Jorge Lorenzo won and points-leader Marc Marquez was disqualified in a race altered by an unforeseen tire problem. In early practice, all riders noted the increased grip and smoother surface of Phillip Island’s new pavement. “The new tarmac is much better,” Jorge Lorenzo said after FP1. “You can push with more confidence and there are [fewer] bumps.” Dani Pedrosa agreed. “The new asphalt felt good, and the tires worked well for us.”
At first, Bridgestone engineers thought required use of the “harder rear slick option” would be enough. As expected, with such good grip and moderate temperature (a maximum track-surface temp of 99 degrees Fahrenheit), the corner-speed style of Lorenzo topped both Friday sessions. In 2000, five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan said that while there is grip, corner speed is faster, but when it drops, a rider must revert to point-and-shoot.
As tire data accumulated, the engineers saw disaster staring them in the face. Their hardest rubber was graining badly, a sign that it was not strong enough to deal with the available grip. After setting pole time and a new track record on Saturday, Lorenzo said, “We have some problems with the tire because the new asphalt makes a lot of graining. We’ll see if there are decisions from Dorna or Bridgestone tomorrow for the race.”
So it turned out. An emergency plan was put in place, by which Sunday’s race would be shortened to 19 laps, with a mandatory bike change after a maximum of 10 laps. “B” bikes would be shod with a fresh set of tires, and because this race would be “flag-to-flag,” the timing of the bike swap would be up to each team and rider. There would be no “time out” for the change.
As several times before, Lorenzo won the start, but after a back-and-forth with Marquez, he was unable to draw away from the Repsol Honda riders, who were not more than half a second behind. Pedrosa switched bikes on lap nine, Lorenzo on lap 10, but Marquez somehow did not switch until lap 11. When he rejoined, he contacted Lorenzo in turn one. He was then black-flagged for ignoring the 10-lap maximum.
It may be that race direction felt Marquez and Honda needed a reminder that the rules exist for all. It has been disappointing for Marquez’s admirers to see him riding in a forced and “pushing” way, as if his considerable skills were not by themselves enough to take the championship. Marquez could have secured the championship today but his mistake has given Lorenzo new possibilities.
By making an especially quick bike switch, Valentino Rossi was able to overcome his pre-switch sparring partners, Cal Crutchlow and Alvaro Bautista, for third, leaving them fourth and fifth at the end.
With Lorenzo gaining 25 points and Marquez none, the standings are now Marquez 298, Lorenzo 280, Pedrosa 264, with Japan and Valencia yet to be run.
Why such tire distress produced by routine repaving? In the race video, Marquez’s rear tire is chunking badly after the 11 laps it did on the “A” bike (chunking is what is sounds like: separation of deep chunks of rubber from the tread, often revealing the fabric carcass beneath). In the late ’70s in AMA racing, graining as seen in practice at Phillip Island was common on the Goodyear slicks we ran on Yamaha TZ750s, but it did not remotely signify that tire failure was imminent.
At that time, riders contracted to Dunlop or Michelin (whose tires were made for generally cooler European conditions) would be told on especially hot days to “just put on a set of Goodyears.” In the 35 years since then, tires have become much more specialized, so that anything out of the ordinary, such as the normal (and welcomed) repaving of Phillip Island, pushes even the hardest tires toward failure.
Since none of this could be more than briefly rehearsed, the result has been widely described and appreciated as “a farce.” Procedures made up on the spur of the moment often turn out this way.