In the middle of qualifying practice at the Sachsenring today, we witnessed a spectacle that had not been seen at a MotoGP race for a very long time - since 2007, in fact, and ironically, in almost exactly the same location. As Jorge Lorenzo pinned the throttle on his YZR M1 up the hill onto the front straight, the engine let go in a very major way, spewing smoke, flames, oil and coolant out of the back of the bike and all over the track, right into the braking area. The Fiat Yamaha rider quickly pointed his bike to the side of the track, but unfortunately, not before Ben Spies and Randy de Puniet had crashed on the oil, De Puniet banging his leg nastily on Spies' Monster Tech 3 Yamaha machine.
While most of the attention was on De Puniet's injury, and the spectacular images Lorenzo's Yamaha had produced, belching smoke and flame like some kind of mythical fire serpent, thoughts in the paddock turned to the state of Lorenzo's engines. For this is the second engine that Lorenzo has lost: the Spaniard previous lost an engine during practice at Assen, that machine merely producing a few puffs of smoke, rather than belching great gouts of smoke and oil like the bike in Germany did. With less than eight of the sixteen races gone, Lorenzo has now lost two of the six engines that each rider has to last the season.
Perhaps more worrying is the mileage at which both these engines gave up the ghost. Both the engine at Assen and the one in Germany let go after some 1500 kilometers, which is well short of the target set by Yamaha's head of MotoGP during the annual end-of-year presentation at Valencia in 2009. There, Masao Furusawa explained that they calculated they needed to get 2400 kilometers from each engine, if they were to make it through a full season. He told the assembled press in Valencia that the 2009 version of the long-life engine was already capable of lasting for 2200 kms, albeit with a sharp power drop towards the end of its life. The new engine, Furusawa-san explained, would last the extra couple of hundred kilometers, and would not lose so much power as the miles accumulated.
Lorenzo's experience would seem to contradict Furusawa's assertion. With two engines down after just 1500 km, the new engine design would appear to have a serious flaw. The nature of the failure - "that's a serious drop in power at the end of its life" Dennis Noyes quipped after seeing Lorenzo's engine explode - is the most worrying aspect, suggesting that a critical component is failing at around 1500 km, and causing the entire engine to fail more or less spectacularly.
Yamaha is also hampered by the limited testing available. The next test is in two races time, a one-day affair after the Brno round of MotoGP. Before that, the only option Yamaha has is to run engines on the dyno, to see if they can recreate those failures under test conditions, and try and fix the problem with an altered design. The engines will have to be ready by Brno in mid-August, for track testing on the Monday after the race. If the engines don't produce the power that Lorenzo needs to secure the title - or indeed Rossi requires to mount a title chase - then there are no other options for testing before the end of the year.
And with four engines left for the remaining ten race weekends plus Sunday's race, Lorenzo's prospects of making it to the end of the year without an engine penalty are starting to look bleak. One of Lorenzo's remaining engines already has serious miles on it, and will be heading into the danger zone very soon indeed.
This brings in to play the scenario that many had feared when the engine restrictions were first mooted. The championship leader is likely to lose points over using an extra engine, as the penalty - starting from the pit lane ten seconds after the field has gone - means it is virtually impossible to score major points after taking the engine penalty. Lorenzo's comfortable lead of 52 points suddenly looks a good deal less unassailable - especially given that Dani Pedrosa in second place is absolutely bang on schedule with his engines, Honda seemingly having engine life down to perfection.
There is still a long way to go in the championship, and any number of factors could yet affect the outcome, but it already looks as if engine life is going to be a significant factor. A crash and another blown engine could see Lorenzo's lead disappear altogether. Add to this the fact that an engine blow up like the one that Lorenzo suffered plays havoc with Dorna's TV programming - something which deeply annoys TV broadcasters, who hate overruns with a passion because of the necessary rescheduling - and you have a recipe for disaster. At the end of the year, as teams eke out the last few miles from very tired engines indeed, major oil spills could start to be a common occurrence, with all the disruption that comes with them.
The combination of effects on the championship and wrecked programming schedules could cause Dorna to put pressure on the factories - whose idea this whole engine limit was - to find other ways of saving money, rather than running the risk that the end of the season turns into a game of Russian Roulette with engine mileage. Like death and taxes, the law of unintended consequences is unavoidable, and strikes just when its least convenient.
Jorge Lorenzo's engine usage, prior to the Sachsenring weekend.