If you had to sum up this weekend's racing in Argentina in a single word, it would have to be "eventful". The Termas de Rio Honda round has more twists and turns than a mountain trail, and just as many dangers lurking round every corner. On Friday, the riders found a track still dusty, dirty and green from disuse, causing slow lap times and a fair few falls. On Saturday, as the track cleaned and speeds increased, the rear Michelin of Scott Redding's Pramac Ducati delaminated, throwing the schedule into chaos. Rain on Sunday added even more complications, the plan for the MotoGP race changing hour by hour, as Michelin, Race Direction and the teams all tried to figure out how best to proceed.
Sunday felt chaotic, and it was chaotic, but by the end of Sunday, it was almost entirely forgotten. In Moto3, rookie Khairul Idham Pawi took the first ever Grand Prix win for a Malaysian rider in a style that made Danny Kent's wins from 2015 look positively pedestrian. In Moto2, there was a tough and close battle among the title favorites, with reigning champion Johann Zarco taking victory in very convincing fashion in the final laps. And crowning the weekend, a fascinating MotoGP race, shortened and spiced up with a compulsory pit stop, with a heavy dose of incident and drama added in for good measure. The chaos of the morning was all but forgotten in the excitement of three fantastic races.
The chaos needs addressing however. The constant stream of emails announcing yet more changes to the schedule for the MotoGP class made the whole event look like amateur hour. The first announcement had come on Saturday night, when Michelin and Race Control announced that both rear slick tires were to be withdrawn after what happened to Redding's rear tire. Instead, the emergency tire (a third option, which Michelin are forced to bring to every race as part of the deal to be official tire supplier) would be used, and the teams would be given an extra session of warm up to find a set up with the tire. The emergency or safety tire used a different construction to the medium and hard Michelin had initially put in the tire allocation, meaning the set up work done on Friday and Saturday was of limited use.
Of course, you can't work on the set up for a slick tire when it's raining, so the extra session of practice on Sunday was canceled, though the option for a replacement session should the track dry out ahead of the race was also kept open. As the weather started to stabilize, and it became clear that the race would be run in dry conditions but cool temperatures, on a track still littered with damp patches, Race Direction formulated a new plan. Or rather, three or four new plans, each one refining the previous version. They all came down to a 20-lap race, with a compulsory pit stop between the end of lap 9 and the end of lap 11, including various scenarios for the weather: wet to dry, dry to wet, the race being red-flagged before lap 13, after lap 13, and more.
In the end, of course, only one of these scenarios was needed, or indeed, even likely to be needed. But Race Direction were trying desperately to cover every conceivable sequence of events, so that the teams knew what to expect when they lined up on the grid. The trouble is, every time they devised a race format, someone would point out the freak set of circumstances they had failed to cover, and so they would have to revise the scenario to explicitly account for that. Email followed email, and the impression that it gave was one of disarray and disorder, of an organization making it up as they went along.
The court of public opinion speaks
Which they were. And which they had to do. The rule change adopted at Phillip Island in 2013 allowed them to do exactly that, change rules and schedules to cope with unexpected situations which threaten safety. Tires which could not be relied on to last an entire race, and uncooperative weather meant constant changes of plan were needed. Unfortunately for Race Direction, in this age of instant communication, email, and Social Media, they had to do it in public, facing criticism at every turn.
There is nothing Twitter loves more than self-righteous outrage and indignation, and Twitter users seized the opportunity to pontificate at great length, and with a cornucopia of exclamation marks. If this had happened twenty years ago, the entire process would have gone entirely unnoticed by the public, left as only a footnote in magazine reports. But the time of quiet reflection and behind-the-scenes management are gone. In 2016, series organizers must work in glass houses, their every more scrutinized more than Big Brother ever hoped would be possible.
That does not excuse the situation, of course. After Phillip Island 2013, a basic contingency plan should have been drawn up covering the most obvious scenarios, including various combinations of weather. That was all too obviously missing, as the constant stream of clarifications to the procedures made clear. While the openness of Race Direction is to be praised, having a basic plan in place would have left them with a lot less work to do.
Are you not entertained?
Of course, once the red lights went out, the soapboxes all quickly disappeared back under couches around the world, and all eyes turned to the action on track. The flag-to-flag race with compulsory pit stops provided plenty of spectacle, but more than that, the condition of the track shook the field up more than expected. The rain had made the track treacherous again, damp patches on the track catching many an unwary rider out, and the dirt off line making passing a tricky affair.
There are those who thrive in such conditions, and those who suffer. Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi manage changing grip and inconsistent surfaces well, as do the Ducatis. Jorge Lorenzo, however, tends to struggle, and Sunday was no different. The reigning world champion lost ground at the start, then started going slower and slower, dropping ever further behind the leaders. At the start of lap 6, things went from bad to worse, Lorenzo falling at Turn 1, a place where many riders met their fate.
Is Lorenzo incapable of dealing with poor conditions? Is he still spooked after his crash at Assen, back in 2013? Not quite: last year, I spoke to his team manager Wilco Zeelenberg about this, and he said that Lorenzo is happy in both wet and dry, a fact his record reflects. His ability to exploit the available grip is unparalleled, but it is simultaneously his weakness. When grip varies, becomes unpredictable, it gets harder for Lorenzo to judge that grip perfectly in every corner. On Sunday, he put it down to losing his focus. That focus is a prerequisite to understanding grip. Without it, Lorenzo ends in the gravel. And Turn 1 in Argentina required utmost concentration, a bump in the middle and wet patches either side of the perfect line setting a trap for the unwary. Lorenzo paid the price.
First and second bikes
The lack of Lorenzo left a fascinating duel at the front. Before the pit stops, Valentino Rossi pressed hard at Marc Márquez, the two battling hard but cleanly, despite their mutual antipathy. After the pit stop, the tables turned, and Márquez easily opened a gap to Rossi. How that happened is visible in the lap times: Márquez gained about a second in the pits, his bunny hop from bike to bike a fraction quicker than Rossi's more conventional bike swap technique ("I'm too old to jump," he joked later in the press conference). But the amount Márquez was gaining out on track was much bigger. The Repsol Honda rider reeled off a string of 1'40s, while Rossi found himself stuck in the 1'41s. Before the pit stop, the lead was fiercely contested. After the pit stop, Márquez had the race in the bag.
What changed? The bikes changed, and even though both machines are supposed to be identical – the teams take meticulous care to ensure the set up is exactly the same on both the first and second bikes – there are sometimes tiny differences which end up having a massive effect. Marc Márquez had a great feeling with his second bike, and was quicker than with his first, while Rossi had exactly the opposite. He never really felt comfortable on the second machine, and had to let Márquez go.
In the press conference, he was very cagey about the possible causes, though afterwards, speaking to the Italian press, he was a little more open. "I don't know the reason," he said. "Maybe I didn't heat the rear tire enough, or maybe the tires weren't identical." The opposite had happened at Phillip Island in 2013, where his first bike felt a lot worse than his second bike.
Whatever the cause, Rossi's problems with his second bike saw him fall back into the clutches of the Ducatis and Maverick Viñales. The Suzuki man had led the chase, mostly managing to keep the fierce speed of the Andreas Iannone and Dovizioso at bay. He caught Rossi, then set about harrying the Italian. Eventually, the thought of his first MotoGP podium got the better of him, and he crashed out at Turn 1, like so many others.
That left Rossi with only the Ducatis to deal with, but they would prove too much for him. The way the two factory Ducatis would get past foreshadowed what was to come, Andrea Iannone making a risky and overly ambitious attempt up the inside of Rossi, pushing them both wide and allowing Dovizioso underneath. Rossi knew he was defeated, incapable of getting back past the factory Ducatis. He followed, and watched the battle play out in front of him
It played out badly. In the penultimate corner, with Dovizioso leading, Andrea Iannone made one last desperate lunge. It was way too ambitious again, and Iannone lost the front, taking out Dovizioso in the process. Instead of having two Ducatis on the podium the Italian factory was left empty-handed.
The usual suspect
Afterwards, nobody was surprised that it had happened. "I didn’t know if it was Valentino or Iannone behind me, but when I felt the touch I knew it was Iannone," Dovizioso explained afterwards. "Aand when I was sliding I realized I expected something like that to happen" Rossi also had harsh words for his friend, saying that he felt the pass on him had been too dangerous, and they were lucky to both stay upright.
Iannone has form for this sort of thing in the past, but on Sunday, the Italian was at his worst. In the first corner, he slammed up the inside of Marc Márquez, forcing Márquez and especially Dani Pedrosa wide, costing Pedrosa a lot of places. Iannone was very aggressive with Rossi getting past, so when he took his teammate out, it had an air of inevitability. This was always going to happen, especially when Iannone is in the mood he is in.
Is some nervousness creeping into the Ducati garage? Possibly. The reports that Ducati have either already signed Lorenzo, or very close to signing him, will not have been missed by the two Ducati riders. They both know that if they wish to keep their rides, they will have to beat their teammate. That may explain the lengths to which Iannone was prepared to go. Ducati bosses Paolo Ciabatti and Gigi Dall'Igna had little sympathy for Iannone, saying he should not have taken such a big risk and taking two Ducatis out of a certain podium. But they both denied that the contract situation had much to do with it.
The move was costly in another way. Iannone was punished for the incident with a single penalty point and being docked three places on the grid at Austin. The Texan track could be Ducati's best hope of a win this season, and Iannone has made his job a good deal more difficult.
Are the Ducatis to blame for tire problems?
The Ducati disaster put Valentino Rossi right back on the podium (which he shared with Marc Márquez in a very frosty atmosphere), along with Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa called it "the luckiest race of my life," but Rossi was less inclined to put it down to luck. Yes, the podium would not have been possible without the Ducatis crashing ahead of him, Rossi said. But if the Ducatis hadn't had the tire issue on Saturday, this would have been a normal race over 25 laps, and he was more than prepared for that. "Sincerely during the weekend with the Yamaha we never have the problem with the tyres. So for the problem of another bike we have to change everything when we don’t suffer," Rossi said.
He was not the only rider to point the finger of blame at the Ducatis. The Tech 3 riders were withering in the criticism of the decision to run a flag-to-flag race because of the problems for Ducati. "The circumstances of today’s race were too biased to one manufacturer that seemed to have problems," Bradley Smith said. "That’s what I believe why the other manufacturers need to fight against the tire company, because to take away our strength of being strong at the end of races and basically hand the perfect scenario to the red bikes is hard to deal with."
Pol Espargaro was similarly unhappy. Talking to Catalan radio, he was dismissive of the entire situation. "The race was made like this because of Ducati," he said. "We keep saying that Michelin has many problems, but the riders with problems were the Ducatis. They have 17 km/h more top speed than us, and they are using up their tires. If Ducati can't use these tires, then maybe they should turn down the power. Or maybe produce tires especially for them."
Speaking to GPOne.com, rider manager Carlo Pernat put it down to the combination of new tires and new electronics. The tires, Pernat said, had been developed with the factory electronics, the spec electronics only being available from the Valencia test. The spec electronics can do a lot less to save the tire, and so that was the likely cause of the problems. There is some validity to that point of view.
All to play for
The many crashes made for a big shake up down the field, with some outstanding rides producing strong results. Eugene Laverty used a combination of wile and skill to bag fourth behind Dani Pedrosa, the Irishman starting to get a real handle on his Aspar Ducati. He beat Hector Barbera squarely back into fifth, after Pol Espargaro ran wide and finished fifth. There were only thirteen finishers, among them a brave and intelligent Andrea Dovizioso. Despite not being able to restart his bike, he pushed it all the way to the finish, crossing the line to take thirteenth place, and three important points. His commitment was not to be faulted, and that may end up being what saves his job later this year.
Those three points were also a source of frustration for Dovizioso. If he hadn't been taken out by Iannone, he would have gained another 20 points, putting him just a single point behind championship leader Marc Márquez. As it is, he is now 18 points down, and with a lot more work to do. Jorge Lorenzo is 16 points behind Marc Márquez, and 8 points behind his teammate Valentino Rossi. It is way too early to be calling the 2016 championship, but this race will have an effect down the road. This was an important weekend, in more ways than one.
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