The weather usually plays a role when racing in the UK, in any discipline, but Saturday at Silverstone, the rain took center stage. Not just because of the way it forced the MotoGP riders to pick their strategy very carefully, making timing and tire management absolutely crucial. But also because a heavy downpour at the southern end of the track created massive problems, and kicked off a serious debate.
More than that, it caused a bunch of riders to crash during FP4, starting with Alex Rins at Stowe, or Turn 7 as the riders tend to call it, to avoid confusion during debriefs. Then Tito Rabat crashed in the same place. Then Franco Morbidelli, whose bike hit Rabat who was sitting in the gravel, smashing into the Reale Avintia rider's right leg, breaking his tibia, fibula, and femur, requiring surgery and putting him out of the running for a long time, if not for the remainder of the season.
Having been the first to fall, Alex Rins did his best to emulate Kevin Schwantz at Donington in 1992, running out into the gravel to warn other riders to take care, while all around him, riders headed into the gravel, unable to brake on the water-soaked surface. Jorge Lorenzo came flying by, as did others, until eventually the session was red flagged.
Those crashes triggered a chain of events which saw the MotoGP race start moved forward to 11:30am local time, to avoid the expected heavy rain on Sunday afternoon, which could have made it difficult to run the race. It caused delays as the riders were forced to wait for the return of the medical helicopter, which had flown Tito Rabat to hospital in Coventry. And it created a fascinating spectacle during qualifying, where timing ended up being everything.
Half and half
First, qualifying. The soaking the southern half of the track received – from the Hangar Straight all the way round to Abbey, or Turn 11 – during FP4 was not matched by the rain in the northern section. Stood in pit lane, the rain was miserable, but not unbearable, while much heavier rain fell further south. A result, most likely, of the fact that Silverstone is spread out over a large area, and the winds blow rain in, out, and around in unpredictable patterns. The delay resulting from the cancellation of the final minute and a half of FP4 gave the track time to dry out. But it only really dried out in the northern half, from the Wellington Straight round to Maggotts and Becketts.
Bradley Smith grabbed the bull by the horns in Q1, going straight to medium wets where others were more cautious in choosing the soft wets. Smith's courage was generously rewarded, the KTM rider putting several seconds into his rivals at the start of Q1, the others only catching up right at the very end of the session.
"In qualifying I just had a feeling," Smith said. "I was out on the mediums, I knew most of the track was dry and just had to check out the three corners at the back. Once I realized they had pretty good grip I decided to get on with it." And get on with it he did.
But his passage to Q2 cost him his allocation of medium tires, and a chance at a shot at an even better qualifying position. "I knew what tires were available but I thought it might be wet enough. So I knew I’d have to stay out for the whole practice but I could see it was getting drier and drier, so I told the boys to get the other bike ready with the other mediums and I’d just do two laps and two laps. I went to take the best out of the tire but we got a second lap out of it, which was positive. The issue then was that I had to go into Q2 with no tires left just used ones, and had to let it cool down as much as I could."
Strategy and tactics
That strategy would prove decisive in determining who would start from the front row, and who would end up at the back. By the time Q2 started – 40 minutes after Q1, and an hour after the originally scheduled time slot – the track had changed further, looking very dry in most of the track. That triggered a flurry of activity as the riders waited, teams switching from two bikes with a wet setup to one wet and one dry bike.
They were the sort of circumstances in which you would expect Marc Márquez to flourish, and Jorge Lorenzo to suffer. In mixed conditions, Márquez usually has a second or more on his rivals, while Lorenzo simply cannot find any speed. But perhaps these were the wrong kind of mixed conditions, with a fully dry track and a still very wet track, rather than a damp track all the way round with unpredictable grip conditions.
Lorenzo took pole by playing his strategy perfectly: push early to set a time in case it rained, then let his tires cool down, then push again on the final lap. "It was really difficult and really tricky conditions because you didn’t know if the heavy rain can arrive in the middle of the qualifying," Lorenzo told the press conference. "So that’s why I tried to push to make a good lap time the first two laps. But then we didn’t have time enough. The time was very short to understand if was better to keep with the same tire or stop to change for a new tire. So my strategy was to keep with the same tires. I don’t know if it’s working so much with the same tires. So I decided to slow down a little bit in some laps to cool down the tires and to push in the last final lap to make the best lap time possible. The strategy was okay. Probably with new tires could be a little bit faster, but I can’t complain because pole position, one and two Ducati team, so we are happy."
Andrea Dovizioso rode the same strategy to second place, making it a Ducati one-two. Johann Zarco used the same strategy to near perfection, his only mistake coming up on Marc Márquez at the end of the lap, and losing out a fraction. If he hadn't come upon Márquez, it could have been a Tech3 Yamaha on the pole.
It could even have been a Pramac Ducati. Jack Miller took the risk to go out for his final run on slick tires, but a mistimed final push meant he crossed the line too late to start a final lap. Miller was convinced pole could have been his if he had just got his timing right.
Valentino Rossi was also left ruing poor timing and a poor decision in the garage during qualifying, leaving him starting down in twelfth. After Q2, he sat in his box with quietly contained rage, furious at a missed opportunity. "I was very upset because we had a good strategy," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "We were a little bit tight but unfortunately we made a mistake in the box and we lost a bit too much time to change the rear tire and I missed the flag by two seconds. It’s a shame because I did a 10.7 on the last lap which would have been P5 and starting from the second row which would have been good. We had the right tires but we were unlucky. So now I have to start from the fourth row and it will be more difficult."
Timing issues hit Dani Pedrosa in Q1 as well, the Repsol Honda rider watching the big screens around the circuit to decide when to make his final push. But the lag in transmission times on one of the screens meant he believed he had a minute left when there was only 40 seconds left in the session, not enough time for him to make it all the way back to the finish line for a final flying lap. It left him stuck in Q1, and starting from sixteenth.
There is no real reason for such mistakes. Most of the dashboards fitted to a MotoGP bike are capable of showing the time remaining in a session, taking the times from the timing loops around the circuit. But some riders choose not to display that, preferring to see another data item, or perhaps just less information to avoid confusion. On a day like Saturday at Silverstone, not knowing how much time was left proved to be a very costly mistake.
Why the crashes?
And so to the crashes, and the circuit, and the schedule. What caused the crashes? Simply too much water on the track. "When I left the box, I saw the whole straight with a lot of water, and I was thinking maybe Race Direction would show the red flag," Alex Rins related on Saturday. "I continued, I didn't see anything, and when I arrived I saw a lot of water and I cut the throttle in the middle of the straight, and when I braked, the front tire was locking fully, that means aquaplaning. But this was at 210, 220 km/h so no time to reduce the speed, and I decided to jump off the bike. And that's all. I did all I could, trying to warn other riders."
Rins was not the only rider to suffer the same problems with aquaplaning. "I was just out of the pits and both my wheels started to just slide," Aleix Espargaro said. "Like floating and I couldn't stop the bike. I thought I'd hit the airfence and actually I did but very slow. But then many riders just lose the front. Many crashes."
"I arrived there very slow and the aquaplaning was amazing," Marc Márquez said. "And the rain was only on those three corners, the rest of the circuit was like a spray. So we will see and Race Direction will evaluate. First of all we need to have the conditions and then evaluate."
"I think I braked 500m before the corner in FP4 and still almost ran off the track," Bradley Smith said. "For five or six Grand Prix riders to throw it down the track means you couldn't do anything: you were just a passenger. There’s nothing you can do and that's why if it is the case tomorrow you cannot race."
To race or not to race
That opinion was broadly shared. "I don't like to say this, because I love racing," Marc Márquez said. "But if the conditions are like in FP4 we cannot race. And tomorrow the forecast is much more water. We cannot race because I go out from the box and lucky I close the gas in the middle of the straight because there was so much water."
"If it rains hard tomorrow, then it's impossible. Impossible," Alex Rins said. Aleix Espargaro agreed. "We have to check the conditions in 7-8 because with the amount of water that there was this afternoon it's not possible. Because we had rain tires and I did see the wall of water and I tried to slow down arriving there, but there wasn't a way to control the bike at all. If it's like FP4 it's pretty dangerous."
Riders had already made representations to Loris Capirossi and Franco Uncini, the ex-racers charged with the safety of the sport. After a meeting with the teams, IRTA and Dorna decided to reschedule the race for 11:30am, the time slot originally allotted to the Moto3 race. This was because the Met Office, the UK's meteorological service, had advised the circuit that heavy rain was expected to start some time after noon. By starting early, the MotoGP race should be able to run normally, as the track has decent enough grip in normal wet conditions.
Race Director Mike Webb explained the thinking behind the change. "The schedule for tomorrow has changed to basically swap Moto3 and MotoGP, which means MotoGP runs first," he told us. "It’s due to the very strong possibility of rain as the day goes on. From the Met Office we’re getting quite a significant possibility of heavy rain."
There were issues with water at a couple of specific spots, the Hangar Straight going into Stowe, and the dip before Vale, he explained. "What we saw today on track was a particular problem in two places of the circuit with standing water staying after heavy rain. In normal rain conditions it’s actually pretty good. There is no real problem. But as you saw in FP4 today, the conditions are basically ‘unrideable’."
"I would say that on a MotoGP bike in every circuit we go to the biggest problem we have is standing water and that’s always bigger for MotoGP because of the size of the tires and the speed they’re running. In conditions a lighter, smaller bike might be OK, but a MotoGP bike might be ‘unrideable’. At the request from the promoter, from Silverstone, to ensure there is a MotoGP race, we’ve agreed to change the schedule to make MotoGP go first to at least give us a chance to have a MotoGP race completed."
MotoGP was the priority, Webb said. "We’ll continue to favor MotoGP and just move that program back as much as necessary if we can until we run out of daylight basically. There are things we can sacrifice. There are some support races, on-track demonstrations that will be the first things to be sacrificed. We’ll take away the less important things to preserve all three races."
The issue was in a couple of corners, which Mike Webb believed was a result of resurfacing the track. "What used to be a very inconsistent surface all around the track with some significant bumps in significant places now is a consistent surface. But in doing that inevitably the camber has changed in some places. We’re seen at the entry to turn eight and especially the entry to turn seven – they’re places where the surface has changed so the water collects right in the braking area. So it’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that those two areas exist. We have to fix it but it can’t be done overnight."
They will be doing their best to do just that, however. Silverstone Circuit staff are working to cut grooves into the asphalt at Stowe and Vale to try to improve the drainage. "The problem we have in turn seven and eight is the natural drainage of the water on the track puts it on one place," Mike Webb said. "It’s not coming from outside the track so earthworks is not really going to do anything. We’re talking about things that we have done often before: making some cuts in the track to make it drain in a certain direction, to stop it forming a river on the track."
The circuit's story
Stuart Pringle, Managing Director of Silverstone, did not believe it had anything to do with the new surface. The rainfall had been exceptionally heavy in a very short period of time, something born out by anecdotal evidence from a couple of people I asked on Twitter. "It was a Biblical downpour," Pringle told a small group of journalists. "Frustratingly, we didn’t have an accurate measurement about how much rain fell in a very short period of time, but it was more like a monsoon you’d see in Malaysia than heavy, normal rain. So it was an exceptional cloud bit of a burst, made all the more peculiar by the fact that it wasn’t up here [at Woodcote, the front straight]."
Pringle pointed to the fact that Silverstone has a very full schedule of events for most of the year, which take place in all kinds of weathers, and have done so since the track was resurfaced. "The drainage on the circuit is very good. The circuit is very busy. We’re the busiest circuit certainly in Europe, probably the world. We are 90% busy between March and November, seven days a week. And being Great Britain, we deal with a lot of wet weather. So we are happy that we are constantly on the drainage and improving it where we can."
Pringle emphasized just how important MotoGP was to Silverstone. "You all recall that we’ve had some quite significant financial challenges in recent times," the Silverstone boss said. "So when we were asked to resurface about 38% of the track, broadly Stowe round to Abbey, between Abbey and Village through Farm Curve, that looked like a stretch. But actually I understood that if we really wanted to address the fundamental issue, which was the inconsistency in grip, that would only go so far. So we made what for us was a significant commitment to this. Bear in mind, this is one weekend of the year. We earn a lot more money out of cars and bikes, be it testing, track days, or events. But we did a full 3.66 mile resurface, 15 meters’ width, with the first available funds we’ve had in this business for many years. I’m deadly serious about my commitment to MotoGP taken seriously as a motorcycle racing circuit, not just a car racing circuit."
Where does the truth lie? From the footage shown on MotoGP.com, and from witness reports from the track, there was a very heavy downpour on that part of the track, certainly heavier than you would normally expect in the UK, with more rain falling in a shorter period of time than normal.
But people I have spoken to from all sorts of disciplines, including people involved in the circuit business, say that there appears to be flaws in the way the asphalt was laid, making it harder for the track to drain in a couple of places (especially Stowe and Vale), with water running down the track and into the dips at those points. The camber of the track also appears to have changed – despite denials by Stuart Pringle of Silverstone. The Hangar Straight seems to have less incline on the left hand side, meaning it doesn't drain as well. And the dip at Vale has been improved to make braking easier, but that has still left water to collect there.
Will it be possible to race on Sunday? The chances are that the weather will be manageable. Though heavy rain is predicted, it is of the steady, consistent sort, several millimeters per hour, with a chance for water to drain. It shouldn't be a centimeter or so in a few minutes, dumping water on the track with no time to clear.
In short, it is too early to tell. Were Saturday's problems caused by a freakish downpour, or by a poorly thought out resurfacing job? Sunday's rain will reveal the truth. We had a race in a downpour in 2015. We shall see what we get in 2018.
Gathering the background information for detailed 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, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.