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.
Holding a flag-to-flag race in the dry was not the best option, but neither was it the worst. Opinion among the riders was divided, though few riders had a distinct preference. None of the solutions was ideal, but some riders thought one option was marginally better than the other. Marc Marquez preferred a single, shortened race, Valentino Rossi two sprint races, and Jorge Lorenzo with two sprint races 'but with 25 points for each race,' the Spaniard joked. Trailing Marc Marquez by 43 points, and having dominated throughout the weekend, it would have been a very attractive option indeed for Lorenzo.
The root cause of the problem was of course the tire companies. Neither Dunlop nor Bridgestone had tested at the circuit since the new surface had been laid, despite explicit information from the circuit owners, and despite the problems for the World Superbike series at the start of the season. Why not? Well, it was probably a matter of cost. The savings from switching to a single tire supplier have proven to be a false economy indeed. This is exactly the area in which Dorna should be pressuring Bridgestone and Dunlop to react, to ensure that they bring tires that work to each and every circuit. Loris Capirossi was appointed safety officer with the explicit task of liaising with the tire suppliers to ensure that they respond to the demands and requirements of the riders and the series. Bridgestone, Dunlop, Dorna, Capirossi, they all slipped up, and so Race Direction had to step in.
They even had to convene an emergency meeting of the Grand Prix Commission to make it possible, granting Race Direction almost blanket powers to alter the regulations and run the race as they see fit to be able to deal with safety issues. Though this is a sensible response to a difficult situation, it hardly looks like a measure taken calmly or rationally. The failure of Bridgestone and Dunlop to go testing on the new surface at Phillip Island has made the series look stupid, and grasping at desperate measures. This is not the way a series could be run.
The problem is that Dorna has little control over the tire companies, and few means of exerting pressure. Commercial contracts have been signed and as long as the companies are seen to be making an effort, they get off scot-free. The only repercussions can come at contract negotiation time, but having gone for one single supplier, it is hard to make the switch. That might still happen, at least in the case of Bridgestone. After the debacle of 2010 and 2011, when so many riders were injured after cold-tire highsides, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta met several times with representatives of Michelin, to discuss the possibility of the French company submitting a bid to replace Bridgestone as single tire supplier when the Japanese company's contract expires at the end of the 2014 season. Since then, Bridgestone has made a huge effort to improve, the tires vastly improved in terms of safety, and Ezpeleta is said to be much happier about the situation. Phillip Island, attributable solely to a lack of testing by the tire companies, may once again sour the relationship. You have to wonder whether Ezpeleta will be dialing a lot of numbers starting with international dialing code +33 over the next couple of weeks.
What is likely to change is that tire companies will be forced to go testing at circuits which have been newly resurfaced. Doing so may be more expensive, but at least it will avoid a repeat of the farce which Phillip Island has become. The savings in terms of PR behind-covering will surely more than cover the cost of compulsory testing.
The MotoGP race now being a compulsory flag-to-flag race has thrown up a host of question among everyone who isn't intimately familiar with the FIM rulebook for Grand Prix racing. As it is part of my job to be relatively well-versed in the rules, I cannot blame anyone for not taking the trouble to study them thoroughly. For anyone with a legalistic bent, or a perverse interested in the minutiae of Grand Prix racing, studying the rules is an interesting intellectual enterprise. For anyone who has what is casually referred to as 'a life', there are far, far more interesting things to be doing with their time. Paint doesn't watch itself dry, you know....
So here's a quick rundown of the possible implications for a flag-to-flag race, and all of permutations of what is and what isn't allowed. First and foremost, the mandatory pit stop, combined with the stipulation that a rider may not spend more than 14 laps on a rear tire, means that everyone will be in the pits between lap 12 and lap 14. They do have the option to do two pit stops instead of just one, coming in and swapping bikes early, and then later on in the race, but that is not a strategy worth pursuing, as the entire process of swapping bikes consumes between 30 and 40 seconds. Given that the difference in lap times between old tires and new tires is usually less than a second, that kind of time can never be made up.
So what about the fuel? With MotoGP bikes limited to 21 liters, how will that work in a flag-to-flag race? The answer to that is more simple: the rules do not stipulate how much fuel a rider is allowed to use during the race, they merely control the maximum capacity of the fuel tank. Each bike has a maximum allowance of 21 liters, and the fuel tank may not contain more than 21 liters. However, each rider has two bikes, and so in theory, could use both bikes and burn through a total of 42 liters. Actually consuming that amount of fuel is simply impossible, and so the teams will only put in the fuel they need for the race. Phillip Island has never been a circuit where fuel is critical, as there are few spots on the track where the bikes accelerate hard from a slow corner. Consequently, the teams will put 11 or 12 liters of fuel in each bike, more than enough to finish the race, and burn the fuel as freely as they wish.
Of course, starting with a half-empty tank will make life much easier for the riders which struggle with a full tank. Marc Marquez has been a slow starter in the past, and Bradley Smith - who is having an outstanding weekend - has had a huge problem with a full tank, as have Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow. But they will still have new tires to contend with, and this could make life more difficult, especially after the bike swap, when they go out on tires which have been heated by tire warmers, but have not had the full benefit of a hot warm up lap to get them up to temperature.
What happens if it rains? Although the weather forecast looks set for clear weather throughout Sunday afternoon, the fact remains that this is Phillip Island, and anything can happen. If it rains, the normal procedure takes over, and a normal wet race or flag-to-flag race is run. If it rains before the start of the race, riders will start on wets and ride either until the end, or until the track dries sufficiently to come in for slicks. If it rains before lap 12, riders can come in and swap bikes for one shod with wet tires. If it rains after lap 12, then everyone who has not yet pitted can come in and swap to their second bike with wet tires, and those who have already exited on slicks can come in again for a set of wet tires. The worst case scenario is if it starts raining heavily after some riders have already swapped bikes for one shod with slicks, but the likelihood of that happening is fairly slim.
Is there an advantage to be gained from strategy? Should you pit early, or pit late, to try to gain an advantage? That is hard to say. What is clear is that unlike in a wet race, there is no time to be gained by gambling on different tires in changing conditions, where the difference between slick and wets can easily be 5 seconds or more a lap. In that case, it is more a case of trying to come in early and use an empty pit lane to not get stuck in traffic. The trouble is, of course, that everyone will have the same idea, and so you could end up in traffic anyway. In theory, the further along pit lane you are, and the nearer pit lane exit, the better. This one goes to the Repsol Honda team, but not by much: both Marquez and Lorenzo could encounter a bunch of traffic when exiting if they're not careful.
And then there's the question of engines, especially given that Nicky Hayden is running very low on his allocation. If Hayden - or another rider wanting a fresh engine, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, for example - wanted to use a sixth engine, could he swap to a bike with a new engine after lap 12, and would that count as starting from pit lane? The Grand Prix Commission have already anticipated that situation, and the answer is no. If Hayden were to pit and jump onto his second bike and use engine number 6, then he would have to perform a ride through as well. If you are going to take a 6th engine, then it is better to start the race from pit lane. That way you only lose 12 or so seconds, starting 10 seconds after the green light has gone on, rather than the 30-odd that a ride through would cost.
So does the compulsory bike-swap format favor Jorge Lorenzo or Marc Marquez? That is hard to say. What is certain is that Lorenzo's experience of flag-to-flag races will stand him in good stead, where Marquez has never had to pit and swap bikes before, though he has practiced it many times in the past. But the obligation to run the harder of the two options available (an extra hard option was also tried, but discarded, as it span up too much and degraded more quickly than the hard option) would appear to favor the Honda. On race pace, both Marquez and Lorenzo look very close on the hard tire, and though Rossi's race pace is strong on the hard tire, it is not in the same ball park as the two championship leaders'. Dark horse in the proceedings is Dani Pedrosa, who appears to have more pace than he is letting on, and who will easily be able to handle the hard rear.
The biggest worry in all of this is the fact that it has happened at Phillip Island, a track with a very narrow pit lane - the service roads at several tracks around the world are wider than PI's pit lane. With all 23 bikes due to pit in a very narrow, 3-lap window, pit lane is likely to be a very crowded place indeed. Access for film crews and photographers should be limited, but even then, there will be a lot of people in a small space with a lot of bikes coming in and out of the pits. Pit lane will have to be very heavily policed, but even those policing it will form a risk if they don't keep their wits about them at all times. The middle of tomorrow's race will be a very nerve-wracking period, not just for the riders and the fans, but for everyone involved in the sport.
And so, drama awaits on race day. More drama than was necessary, and all for the lack of a little testing. The tire companies made MotoGP look a bit silly on Saturday. Let's hope that the series fares better on Sunday.
~~~ UPDATED ~~~
The MotoGP race has now been shortened to 19 laps. The full details can be found here.