Analysis

Eugene Laverty: Politics Trumps Results, Or How Beating Your Teammate Is No Longer Enough

"'I’ll do my talking on the track,' are no longer words to live by"

Musical chairs is a children's game, but in the grown-up business of the paddock it is still just as relevant as if you were at a birthday party. When the music stops, you need to be sure you have grabbed a seat. Unfortunately for Eugene Laverty he's been left as one of the last riders chasing a seat for 2019, and with Marco Melandri, Loris Baz, Jordi Torres and Xavi Fores all also running in circles, the clock is ticking until the music stops for good.

Having thought that he’d be sticking with Shaun Muir Racing for next year as the team switch to BMW, the Irishman now finds himself on the outside looking in. From feeling secure that he would have a good ride for 2019, he suddenly finds himself staring at limited opportunities.

It's not the first time that Laverty has found himself in a predicament like this. In the autumn of 2013 he missed out on staying with Aprilia and had to search for a ride, which led him from being a WorldSBK title contender to riding an uncompetitive Suzuki, and from this he began a two-year stint in MotoGP. From that he made a return to WorldSBK, which yielded solid progress in his second year with the Milwaukee Aprilia squad. But this was not enough to keep his ride, with Tom Sykes expected to be announced as the rider to replace him.

Public audition

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2018 Phillip Island MotoGP Race Round Up: Flirting With Disaster, And Triumph At Last

Phillip Island is a glorious race track, in a glorious setting, with a history of serving up glorious racing, especially when the weather plays ball. On Sunday, it did just that, the circuit bathed in warm sunshine, almost taking the edge off the antarctic chill which can still hit the circuit in very early spring. And great weather brought fantastic racing, starting with a spectacularly insane Moto3 race, followed up with a thrilling Moto2 race, and finally topped off with an intriguing and incident-packed MotoGP race.

The MotoGP grid arrived at Phillip Island mindful of the lessons of last year. In 2017, a large group had battled for the win for 20+ laps, until their tires were shot. Marc Márquez, having been mindful of his tires for much of the race, made his move in the last five laps, opening a gap over the chasing group of a couple of seconds. Everyone Márquez had beaten last year had spent the weekend concentrating on tire preservation for the last part of the race.

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2018 Phillip Island MotoGP Saturday Round Up: Courage For The Conditions, And Spying Out The Favorite

Racing is always about balancing risk and reward, but sometimes, that balance is put into very stark contrast. Phillip Island is a very fast track with notoriously blustery weather, with strong winds commonly blowing in rain showers. The weather gods have not looked kindly on this year's Australian Grand Prix, though it has stayed largely dry. Gale-force winds, icy temperatures, and the occasional downpour have, shall we say, livened the proceedings up considerably.

The upside to being battered by strong winds is that the weather can blow out again as quickly as it blew in. Scattered showers are just that: scattered away towards the mainland in the blink of an eye. But they can be scattered over the circuit again in a matter of minutes.

This does not exactly make things easy for the MotoGP riders. Heading along the front straight well north of 330km/h and seeing spots on your visor, then wondering whether Doohan Corner, a 200+km/h corner is going to be completely dry or not is, shall we say, unnerving. Doing all that during qualifying, when you know you only have 15 minutes to post a quick time, doubly so. As the reward goes up, so does the tolerance for risk.

Heart in mouth

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2018 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up: The Cost Of A 4pm Start At A Fast Track

Phillip Island is a magnificent circuit. Perched on the edge of the Bass Strait, it is a visceral thrill in a spectacular setting. It is fast, flowing, the very essence of what a race track is supposed to be. But all that glory comes at a price. It is also a dangerous place. When you crash at Phillip Island, then it hurts, and more often than not, it hurts a lot.

Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes points out that in the 1990s, the FIM commissioned a study into crashes at various tracks. The track with the most crashes, Estoril, had the fewest serious injuries. The track with the fewest crashes was Phillip Island. But it was also the track with the most injuries. The difference? Estoril was the slowest track on the calendar, thanks to a couple of tight turns, while Phillip Island was the fastest. Newton's second law is immutable, and enforced 100% of the time.

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2018 Phillip Island MotoGP Preview: Why Phillip Island Is Different, And Why Anyone Can Win There

Race tracks come in all different shapes and sizes, from tight and twisty to wide and sprawling, from slow and ornery to fast and furious. There are boring tracks, adequate tracks, and great tracks. And then there's Phillip Island.

What makes Phillip Island special? A lot of things. Its location, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Bass Strait, with nothing but a couple of hundred kilometers of open water fed by the Antarctic Ocean between it and Tasmania. The layout, virtually unchanged for decades, which hugs the rolling hills of the Island and flows up and down. The speed: there are only really two places you brake, at Honda Corner and at MG, the rest of the time you're either accelerating, or rolling off before carrying momentum through the turns. The corners: sensuous, flowing curves without sharply delineated corners or straight lines. Peter Paul Rubens, not Pablo Picasso. A track drawn with a pencil, not a computer mouse.

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Race Round Up: Winning Slowly, And The Legacy Of A Champion

"The secret," said Niki Lauda, "is to win going as slowly as possible." That racing maxim, first recorded by legendary writer and broadcaster Clive James (and how did I miss that he wrote about F1 in the past?) is as true now as it was back in 1984, when Lauda stated it to a press conference in Portugal. And as true as in the early 1950s, when Juan Manuel Fangio may have first uttered it.

If you want to see that maxim in action, watch a MotoGP race in 2018. The action is often thrilling, usually tense, and always absorbing. Race after race, we see podiums separated by tenths of a second, not tens of seconds. The reason for that is simple. The field is close in terms of rider talent and bike performance, and the Michelin tires can be applied in many different ways, except for one: if you try to take off and disappear at the front, you risk using up the best of your tires, and being caught in the latter stage of the race.

So MotoGP has become a chess game. A battle of minds, as much as machines, of brains as much as bodies. Riders pace around one another like wolves around a herd of caribou, watching out for any sign of weakness, waiting to pounce and destroy their prey. And sometimes, getting it wrong and suffering a severe kicking from their intended victims.

Nature vs nurture

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Saturday Round Up: A Costly Mistake, Marquez vs Dovi Again, And The Split In Yamaha

Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don't have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated. That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend. But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.

There is little room for error. Should you, say, crash in FP4 on the bike with your preferred setup, as Marc Márquez did at Motegi, then it makes qualifying complicated. Even if you get the bike back to the pits quickly, your team probably won't be able to get the bike back ready to race in time for the start of Q2. And if your second bike uses a very different setup – some combination of a different rear link, a different offset, different rear shock, say – then your team might not have time to change it all back again to the way you want it.

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Friday Round Up: Losing Lorenzo, Dovizioso's Stable Base, And A Yamaha Revival

Will we see a Ducati vs Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball. He did two out laps, but couldn't cope with the immense strain which the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.

"Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse," he said afterwards. "On hard braking I couldn't push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn't fast, I wasn't comfortable and I wasn't safe, so there was no meaning to continue."

Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2. The Italian wasn't alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.

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Freddie Spencer To Lead FIM Stewards: The Politics Of MotoGP Disciplinary Bodies

Once upon a time, disciplinary measures in MotoGP were simple. If a rider was felt to have transgressed the rules, they were hauled up before the Race Director and given a punishment, and that was just about the end of it. Sometimes, riders appealed against those judgments, and sometimes, the FIM even found in their favor.

But times change, cultures change, social mores change. What was once regarded as acceptable is now frowned upon. Physical contact and riding with the intent to obstruct others became less and less acceptable. Suspected transgressions were examined more closely and judged more harshly. The increase in the number of cameras covering the track, and the vast improvement in resolution and picture quality, helped identify more potential offenders. In turn, this created more pressure on Race Direction to punish these transgressions.

Then came Sepang 2015. When the two biggest names clash on the track amid a bitter personal feud, then the pressure on the series organizers to treat the situation with kid gloves becomes almost unbearable. In the fallout of that ugly incident, Race Direction was reorganized, and the disciplinary duties moved to a separate body, the FIM Panel of Stewards. The official explanation was that this would allow Race Direction to get on with the job of managing the race, while the Stewards could focus on assessing whether a particular action needed to be punished or not.

The Forever War

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2018 Motegi MotoGP Preview: Dovizioso vs Marquez, The Rematch?

MotoGP's Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are "The Flyaways", formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock. The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.

Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings. Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.

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