Their on-track engineers would send data to their Clermont-Ferrand HQ where new compounds were mixed on Saturday evening, then the tailor-made tyres were loaded into a truck and raced to the track for Sunday morning. And when it came to the flyway races, race-by-race development meant that the companies usually flew in their tyres. Nowadays, tyres are made much earlier and shipped to the circuits by sea. Sea freight costs up to 10 times less than air freight, so there’s potential savings of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds over a season.
So, it is Bridgestone’s fault, but it is also everyone else’s fault.
Although a MotoGP rule (regulation 184.108.40.206, if you really want to know) puts the onus on Bridgestone to request testing of a new surface, all the aforementioned people know that Phillip Island is cruel on tyres, so why didn’t they demand that Bridgestone test there, or at the very least take a swatch of the new surface for analysis? Presumably because they didn’t think about it. So riders were racing around at over 210mph on tyres that were falling apart because no one had bothered to think things through.
That was a disaster in itself. And then the race with its compulsory pitstop made things look even more ridiculous. Why not just make it a 10-lap sprint and be done with it? The six-lap dash at Mugello in 2004 (after the race had been stopped due to rain) still ranks as one of the all-time most entertaining GP races: watching the world’s best riding every lap like it was the last, instead of pacing themselves and their tyres, was a fascinating and unique experience.
And then there was Marc Márquez’s punishment for pitting for new tyres too late. True, he broke the rule and knew the punishment. But that’s not the point. The rule was made up that morning by people covering their backsides for a mistake of epic proportions made six months earlier. So, regardless of the fact that he copped a ridiculous penalty for breaking a rule in a ridiculous race, he suffered for their ineptitude. If Márquez loses the title because of the points he lost on Sunday, MotoGP will have become pure pantomime.
Sunday wasn’t merely a shambolic joke for all involved, it was also a huge disappointment because Phillip Island should be MotoGP at its most glorious: it’s a wide open primal scream of a racetrack that has given us some of the greatest races of recent decades.
Phillip Island, 2011: Marco Simoncelli came second, his best finish, ahead of Dovizioso and Pedrosa
The circuit rates as a favourite with riders because it’s dominated by high-speed, big-balls sweepers through which riders get to play with the bike, feel both tyres squirming and use their superior bravery to make the difference. (And they all think they’re the bravest rider on the racetrack!)
Ah, bravery. To prove that almighty cock-ups are nothing new in motorcycle GP racing, I remember the 1989 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps, in the days of the superheroes: Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and the rest. Spa was (and still is) the world’s greatest racetrack but it’s also dangerous.
That event was a farce, just like Phillip Island, with the riders put in peril by people in power who messed up. Due to typical Spa weather, the race was stopped twice and then restarted for a third time – against the rules – by Clerk of the Course Claude Danis, who was later rewarded for his ignorance with the job of MotoGP safety director.
The third start took place on a soaking track: Rainey, Schwantz and the rest aquaplaning past the Armco – tyres spinning and engine revs peaking wildly – as they dived into Eau Rouge each lap. Schwantz led, then crashed on the final lap. Rainey climbed to the top step of the podium and smiled, until he was told the final race shouldn’t have happened and therefore hadn’t happened. The results were rewritten and taken from the combined time of the first two starts, so Lawson was declared the winner, ahead of Schwantz and Rainey.
Wayne Rainey in 1989. Photo by Gary Watson
Rainey was understandably very angry. He and his rivals had used all their bravery to risk their lives in the pissing rain at one of the world’s most dangerous racetracks for absolutely nothing. A complete disgrace. I could go on with other famous Grand Prix grand farces, but I don’t think you’ve got the time…
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