We have been here before, of course. The history of problems with spec tires is long and varied. In 2012, at Assen, the tires of several riders, including Valentino Rossi and Ben Spies, ended up losing chunks, causing huge problems in the race. The cold tire highsides of 2009 and 2010, which saw Hiroshi Aoyama crack a couple of vertebrae, an injury which ended his career as a competitive racer, and Valentino Rossi break his leg, forcing him to miss a race for the first time in his career. And of course the debacle at Phillip Island in 2013, when Bridgestone discovered that the tires they had brought could not cope with the stresses imposed by the new, much faster surface, forcing Race Direction to grant themselves new emergency powers, cut the race to two thirds' distance, and impose a mandatory pit stop.
If you think the problems are because of a lack of tire competition, you would be sorely mistaken. There were plenty of issues with tires in the heat of competition. Shinya Nakano's Bridgestone exploding along Mugello's front straight is perhaps the most famous, leaving Nakano sliding down the tarmac at close to 300 km/h. But there were plenty of others. Like the time Valentino Rossi's front Michelin started chunking at Shanghai in 2006, forcing him to retire and putting him 32 points behind Nicky Hayden, who would go on to win the championship. Or Laguna Seca 2008, when the Michelin riders were forced to use intermediates on Saturday morning, because they had been expecting sweltering California heat, rather than mist and cold making track temperatures plummet.
Beating non-existent competition
In a strange way, Michelin's early problems are precisely because there IS tire competition. The lap records set by Bridgestone hang over MotoGP like Banquo's ghost at the feast, and Michelin are keen to sweep as many away as possible in the first year of their return to MotoGP. After all, how would it look if the lap times on the 2016 Michelins were a second or more off the pace of the Bridgestones they replaced? And so Michelin have come in with tires which are capable of smashing lap records, at least at some tracks. They feel the need to stamp their authority on the series.
Ask anyone from Michelin, and they will strenuously deny any such accusation. Their aim, they will tell you, is to prove their tires are reliable, capable of withstanding incredible stresses, and providing outstanding durability. Performance is nice, of course, but above all, the tires must be durable. It is a somewhat transparent untruth: no race fan is going to point to Rossi or Márquez' rear tire and say "Wow! Look at how well preserved it is!" No, they will look at the lap times, listen out for the words "lap record", base their judgment of Michelin on that. That, too, would be a mistake – MotoGP tires are a very different beast to road tires, though technologies do transfer – but it is a nice, simple, obvious way of measuring performance. Judging tire performance in relation to durability is a complex art, and does not condense easily into a simple message. In an ideal world, this is what motorcycle racing would promote. But no world in which golf is considered a sport can be considered in any way, shape or form ideal.
In many ways, Michelin's return to MotoGP can be considered an enormous success. Just to be within spitting distance of Bridgestone's lap records at the first attempt is an incredible achievement. The tires may be fundamentally different to the Bridgestones – something which is still catching riders out – but the tires are at the very least comparable, and in some ways superior to the Japanese rubber. The rear tire is a work of in much the same way that Bridgestone's front tire was: capable of bearing almost infinite loads without complaint, and stacking performance upon performance.
But the Michelins, too, have their limits. The preparatory work done by Michelin has been outstanding, but practical constraints have left them reliant on other factors. Michelin has tested at every track on the calendar, to gather data for the tires they are building this year. However, the cost of flying MotoGP bikes with their attendant test teams and riders to circuits around the world, at a time when the tracks are available, poses severe practical problems. When Colin Edwards flew to Argentina last year to test the Michelins, he spent much of the time in the garage, sheltering from the rain. In an ideal world, he would have gone back for another test, but this is not an ideal world. People choose to watch tennis of their own accord, so I am told.
At other tracks, that would be less of a problem. Misano, for example is a fine track, but poses no real specific problems. But Jarno Zafelli, the intimidating genius behind Studiodromo, the team who reconfigured the Termas de Rio Hondo track, wanted to create fastest circuit on the calendar. He fell just short of that target – Phillip Island retains that crown, Termas producing similar speeds to Mugello, Silverstone, and Assen – but the challenging nature of Termas de Rio Hondo means that it places incredible loads on the tires. Long, fast corners provide plenty of time for heat to build up on tires, especially in places like Turn 6, where riders are also full on the gas. That places very particular demands on the tires, very similar indeed to those at Phillip Island.
Heat, camera, action!
So it should not really come as a surprise that there were problems with tires in Argentina. For a start, there is the fact that the weather is unusually warm, generating very high track temperatures. On Friday, the track was 15°C warmer than it has ever been when MotoGP has visited, and things were not that much better on Saturday, when it was 4 or 5°C hotter than in previous years. The track's saving grace on Friday was that it was so dirty, lap times two and a half seconds off the race lap record. On Saturday, with the track cleaned up, the faster lap times more than compensated for the drop in temperature, loads increasing exponentially. With greater loads came greater tire temperatures, until eventually, something had to give.
What gave was the medium compound rear Michelin on Scott Redding's Pramac Ducati. During FP4, the tire suddenly shed its rubber, the upper tire layers exploding through the rear seat unit of his GP15 and slapping Redding viciously on the back. With tire debris strewn all over the track, Race Direction had no choice but to red flag the session. Clearly, there was something badly wrong.
That was obviously the right choice, but what followed was obviously the wrong one. After a space of just a few minutes, the riders were sent back out again. A couple of minutes later, and the red flags were out again, the session halted once again over safety concerns. It was clear there was an issue with the tires, and it needed looking in to. Twenty minutes later, the riders were sent out once again. There was only four minutes left of FP4, to be followed by qualifying, a session in which riders rarely spent more than three laps on a tire. The risks of a similar delamination were low, it was judged.
That was probably correct, but the question remains as to why the riders were sent back out again the first time. It was obvious there was a tire problem, yet nobody was sufficiently concerned to call a halt to proceedings. Only after further discussion between Dorna, IRTA and Michelin was it decided to call the whole thing off. Why it took so long to make the right call, but most especially, why the riders were allowed to continue at all is an utter mystery.
What actually happened to Scott Redding's tire? We do not know, and we will not know for several weeks. The tire and its constituent parts are to be shipped back to Clermont Ferrand for further investigation. Only then will the world's media be told what happened, though most probably, by then we will be engrossed on Jorge Lorenzo move to Ducati, Suzuki's interest in Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, and the pressing matter of whether Emilio Alzamora will allow Honda to sign Alex Rins.
There are a few things which seemed self-evident. Scott Redding is probably heaviest rider on the grid, despite his self-imposed starvation diet. He is also one of the tallest, though Loris Baz manages to best the Englishman in that department. Above all, both Redding and Baz – he of the exploding rear Michelin at Sepang – were using the Ducati Desmosedici, the most powerful engine on the grid. Were the problems for Redding and Baz a result of their height, and their weight?
Probably, but Michelin cannot afford to take any risks. So instead of withdrawing the medium compound and forcing everyone to race on the hard, Michelin has decided to scrap both rear tires, and replace it with the 'safety tire', the extra construction Michelin brought to Argentina, as they were obliged to under the rules. For Sunday, the MotoGP riders will be issued with an extra-stiff tire, using medium compound rubber on a much stiffer carcass. This carcass should cope better with the loads imposed in cornering. And to allow the teams to set up the new tire with their bikes, they were all given an extra half hour of free practice, to be held at 9am, before warm up has started.
Where did they get this tire from? The rules, and the commercial contracts signed between Dorna and Michelin, means they must bring an additional tire to every race, just as Bridgestone did before Michelin took over. They had these tires in the back of the proverbial truck, just as you might expect.
That, at least, is the theory, yet practice could be a much harsher mistress. The weather at Termas de Rio Hondo is extremely unsettled with rain expected to fall for most of the day on Sunday. The extra time may not be needed, raining throwing the race a complete curve ball.
What happens in that case is a complete unknown. Even worse, what happens if it is wet in the morning but dry in the afternoon, or wet in the morning but dry enough for a flag-to-flag race in the afternoon, remains to be seen. There is as yet no plan from Race Direction. But their plan is most like just to try to have the race run as smoothly and as safe as possible.
What does this all mean for the race? The Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha teams both issued press releases after the official confirmation that Michelin had withdrawn the official tires in favor of a third compound. The general tenor of their answers were all the same: the bike was fine, but they had no idea how things would work out in the race. Sunday is going to be a lottery.
Is that really Michelin's fault? A little, perhaps. But most of all what this demonstrates is that you cannot plan for every contingency. Sometimes, you have to just go with the flow, and hope for the best.
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