The Gathering Storm Over Tires
There's an old saying, that goes "Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it." Ever since the introduction of the restrictions on tires - introduced rather foolishly at the same time as the 800cc rule, breaking the engineer's golden rule of only changing one variable at a time - complaining about how tires have come to dominate racing has taken on epic proportions. Fans complained that the racing had become boring, riders complained that they were left powerless to compete if they were given the wrong tires or the tire companies got it wrong, and sponsors muttered that they were unhappy pouring money into teams who would be invisible all weekend because of a simple hoop of not-so-sticky rubber.
After a false start last year, the baying crowd were finally given what they wanted three weeks ago at Motegi: Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced that in 2009, the MotoGP series would have only a single tire manufacturer, and that he was open to bids for the contract from tire companies.
What happened next completely altered the balance of power: Michelin, knowing that it stood no chance of actually getting the contract, as any result other than Bridgestone would have caused a bombshell of tactical nuclear warhead proportions to go off in the paddock, threw Dorna a curve ball, and decided not to submit a bid. With Bridgestone the only company to have submitted a proposal, the deal was theirs.
But this leaves Dorna with a problem. They too knew that realistically, Bridgestone was the only option, but had hoped to use the bid from Michelin as a stick to beat Bridgestone with to get more favorable conditions. With Michelin declining to play ball, Dorna is now stuck, forced to accept whatever deal Bridgestone offers them, their leverage removed by Michelin's very clever, and very spiteful move.
The Bells! The Bells!
Already, the storm clouds have started to gather. There were always going to be questions about how the development of the tires would be handled, and who and which bikes the tires would be developed around. And as rumors have started to emerge, the alarm bells are finally starting to go off in the paddock as well.
Colin Edwards was one of the earliest riders to comment, stating quite bluntly that he expected the tires to be developed for Valentino Rossi, and that the tires that Rossi likes are so hard that there are very few people who can actually make the tires work. Then both Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner chimed in, Rossi demanding that tires be developed that will work for all of the manufacturers equally, while Stoner slammed the proposals for just 20 tires, consisting of two different constructions and two different compounds, as being complete inadequate.
The current belief in the paddock - this was written before an official statement was made on the proposal by Dorna, expected on Saturday, local time, at Sepang - is that riders will have 20 tires for the weekend, 10 fronts and 10 rears, with two constructions and two compounds, and just 4 wet weather tires for the weekend. There will be no qualifying tires, and teams will have an allowance of 150 tires to test for the entire season. The upside for the teams is that all of these tires will be supplied free of charge.
The downsides are many and varied. Firstly, there's the question of tire development. There can be no doubt that Dorna will want to ensure that the faces that help it sell MotoGP in key markets are provided with tires that they will be competitive on. This immediately raises a problem: Valentino Rossi, MotoGP's marketing genius and golden goose, likes a very hard tire, which is one of the reasons he takes a couple of laps to get up to speed.
But this is going to cause enormous problems in the other key market: Dani Pedrosa is used heavily by Dorna to sell MotoGP in Spain, but the Spaniard is some 35lbs and 8 inches shorter than Rossi. He needs a tire which is softer both in compound and construction, as he doesn't have the weight to help squash the tire and get some heat into it. Valentino Rossi's tires just won't work for Dani Pedrosa.
But with two constructions and two compounds, this would give them both a tire they could work with, right? Well, it would leave Valentino Rossi with one construction that might work for him, and Dani Pedrosa with one construction that might work for him. It would effectively limit their choices even more, making it the worst of both worlds.
In this tug of war, there can be only one winner. And it isn't going to be Dani Pedrosa. If Dorna believes that Jorge Lorenzo can use the same tires that Valentino Rossi can - despite being a few inches shorter and 20 lbs lighter - then Dani Pedrosa will be left clutching the short straw, his only realistic option adding extra weight to the bike to compensate for his own diminutive stature.
Is This Thing On?
Then there's testing. 150 tires may sound a lot, but that's about what a team might expect to get through in three days of testing. It's unlikely that they'll be forced to make that allowance of tires last the whole season, the more likely option being that extra tires will be made available, at an extra cost. This will offer Bridgestone a chance to recoup some of the income it will lose by providing free tires, so tires for testing are not going to be cheap.
And the losers here will be the satellite teams. Already, the teams struggle to find the money to compete, but if the costs for testing tires become too exorbitant, then testing will become too expensive for them to undertake. The satellite teams already test much less than the factory teams, in an attempt to keep costs down, and extra tires may just be an expense too far. If you had only a slim chance of winning on a satellite bike to begin with, without testing, you now have none.
But then, the satellite bikes were always going to be on the losing end of a single tire deal. A factory bike can turn a bike upside down to make it better able to use the tires. Factory teams can produce new frames, new swing arms, move the engine forward, backward, up, down, move the fuel tank around, and alter the headstock, all to get the tires to work with their machines. As a satellite team, you're given a bike and left to get on with it. A MotoGP bike is fully adjustable, but that's still not as flexible as being able to build a new bike. Satellite teams will be left to hope that the factory either gets it right first time, or is generous and fast in supplying new parts. Otherwise, they will be even further down the field than they already are.
As for just 4 rain tires to last all weekend, it does not even merit comment. A dry line on a wet track can completely destroy a rain tire in just a few laps, rendering practice on a rain tire a very risky business. This leaves two options: go out on a cut slick, and wobble round in an attempt to gather data which will be useless because of the slow pace you are setting, or use up some of your rain tires to get a setup data, leaving you few options for race day.
Out Of The Frying Pan
Once the rest of the riders realize just what the consequences of this move are, they are likely to explode. Though the riders fully accept the need to decrease speed into and through corners, this is surely not what they had in mind when a single tire rule was discussed. The expected proposal from Bridgestone will leave one half of the grid just as helpless as some of them were at Laguna Seca, or Brno, if they were using Michelins.
But unlike at Brno, they can have no hope of improvement: While the disasters of the summer left Michelin highly motivated to make amends, and deliver their riders a competitive tire, once there's a single tire, Bridgestone will have little incentive to improve matters for the stragglers. As long as the right names are at the front, then anyone who can't use the tires will just have to suffer.
The tire rule could end up having a peculiar effect on the shape of the paddock, or rather, the shape of the riders. At the moment, riders come in a range of sizes, with the light weight and low center of gravity of Dani Pedrosa offset by the greater leverage offered by taller riders such as Colin Edwards. But the wide variation in tire constructions and compounds is part of what makes this possible. Michelin could make tires which worked for both Pedrosa and Edwards, because they were two completely different tires. In 2009, both men will have to use the same rubber, in almost every respect.
So we could see the predicted rise of the jockey-like rider fail to materialize. Riders like Pedrosa and Toni Elias will simply not be able to use the tires available unless Bridgestone expands the range of tires on offer. Instead, we will see a homogenization of rider sizes, with the ideal rider being around 5'7" and some 140lbs. The magic word here will be median.
And as a consequence, we may see more riders coming through from Superbikes. The World Superbike series has had a spec tire for a long time now, and the heavier bikes require a stronger, heavier rider to muscle around. Suddenly, World Superbikes and World Supersport could become the feeder class of choice, if larger riders manage to get the tires working better.
Ironically, this could leave Dorna's support classes out in the cold. Both 125s and 250s favor smaller riders, though the 600cc class which will replace the 250s might change this. If Dorna had any thoughts that the switch to a single tire would help them compete against the World Superbike series, they may find their plan backfiring. If more riders come into MotoGP through the World Superbike series, viewers will keep a more watchful eye on World Superbikes and stop watching the 125 and 250 series.
There May Be Trouble Ahead
Of course, all this is just speculation at the moment, as we do not yet know exactly what the proposal from Bridgestone will entail. But if the rumors and leaks are at all accurate, then there could be trouble brewing in the paddock. Once the riders realize that their results are about to be dictated by tires to a far greater extent than they were being already, an open revolt is likely to break out.
And the riders will have to get their complaining in early: Any single tire contract is certain to contain a clause specifically forbidding any public criticism of the tires used. Even though the tires may be utterly useless to them, riders will have to shut up and get on with it. They are not used to suffering in silence, but that is a skill they will have to learn very quickly to avoid some extraordinarily expensive lessons.
All day Friday, thunder rumbled around the paddock at Sepang, and is expected to continue all weekend. Once the details of the tire proposal are announced, that thunder will be completely silenced, rendered inaudible by the deafening clamor of complaints and denouncements by riders, teams and journalists. The fans may hope that a single tire will produce closer racing, but they had better be right. If the 4th major rule change in 3 years doesn't help, then there will be plenty more to come.
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