The elements prevailed in the end. The weather gods threw rain and wind at the Phillip Island circuit on Friday, and after showing their power to pose real peril to the riders, the riders and Dorna surrendered to a power greater than them. The very strong gusting wind was just too dangerous to make riding at the Australian circuit safe.
Miguel Oliveira's crash was the last straw. The Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider was caught out by the changing wind in the early part of FP4, got pushed wide on the entry to the terrifyingly fast first corner, and took a massive tumble through the gravel. It looked like a huge crash, and Oliveira was very lucky to come away with no broken bones, though he had heavy bruising on his arm and hand.
"I was slipstreaming Zarco and at that point I was a little bit more close to the left side of the track," Oliveira said. "And from the morning to the afternoon the wind just completely changed the way and was really sideways going onto the straight. I rolled off to let Johann pass and when I braked, I braked completely sideways and the wind just pushed me out of the track."
The problems were twofold. Firstly, there was a gale blowing in from the west along the coast, with wind speeds of up to 60km/h, and gusts far above that. Coming from the west also meant that it was causing the biggest problems in Turn 1 and Turn 3, Doohan and Stoner Corner, the two fastest corners on the track. "It was inconsistent, especially in Turn 1 and Turn 3," Jorge Lorenzo explained. "At Turn 1, especially at 330 km/h, it was very dangerous. You cannot ride there at 330 km/h."
Jack Miller agreed. "Turn 1 was scary," the Australian said. "Gripping the handlebars every lap not knowing what was going on as you were going in there, if you were going to get a gust at 60 km/h or a gust at 20 km/h. So it's hard to position yourself on the track when you don't really know what the bike's going to do. It's out of your control more or less. Turn 1 was bad, but also Turn 3 was ****ing lethal, really bad. Because it's the same thing again, you get halfway through it and get smashed from the side and take the front wheel completely out."
The second issue was the grandstand along the main straight. The temporary grandstand was just enough of a windshield to lure riders into thinking the wind wasn't quite so bad as it was. Then, once they emerged from the wind shadow at the end of pit lane, they would be slammed by the gusting wind from the right. That meant choosing your line carefully.
"You are coming, a little bit hidden from the wind, and at the moment you brake, you are not hidden any more by the little hill and the grandstands and these things," Johann Zarco explained. "So then when the wind comes, it is pushing a lot. It pushed one guy in Moto2 and Miguel. So yes, you need to manage it."
Complicating matters even further was the fact that the rain had been blowing in and out all morning as well. MotoGP FP4 had been dry, but brief showers of intense rain had disrupted both sessions of qualifying for Moto2. That had caused Kiefer Racing rider Lukas Tulovic to be pushed wide and onto the grass on the entry, forcing the German to bail at the end of Moto2 Q1. A shower dumped rain onto Turn 1, giving Tulovic no chance of remaining upright. Tulovic was lucky, and slid away unharmed.
Jack Miller had watched the Moto2 sessions in his garage, and so didn't know what to expect when he saw Miguel Oliveira crash ahead of him at Turn 1. "I was coming along the front straight, and then I saw the massive cloud of dust, and then I thought 'Oh ****!' and I slowed down immediately," the Pramac Ducati rider told reporters. "Didn't know if it was pissing down at Turn 1 or what. Because that's the biggest thing, you saw Tulovic go off there right at the end of the Moto2 session, same thing. He got blown, and it was wet."
Miller was also acutely aware of the history of dangerous accidents at Phillip Island, referencing the death of Oscar McIntyre, an Australian Superstock 600 rider who had been killed in 2012 as a result of an accident at Turn 1. "[Moto2 rider Lukas Tulovic] had to bail, because he was going to hit the wall," Miller said. "And we need not to forget that a Superstock rider in the Australian championship here a few years ago was killed from running off at Turn 1 and going all the way through and T-boning someone at Turn 3. So now there's a wall in the middle to try and prevent that, but it tells you how long it takes you to slow down on the grass."
Moto2 polesitter Jorge Navarro explained that the wind was worse when riding in a group. "In my case, it also affected a lot," the Speed Up rider told the press conference. "At the beginning of the qualifying, I was with the group. I remember that Remy Gardener overtook me with the slipstream. The air he gave to me made me go a bit wide also. This was a lost lap. After that, I realized it was better to give an advantage to the group and have my space, because with this wind sometimes you cannot predict where it’s going, which strength it’s going to have and what is going to be the direction of the bike."
The faster, the trickier
Why were Moto3 and Moto2 allowed to continue when Race Direction decide to red flag MotoGP? Jorge Lorenzo explained that the situation became more dangerous as the combination of speed and weight got larger with each class. The Moto3 bikes were doing 245 km/h down the front straight, the Moto2 bikes hitting over 295 km/h, while Andrea Dovizioso was clocked at 338 km/h in MotoGP.
"We saw that the times in Moto2 weren't that bad," Lorenzo told Spanish media. But the bigger and faster the bike, the more it was affected, he said. "Normally, when you have a bigger engine, more power, it costs more energy to manage the bike in the wind, and Moto3 it costs the least, in Moto2 it costs a bit more, and in MotoGP it is very difficult."
Riding style figured into it as well, Lorenzo said. "There are some riders who suffer less, because of their riding style, they get more behind their fairings. Also in the case of Marc, who rides more with the rear wheel and doesn't need so much front stability. But the majority of riders suffer a lot in the conditions. Especially, we are going very fast and the bike is heavy, and when you enter a corner with three or four riders together, with the wind coming from one side or the other, it's very hard to predict what can happen in the corner."
The MotoGP session was red flagged with under 13 minutes left in the session. At first, we thought it was because numbers from the pitboards were being blown across the track as a result of the strong winds, causing a hazard at the speeds riders were howling down the straight. But it later transpired that it was Oliveira's crash which had convinced them to throw the red flag.
An impromptu meeting of the Safety Commission was convened, and a heated debate ensued among the riders. The consensus was that the condition of the track was good, but the winds were too strong, and more importantly, too inconsistent and gusting to be able to ride safely. There were dissenters: Jack Miller, Marc Márquez, Johann Zarco, Pol Espargaro, and to a lesser extent Alex Rins. They felt the wind was at the limit, but still manageable.
The bone of contention was qualifying. It was possible to ride on your own in FP4, more carefully picking your line down the straight to cope with the strong gusts. But qualifying would be different, with riders trying to get a tow and likely to end up in a pack. Riding like that, it was easy to find yourself a little too far to the left on the main straight, and risk being blown onto the grass on the entry to Turn 1, with the possibility of a major crash as a result.
Reconciling the two sides
Pol Espargaro summed up the opinion of the dissenters. "The wind was blowing quite strong but not stronger than FP3," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider said. "I rode fifteen laps and nobody was in the pitbox saying ‘that’s dangerous! You must stop the session!’ Then when they red-flagged the session – which I won’t say is not OK because the track was tricky – then everybody was out and riding. We had ten laps on the tires. If there is something scary or I am scared to do it then I stop, but everybody was out on the track."
"As Marc said in the Safety Commission we have been in worse situations at that track," Espargaro said. "In FP3 the wind was higher – we have a lot of tools to measure that – and we all did the session and nobody complains about it, well they just say ‘it’s very windy’ but everybody was out. In the end the decision was made for safety and I don’t have a problem with it but I think we could have done the qualifying. It was not as dangerous as everybody said."
Johann Zarco had a more nuanced view of whether it was the right decision to cancel the rest of the activity scheduled for Saturday. "Yes and no," the Frenchman substituting for Taka Nakagami in LCR Honda said. "When we decided, we came back to the box and then a huge rain came just for a few minutes, then stopped. So when you see the rain with this wind, you understand that it was better to stop. A few guys wanted to go, others not. Maybe if Miguel doesn't crash, we would agree to continue, because it was surprising at Turn 1."
The situation wasn't entirely unexpected. The riders had spoken about it on Friday night, at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Safety Commission, knowing that the forecast was for heavy winds. That meeting postponed any decision, waiting to see conditions on the day. "For them it was difficult to control because the wind is not constant at 65km/h," Aleix Espargaro explained. "It's 20-30-45-20, so difficult for them to take a decision. So yesterday what we decided was that we will be aware and if we ride with a lot of wind everybody will go and see Race Direction and I think it was a smart decision."
Saturday or Sunday?
With qualifying canceled on Saturday, there was a brief consultation with the riders over whether they thought it would be possible to run qualifying on Sunday morning, or whether to take the starting grid from the combined times of the sessions already run – in effect, FP2, as that was when everybody bar Fabio Quartararo set their best times.
After consultation, Dorna and the circuit organizers decided to change the schedule for Sunday. The warm up sessions for all three classes would be pushed back an hour, allowing Q1 and Q2 to be held directly after MotoGP warm up, at 11am local time. There was some grumbling, but most agreed it was an equitable solution.
"Well, today was not a busy day, so everything will become much more busy than normal in the morning," Jorge Lorenzo joked. "But it's fair." Moving qualifying to Sunday morning did pose an additional challenge, though. "So warm up will be very cold, and also the qualifying will be cooler and earlier than usual," Lorenzo said.
An earlier qualifying session in colder conditions meant being a little more careful than normal, Johann Zarco said. "It's just hard, because you have to push a lot in the Sunday morning, so what is the choice? I think we will not push as a Saturday afternoon, because if something happens, we have the race a few hours after. But to be more fair, it's better to do a qualifying on the Sunday morning, than do a combined times from the sessions. I mean, it would be good for some, and bad for some others. So that's why. It's tricky conditions, so tricky decisions."
Old arguments rejoined
The high winds reopened the arguments about the safety of the aerodynamics once again, with typically vehement rhetoric on both sides. Those with a dislike of the wings said they made the bikes much more dangerous in the wind, the wind getting underneath the aerodynamic winglets and lifting the bike in the corners. Those who like the advantages the wings bring said they helped keep the front wheel down, especially important on the entrance to the fast Turn 1.
Jack Miller made no bones about which side of the argument he was on. "That's what a couple of guys started spouting on about in the meeting," Miller said "It was about, 'Oh, well if we take the wings off, it'll be good.' But that's bull****, because the wings are the one thing keeping the wheels on the ground into the entrance to Turn 1. Without them, we'd be in some real trouble, because then the front there, a lot. A lot more."
Miller pointed to what it was like riding at the track on a bike which didn't have the aerodynamic winglets. "I've ridden here plenty of times without wings, back when they were banned, or back when we were on Honda, and I can tell you one thing, it wheelied a lot more into Turn 1 than what it does now at 340 km/h," he said. "Because as the track drops away, there's a couple of bumps as well, and the thing starts bouncing and creates the wheelie. So maybe they affect more when you're at full angle, but in terms of safety, I think they're safer."
But Miller also added a revealing caveat. "Or it allows you to go faster." That is very much the point of the aerodynamic packages, of course.
Andrea Dovizioso had a more nuanced view of how the aero packages affected safety. "I think it’s very difficult to answer because there is positive and negative things from the wings," the factory Ducati rider told the press conference. "You have more the front on the ground with, so it’s better I think. But maybe with the wind, they add more surface to push the bike. But it’s very difficult to know exactly how much is the good and the bad things."
That is very much the point. The aerodynamic winglets are neither more or less dangerous than riding with a bare fairing. Or rather, they are both more dangerous and less dangerous. The winglets reduce wheelie, keeping the front end planted on the entry to the fast corners, and on the exit as well. That means the riders can push harder and be faster.
But the winglets are also susceptible to side winds, especially in some corners when the bike is on its side. The wind can get underneath the winglets and lift the front, making it unstable and forcing a rider to run wide, or perhaps even to crash. That is a factor riders have to take into account when they enter a corner, and adjust their speed accordingly.
And that is very much the point. In windy conditions, the aerodynamic winglets have both upsides and downsides, and riders have to use the positive benefits, and take account of the negative risks. In the end, each rider pushes to their level of comfort, the level of risk they are willing to take. That is subtly different for each rider, willing to risk different things at different parts of the track.
Motorcycle racing is a dangerous sport. And though the sport has made huge steps in terms of safety – something which Dorna, the FIM, IRTA, and equipment manufacturers can be rightly proud of – it is impossible to eliminate all risk. The risk, and the thrill of controlling that risk, is a big reason why most riders go racing, after all.
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