Though I am not one to blow my own trumpet, my Phillip Island preview turned out to be prophetic. (Of course, it helped that my prediction was written just a few hours before the start of practice in Australia.) The Southern Ocean imposed its will on the Australian Grand Prix, and heavy rain and strong winds hampered morning practice, then caused the afternoon practice to be called off.
All three classes used their sessions in the morning, and the Moto3 class set off boldly for FP2, despite worsening conditions. They battled through to an increasingly damp finish, but the rain intensified, postponing MotoGP FP2 for some 40 minutes. Eventually, the session was given the green light, but only a few riders went out to attempt a few laps. After thirteen minutes, Race Direction decided it was too dangerous. FP2 was red-flagged, and all action canceled for the rest of the day.
The poor weather made most of the day's action meaningless, but it also had an upside. Hector Barbera finished the red-flagged FP2 session as fastest, while Mike Jones, his replacement in the Avintia team ending in second. Whatever the circumstances of the session, that goes down in the record books forever. Just as Josh Hayes timed his fast lap in morning warm up at Valencia in 2011 to perfection, and ended up quickest, Mike Jones can say he was second fastest in a MotoGP practice.
The weather gods intervene
The loss of practice for MotoGP and Moto2 will now have to be compensated. Practice starts an hour earlier than scheduled for Moto3, while both MotoGP and Moto2 have been given an extra 15 minutes of practice for FP3, meaning they will both have a whole hour. Even though rain is still forecast to fall, that should be long enough to put in some decent laps, and sort out who gets directly into Q2.
For at the moment, things are a little topsy turvy. Worsening weather meant that the fastest times were set in FP1, especially in the first quarter of an hour. Those who went out early got a good shot at a decent time; those who waited ended up at the tail end of the timesheets, as the track got wetter and three or four seconds slower.
With conditions so wet, there are the names you might expect to see at the front. Brno winner Cal Crutchlow topped FP1, ahead of wet-weather podium man Danilo Petrucci and Assen victor Jack Miller. Marc Márquez ended fourth, ahead of Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales.
Rules, tires, confusion
Valentino Rossi had ended the session in second place, but his time was taken away from him after it turned out he had put in more than ten laps on the extra soft rain tire, in contradiction to the instructions from Michelin. That was a rather harsh punishment, and one which Rossi disagreed with. "They say to me, 'you have to do maximum ten laps'. And I did nine laps. The problem is that they count also the out lap and in lap, so it became eleven and they **** all my run," he said afterwards.
Where the fault lies is not immediately evident, though it would be reasonable to suspect that this was a miscommunication. The teams were told they could not do ten consecutive laps on the extra soft front, and the interpretation of that rule seems to be where it all went wrong. Rossi and his team assumed that it meant ten flying laps, whereas Race Direction are interpreting it as ten laps including the in and out lap.
Stop me if you've heard this one before
There is a small irony here, of course. Throughout his career, Marc Márquez has been accused of copying Valentino Rossi – the pass at The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, and the pass in the final corner at Jerez are most often mentioned – but this time, Rossi copied Márquez. In 2013, at Phillip Island, it was Márquez who got punished for doing too many laps on a tire. Márquez definitely came off worse, though, as in 2013, he was black-flagged in the race, after Bridgestone brought a rear tire that was not able to handle the newly resurfaced Phillip Island.
Speaking to the press, Michelin's Nicolas Goubert put the confusion down to the way the rules are for the single tire supplier. When they bring tires to a race, they either have to be capable of full race distance, or be limited to a given number of laps. For rain tires, that can be especially complicated: conditions in the rain can vary wildly, depending on the amount of water on the track and ambient temperatures.
That was the case for the extra soft tire, it seems. Michelin had brought it as a safety tire, knowing how tricky conditions can be at the circuit. But they had underestimated the amount of rain the Southern Ocean can dump on the circuit, and that had given the tire more life. "If the conditions stay as they were this morning, for sure you can do 30 laps," Goubert told reporters. If a similar situation occurred in the future, Michelin would look at lifting the ten-lap limit, he said. But with memories of what happened with a similar tire at Brno, they were loath to do that this weekend.
Simple solution: stop bowing for F1
A simpler remedy to the situation would be to hold the MotoGP race at a different time of year, something which Valentino Rossi pressed for strongly. "I am one of the riders that push more to change the date of this Grand Prix," he told reporters, "because it is a shame to come here in the winter. Particularly because it's a great track, and if you have the sun – for television, also for riding the bike – it's something fantastic for MotoGP."
"I push a lot, but Carmelo always say to me it is impossible to modify the date because the Formula One is in March," Rossi said. Both the F1 Grand Prix and MotoGP are run the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, and they do not want to have their two big events back to back. That is not a decision Rossi agrees with. "Is a shame because for example in Japan this happens," Rossi said. "So one week is Formula One and the next MotoGP. And this year also in Italy: Monza - Misano. Full of people, everything is good. I think it's a good idea to come here to open the championship in March or after Qatar, when have good weather. I try, but I don’t have enough power."
Perhaps the bigger stumbling block is the Grand Prix at Qatar, though. The Losail International Circuit pays a huge premium – around double the usual fee – for the right to organize the opening race of each MotoGP season. There is a good reason for that: if Qatar were at a different time of year, then it would generate far less interest. With the race just one facet of Qatar's attempts to promote itself as a haven for sports, and gloss over its appalling record on treating foreign workers, they need all the attention they can get.
The rain holds demons
Valentino Rossi's demotion put him down to twentieth place, one place behind his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard's lap times were dismal, ending the session nearly 4.7 seconds off the pace of fastest man Crutchlow. Lorenzo himself played down his slow times, saying he went on track late, and only did a few laps before the weather got worse. "Not so many conclusions, not so much push, not so many risks," he said.
There may be some merit in that argument, but it is also true that while Lorenzo was lapping in the 1'45s, that was the time that many of the riders were putting in their fastest laps, some three or four seconds faster. Perhaps this is a sign that Lorenzo is still carrying a rain monkey on his back, fearing the feeling in wet weather. Yet at the Sachsenring and Brno, both wet races, he reported making big strides forward. That progress is borne out by the timesheets, though not in the results, other factors coming into play. Whether the rain is still Lorenzo's bogey man will have to be seen.
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