In the wake of one of the most controversial motorcycle Grand Prix for many years, focus is now firmly on motor racing’s villain of 2013: tyres, the rubber rings that were once merely a necessity have now seemingly become the most important and controversial element of the sport.
Formula One has had its fair share of tyre-based controversy during the last couple of seasons but not before the recent Australian Grand Prix has MotoGP suffered a tyre drama, and boy, was it a big one…
Before the MotoGP paddock rocked up at Australia’s Phillip Island for a potential title-deciding race, investment had been made in the form of a new track surface, one to smooth out the odd bump and give the Island a fresh new look. As with any new track surface, grip levels had changed since MotoGP’s last visit and bizarrely, the new tarmac proved to be too ‘grippy’. The sandpaper-like surface had a tendency to take Bridgestone’s softer compound tyre and shred them like a dog to a morning newspaper.
Dunlop had similar issues within the Moto2 class and as well as both classes being informed that they must compete with a harder compound rear tyre, both races were shortened. The headlining MotoGP race was eventually shortened to just 19-laps from its original 27 when it was deemed that even the hard rear tyres wouldn’t last beyond 10-laps – a pitstop would therefore be necessary.
As with a race where rain interrupts play, riders would have to enter the pitlane to jump -literally – onto their spare bike, equipped with a fresh set of rubber, importantly, after no more than 10-laps, as deemed safe by the officials.
With battle raging between title-protagonists Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa for the lead of the race, it was Pedrosa who opted to pit at the first ‘safe’ opportunity on lap 9. With the enforced pit-window open for just the two laps, Lorenzo came in on lap 10 but remarkably, Marquez continued. Had he misread the pit signals or simply made a mistake? Or was he taking it upon himself to deem when the tyres beneath him had cried enough? Whatever, he entered the pits, hard on the brakes with rear wheel dangling in the air, on lap 11. Off one bike before it had stopped moving and onto the spare in a blink of an eye Marquez returned to the track amid a further drama…
…the unprecedented tyre issues had prompted some questionable decisions by race officials: the length of the pitlane had been extended, meaning that by the time riders could release the 60kph speed limiter they were practically in the middle of turn one, the ultra fast right hand turn. Marquez found himself in the path of Lorenzo, who had pitted the lap before, and the pair touched, Lorenzo committed to the corner and Marquez still recovering from the pitlane speed limit. The fact that neither fell stands as testament to the Spaniards’ skill.
While race officials and Honda personnel discussed the timing of Marquez’ stop, it was Pedrosa’s turn to be embroiled in controversy: it was deemed that he had committed a pitlane offence and would be required to drop one position; on the track? Or would the penalty be applied post race? It wasn’t clear as his team-mate Marquez out-braked him into the Honda hairpin and wouldn’t become clear until the podium presentation when it was decided that by allowing (?) Marquez to overtake, Pedrosa had already dropped the required position.
Amid the confusion came a bigger, more damaging controversy: race officials had decided that Marquez had indeed pitted too late and broken the one-off rules for this now farcical race – Marquez, the championship leader, was disqualified!
Honda initially reasoned that they had not broken any rules; by pitting on lap 11, they had not completed more than 10 laps, as deemed by the rules. But it was too late, the disqualification stood and Marquez had parked his Honda. Later, Honda would admit to making a mistake, perhaps forgivable given the unprecedented scenario, but Spanish television footage shows animated discussions between all concerned as Marquez failed to appear in the pitlane on lap 10; was it in fact Marquez who had made the mistake? Regardless, the championship rolls on to the penultimate round in Motegi, Japan – Honda’s home.
Marquez had been robbed of valuable points; the fans had been robbed of 8-laps of action as well as a potentially titanic fight for victory between Marquez and Lorenzo and, according to both Valentino Rossi, who finished third in Australia, and Dani Pedrosa – second – Bridgestone’s failure to supply a race-worthy tyre has severely damaged the image of MotoGP. It begs the question therefore; should tyre suppliers undergo tests at tracks with a new surface? “If a racetrack has a new surface, it should be compulsory to do a test for the tyre, and with good, fast riders,” said Rossi. “If not, it’s useless.” Or, perhaps more prominent is the question whether tyres should be playing such a pivotal role in racing at all?
For now, the relationship between MotoGP, its riders, fans and Bridgestone, will be tense; the dust is yet to settle and is unlikely to do so before the season’s end and if the disqualification of Marquez in Australia ultimately proves damaging to his title hopes, expect the controversy to rumble on for some time further.