There were a lot of firsts at Brno on Sunday. Perhaps the most consequential was the fact that we saw the first wet race in the MotoGP/500 class ever to be held at the Masarykring, the modern purpose-built circuit which replaced the old road circuit at Brno. That had a lot of knock on effects: we saw a surprise winner in the premier class, a shift in the championship, and a long race of strategy, where some riders got it spot on, and others got it horribly wrong. All this without the race even having to be restarted, or riders having to pass through the pits. Though of course, some did...
The MotoGP race was both fascinating and entertaining, and an object lesson in how changing weather can make morning warm up lead riders down the wrong path. On a sodden track, with the rain still falling heavily in the morning, there were serious concerns among some riders that the softest compound wet tire which Michelin had brought was not going to be soft enough to provide enough grip. "This morning with the extra soft the tire was completely new after nine laps," Andrea Dovizioso said.
It rained throughout the Moto3 race – which provided enormous entertainment, a first-time winner and another first-time podium visitor – and kept raining during Moto2 – a less exciting affair, but one which still managed to shake up the championship. The rain eased off on the final laps of Moto2, then just about stopped in the break between the end of the Moto2 race and the start of MotoGP. It was a welcome development for us hacks: chasing through the paddock to talk to Moto3 riders after the race, we had endured a soaking. The same run down to the other end of the paddock in search of Moto2 riders was a far more pleasant affair. The need to scurry from garage to garage under the shelter of balconies was gone.
Crystal ball time
All this put the MotoGP riders in a terrific dilemma. The track was still completely wet, with water still flowing across it in some places. At the same time, the sky was growing visibly brighter, clouds were lifting slightly, and it had stopped raining. They had a choice to make between the two compounds of rain tire which Michelin had brought. Most plumped for the safe option, sticking with the soft tires at both front and rear.
The weather would prove crucial. Based on experience and intuition, they took a chance on different combinations. MotoGP photographer Cormac Ryan Meenan messaged a group of journalists that he had overheard Valentino Rossi say he believed the track would be dry 25 minutes into the race. Jorge Lorenzo thought otherwise. "My instincts say that the track will not dry up soon enough to change bike," he told reporters. On a full wet track, the soft wets would be the only viable option. On a drying track, the hard wets – or if it was dry enough, the intermediates – would be the best choice. If the track dried quickly, it would be better to use up the extra grip of the soft wets, before going in for slicks. If it dried slowly, then hard wets were the best option for the race. Riders gambled. Some won. Most lost.
Luck or judgment?
The right bet proved to be the hard tire at the rear, and probably the hard tire at the front as well. But was it really a gamble, or an educated guess? "People are always going to say, is it a gamble, is it not a gamble?" eventual winner Cal Crutchlow said "I was adamant that was what I was doing. So, is that a gamble? I don’t think it is. That’s what I wanted to do, and I did it." The job of the rider and his crew is to make their best assessment of conditions, figure out the optimum set up for those conditions, and then ride to them, extracting maximum performance from themselves, their bikes, and the tires they choose. Get any one of those steps wrong, and they lose. But the rewards are rich for getting it right.
It certainly didn't feel like the right choice at the beginning of the race. "The first laps were a nightmare," Valentino Rossi told the press conference, after he chose the hard rear tire and the soft front. "I was desperate. I did a mistake another time, everybody overtake from the outside, from the inside." Cal Crutchlow concurred. "Actually the [hard] rear was the worst part because it was really difficult the first five laps to go in the left-hand corner, go in and come out. It was quite dangerous. I nearly crashed a couple of times."
As the laps ticked off, it was evident that the hard rear was the right choice. In the early laps, the riders with the hard rear went backwards, Jorge Lorenzo dropping through the field like a stone after a very strong start, the same as Rossi and Crutchlow. After five laps, the hard tires started to come into their own. Both Rossi and Crutchlow stopped losing ground on lap five, and the next lap they found themselves the fastest riders on the grid. On lap 6, Crutchlow was ten seconds down, but nearly a second a lap faster than the race leader Andrea Iannone. On lap 7, he was 1.6 seconds a lap faster. A couple of laps later, his advantage had grown to nearly two seconds a lap, and he was closing fast.
He joined the leading group on lap 13, sitting in behind Andrea Iannone for a couple of laps before pulling the pin and opening a gap. He would have no challengers for the rest of the race, and cruised home to victory. "Honestly, I was cruising around," Crutchlow said after the press conference." I was playing with them. When I was with that group I was rolling the throttle. I wanted to follow one guy per lap to let the laps go down because it was boring." He was not exaggerating: by the time he crossed the line – wasting time looking over his shoulder, and pulling a massive stand up wheelie – he was over seven seconds ahead of Valentino Rossi, and 24 seconds ahead of the man he had taken the lead from earlier.
Valentino Rossi had set a similarly spectacular pace, but had been forced to ease up a little to save the softer front tire he had selected. The Italian was in full tire management mode for the last few laps. While the rear was still providing grip, the front needed to be nursed home. Rossi was still faster than everyone on the grid bar Crutchlow, Loris Baz and Eugene Laverty, but only Crutchlow was ahead of him. Rossi took the points on the table, realizing the harder front might have been the better choice.
Succeeding despite the wrong choice
While we must admire the intelligence of the choices made by Crutchlow and Rossi, the strength of Marc Márquez' performance cannot be overstated. Márquez had gambled on the track drying out, and so had kept the soft front and soft rear. He benefited from the soft tire in the early laps, as did everyone on the soft tires. But he managed the tires throughout the race, being even more careful towards the end, seeking out water on the track wherever he could find it to help cool the tires.
To take third at Brno, with tires entirely unsuited to the job at hand, is a testament to both his skill at managing conditions, and the almost uncharacteristic calm he is exuding this season. The win it or bin it attitude is gone. Now, Márquez is playing the long game, having decided that winning races is nice, but winning championships is nicer. It is a hard lesson learned last year.
Márquez could have faced much fiercer competition for the final podium spot, if Loris Baz and Eugene Laverty had gotten a better start, and taken some places in the early laps. But both men had struggled early, the set up for the harder tire costing them while the track was still wet. "I was angry with myself, because into turn three at the start I lost four or five positions because with the hard rear tyre I had no grip and it went sideways," Eugene Laverty told us. "Track position was so important in those early laps because the guys I was racing were all on the softer rear and I'd be on their back wheel but they'd slingshot out of corners."
For Baz, the issue was a slightly oversprung rear shock. "Maybe the rear shock was too hard because I was losing a lot on the exit of corners and couldn't overtake anyone," Baz said, speaking to us in a garage filled with elated team members and guests, every one of them with a glass of champagne in their hands. "It took me two laps to overtake an Aprilia and Eugene so that's where I lost the time for third place but this is still fantastic!" There was double the reason for celebration in the Avintia garage, Hector Barbera having finished fifth behind Baz, making it fourth and fifth for the team. Barbera had gone with the soft option, but had again managed his tires well, finishing ahead of Eugene Laverty and demoting him to sixth.
The key to success
What did the riders who were fast at the end of the race all have in common? They were all on the hard rear tire. Even Jorge Lorenzo, who by that time was a lap down, was on a charge, and the fastest man on track. So fast, indeed, that he was able to get back past Rossi and Márquez to reduce his deficit from two to just a single lap. Like his teammate, he had started on the hard rear and soft front, but unlike his teammate, the soft front hadn't lasted.
After dropping back from second on the grid to sixteenth, he clawed his way back up to tenth. In doing so, he set a lap time only matched by Cal Crutchlow. That proved to be too much for Lorenzo's soft front wet tire, the central strip of rubber partially detached, making the bike very hard to ride. He came into the pits to swap bikes, hoping his team would swap the front tire. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he rolled into the pits and stopped in just the wrong spot, the damaged part of the tire facing down, and hidden by the tarmac. To his team, and crew chief Ramon Forcada, the front tire looked perfect, when it wasn't.
It's the pits
That caused problems in the pits. A heated discussion followed Lorenzo's attempt to switch bikes, but the team finally understood. "Firstly, they didn't understand, because the zone where I stopped the bad part of tire was on the tarmac, so the front tire looked perfect," Lorenzo explained. "So it was only when they moved the bike that they understood that the tire was missing a piece. So that's probably why Ramon didn't understand why I wanted to bike. So I changed to slicks, but the track was too wet, so it was really really dangerous. I just wanted to finish the lap and change again the bike, because it was not worth it to keep riding. And very bad luck, because with this tire, we couldn't finish the race, like Dovizioso, like Iannone."
When Lorenzo came in for the second time, he switched back to wets, with a brand new front. That put him back into contention, and made him once again the fastest man on track. After such a strange sequence of events, the easy conclusion to draw was that Lorenzo was once again suffering in the wet. Easy, but incorrect, as the timesheets showed: with the hard rear and soft front, Lorenzo was slow at the beginning, like everyone else who started on the hard rear. But once the hard rear came in, Lorenzo was competitive.
The defective front tire left the Spaniard feeling frustrated. "I was probably the fastest rider in this moment, together with Cal and Rossi, who were more or less the fastest on track," he said. "And I feel I could be even faster, to finish surely 3rd, and maybe even 2nd. But I couldn't finish the race."
Front tire woes
Lorenzo wasn't the only rider to suffer with issues with the front tire. By now, anyone with a Social Media account will have seen the shots of Andrea Iannone's front tire. Having lost most of the rubber tread, Iannone kept on going, managing to finish eighth, almost miraculous under the circumstances.
Others suffered similar problems. Maverick Viñales started having issues with his front tire on lap 17, Scott Redding's front tire was shot by lap 20. Lorenzo's tire had gone on lap 15, right after he set his fastest lap of the race up until that point. Andrea Dovizioso had the worst of it, his front losing rubber on lap 10, before the halfway mark.
With so many tires losing rubber, are Michelin's wet tires unsafe? That would be an easy conclusion to draw, but like so many easy conclusions, probably incorrect. There are a couple of common themes running through the front tire failures, which point to obvious causes.
The right tire for the right conditions
The main one, which Michelin Motorsports boss Nicolas Goubert pointed out to me, and then reiterated in the press release, is that the soft tires were made for full wet conditions. The reason for bringing two different compounds of wet tires was to cope with a wide range of conditions. The soft tire was meant to deal with a track that was absolutely soaking, with patches of water. The rubber is almost as soft as chewing gum, and incredibly sticky. The hard tire is meant to help clear water from a drying track, and withstand the heat generated by a dry line.
In short, the riders who chose the soft tires were taking a big gamble, and using the tires for conditions they were not designed to handle. Many riders – among them Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales – had expected to come in and swap bikes at some point as the track dried. The soft tires were more than capable of handling half race distance on a drying track, being swapped for intermediates or slicks.
But the track didn't dry out enough to allow riding with slicks, or even intermediates. There were large sections of the circuit which remained fully wet, while others had a wide drying line. More experienced riders understood that the track would not dry out as quickly as it had at the Sachsenring, because of the nature of the circuit. "At the Sachsenring, it was possible to switch over to slicks because it dried so quickly," Eugene Laverty explained. "There's one line at that track, and it's just a case of joining the dots between the apexes. Here there are so many left to right corners and there's a lot of variation in the lines here between the different bikes so the track wouldn't dry as quick. It's one line in Germany but there's so many left to rights here that riders are going everywhere. "
The downside of downforce
Laverty had chosen the hard rear, but stuck with the soft front. And here's where another common factor comes into play. Of the five bikes which had issues with the front tire, four have massive winglets, and the fifth has just had its winglets enlarged. Those winglets place a considerable additional stress on the front tire – they are designed to do so, to allow the bike to accelerate harder without creating any extra wheelie.
Sources with knowledge of the subject insist that the Ducati GP15s and GP16s produce around 10% more torque than the GP14.2s, yet in Austria, out of the slow corners, they were only showing around six or seven millimeters of wheelie. The GP14.2s, with less power and now wings, were getting their front wheels well into the air, with wheelie measured in centimeters rather than millimeters.
The Ducatis also offer a lot more engine braking than other bikes, which can affect the rear tire as well. That was one reason Andrea Dovizioso believed he had overheated his front tire, as he had tried to save the rear tire by stressing it less. "I didn't use the maximum power I was able to use and I tried to be smooth with the rear tire, so I created overheating on the front tire. That's why I lose the piece [from the front tire]."
For Iannone and Redding, the issue was not that their fronts went, but that they lasted so long. For Viñales, perhaps he pushed a little too hard in the early laps, and paid the price later on. For Lorenzo, he was pushing very hard when the tire went, in the final third of the race. Dovizioso is the only anomaly, losing tread even before the halfway mark.
The blame game?
So were the tire failures because Michelin brought inadequate material, or because the teams were using the material improperly? For the most part, the latter explanation is the most realistic. Expecting the soft wet tires to last on a drying track was unrealistic, and so the teams should have fitted the hard fronts, especially for riders who stress the front more. That they didn't is also understandable. "This morning with the extra soft the tire was completely new after nine laps," Dovizioso said.
This comes down in part to a lack of experience, both on the part of Michelin and on the part of the teams. There has not been much rain at MotoGP tracks up until Assen, and so Michelin have not had data to work on tire design, and the teams have not had data to try to understand the behavior of the tires. In particular, how the winglets affect the performance of the tires is an issue, and one which appears to have been overlooked.
It is also clear that tire managed plays an important role. Valentino Rossi managed to finish the race with the soft front, despite his teammate having an issue. Marc Márquez and Hector Barbera finished with soft tires, and Eugene Laverty used the soft front. Of the top six riders, only two used the hard front, while four used the hard rear. Yet they all still finished within fourteen seconds of each other. Take away Cal Crutchlow's monster 7.3 second advantage, and places two to six finished within six and a half seconds of one another, with a complete mix of tires.
Lessons to learn
Yet the fact that Dovizioso's front tire went after ten laps is a concern. Even taking into account the factory Ducati rider's stressing the front by attempting to save the rear, and the added downforce of the winglets, ten laps is not very long, even in difficult conditions. There are lessons here to be learned for Michelin. But they need to learn the right ones.
In the past, Bridgestone learned a lot about building rain tires which were capable of withstanding the punishment of a dry or drying track by sending a test rider out on wet tires to circulate on a completely dry track. Their instructions were to keep lapping until the tires destroyed themselves, after which the tires and the data was analyzed. That produced rain tires of phenomenal endurance. If Michelin are not already doing this, then maybe they could start.
And now the championship?
The tire shenanigans had a serious impact on the MotoGP championship. Marc Márquez' cool head allowed him to extend his lead in the title race, despite finishing behind Valentino Rossi. Jorge Lorenzo's dismal day saw him tumble to third in the standings, a couple of points behind his teammate. But Márquez' advantage is now 53 points, with just seven races to go. So far, in addition to riding maturely and brilliantly, Márquez has also had a great deal of luck.
Or rather, his rivals have had bad luck, made poor decisions, or struggled with the tires. Valentino Rossi's engine blow up at Mugello was just bad luck, but his crashes in Austin and Assen were all down to pushing too hard too early. Jorge Lorenzo has had awful trouble in the wet, but also been taken out by Andrea Iannone at Barcelona. Take away those zeros, and the championship is a lot tighter than it looks.
On the other hand, Marc Márquez hasn't made the same mistakes as the Movistar Yamaha rider. And in the end, that's what counts: it is not enough to win, you also have to ensure you don't lose.
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