Once again, a MotoGP race at Phillip Island is decided by tires. The tires Bridgestone brought to the Australian circuit were not up to the task, with riders crashing out all throughout the race. The front tires Bridgestone brought to the track were unable to cope with the conditions. The result was determined by tires, not by talent.
That, at least, is the narrative being heard around the internet after the bizarre yet fascinating MotoGP race at Phillip Island. It is an attractive narrative – a nice, simple explanation for what happened in Australia – but it is fundamentally flawed. The tire situation was complicated, certainly. Jorge Lorenzo's front tire showed very severe degradation, more than would normally be explained by the expected wear. Several riders crashed out on the asymmetric front tire Bridgestone brought. But to lay the blame entirely on Bridgestone is quite wrong.
The problems at Phillip Island are inherent to the track, and were exacerbated by changes made to suit European TV schedules. Phillip Island, like Assen, is a track which places peculiar demands on tires. It features a lot of very fast left-hand corners, with only a few right handers, two of which are the slowest corners on the track. It is located next to the Bass Strait, a freezing stretch of water connected to the globe-spanning Southern Ocean, which means the weather is highly changeable. Temperatures dropped during the race by as much as 9°C, probably a result of Dorna insisting on running the race at 4pm local time (the late afternoon) to hit a 7am TV slot in their main markets of Spain and Italy. That time will draw a bigger audience than the 5am slot a 2pm race start would fill. But to locals, racing at 4pm at this time of the year is madness.
Building a tire to cope with the demands of the Phillip Island circuit is nigh on impossible. The tire needs to cope with some of the biggest loads generated all season due to very high speed corners on a high grip surface. It needs to be hard enough for the fast lefts, yet soft enough to cope with the well-spaced slow right handers. And it has to have a massive temperature operating range. Both air and track temperatures can vary massively, from just a few degrees above freezing to bordering on the tropical.
If you want to know just how hard it is to build tires to handle the Phillip Island circuit, just go back and watch any of the recent World Superbike rounds there. The World Supersport race has been shortened in length almost every year for the past few seasons, and serious tire problems have afflicted both the World Superbike and World Supersport races. If you think Bridgestone did a bad job at Phillip Island, you should see what Pirelli did in WSBK. Fortunately for the Italian tire manufacturer, however, World Superbikes only attracts a fraction of the audience which MotoGP does, especially at that time in the morning. It also helps that Pirelli ruthlessly enforces the penalty clause in its contract which allows them to issue hefty fines to any rider complaining about the tires, effectively gagging them. Bridgestone has a similar clause in their contract, yet they have never invoked it, nor fined a rider for complaining, despite having good cause on a number of occasions.
That does not exonerate Bridgestone completely. The tires they brought to the track were capable of handling the expected conditions, but it was much colder than when they tested here in March. The extra soft tire worked for some bikes, but the asymmetric tire was just a fraction too hard for the conditions, especially on the right side, and especially when the track temperatures started to drop. As for Jorge Lorenzo's front tire, the left side of which was completely destroyed by the end of the race, Lorenzo was quick to blame a defective tire, while Bridgestone pointed to bike set up as the culprit. "As always," Lorenzo commented laconically during the press conference, before pointing to the example of Valentino Rossi at Austin, where he suffered a similar problem. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, with Lorenzo's set up and the hard battle he had with Valentino Rossi stressing the tire, but surely not enough for him to lose over two seconds a lap in the final eight laps.
The impression that tires dominated the race was created by the fact that all of the tire-related crashes happened at the front, or close to it. Marc Marquez was the first to go down, crashing on lap 18 while leading the race. Pol Espargaro followed, crashing out from fourth with three laps to go. And Cal Crutchlow was the final victim, folding the front at the Honda hairpin on the very last lap, crashing out of an outstanding second place. Six other riders didn't make it to the finish line, but none of those were tire-related, Dani Pedrosa and Aleix Espargaro being taken out by boneheaded moves by Andrea Iannone and Stefan Bradl respectively, Broc Parkes retiring through injury, and Karel Abraham crashing all on his own.
All the talk of tires distracts from the achievement of Valentino Rossi. At the age of 35, in his 250th start in the premier class, Rossi brought home his second win of the season. He celebrated it like it was his first win, and in a way it was. Winning at 'one of the greatest circuits of the year', and nine years after his last win here made it very special, Rossi said. Knowing that he was competitive with Jorge Lorenzo, and not far off Marc Marquez made it even better. Rossi is back on form, and now has a slightly firmer hold on second place in the championship.
How did Rossi's win come about? You would not have put money on the Italian winning after the opening laps of the race. Marc Marquez got a great start for a change, only ceding the lead to Jorge Lorenzo off the line, with Bradley Smith moving up to second as they entered the first corner. From there, Marquez showed his genius, riding round the outside of Smith on the way into the Southern Loop, then using the fact he was pushed wide to cut inside of Lorenzo on the exit and take the lead. From that point on, Marquez was chasing history, pushing hard to take a twelfth win of the season, and to match Mick Doohan's record. His target was within reach when he went down, crashing out of the lead.
How did the crash happen? Temperatures had been dropping rapidly, and tires were cooling. Marquez had backed off a fraction, feeling that the tires were starting to cool. That turned out to be a mistake, as when he braked for the MG hairpin, the front simply washed out under him, leaving him with no chance.
Though much of the blame must go on the drop in ambient temperature, perhaps the cause can be attributed to the construction of the asymmetric front tire. The tire has two sections, a large part on the left-hand side and center consisting of harder rubber (which Bridgestone designates as soft), and the right-hand side made of the extra-soft rubber used on the symmetric extra soft tire. The extra-soft rubber was well off center, riders only getting on to it once they reached a lean angle of 30°.
While the left-hand side was getting up to temperature just fine, the center of the tire was cooling off as temperatures dropped and it went unused. Under the hard braking for MG, the cold rubber in the center of the tire simply let go, and Marquez fell. Both Cal Crutchlow and Pol Espargaro crashed in the same way, though they went down at Turn 4, the Honda hairpin. The issue, if there was one, is that the Hondas and Ducatis simply couldn't make the extra soft tire last. "With the Honda, the 31 [extra soft] was destroyed after ten laps," Marquez explained afterwards. The asymmetric 35 worked fine, until it got too cold.
The choice of using harder rubber of the center of the tire was a deliberate one by Bridgestone, and one which offered the braking stability which previous attempts at building asymmetric front tires had lacked. The theory behind the construction appears solid, but practice is a little more thorny, as ever. For a first outing, the tire did reasonably well – three of the riders who used the asymmetric tire crashed, but three more finished without problems. But there is room for improvement, and something for Bridgestone to work on next year, in their final season of MotoGP.
With Marquez out of the running, victory would be fought out between the two Yamahas. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo fought a fierce battle, swapping places multiple times while fighting for second. Marquez' crash coincided with the moment that Jorge Lorenzo's front tire started to deteriorate badly, the Spaniard losing the tow of his Movistar Yamaha teammate. Rossi pushed on, controlling the race as Cal Crutchlow inched closer. When he crossed the line, the joy with which he celebrated the win proved just how much fighting spirit there is left in the old man. He looked as pumped as the 19-year-old Jack Miller had earlier, when he had won the Moto3 race in front of his home crowd. That hunger is what drives Rossi to keep working, improving, trying to win, and why he keeps succeeding in his goals.
Rossi's win at Phillip Island was his first in nine years, which was reason enough. It also gave him six wins at the circuit, bringing him level with Casey Stoner. Was that an extra reason for joy, to equal the record of his bitterest rival? Perhaps. But Rossi is unlikely to admit to it.
Cal Crutchlow came tantalizingly close to his second podium of the season, before crashing at the Honda Hairpin, where so many crashes have happened over the weekend. It is a notorious spot, with Andrea Dovizioso describing it as 'like riding in the wet'. Like Marquez, Crutchlow was using the asymmetric tire, which just let go without warning. He had slowed up a little in the last few laps, though he knew he had to keep pushing to try to keep heat in the tire. The temperature drop was what did for him, however, the front folding before he even got the tire over onto the softer rubber.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. 'Devastated,' is how he described it afterwards. His team had worked so hard to get him where he was, he had worked so hard on his approach and riding style. To make it through to second was even more of an achievement, given that Andrea Iannone had nearly sideswiped him going into the first corner, dropping him well down the grid. Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the way he cut a swathe through the field to get to the front of the race, despite being knocked back by Iannone. Crutchlow looked nothing like the rider he was earlier in the season, when he was tentativeness personified. If you watched the race in black & white (yes, young folk, we once used to watch racing without color) you would have thought he was already riding a Honda. Crutchlow was assertive, forceful, fast. This, as I wrote yesterday, is how you ride a Ducati: don't bother trying to set it up, finding the bike's sweet spot is like looking for a needle in a haystack. You ride it like you stole it. Crutchlow was riding as if the fuzz were hot on his heels.
Crutchlow's crash both saved Lorenzo's hopes of taking second in the championship, and elevated Bradley Smith to his first podium in MotoGP. The Englishman could not believe it: he could see Lorenzo up ahead of him, and Rossi off in the distance, but he had no idea that Crutchlow had crashed out. He looked up at the big screens around the circuit, and thought they must be wrong. It took a moment to sink in, but when it did, it hit him like a freight train. Smith was ecstatic in Parc Ferme, almost as pleased as Rossi. He was close to tears in TV interviews, the weight of two long, hard seasons sliding off his shoulders. In the press conference, he thanked the Tech 3 team for their patience, and keeping faith in him, and giving him another chance next year.
Smith has been close to a good result all year, all he needed was for everything to come together. That finally happened at Phillip Island. Maybe Smith got a little lucky with the crashers ahead of him, but that does not detract from him deserving this, his 24th Grand Prix podium in all classes. He kept his head where others fell, and more importantly, he had to dispense with the large group that spent most of the race battling over fifth spot. He was smart enough to see Bradl coming in hot and heavy, and make sure he was out of the way of the impending disaster. He was chasing Pol Espargaro when his Tech 3 teammate went down in front of him. He shook off the chasing Andrea Dovizioso, eventually putting 2 seconds between himself and the Ducati. Smith needed to catch a break, and he finally did.
Positively dejected after the race was Jorge Lorenzo. The second Movistar Yamaha rider was distraught at the state of his front tire, the left side of which was utterly destroyed. There was no doubt in Lorenzo's mind that the tire was defective, despite the denials of Bridgestone. The tire lasted until the last third of the race, when it suddenly dropped off completely. Whether this was a combination of set up and riding style or just a production problem is hard to say. Lorenzo had spent time in practice trying out the asymmetric front, where Rossi had stuck with the extra soft front. Did less time on the tire mean Lorenzo's set up wasn't as good as Rossi's? Maybe. But maybe the tire really did have a problem. No doubt we will find out at Sepang, once Bridgestone have taken the tire away and examined it.
The attrition in midfield – coming more from poor riding than from tire troubles – made for an interesting final result. Andrea Dovizioso finished fourth, the best result for a Ducati at Phillip Island since Casey Stoner left the factory. Despite the result, Dovizioso had been anonymous all weekend, muddling along in mid pack, comprehensively outclassed by his teammate for the first time this season. The removal of Aleix Espargaro left Hector Barbera as the first Open class rider, and his best result in MotoGP. Barbera just crept ahead of Alvaro Bautista and Scott Redding, the trio separated by just a few hundredths. Scott Redding said it was the first race of the season he had enjoyed, taking the fight to his teammate on the superior RC213V. Two more races, and Redding will have one of his own.
In the end, the MotoGP race produced real entertainment. Was it a fiasco for Bridgestone and Dorna, ruined by faulty tires? For proof that it wasn't, you need only look back to 2013, when the race had to be shorted and mandatory pit stops added. When Bridgestone came to a resurfaced Phillip Island without having done any testing, and found their tires being destroyed, that was a fiasco. This year, the rear tires held up perfectly, though they were not offering the same grip as last year. The front tires worked well, but Bridgestone didn't quite get it right. Conditions were very different when they tested in March, the Japanese tire manufacturer building a tire that would have been perfect if it had been 5°C warmer. There is much for the riders to be unhappy about. But this was no 2013.
Of course, MotoGP wasn't the only race that happened at the Island. The support races had their fair share of excitement as well. Moto2 produced a good race again, the class finally getting into the swing of things as the season winds down. A group of five contested the win for much of the race, until Maverick Viñales once again pulled away at the front. It is his second win in three races, and his third of the year. Viñales is proving to be the exceptional rider that many believed he was, and if he wasn't moving up to MotoGP next year, would be a hot favorite for the Moto2 title.
As it is, that didn't get settled at Phillip Island after all. Tito Rabat may have dominated practice and qualifying, but they don't hand out points for that. In the race, Rabat got caught up in the slugfest for the lead, once again crossing the line to take a podium, behind Viñales and another excellent performance from Tom Luthi. It wasn't enough for the title, but he did extend his lead over his teammate Mika Kallio once again. A Marc VDS Racing rider is now certain to win the Moto2 title. But now 41 points behind Rabat, Kallio needs a miracle in the next two races.
Jack Miller didn't need a miracle at his home race to take his first victory since the Sachsenring in July. The Moto3 class delivered the kind of race we have come to expect of it: a big group of riders going at it hammer and tongs all race long. Attrition, mistakes, and some rough passes whittled the group down to six in the last couple of laps, with title candidates Miller, Alex Marquez and Alex Rins all at the forefront.
It looked liked the rider to lead out of the last corner would be the one to lose out. Anyone who did lead out of Swann Corner would immediately find themselves swamped by the rest in the Moto3 slipstreaming battle. So when Jack Miller took the lead on the final lap, many feared the worst. But Miller had a plan for the last lap, leading into the last corner with just a tiny gap to second. As they pulled onto the straight, he jinked left, breaking the tow of the two Estrella Galicia bikes which followed. It was enough to buy him a meter at the line, and give him victory over the two Alexes.
Less fortunate was the fact that it was Marquez who finished second, Miller only getting back five of the points he trails the Spaniard by in the championship. But it was an important moral victory, and a chance to swing the tide back in his favor. With two races left in the championship, Marquez has a 20 point lead over Miller, while Rins is 41 points behind. Both Miller and Rins will need help to wrest the title from Marquez' control, but it is far from settled. If Alex Marquez wins at Sepang, however, the Moto3 title will be done.