Archive - 2008
It was universally acknowledged that you were unlikely to find a happy, family atmosphere in the Repsol Honda garage. But just how bad things were is only now starting to appear, as the end of a long and unhappy marriage looms at the end of three years. For now, the partners involved are starting to speak out.
Nicky Hayden has been the most reticent of the two sides of the garage so far, refusing to criticize Honda for their treatment of him since he won them their last world title. But in a recent interview with the Spanish daily newspaper El Pais, Hayden spoke out about what he believed was a fundamental flaw in the Repsol Honda setup.
Hayden felt that the team wasn't functioning as a team, with each side of the garage functioning independently and not sharing data to help develop the bike. "I don't like the fact that there's a wall separating the garages and that we're not sharing information," he told El Pais. "We're both on the same team, and we should be working together."
The problem, Hayden said, was not Pedrosa, but his manager. "[Alberto] Puig has too much influence on the team. In theory, he works for Dani, not Honda, but ..." he told El Pais. When asked how much credit Pedrosa still has with Honda, Hayden replied "Dani is great rider, with a lot of talent. But Puig is the guy with all the power at Honda, not Dani. Unfortunately, it's Puig who runs Honda. I know I'm not supposed to say so, but that's the truth."
It seems that Alberto Puig was not at all pleased after this interview appeared in the Spanish press. For today, Puig has struck back in an interview with the official MotoGP.com website, blasting Hayden with some damning comments. When asked about Hayden's objections to the wall dividing the garages, Puig told MotoGP.com "all I can say is that Hayden may be bothered because now he can't access information and telemetry data from Dani's bike. With this information he was able to improve his riding, as he had all of Dani's references and now he can't use that any longer. He was simply copying as he never knew how to set-up a bike."
When Ant West signed up as a factory Kawasaki rider to race in MotoGP, he could hardly have suspected just how miserable his life was about to become. The Australian had spent years trying to get into racing's premier class, accepting some extremely questionable rides in 250s just to get a chance at MotoGP. Tragically for West, his arrival coincided with a sharp decline in Kawasaki's fortunes, and after some promising results in 2007, West's career has been on a downward spiral, propelled by the dismal performance of the Kawasaki.
After hoping for a long while to somehow stay in MotoGP, Ant West seems finally to have accepted his fate. The German motorsports site Motosport Total is reporting that Westy is in talks for a ride on "a competitive Honda in World Supersport." "Practically my only option is the World Supersport championship. On a Honda," West told Motorsport Total.
Although there are a number of teams fielding Hondas in the World Supersport series, Motorsport Total says that paddock whispers say West's manager is talking to Ten Kate about riding for the team. West wouldn't confirm that rumor, though he admitted "I know the team, and I'd love to ride for them."
Ever since the long-lamented 990cc bikes roared into the sunset at the end of 2006 to be replaced by the 800cc machines, MotoGP has suffered a crisis of confidence. That final year of competition with the large capacity bikes produced some of the most exhilarating racing ever seen, yet after the introduction of the new formula, the racing changed overnight, suddenly becoming processional and rather too often, positively dull.
Having been spoilt by a year of thrills and spills, and with the big name stars being left for dead by a relatively unknown Australian on a Bridgestone-shod Ducati, TV audiences switched off in droves, the viewing figures tumbling. MotoGP was starting to lose ground to other motorsports, and with teams already finding it difficult to raise the necessary sponsorship to fund their efforts, neither Dorna nor the teams could afford for the series to decline in popularity further. Something had to be done.
Whenever a group of people - be it organizations, governments or even families - decide that "something has to be done" the first step is usually to try and pinpoint a culprit. Throughout 2007, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at tires, Bridgestone prospering as Michelin failed to adapt to the new rules limiting tire numbers. This regularly left half the field unable to compete, and most painfully, saw Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, key figures in Dorna's target markets, floundering and off the pace. The current tire situation could not be allowed to stand.
I Know I'm Unlovable
An appropriate culprit - or perhaps scapegoat - found, the rules were tweaked at the end of the season in the hope of reintroducing competition. And as extra insurance, Valentino Rossi was allowed to switch tire brands, with the hope of putting motorcycle racing's media phenomenon back on equal footing with the implacably unlovable Casey Stoner.
The first few races showed at least some improvement, with four different winners in the first four races, and Valentino Rossi then going on to win three races in a row. But the underlying problem remained: The margin of victory was never less than 1.8 seconds, and most races were still being decided by half way. And after Ducati found some fixes to the problems that plagued Casey Stoner's early season, the situation got worse. Once again, the reigning World Champion was humiliating the field, winning race after race, sometimes by as much as 11 seconds.
The changes to the tire rules hadn't changed anything. The little-known and even less liked Australian was winning races by the end of the first lap again, and the field was spread out seconds apart. Down in 6th place, huge multiple rider battles were raging, but these were going on off-camera, and for the consolation prizes. When Michelin ran all of their riders on hard rain tires in Germany, gambling on a drying track which never arrived, we were back at square one. Once again, conversations about MotoGP were all about tires, and not about riders.
Then came Laguna Seca. At Laguna, two things happened. First, Michelin turned up with tires that were completely inadequate to cope with the conditions, leaving all of the Michelin runners completely out of contention once again. The heat under the tire discussion got turned up another notch, and the first rumblings of more rule changes started to appear.
Secondly, as the race got underway, one of the most nail-biting battles MotoGP has seen for a long time unfolded, with Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner knocking chunks out of each other for 23 long laps. For half an hour, the crowd and TV viewers around the world held their breath, as the death-defying spectacle went on for lap after lap. And for 45 minutes, no one mentioned tires, wrapped up in the glorious duel of two racers at the very top of their ability.
The respite was to be only brief, as another Michelin failure at Brno after the summer break saw the riders, fans and paddock all talking tires once again, only briefly diverging to talk about the racing, before returning to the subject at the forefront of everybody's minds.
Lessons From The Lake
But all the talk of tires disguised a much more important lesson from Laguna Seca: There was plenty of racing to be had in MotoGP, if the track would only allow it. Laguna Seca, with a few fast corners mixed with tight and tortuous sections, but more importantly, the track layout following the lie of the land and flowing from corner to corner, proved an ideal stage for MotoGP. The combinations of corners placed the emphasis on rider skill once again, and gave Valentino Rossi, his Yamaha clearly outclassed, a chance to match Casey Stoner's terrifying pace around the Californian circuit.
The good news for MotoGP and Dorna at Phillip Island was that Kawasaki confirmed that they would provide a third ZXRR to compete in the 2009 MotoGP season. The announcement meant that MotoGP's rather thin grid would be filled out a little for 2009, taking the total up to 19 bikes, with a possible fifth Ducati raising that to 20.
The bad news was the conditions that Kawasaki was imposing on the deal. KHI in Japan is very keen for Shinya Nakano to return to the fold at Kawasaki, the Japanese rider having ridden for the team from 2004 to 2006. But Jorge Aspar Martinez, the man who is to run the team, doesn't want Nakano as a rider, as a Japanese rider would cause him problems with his sponsors.
"With all due respect to Nakano, he is not a rider I can sell to my sponsors," Aspar told Spanish magazine Solomoto. "I want to choose the rider, and I want a Spaniard."
The problem Aspar has is the amount of money Kawasaki wants from the team. Martinez is believed to have a Spanish telecom company lined up to sponsor the team, but because the effort would be promoting a product on the Spanish domestic market, he needs a Spanish rider to help the sponsors sell their product at home.
Aspar's preferred option is Spanish veteran Alex Debon, who is currently campaigning the Lotus Aprilia in the 250 class. Debon would be on development duty, helping to get the bike competitive enough for 2010, when Aspar hopes to bring Alvaro Bautista into MotoGP.
Full results of the 2008 Australian Grand Prix:
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|2||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||1'30.829||1.122||1.122|
|3||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||1'30.862||1.155||0.033|
As we reported earlier, Michelin has decided not to submit a bid to become the sole supplier of tires for MotoGP. The press released announcing the move read as follows:
"Michelin has decided not to submit a bid to the governing body of the MotoGP World Championship. At the same time, Michelin regrets not being able to contribute to the organizers' important discussions to improve rider safety and reduce costs.
The spirit of competition has always been central to Michelin. Motor sports at the highest level are useful because competition among several tire manufacturers is a valuable stimulus for developing increasingly high-performance tires that will one day equip customer vehicles. Tires play a key role in a vehicle's performance and can make a considerable difference. This competition among manufacturers helps to make racing exciting.
The radial tire, which was invented by Michelin, has been improved through racing, and the improvements have since been passed on to consumers. Michelin's dual compound technology for motorcycle tires was first tested in MotoGP racing and is today integrated into premium products for the brand's customers. The MotoGP Championship organizers have decided to use a single tire supplier for the coming seasons, which effectively eliminates the competitive environment that has led to so much progress.
The R&D resources allocated for MotoGP racing will be redeployed to support innovation, which is at the heart of Michelin's customer-focused strategy."
Michelin's decision leaves Bridgestone as the only bidder for the contract, and barring a revolution, certain to be awarded the contract. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the reason Michelin decided not to submit a proposal is because they knew they did not stand a chance of winning the contract anyway.
If the French tire maker had been awarded the contract, then open rebellion would have broken out among the riders currently contracted to Bridgestone, and riders such as Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa would have put pressure on Dorna to reverse the decision. Michelin may have decided to withdraw with honor, rather than go through the motions for what was essentially a sham.
After Phillip Island had been treated to a very mixed bag of weather on Friday, with balmy and dry conditions in the morning making way for a very cold and wet session in the afternoon, the paddock and fans were delighted to be greeted by much more stable conditions on Saturday. The morning free practice session, which saw Nicky Hayden nudge Casey Stoner off the top of the timesheets in the dying minutes, took place in cool but dry conditions, and the official qualifying practice started out under sunny skies, but not much warmer.
The opening minutes saw lap times drop down quickly down into the mid 1'30s, with Dani Pedrosa the first rider to crack the 1'31 barrier, and Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner taking another half a second off just a few seconds later. As is his custom, Stoner then chipped away at the times even further, perfecting his race setup to set the bar at a time of 1'30.124 after just 10 minutes of the session.
For the moment, Stoner's time was out of reach of the rest of the field, with everyone focusing on getting the bikes ready for race day. In the first 20 minutes, Stoner was clearly fastest, but he had Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden all running not far off his pace, and as the session approached halfway, that group was joined by Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso and James Toseland.
Full results of the 2008 MotoGP Australian Grand Prix qualifying practice:
Michelin has just announced that they will not be submitting a proposal to Dorna and the FIM for the contract to supply tires as the single tire manufacturer. This means that Bridgestone will be the sole supplier of tires for MotoGP in 2009, as heavily predicted, and as favored by most of the riders.
More details as they emerge.
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|4||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||1'30.865||0.307||0.163|
|12||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||1'31.418||0.860||0.026|
The first day of practice at Phillip Island was a very mixed affair. The morning session was held in the dry, and Casey Stoner did exactly what was expected of him. After slightly longer than usual, Stoner set the fastest time, then continued to put the hammer down, ending the day nearly 7/10ths faster than the next man, Valentino Rossi.
The afternoon was completely different. The Southern Ocean raised its up its voice and dumped its contents on to the Island, leaving the MotoGP field to wade around on a soaking track. But where you might ordinarily expect Ant West and Chris Vermeulen to dominate, it was instead Andrea Dovizioso who was consistently well ahead of the rest.
Dovi's provisional pole was only bested briefly mid-session, with first Guintoli and then Stoner going quicker, but Dovizioso was soon back on top of the timesheets. The Italian looked like ending the day as fastest, but in the last 10 minutes of the session, Nicky Hayden started picking up the pace. The American picked away at Dovi's lap times for several laps, then in the dying minutes, set the fastest lap once, then improved again next lap, to end the practice three quarters of a second ahead. This left Andrea Dovizioso in 2nd place, with local boy Chris Vermeulen in 3rd.
The rain saw few fallers, other than the usual pairing of Randy de Puniet and Alex de Angelis, both of whom came away relatively unscathed. No such luck in the 250s, though where Fabrizio Lai had a horrifying crash at the final left, the wet gravel barely slowing the Italian down before he hit the tire wall, a place where air fence would be a welcome addition, and Alex Debon had a nasty tumble in the gravel that saw him knocked momentarily unconscious.
Mika Kallio nearly joined his 250 classmates after a near highside at the very fast Hayshed, but in one of the most spectacular saves of the season, rode through the gravel at very high speed to miss the tire wall by inches.
Practice continues on Saturday.
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|11||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||1'42.408||3.588||0.574|
|13||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||1'43.006||4.186||0.101|
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|3||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||1'31.043||0.949||0.279|
|5||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||1'31.070||0.976||0.019|
There can hardly be a greater contrast between Motegi, the track where MotoGP spent last weekend, and Phillip Island, where they are headed next. Motegi is pretty much a state-of-the-art facility, with spacious pit garages, excellent spectator facilities and an air-conditioned press area. Phillip Island, on the other hand, is like a trip back to the 1950s: The pit garages are about as sturdy as your average garden shed, the spectator seating consists mostly of grass, and the commentary positions sway gently in the winds which sweep across the Bass Strait and buffet the circuit.
But despite the ramshackle pits, cramped press room and spartan spectator facilities, the riders, teams, press and fans all love Phillip Island, and would choose the Australian circuit over Motegi every time. For the track layouts are just as much a reflection of the philosophy and history of each circuit as the facilities are. The Motegi circuit is a purpose-built testing facility, and consequently, each turn is precisely engineered to test a particular aspect of vehicle dynamics, and connected to the following corner by the shortest means possible.
Nature Versus Nurture
Phillip Island, on the other hand, is an ancient road course which has grown and mutated organically over time to become a flowing, rolling ribbon of tarmac sweeping over the hills and dales of the terrain. None of the corners were really designed, and apart from the front straight hosting the start and finish line, there's hardly a straight line on the track. It is a testament to the genius of nature, rather than the human intellect, and shows just what can be done when track designers submit to the landscape, rather than dictate to it from behind a CAD station.
The rightness of this approach is made very forcefully straight from the first corner. As you cross the line to start the lap, the Gardner Straight drops away ahead of you, before you start braking for Doohan Corner. The corner does its venerable name perfect justice: it is big, fast, and very, very scary. It's then up and over the Southern Loop, the first of the many long left handers, followed by another fast left flick before the first opportunity to pass on the brakes.
Honda Corner is - by the standards of Phillip Island - a painfully slow right, with plenty of chances to outbrake your rivals into the turn. Naturally, this is likely leave you at a disadvantage on the exit, heeled over for the curve of Turn 5, before hitting another aptly named corner. Turn 6 sits at the very edge of the Island, not very far from the rocky shores which are lashed by the wind and weather coming in from the Bass Strait. Climbing up to Turn 6 with nothing ahead of you but sky, and a solitary tree, it feels like you are approaching the end of the world. They could have called this cold, wind-blown and lonely corner Finis Terra, but found a better name instead: Siberia.
Stairway To Heaven
Once out of Siberia, the track twists and turns, rolling downhill again past Hayshed, before climbing, gently at first, then steeply up to the most important part of the track, and one of the most spectacular spots in motorcycle racing. Laguna Seca has the Corkscrew, Donington Park has the Craner Curves, but Phillip Island has Lukey Heights. As you start to turn in, the climb gets steeper, taking you up, and off to the left. Then, just as you hit the apex of the corner, the turn starts to fall away from under you, gradually at first, then ever more precipitously, casting you down into the tight right hander of MG.
In the flat, two-dimensional simplicity of a paper track map, it looks simple enough. But in all three glorious dimensions, it is both a thing of beauty and big-time trouble rolled into one. For a start, there's the difficulty of the corners themselves. Gravity is pushing the weight of the bike backward as you push up the hill, yet you are heeled hard over to get through the turn. Then you hit the brow of the hill, the balance of the bike shifting as the ground starts to drop away, just as you start to think about sitting the bike up for the approach to MG.
As if that weren't bad enough, you are now pitched forward, both by the force of being hard on the brakes and the downhill drop to the bottom of the hill. The front tire is squashed flat, loaded to the limit, yet now you have to fling the bike over again right to get the tight line into the hairpin, ready for the fast and long lefts which follow. The whole section is crucial to a fast lap, yet danger beckons at almost every yard. Go too slow, and you lose many tenths of a second. Go too fast, and you can wash out at the top of the hill, or at the bottom, and your race, or even your weekend, is over.