Under the tank of the Yamaha YZR-M1 (Petronas)
Peter Bom: A dummy fuel tank on the Yamaha R1 as used by the mechanics to start and warm up the bike in pit lane. The real fuel tank is constantly measured for weight (= amount of fuel) to calculate fuel consumption. It was with a fuel tank like this that things went horribly wrong at the Suzuki pit box in Sepang. Fuel leaked out from a leaking hose and the bike caught fire.
It has been a strange and intense year in MotoGP, so it seems fitting that we should end the year with such a strange and intense weekend. Three races defined by the weather, by crashes, and by riders holding their nerve and playing their cards right. And at the end, an explosion of emotion. Exactly as it should have been.
There were no titles on the line on Sunday – no serious titles, though the riders vying for Independent Rider and the teams chasing the Team Championship may choose to disagree – but the emotional release on Sunday was as great, or perhaps even greater, than if all three championships had been decided. We had records broken in Moto3, a new factory on the podium in MotoGP, and a farewell to old friends in all three classes, as riders move up, move over, or move on.
The weather figured prominently, as you might expect. Moto3 and Moto2 got off lightly, the rain falling gently and consistently, keeping the track wet, but never to a truly dangerous degree. That did not stop riders from falling off, of course, and dictating the outcome of both races. Those crashes – two races, two riders crashing out of the lead – were just as emotional as the riders who went on to win.
In with the new, out with the old
Press releases from the MotoGP teams and Michelin after the Malaysian Grand Prix:
Given the severity of the storms which have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next. So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP were a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.
That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1'59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1'59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it. "Lap times were fast today," said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. "1'59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1'59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn't just when the track was cool. We're still a little way away from a 1'58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it's the track conditions."
There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. "Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can't put my finger on one thing or another."
Phillip Island is a glorious race track, in a glorious setting, with a history of serving up glorious racing, especially when the weather plays ball. On Sunday, it did just that, the circuit bathed in warm sunshine, almost taking the edge off the antarctic chill which can still hit the circuit in very early spring. And great weather brought fantastic racing, starting with a spectacularly insane Moto3 race, followed up with a thrilling Moto2 race, and finally topped off with an intriguing and incident-packed MotoGP race.
The MotoGP grid arrived at Phillip Island mindful of the lessons of last year. In 2017, a large group had battled for the win for 20+ laps, until their tires were shot. Marc Márquez, having been mindful of his tires for much of the race, made his move in the last five laps, opening a gap over the chasing group of a couple of seconds. Everyone Márquez had beaten last year had spent the weekend concentrating on tire preservation for the last part of the race.
When Bradley Smith speaks, he always makes it worth listening. His thoughtful, analytical approach to racing means you will always learn something, always be surprised by something he says. At Aragon, we spoke to the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider for the best part of 40 minutes, and dissected a lot of areas of racing.
In this, the final part of the interview, Bradley Smith explains how he finds motivation through what is one of the most difficult parts of his career, developing the KTM RC16 MotoGP bike, and being far from competitive. He describes the contrarian attitude, the wanting to prove people wrong, which drives racers to achieve what they do.
Smith also explains just what a rider is looking for from his bike. The Englishman gets into "the feeling", what he wants from his bike, and what that translates to out on the track. He talks about searching for, and not finding, that feeling from the KTM, and the pleasure at getting close to that feeling again, and posting competitive times.
Finally, Smith talks about what motivated him to take a test role, and why he wasn't ready to retire. What his objective is at Aprilia, and how he finds satisfaction from not just his own success, but in helping others. He also talks about wanting to make a comeback to racing, and how he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Toni Elias, who returned to MotoGP, before looking forward to the future, after his racing days are over.
Q: Three or four seconds used to be second or third, and now four seconds you could end up outside of the top ten.
Bradley Smith: Yes. That's what we're talking about. I think that's what's fun about GP racing at the moment.
Bradley Smith is one of the most analytical and thoughtful riders in the paddock. So when we got the chance to spend the best part of forty minutes with the Red Bull KTM rider, we dived straight into the details. In part 1 of our interview with Smith, he talked about riders adapting to bike, and to the conditions, about learning to use the back brake as part of his riding, and about why he believes there are no Aliens in MotoGP.
In part 2 of our conversation, we got into how the series has changed since the switch to Michelin tires. Smith explains the differences between the Michelins and the Bridgestones, and how both the front and the rear behave differently. He gives his theory that the behavior of the Michelin rear is one of the reasons we are seeing more and more carbon fiber swingarms in MotoGP, and explains what effect the Michelin front and rear is having on rider body and arm position.
Smith also takes a hard look at his own attitude on a satellite bike, and how the closeness of the racing has now changed attitudes throughout the paddock. But we started off talking about throttle control, and managing rear spin.
Q: Everyone in this paddock has good throttle control. Is that sort of throttle control or that ability? You were talking earlier about flat track and the ability to manage the rear with the throttle. Is that something you don't really want to be doing? You want the bike to be doing, but if you can do it you can go faster?
Bradley Smith is perhaps the most eloquent explainer of racing a MotoGP bike in the Grand Prix paddock. The Red Bull KTM rider marries a keen intellect and deeply analytical approach to riding, to a willingness to speak at remarkable length about the nuts and bolts of racing. Those journalists who want to know the hows and the whys of motorcycle racing make a beeline for Smith if they need to understand what is going on out on track.
During his daily 5-minute media debriefs, there is not much time to dive into a subject too deeply. So when I got a chance to conduct a longer interview with Smith, I made the most of it. With the Englishman leaving the Red Bull KTM team at the end of the season, his time is a little less strictly controlled by KTM's PR machine. Which is how I ended up spending over half an hour talking to Smith about a whole range of subjects, and having time to go into them in great depth.
In part 1 of this interview, Smith looks back at his MotoGP career so far, and talks about how different bikes affected his ability to perform. He discusses just how much riders adapt their styles through the course of a weekend, and a race. Taking the example of Jorge Lorenzo's use of the back brake, he explains how he was forced to use the brake to help him get around the limits of MotoGP electronics. And Smith explains to me why he doesn't believe in the concept of MotoGP Aliens, and what Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez are doing which makes them different.
Q: What I want to talk about is basically the technical side of riding. Let's start with how has the sport changed since you've been in the class? You came in on a satellite Yamaha on Bridgestones, and then you switched to Michelins, and then you switched to a factory team on a brand new project. What have you had to learn along the way? How have you had to change your approach, style, everything?