2014 Austin MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Of Cracking Under Pressure, And Accidental Tire Management
Normally it takes bad weather to shake things up in a MotoGP race. For most of the day, it looked like the rain was ready to start at any time, but in the end it stayed pretty much completely dry, bar a quick and meaningless shower just before the Moto2 race started. Regardless of what the weather decided to do, we still ended up with a bizarre MotoGP race anyway. The weirdness started even before the race had started, and continued pretty much all the way to the very last corner.
Jorge Lorenzo came to Texas knowing he faced an uphill challenge. Last year at the Circuit of the Americas, Marc Marquez had run away with the race, with only Dani Pedrosa able to follow. Lorenzo had put up a valiant struggle, but had been unable to prevent a Repsol Honda whitewash. In 2014, Lorenzo had come facing an even tougher task, if that were possible. After crashing out at the first race, Lorenzo knew he had to score as many points as he could without taking too many risks. He would have to find a very fine balance between pushing hard to try to catch – and who knows, maybe even beat – the Repsol Hondas, and ensuring he didn't risk ending up with a second zero to go with the crash at Qatar.
The extra tension that created may have played a factor in what happened next. Lorenzo came to the grid with more bugs collected on his visor than usual. As he sat waiting for the official holding the red flag to leave the grid, he did something he never normally did while waiting for the start. To ensure he got the best start possible, Lorenzo decided to remove the first tear-off from his visor, to clear up his vision. While he was pulling the clear plastic strip from his visor, the official hurried off the grid ahead of the start, as the rules dictate. When Lorenzo looked back up, he saw the official gone, and in a moment of confusion, got ready to start.
The start procedure specified in the rulebook states that once the official leaves the grid, the red starting lights will come on for between 2 and 5 seconds. Once the red lights go out, the race officially starts, and riders are free to chase into Turn 1 as fast as they can. That light change is crucial, the lights imprinted onto the retinas and brains of world championship motorcycle racers around the globe. Once the lights change, you go.
Lorenzo saw the lights change, and he went. Unfortunately for Lorenzo, the change he saw was from off to on, and not from on to off. That mistake certainly gave him a free run at Turn 1, but it also meant he had performed a jump start, and so would have to come into the pits for a ride through penalty.
It was one of the strangest jump starts that most people can remember seeing in a great many years. Jump starts are not uncommon occurrences – if anything, the surprising thing is that they do not happen more often, given the extreme tenseness of the situation. Most jump starts, though, involve a rider rolling forward an inch or two a fraction before the lights go out. This was not one of those jump starts. Lorenzo took off like a scalded cat just as the red light came on, a full 3 or 4 seconds before the rest departed the grid. The Movistar Yamaha man was halfway to Turn 1 before the lights had switched off and the rest of the grid powered off the line. Most jump starts are hundredths of a second too early. Lorenzo's start at COTA was, as one commentator put it, so early you could have measured it with a calendar.
His start left the rest of the riders mystified. When Lorenzo came past, a few were tempted to follow – Marquez' first thought was that he had messed up his start once again, and would find himself behind Lorenzo – but they all held back once they saw Lorenzo shaking his head. The Spaniard knew immediately he had made a major mistake, holding back for just a fraction before realizing that his best course of action was to push as hard as possible for the first lap, to try to limit the time he would lose during the ride through.
Lorenzo's problem had been one of distraction, the former world champion admitted. He had been slightly nervous going to the grid, and when his visor collected more flies than he was comfortable with, he decided to remove a tear-off. This was something he never normally did, Lorenzo said, and because of that, he had lost focus for a fraction of a second. When he looked back up, the front flag man had gone, and when the lights came on, Lorenzo took off.
Reaction to Lorenzo's mistake was almost universal disbelief. None of the other riders we asked understood how he could make such a mistake. There was nothing odd or unusual about the track that might trigger such a false start. Marc Marquez suggested that the difficulty of Turn 1 – up a very steep hill to a very tight corner – made the riders a little more nervous about the first corner, but that could not explain going so incredibly early. Bradley Smith, upon hearing Lorenzo's explanation for his jump start, reacted with just a single word: 'Oh'.
Lorenzo claimed that the start procedure had been different, that normally the lights are red when the riders arrive at the grid, but that seemed a strange conception to be harboring. The rulebook is clear on the procedure: the red lights are only illuminated prior to the start for between 2 and 5 seconds. They are not used before or after. This was a case of brain fade, nothing more, nothing less, perhaps engendered by nervous tension. Lorenzo's biggest mistake was to break his routine, removing a tear-off while he sat waiting on the grid. That broke his concentration, and forced him into an error.
It was the second in a row, after his first-lap crash at Qatar. He had at least scored points – after his ride through, Lorenzo worked his way through the field to make it up to 10th – but the 6 points he secured will do little to help him tackle Marc Marquez. Lorenzo emphasized that the season was still long – 16 races remain, and a total of 400 points – so he had not yet written off his chances of winning the title. It would, however, be difficult, he conceded. Team manager Wilco Zeelenberg was a little more optimistic, though still full aware of the task in hand. 'Anything can still happen,' the Dutchman said.
Even without the jump start, Lorenzo would have found it hard to take the fight to Marquez. Taking away the 23 seconds extra his ride through cost, plus the 6 or so seconds lost to backmarkers as he fought his way forward, that still left Lorenzo with deficit of some 20 seconds to Marc Marquez. It is indicative of the mountain he still has to climb.
The weirdness was not confined to Jorge Lorenzo, however. Once the race got underway, the only slice of normality appeared to be the Repsol Hondas disappearing at the front. Marc Marquez cleared off, Dani Pedrosa tried to follow, but eventually had to admit defeat, the pair finishing 20 seconds ahead of the man in 3rd. That was very much in line with expectations. What happened behind most certainly was not.
Andrea Iannone led the chase for the Repsols on the Pramac Ducati, with Cal Crutchlow close on his heels. Valentino Rossi joined the fray, along with Stefan Bradl and Andrea Dovizioso. Cal Crutchlow was the first to drop off the front, pitting for a new rear tire, then going back out only to suffer a massive crash in which he dislocated his finger. But with Iannone, Rossi and Bradl all battling for 3rd, trouble started to arise just before the halfway mark.
Valentino Rossi was the first man to run into trouble, Rossi' plummeting like a stone after a very strong start. His lap times went from high 2'04s to mid 2'07s in just a couple of laps, with rider after rider streaming past him. Andrea Iannone was the next to suffer, losing a couple of seconds and falling back into the clutches of Stefan Bradl, before dropping even further back to end the race in 7th. And Stefan Bradl was the final victim at the front, holding out to near the end, losing out only once he got caught up in battle with Bradley Smith.
The problem was simply one of tires. Not, as many had feared, the rear tire, but instead the harder of the two front options. Most riders suffered severe wear on the front tire, making it harder and harder to manage the bike. Valentino Rossi was one of the more serious victims, with Colin Edwards also in a bad shape. Andrea Iannone had similar problems, while for Stefan Bradl, it meant he had no chance of attempting to attack Dovizioso. Pol Espargaro, after a strong start to the race, ran into the same trouble and had to let his teammate Bradley Smith go.
The race turned into a war of tire management, though the victors in that battle won more by accident than by planning. Andrea Dovizioso had been ill all weekend, and knowing that Austin was the most physical track on the circuit, paced himself early in the race. He let the front group go a little, benefiting when they succumbed to tire wear. This wasn't a conscious strategy for tire wear, but Dovizioso had made a virtue of his weakened condition. The Ducati rider was forced to manage his own fitness, and in doing so, ended up with more tire.
Bradley Smith benefited from his own mistake in the early laps of the race. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider overheated his brakes in the first couple of laps, as well as cooking his tires. Realizing he had to be more careful, he backed off a little, tangling with his rookie teammate Pol Espargaro. Riding more calmly his brakes and tire recovered, and Smith had a bit more front tire when everyone else had destroyed theirs.
Their enforced calmness paid off handsomely. Andrea Dovizioso put the Ducati on the podium, the first dry weather podium for the Italian factory since Misano in 2012. It was a token of just how much the Ducati has improved this year, but also a major boost for Dovizioso himself. It broadens the Italian's options come contract time, but also offers hope of more improvement later in the year. For many years now, the Ducati project has been heading for the rocks, but it appears that the latest round of personnel changes are starting to get the oil tanker turned around. There is hope again.
Bradley Smith did well out of his patience too, scoring his best ever result in the premier class. He could even have gone one better, finding himself in a duel with Stefan Bradl as the German's front Bridgestone started to drop. Smith attempted a fearless pass on Bradl through the esses, but could not quite make it stick. The pair of them dropped off the back of Dovizioso, losing a shot at the podium but still ending up with Smith’s best ever result in the premier class. There has been much criticism of Smith in the past, but only now is he starting to shake off his image of not being fast or forceful enough.
Even the race winner managed to nearly throw it all away in the last corner. With the race effectively in the bag, Marc Marquez nearly lost the front into the final corner, losing time and going very slowly. But by this time, the gap was more then enough to cruise home to the win.
The 2014 Grand Prix of the Americas turned into something of a comedy of errors. However, only a few participants found themselves doing much laughing. The one exception was Marc 'laughing boy' Marquez, who leaves Austin with two race wins and two poles to his name. Whenever pressure is applied to Marquez, he just shrugs it off. This could be a long year for everyone who isn't reigning world champion.
There were two more races at COTA, providing fantastic fun for the viewers. Both the Moto3 and Moto2 racers saw popular young riders winning, but that is a story for another day.