Racers are gamblers. The helmet designs featuring dice, cards and other gambling paraphernalia bear witness to that. They have to be gamblers, a willingness to take risks is a prerequisite to being fast on a motorcycle, running the odds through your mind and betting the house on your own ability to get the upper hand. Sometimes the gamble pays off, and when it does, the rewards are bountiful. Other times, however, you lose, leaving you a hard, hard row to hoe.
There are gambles to be taken at every MotoGP race, but Misano turned into the biggest casino the series has ever seen. Rain which came after the start then stopped again meant gambling on the right time to come in for tires – twice, once to go from slicks to wets, once to go from wets to slicks – left some riders reaping rich rewards, while others were left with empty hands. Come in too late for wets, and you could lose 10 seconds wobbling round on a wet track on slicks. Come in too late for slicks, and you could lose 10 seconds or more a lap trying to find grip on wet tires as they were tearing themselves apart. Be too cautious, as Cal Crutchlow did, and you could end up way down the finishing order. Push too hard too early, as Jorge Lorenzo did, and you could end up in the gravel.
That the rain came at all was a surprise. The forecast had been for hot and sunny weather on Sunday, as temperatures climbed through the weekend. It was only on Sunday morning that the first signs of trouble showed up, with rain and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Moto3 and Moto2 went off without a hitch, but as the MotoGP bikes headed out on their sighting laps, it was already spotting with rain. That spawned panic in the pit lane, with teams checking set up, and sometimes radically changing it on the spot. Front springs were being rapidly swapped, and at Suzuki, a new shock went into Maverick Viñales' wet bike.
The race started dry, and played out much as we had all hoped after qualifying. Jorge Lorenzo rocketed into the lead, but a hard-charging Marc Márquez followed by a fast Valentino Rossi kept him honest. A second separated the leaders for the first five laps, then the rain started coming down heavily. Lap times went through the roof, and it was clear that it was time to switch to the wet bikes. The mid-pack group led by Aleix Espargaro went in first on lap 6, followed by the leaders on lap 7. On lap 8, the stragglers came in, the track now thoroughly soaking. Andrea Dovizioso led this group, saying afterwards that this was where his race went wrong, getting his strategy wrong. This cost Cal Crutchlow dearly, gambling on Dovizioso's outstanding wet-weather skills, and suffering as a result of the Italian's mistake.
Bradley Smith made an even worse mistake, missing his window to come in and so deciding to stay out on slicks. In the short term, he started plummeting down the field, going from briefly leading the race when the pack went in to swap bikes, to bringing up the rear in P20. Smith realized his mistake immediately, but as he rounded the Misano track mulling whether to come in on the next lap, the rain started easing. The Tech 3 rider made a virtue of necessity, and decided to soldier on hoping for better weather. As he put it, he was "willing to die by the sword" and crash if necessary, having little to lose. Over and over he repeated to himself "luck favors the brave, luck favors the brave." He had 20 more laps to find out whether this aphorism would hold true.
After a brief reshuffle, the leaders were once again back together, and in the same order. But the balance of power was shifting, Rossi getting stronger as Márquez weakened. On lap 13, Rossi got past Márquez, and two laps later, he was past Lorenzo as well. By now, Márquez was starting to struggle with the bike, the wets vibrating as they shed their tread. Quickly losing ground to the two Movistar Yamahas, Márquez decided to pit. It was not an easy decision. "It was difficult to think on the bike because in the end you are riding on the limit. You must think how many seconds is the other rider, how is the track, how many laps remain? Try to calculate the lap time, what you can do in dry tires and wet tires."
As the track dried, Márquez' options became clearer. "In the end on wet tires when it start to be dry both Yamaha riders were faster than me. My bike was just shaking, shaking all the straight and then I say, okay, it’s time to go in because if I continue like this I cannot win the race. So my target only was win the race. And then I go in and when I go out with the slicks I feel that the track was more dry than what I expect. So that was the key, change the bike two laps earlier than the Yamaha riders."
Márquez' choice may not have an impact on the championship, but the choice of the Yamaha riders to stay out could well prove decisive in the title race. Rossi led, afraid to go into the pits while Lorenzo was behind him, with too much to lose. "Is always difficult because I know that if you come back into the pit earlier it is better for the result, but more risky. Two laps before I wanted to stop but it was still raining a little bit on the back straight and I thought if I stop and it restarts to rain, for me the result was very bad. Also I check a little bit Jorge and he was still behind me, so I decide to continue and I think one lap too much."
Lorenzo, meanwhile, was happily ignoring his pit board, which had been telling him to come in for some time. He was focused on Rossi, and trying to judge the right moment to come in, balancing the risk of more rain with the reward of possibly beating the Italian. "It is difficult to play everything with one card," Lorenzo said. "Maybe you can win if you enter quickly into the pits, but if you put the slick and then crash you can lose the championship and not have options for the rest of the season."
That's why Lorenzo spent his time behind his teammate, waiting to see what Rossi would do. "Knowing that I was second, I waited a little bit to see what Valentino was doing because if he entered the pits and I entered at the same time, with dry tires, maybe I could be faster than him afterwards. But if I enter the pits before him and then it starts raining, I could crash and get injured, or he might win and I lose 25 points. For this reason I decided to stay out. But maybe I made a mistake. One of the two mistakes of today."
The second mistake was more egregious, and could end up costing Lorenzo the title. When he came out of the pits he saw Scott Redding come flying by, and feared he was going way too slowly. He upped his pace before his tires were good and ready, and as he flicked left for turn 15, the first left hander after a long series of rights, he locked the front and went down. "When Redding passed me so quick, I lose a little bit the patience," Lorenzo said. That loss of patience could prove very costly indeed.
Rossi pitted on the next lap, but by then, he had ruled himself out of the podium. So far this season, he had not been off the podium, and as my photographer friend Cormac Ryan Meenan pointed out to me ahead of Misano, Rossi has not had back-to-back wins since 2009. Losing both a shot at the win and a podium was a bitter pill to swallow, and one that he had no one to blame for but himself. He had balanced risk and reward and come up short, fearing a bad result more than he desired a good one. As it was, Rossi got lucky, with Lorenzo getting distracted by Redding and taking himself out. Those fond of a constructed narrative like to attribute Lorenzo's crash to Rossi's fabled mind games, but that is stretching the facts beyond what they will bear. In truth, Lorenzo misjudged his pace, and forgot about the fact that one side of the tire had cooled. He panicked, and paid dearly for his panic. In a flag-to-flag race, cool heads must prevail more than ever.
In truth, both Rossi and Lorenzo misjudged the conditions badly, because they were focused on each other. Their minds full of what their main championship rival was doing, they had less eye for the opportunities afforded by the track. When Rossi, Lorenzo and Márquez were racing together, it was eminently clear – to the pit crews at least, who would have tried to communicate this with some urgency to their riders – that the first rider to pit would win the race. At least, they would if it were to stay dry. Márquez proved the truth of that point by going on to take victory after pitting first, while Rossi and Lorenzo looked at each other, and paid the price. Lorenzo's mistake is self-evident, a crash is costly when the margins are so very tight.
Rossi's error means he gained just 11 points on Lorenzo, rather than much more. If he had pitted earlier and Lorenzo had still crashed, he could have gained 16, perhaps 20 points on his teammate, extending his lead to 28 points or more, meaning he could afford to crash in a later race and still hold the lead in the championship, a very solid buffer. Even if Lorenzo hadn't crashed, the point differential for the podium spots means that finishing ahead of your rival gives you a much bigger gap in the championship. Fortune smiled on Rossi at Misano, but it was despite, rather than because of his actions.
When it comes down to it, whether Rossi deserves the 11 points or not is frankly irrelevant. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas. The fact is that Rossi has extended his lead by 11 points, and is now 23 points ahead of Lorenzo, and in a commanding lead. That does not mean the championship is over – Rossi himself said that he feared Lorenzo and Márquez were both faster than him at most tracks, with the threat of losing 9 points at each of the final rounds, and losing the championship. But the momentum is very firmly back in Rossi's court. Title number ten is a good deal closer than it was at Silverstone.
While the focus understandably was on on the ramifications of the Misano MotoGP race for the championship, the riders who finished ahead of Rossi proved the most deserving on the day. Having missed his window of opportunity, Bradley Smith soldiered bravely on, hoping circumstances would turn his way. They did, and how, but at the same time, his advantage was starting to be used against him. Once the track started to dry, his times started to drop, and the other teams started using him as a yardstick.
On lap 9, Smith had done a 2'18, some 34 seconds slower than his best lap so far. A couple more two-minute laps, and the track started to clean up. He knew there was still twenty or so laps to go, and there was a lot of racing to be done. He rode around avoiding the rubber on the track – that, especially, is what turns the track treacherous in the wet – and once the track started to dry, the gamble started to pay off. On lap 13, he was just a couple of seconds slower than the riders on wets, and next lap he was matching their pace. By lap 15, the track had started to dry considerably, Smith five seconds faster than the leaders, and Loris Baz, who had been the first of the riders on wets to pit, a couple of seconds slower. Next lap the advantage of Smith and Baz was ten seconds. Smith's deficit had gone from 1'17 to 23 seconds in the space of just six laps. By the time Rossi pitted for slicks, Smith was able to sail into second spot unopposed.
Smith's speed had a downside. The other teams were using him as a reference point, and had called their riders in when they saw his times dropping. That left Smith stuck behind Marc Márquez, and though he tried to catch him, the Repsol Honda rider's gap was just a little too large. Had Márquez pitted just one lap later, Smith said, he would have been in with a shot at victory.
Was Smith's podium a result of effort, or just a random fluke of events? A bit of both, Smith said, though he felt he deserved this podium very much more than the first one, which he took at Phillip Island last year. "This one was earned," Smith said afterwards. "Although a big gamble, it was still my decision and my talent and skill that kept me upright. It wasn’t luck. I decided to stay out there and I was riding at my max to try and stay upright and it paid off. Whereas Philip Island I was fortunate with a lot of riders crashing but this one was earned and it was to do with strategy and risk and gamble so this one feels more special." He had rolled the dice, and they had come up sevens. Alea iacta est, as Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon, the river just a few miles from the Misano World Circuit.
Behind Smith, Scott Redding took the final spot on the podium, with a big helping hand from Lady Luck. It didn't feel like he was being lucky at the time, but Redding's crash on lap 7 forced him to come in for a new bike with wet tires. That proved to be the perfect lap to swap to wets, giving Redding a bit of a head start. But the Marc VDS rider could not get a good feeling with his wet bike, and so as soon as the rain eased up, he was back into the pits for a dry bike. His second swap took place on lap 14, a lap after Loriz Baz and well ahead of most others on the grid. It meant he got on to slicks early, and was already pushing hard when the rest followed his lead. He chased down Baz, and took over the final spot on the podium, happy to finally get on the box. It was good to be able to reward Honda, he said, after several difficult races with the RC213V.
Redding's speed bumped poor Loriz Baz off the podium, and though the Frenchman was delighted with fourth, he definitely deserved more. Baz proved himself a master of strategy, timing both bike swaps to perfection. His first swap was as part of the big group that came in with Aleix Espargaro, but his second swap was entirely of his own devising. He had not even had time to signal his crew to be ready, Baz said, hoping only that his team would have his bike ready and waiting. It was fortunate that the Forward Racing garage was such a long way down pit lane, as when he entered pit lane, he saw his bike still had the tire warmers on and was up on the stands. His team had divested the bike of its tire warmers and had the bike ready and raring to go within ten seconds, Baz losing almost nothing in the pits.
Once out, he was one of the quickest riders on the grid, with only Bradley Smith for company. For a long time, Baz looked like he would be on for a podium, but once Redding got up to speed, he was just too fast for the Frenchman. Clearly Redding was faster than Baz, but the Frenchman's tactics and judgment should not go unrewarded. Baz did the best job of analyzing and understanding the conditions, and was rewarded handsomely for his effort. He took aim at Aspar after the race. A year ago, the Spanish team boss had told him he was too tall for MotoGP. After the race at Misano, Baz was clear. "I'm not too tall!"
The result was also good news for the Forward Racing team. The team has been in disarray since the arrest of team boss Giovanni Cuzari in Switzerland. Cuzari's lawyer told us that the charges of corruption are likely to be dropped against him, meaning that if Dorna are willing, he will get to remain boss of the Forward squad, and Forward will remain in MotoGP. Though charges still remain against Cuzari, they are far less serious than those of corruption.
Why did so many riders get it wrong at Misano? A contributing factor was the new asphalt, which is much darker than the asphalt usually used. The darker surface made it very difficult to see a drying line, making it harder for the riders to tell whether and just how fast the track was drying. That led several riders to stay out for much longer than they might have on wet tires, rather than pit for slicks. On the other hand, drying lines are not the responsibility of the organizers, but instead, of the riders who have to judge them.
With clear evidence hard to find, riders should perhaps have believed their intuition, rather than their eyes. But from the sidelines, that is a good deal easier to say than it is to actually understand when you are on the bike. Fortunately for Misano, for the weird weather and dark asphalt combined to make the Misano round of MotoGP a thrilling and fascinating spectacle.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.