Twenty-year-old MotoGP rookie sensation Marc Marquez and his Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, dominated Sunday’s race at Circuit of The Americas near Austin, Texas. Yet they did not win by the crushing 15 seconds that had looked likely after practice and qualifying ended on Saturday afternoon, when the Hondas appeared all but out of reach. Reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo put his factory Yamaha across the finish line only three seconds behind winner Marquez—the result of a last-minute change of ratio in second gear. When you work close to the limit, small changes can have large effects.
Two weeks ago at Qatar, the first race of the season, Yamaha had dominated, and it was Honda that lacked rear grip. What can explain such differences and inconsistency? At CoTA, Valentino Rossi’s crew chief, Jeremy Burgess, said the Yamaha riders reported, “It’s as though the Hondas have electric suspension; in corners, they just squat and shoot out of the corner.”
By contrast, early in practice, Lorenzo had said, “When I am on the edge of the tire, I am very afraid because the tire is moving around and feels as if it will go away at any time.” How do two machines on the same tires act so differently? I thought of a long-ago drag-racing class in which engine torque drove the rear axle powerfully downward, creating momentary “dynamic grip” by this downforce. Could Honda be using this effect, made stronger by CoTA’s many first-gear corners, to get an initial “jump” in acceleration?
I gained valuable insight into current riding technique from Öhlins technician Jon Cornwell. Great riders are often the first to exploit the overlooked potential of new technology. We are now beginning to see the legacy of Casey Stoner. In 2007, faced with an understeering Ducati, Stoner learned that the incredible sidegrip of Bridgestone slicks could solve his steering problem. When the bike was on the edges of its tires, applying throttle made the rear tire creep sideways, steering the bike from the rear. Now, this is normal. “Look at the TV feed,” said Cornwell; “all the top guys are countersteering.”
I had already seen this in the slow-motion sequences: the rear tires creeping sideways, the riders steering into this motion to correct their line. When I asked Ben Spies what he had to do to compensate for his Ducati’s mid-corner understeer, he replied, “I have to stay on the edge of the tire longer.” That is, to keep the bike at full lean longer, where this rear-steer effect works.
The riding revolution initiated by Kenny Roberts in the late 1970s was similar. When you build a very powerful bike, it constantly wheelies, and a front tire off the ground or very light doesn’t steer. So, Roberts steered with the throttle. But this is not quite the same as what’s happening now. For the high-grip Bridgestones to work in this mode, they have to be at full lean. There, on the edge of the tire, grip can still be good, but the increased flexibility of the tire when heavy cornering loads are primarily supported by just one sidewall lets it respond to throttle by creeping sideways, steering from the rear.
MotoGP has been a spec-tire series long enough that we forget certain things. When I spoke with Bernhard Gobmeier, formerly in charge of BMW’s World Superbike team but now hired by Audi to “direct” (aka “fix”) Ducati’s MotoGP program, he said, “Bridgestone could solve the issues that we have within two weeks—easily, with no problem. But they won’t change anything. We’re spending, let’s say, 100 times the money, 1000 times the money, to fix what they could fix at no cost within two weeks.”
Back when there was tire competition in MotoGP, a tire maker could legally make a special tire to fix such problems. In fact, Ducati was the first to adopt Bridgestone tires for this very reason; they felt Bridgestone would be more responsive to their special needs than Michelin, the majority tire supplier of that era. Stoner went on to win Ducati a MotoGP championship in 2007 on Bridgestones.
Such solutions are impossible under present rules, which require the same tires for all (except for CRTs, which get a special, softer tire that made them noticeably more competitive at CoTA). Which goal is more important to TV rights-holder Dorna: 1) preserving legalistic tire fairness; or 2) putting another brand (Ducati) into the top three? The right answer is obvious, but the politics are less so!
From opening practice, the urgency of Marquez’s riding was impressive. Like Stoner, he pushed from the first moment, rattling confidently across apex rumblestrips, the back wheel threatening to snap around during braking. He was beyond grace, beyond ballet, simply doing what it took to be fast. Five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan did this long before Stoner and Marquez. “You must learn something from every lap,” said Doohan. This is racing.