Even the most secularist and rationalist motorcycle racing fan must by now be thinking that there is some kind of supernatural force at work trying to prevent MotoGP from happening at Motegi. It started in 2010, when the race scheduled for April had to be moved back to October because of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland sent a massive cloud of ash into the skies over Europe which suspended all air flights just as the MotoGP teams were ready to fly to Japan. In 2011, on the weekend of the Qatar MotoGP season opener, the 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, sending a devastating tsunami towards Japan destroying the coastal regions, then throwing in a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for good measure.
So it came as no surprise that the first day of practice at Motegi ended up being scrapped due to the weather conditions. You could even say that to only have the first day of practice canceled was a lucky break, as earlier in the week it had looked like a typhoon could have blown through the area and forced the entire event to be called off. Instead, the typhoon track moved further east than expected, sparing Japan the worst of the wind and rain.
What the typhoon did bring, however, was fog, and that turned out to be a bigger problem than the rain was. With poor weather for a couple of days ahead of the MotoGP round, and then fog on Friday, the medical helicopter which is a requirement at every race was grounded, and unable to reach the circuit. Without a medical helicopter, reaching the hospital designated by the circuit medical officer would have taken the better part of an hour by road. In the case of a rider sustaining a life-threatening injury, the medical team could not have gotten them from the circuit medical center to a hospital quickly enough, and that is an unacceptable risk.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island - likely to be known henceforth as 'The Debacle Down Under' - taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez' disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez' crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew. Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn't come in to swap bikes, but Marquez' inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner's crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez' team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it's over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. 'We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],' Marquez said, but the plan had backfired. 'The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,' Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.
Talking to the Spanish media, Marquez was a little more explicit. 'We knew we had to enter on lap 9 or lap 10, and we thought we could enter the pits on lap 10. This was always the plan, to enter on the last lap possible, and we thought this was the last lap possible.' It was not, and that lap would lead to his disqualification.
2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Sunday Round Up: The Omnishambles - Adding Excitement And Confusion To MotoGP
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.
2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Saturday Round Up: A Primer On The Dry Flag-to-Flag MotoGP Race, And Apportioning Blame For The Debacle
There should have been plenty to talk about after qualifying at Phillip Island. Jorge Lorenzo's stunning fast lap, Marc Marquez getting on the front row for the 11th time in his rookie season, Valentino Rossi's return to the front row, and his excellent race pace, Scott Redding's fractured wrist ending his title hopes, so much to talk about, and more. But one subject dominates MotoGP right now: tires, the incompetence of the tire suppliers, and the stopgap solutions put in place to deal with it.
Shortly after qualifying had finished, Race Direction announced that the Moto2 race would be shortened to 13 laps, and the MotoGP race would be shortened to 26 laps, but that the riders would have to come in for a compulsory pit stop to change rear tires (or in practice, swap bikes), and that nobody would be allowed to do more than 14 laps on a rear tire. (How they intend to enforce that is a mystery, unless any rider exceeding the number of laps gets black flagged, which would be the ultimate irony). So Phillip Island makes history once again: in 2006 it was the scene of the first wet-weather flag-to-flag race; in 2013, it will host the first ever flag-to-flag race held in dry conditions.
Why a flag-to-flag race? Race Direction had three options: shorten the race to 14 laps, run two 13-lap races, or run a flag-to-flag race with a compulsory tire swap. The first option would have been the safest, but would have left the TV broadcasters with a half hour or so of dead air to fill, and would have cost Dorna money in TV rights. The second option would have overrun the allotted TV slot, and the chaos of having to line up on the grid for two starts would have been time consuming, placed a lot of extra stress on engines and clutches, and would have thrown the rest of the schedule for the support races into disarray. Two grids would effectively double the chances of something going wrong. The final option, a flag-to-flag race, was a known quantity and catered for in the rules, though it had never been done in the dry before.
2013 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up: Lorenzo's Determination, The Luck Of The Hondas, And Tire Trouble On A New Surface
If anyone was in doubt that Jorge Lorenzo was a man on a mission at Phillip Island, his first few laps of the newly resurfaced circuit should have served to remove any doubt. Lorenzo bolted out of pit lane as soon as the lights turned green, and was soon setting a scorching pace. By the time he had finished his first run of laps, he had already broken the existing race lap record, and had got into the 1'29s. He finished the morning creeping up on the 1'28s, before going on to start lapping in the 1'28s and dominate the afternoon session as well.
Lorenzo came to Australia to win, let there be no doubt about that. He knows it is his only chance, and even then, he knows that even that will not be enough, and he will need help from Marc Marquez. 'The objective is to win the race, and if I win, that will delay Marc's chance to take the title, but it will depend on his result,' Lorenzo told the Spanish media. Lorenzo pointed to Marc Marquez' crash in the afternoon practice as his only real hope of recovering a lot of points. 'I don't wish any harm to any rider, but some bad luck would be good,' Lorenzo reflected. 'We could still think about the championship. But if he finishes on the podium, it will be very complicated. Anyway, we are a long way behind in the championship, and Marc can afford to make this kind of mistake.'
Marquez was sanguine about the crash, coming away totally unharmed in what was a very odd looking crash. 'It was my fault,' Marquez admitted. He had opened the throttle a fraction too much, leaning over a fraction more than on previous laps, and had been flipped off the bike, luckily not thrown very high, so landing unhurt. He had been surprised by how aggressively the Honda had responded at that point. It had been a valuable lesson, however: 'now I know I can't accelerate any harder in that corner,' he joked.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: Pedrosa's Revenge, Lorenzo's Valiant Defense, And History Made In Moto3
Sunday at Sepang provided a fascinating mix for motorcycle racing fans. A blistering Moto3 race, an impressive, if shortened, Moto2 race, and some breathtaking action in MotoGP. History was made several times over, and best of all, the races took place in front of a sellout crowd. Over 80,000 fans packed the stands in Malaysia, proof, if any were needed, of the slow, eastward drift of motorcycle racing's center of gravity.
In the MotoGP race, Dani Pedrosa did what he had set out to do two weeks earlier at Aragon, before he was so rudely ejected from his bike. Pedrosa had a look of grim determination on his face from the moment he rolled up at Sepang, and it barely left him all weekend. He had come to do a job, the pain in his hips merely spurring him on to get what he had been robbed of by an overeager teammate and an exposed sensor. He ruled proceedings in free practice, got caught out by conditions in qualifying, but leapt off the line at the start, as he has all year, and slotted in behind Jorge Lorenzo. After four laps, he worked his way past a valiantly defending Lorenzo, put the hammer down and went on to win.
This was what Pedrosa had intended to do at Aragon, and he took the win in Malaysia as clear vindication of his form. He made an extra effort to thank his team, and his family, but especially the fans who had supported him, posting a message on Twitter thanking the people who had continued to believe in him. Pedrosa may be unloved in some quarters - especially among those who cannot get over an insignificant piece of ancient history - but his ability is beyond question. Now that the pendulum has swung back towards Honda, as it does the second half of every season, Pedrosa is reaping the rewards he believes he is owed. His win at Sepang was flawless.
If Saturday at Sepang taught us anything, it is that if the new qualifying system for MotoGP is exciting, the new qualifying system with a little rain mixed in is utterly breathtaking. A brief shower at the end of Q1 left the area through turns 6 and 7 very wet, while the rest of the track was still mostly dry. Add in the searing tropical heat which dries the surface quickly, and the color of the Sepang tarmac which tends to disguise wet patches, and qualifying becomes even more tricky. And then there's the fact that Sepang is a long track, the two minute lap time leaving the riders precious little time to turn laps while waiting for the surface to dry out.
Strategies went out the window, and already stressed mechanics were forced to work themselves into even more of a sweat as they rushed to set up two bikes, one dry and one wet, just in case the rain returned. Some riders went out early and despite being warned, found themselves thrown out of their seats and given a proper scare. With qualifying being just fifteen minutes, the most likely scenario was that the last rider to cross the line would be the fastest, unless it started raining again.
It didn't start raining again, and Marc Marquez was the last of the fast men to cross the line, smashing the pole record by three tenths of a second. The Spaniard's lap was scintillating to watch, pushing his Honda RC213V to its limits while still staying holding some margin of safety through the damp sections around the back of the track, and treating the kerbs with caution. It was Marquez' 8th pole of the year, extending his record of poles in what is a truly remarkable rookie season.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Friday Round Up: Pedrosa's Speed, The Brain As A Complex Organ, And Honda Flying In Moto3
Is Sepang a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of the first day of practice, you would have to say it is definitely a Honda track. Or more specifically, a factory Honda track, according to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran told reporters that the factory Hondas seemed to have something extra at Sepang, even compared to the satellite RC213Vs. Having lighter riders meant they did better on the long straights, consumed less fuel and could therefore use more power, Rossi said, but there was more to it than that. They were also better on corner entry, especially in the tight corners, where HRC appears to have found something extra. The only place the Yamahas had any kind of advantage was in the longer faster corners, Rossi said. Through turns five and six, Rossi could catch Dani Pedrosa. Once they left that section, Pedrosa was gone.
If the bike is good, then Dani Pedrosa is outstanding. His lap in the afternoon was exceptional, the 2'00.554 just a couple of tenths slower than Jorge Lorenzo's pole lap record from last year. Nobody else could get anywhere near him. His only rival was teammate Marc Marquez, forced to give half a second away to Pedrosa. A brace of Yamahas followed, Cal Crutchlow 3rd fastest despite suffering badly with his still damaged right arm swelling in the tropical heat, ending a tenth ahead of Valentino Rossi, the first of the factory Yamaha machines. Both Crutchlow and Rossi were clear where they were losing out: three tenths of a second on each of the two long straights at Sepang, according to the Tech 3 man. Rossi concurred, though he was less inclined to put numbers to his disadvantage. The Yamahas are having to make up through the fast corners what they are losing in the long straights.
2013 Sepang MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Of Penalty Points, Modern-Day Gladiators, Racing As Entertainment, And Ducati
Just a few hours before the bikes hit the track, all the talk should be about the prospects for the riders in the coming weekend. At Sepang, though, it was all different. Nobody was talking about who might end where, whether the Sepang is a Honda or a Yamaha track, whether Ducati will benefit from Sepang's long straights or suffer around the fast corners, about whether Scott Redding or Pol Espargaro will have the upper hand in Moto2. It was not the prospect of on-track action, but off-track drama which captured the attention.
For Thursday was D-Day (or more accurately, perhaps, RD day) for Marc Marquez at Sepang. The championship leader faced a further hearing in front of Race Direction over the incident at Aragon, where he clipped the back wheel of Dani Pedrosa, severed a rear wheel sensor, which caused Pedrosa to highside as soon as he touched the gas. Marquez was given one penalty point for the incident, and Honda stripped of Marquez' result for the constructors' championship (see full details here).
For the past month or so, Nicky Hayden has been telling the press that an announcement on his future should come in the next couple of days. On race weekends, the press asks on Thursday whether there's any news, and then again on Sunday, and get the same reply: No, not yet, but it shouldn't be long.
We know who Hayden will be signing with - Hayden has been spotted going in and out of the Aspar team's truck that you start to suspect he's already been given a spare key - and up until recently, we though we knew what he would be riding, a heavily modified version of the Aprilia ART machine, with a new engine with pneumatic valves and a seamless gearbox, and a new chassis to put it in. But it appears that that bike has been put on hold, as the most important contract negotiations for 2014 are starting to reach a climax.
The man in the eye of the storm is Gigi Dall'Igna, currently head of Aprilia's racing department, and responsible for many of the successes which the Italian factory has enjoyed over the years, including a World Superbike title with Max Biaggi. Reports that Ducati have been trying to tempt Dall'Igna away from Aprilia had emerged before the summer, but Dall'Igna appeared to have rejected Ducati's offer. Dall'Igna had decided to stay with Aprilia, after receiving assurances that the MotoGP program would be expanded, to include the new ART machine incorporating more pure race technology.