MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
What is Bradley Smith’s problem?
Bradley Smith has struggled since the start of 2016 – this is what has wrongfooted the Briton
Changing tyre brands can make or break bike racers. There’s a long history of top riders riding the crest of a wave, changing tyre brands, then disappearing without trace.
In 1998 Simon Crafar was riding high on 500s. This was the New Zealander’s rookie 500 season and yet by Assen he was already hassling Mick Doohan, then at the peak of his towering career. Next time out at Donington Park, Crafar left Doohan trailing, beating the reigning champion by 11 seconds. It was probably the biggest defeat ever inflicted on Mighty Mick.
Crafar nearly did it again at Phillip Island, Doohan’s home race, breaking the lap record and crossing the line eight-tenths behind the Aussie hero. No doubt about it, Crafar was the Next Big Thing. His Red Bull Yamaha team believed it could challenge for the title in 1999, so long as it changed to Michelin, then the dominant force in 500 GPs. Michelin also wanted Crafar on its side, so the team switched from Dunlop.
In theory, Crafar should have gone even faster on Michelins, but motorcycle racing doesn’t always work like that. The 30-year-old couldn’t get on with the Michelin front. Whereas the Dunlop helped him turn the bike in the vital mid-corner phase, the Michelin didn’t. His results nosedived. In 1998 he scored three podiums from the last eight races. In 1999 he never even made it into the top 10 aboard his YZR500.
When Crafar asked his team if they could change back to Dunlop, he was told it was easier to change the rider than the tyres, so he got the sack. And that was the end of his hopes of challenging for the biggest championship of them all.
A decade later James Toseland arrived in MotoGP as reigning World Superbike champion. He qualified on the front row for his MotoGP debut in Qatar, and scored half a dozen top-six finishes in his rookie 2008 campaign; not bad when he was sharing the grid with Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden and the rest.
He achieved all those results on Michelin tyres. Then MotoGP switched to a control-tyre format for 2009, with Bridgestone supplying the rubber. The Japanese tyres were very different – riders had to hammer the tyres at all times to keep them up to temperature, otherwise they would cool down and lose grip. Toseland learned this lesson in the worst possible way, with a terrifying high-speed highside during preseason testing at Sepang and then another at Jerez. He spent much of the rest of the season injured and gun-shy of the Bridgestones. Inevitably, he got sack, just like Crafar before him. And just like Crafar, this was the beginning of the end of his career.
There is one rider in MotoGP who currently finds himself in a similar position to Crafar and Toseland.
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.