MotoGP Undercurrents - Racing

Many questions, few answers.

Photography by Mark Wernham

MotoGP Undercurrents - Racing

MotoGP Undercurrents - Racing

We all know that Valentino Rossi left Yamaha after seven seasons and four MotoGP titles. Last year, he rode Ducati’s new carbon-framed GP11, generally finishing no higher than sixth. Hopes of an early fix based upon improved front-end feel or more weight moved forward were dashed. Nothing seemed to work. Then, as an emergency measure, the 2012 prototype bike, in whole or in part, was pressed into service. Rossi said performance of the rear of the machine was improved, but the finishes he and teammate Nicky Hayden achieved did not.

Just as college presidents must cultivate a firm handshake and confident manner, so Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi has perfected the press conference that reveals nothing in a great many words. This naturally causes listeners to conclude that there is nothing to reveal. Behind this, there may be promising avenues of development or there may be complete corporate consternation—the words indicate nothing either way.

Now, a fine overcast of tire buzz is deflecting our curiosity in new directions. Ducati called in Carlos Checa to test its MotoGP bike. This looks like a strange choice because Checa has been out of MotoGP a while and is the current World Superbike champion on Pirelli tires. This is, therefore, his first experience with the latest Bridgestone MotoGP-spec tires. On the other hand, because his WSBK title was won on a Ducati 1098, there is some family connection.

Checa says the tires are “super-rigid,” as if this in itself were a condemnation—a danger. Just a few years ago, Rossi and Colin Edwards were Yamaha teammates on Michelins, and my notes show that they were asking for diametrically opposed tire constructions. Rossi, employing the high-corner-speed style now dominant in MotoGP, needed a very stiff construction to stand up to the continuous high stress of near-the-limit cornering. Edwards, with an older, more turn-and-accelerate style, needed a supple carcass to create footprint for acceleration. Therefore, Checa’s remarks may reveal only that his older style is also unsuited to the hard construction of current MotoGP tires. Checa was one of the riders said to have left MotoGP because he could no longer bring the tires to operating temperature.

From a recent conversation with former GP engineer Erv Kanemoto, I learned that this is not new, having been suffered by many, even back in the two-stroke 500cc GP era. It is also said to be a problem for riders of the current Ducati. In other words, either the nature of some machines or some riders' styles prevents their being able to get current tires hot enough to work properly. This is not unfair or improper; it is natural. The tire maker needs to be on the leading edge and, therefore, engineers its product to suit the needs of the top users. It would be crazy to do otherwise.

This isn’t the first time that the searchlight of blame has swung off someone’s motorcycle and onto tires. Tires are inscrutable. Who knows what evil lurks? Let’s blame them! When Goodyear was blamed for a certain sit-up 1025cc AMA Superbike’s wobbling and weaving, the tire men fought back (Goodyear has an aerospace division). Goodyear instrumented the bike with strain gauges, recorded data and displayed for all to see (me, for example) the extravagant flexure of its frame. Tire blame withered in that example but it remains robust today.

There’s more. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has appointed retired GP star Loris Capirossi as a sort of special tire investigator. I was especially interested in the following part of Capirossi’s remarks: “There is a problem with the serial number, as well; the number can tell you when tires built. A tire that was built two years ago could not go as fast as one week ago…. Some riders have a new tire and a few others old. It’s not good, which should be repaired. I want the last rider to have the same possibilities of the first.”

MotoGP Undercurrents - Racing

MotoGP Undercurrents - Racing

Click. This ties in with what we learned last spring, when it was revealed that some Dunlop Daytona-spec front tires were three years old. At the WSBK round at Miller Motorsports Park, we were told by a respected team manager that Pirelli, as well, had resorted to using “new old stock.” All this is understandable in a down economy. Whaddya got out in storage? Put it on the plane! Business is not a charity; with less coming in, less must go out.

Then, I talked with an insider friend who spoke of letter codes on tires, distinguishing recent manufacture from years-old stock. From another insider comes a tale that a tire maker, upon ceasing to compete with rivals and becoming a “spec” tire supplier, can immediately cut the spending per tire by half to two-thirds. This makes a kind of sense; if you are trying to beat a rival, you must make the best tires possible, which is expensive. But if everyone rides on the same brand of rubber, technology can take a step back from the sharp edge. Indeed, this is traditionally the criticism leveled at multi-brand tire competition, that when makers work near the edge, tire failures occur more often.

I am not saying the above rumors are true. I am saying that some people in the race-team community believe them. What else do they say? They ask, “Who supplies the tires on Honda production bikes? Who supplies the tires on Ducati production bikes?”

The usual irresponsible gossip? How would we know? The noise is loud enough to reach me in my rural environment, suggesting that people are genuinely concerned. In any situation with a potential to generate such gossip, it is desirable to establish the most persuasive and transparent guarantees of fairness.

Rossi, among others, has commented that Bridgestone’s spec tires perform differently from the tires it made before becoming the spec supplier. During the era of tire competition, it was normal and expected that Michelin would engineer its tires for the rider with the best chance to win the title and so create the most favorable reputation for the tire company. That is why tire companies compete in racing. It is called informed self-interest—a part of the free market.

Ducati adopted Bridgestones in 2005 because it felt a relationship with that company would, in the same manner, result in tires engineered for specific characteristics of its bike. And so it turned out in 2007, Ducati’s MotoGP championship year.

When Bridgestone became the spec supplier, did all forms of self-interest cease to govern its tire engineering? Whose motorcycle and riding style would be supported? Or is there a way to average the needs of all machines and riding styles to come up with an “impartial tire” that favors all riders equally? Can someone—Ezpeleta, perhaps—snap his fingers and transform free-market competition and business self-interest into selfless corporate sportsmanship?

Some dismiss Ducati’s problem by saying, “Stoner won on those Ducatis.” Casey Stoner won the MotoGP title in 2007 on a steel-tube trellis-chassis Ducati, during the era of hot competition between Michelin and Bridgestone. Since then, Ducatis have changed, tires have changed, politics have changed. And although Stoner won a few races on the evolving Ducati, he won no more titles until he switched motorcycles. In his first year on the Honda, he was champion again. Somehow, Ducati, whose bike astonished the paddock by winning a race in the company’s first GP season since 1959, is now unable to lift its finishes much past sixth place.

Why?