2011 WSBK Donington Race Round Up - Changing Codes Pays Off

What a strange and interesting weekend the World Superbike round at Donington has given us. That Carlos Checa should win at least one race at Donington was to be expected, but the strong results from the Yamaha camp - in both Superbikes and Supersport - was a bit of a surprise, while the complete meltdown by Max Biaggi was shocking.

To Biaggi first. The Alitalia Aprilia rider started off well, sitting on provisional pole after the first qualifying session on Friday, and joking about how it was both unusual and nice to have people talking about him on a Friday. It all went downhill from there: an on-track run-in with Marco Melandri saw a furious Biaggi stalk into the Yamaha garage, issue a couple of comedy slaps on Melandri's cheek (both meant and received as an insult), getting himself hauled in front of Race Direction and issued a fine (for the slap) and a warning (for blocking Melandri on track, a punishment Melandri also received).

Race One saw the Italian get caught up at the start, then make a litany of mistakes, running wide at Redgate at least twice, and three or four times at other corners, trying passing maneuvers that were never going to work and finishing the race in 7th. Race Two was even more of a disaster: Biaggi jumped the lights at the start, catching himself before the lights dimmed completely, but still ending up a meter or so forward of his grid spot once the pack roared off the line. He then got caught up in another mid-pack scrap and failed to notice his pit board telling him to come in for a ride-through penalty, and ended the day being black-flagged, and disqualified from the race.

This looked very much like the old Biaggi, the Italian having a history of losing his nerve and making poor decisions. Biaggi has been here before, most notoriously ignoring a black flag at Catalunya in 1998, and going on to cross the line first ahead of Mick Doohan, who was awarded the victory. The Roman Emperor also has a history of crumbling under pressure, a reputation he gained mainly against a younger Valentino Rossi, who made an art form of sitting behind Biaggi during races until Biaggi  crashed or made a mistake. 

But after Biaggi's switch to World Superbikes - and especially during his World Championship season in 2010, his first in 13 years - Biaggi looked like a changed man, staying calm under pressure and stepping up when he had to, taking advantage of the Aprilia's horsepower when he could, making the best of the bike when he couldn't. The old Biaggi was gone, we thought, only to reemerge at Donington last weekend.

Yet there is reason to believe that Biaggi really has changed. On Sunday night, Biaggi shouldered the blame fairly and squarely, admitted his mistakes, and making it clear that he could not afford a repeat if he is to defend his title this season. The old Biaggi would have done no such thing; whereas the new Biaggi seems more capable of admitting his mistakes and moving forward. Anyone expecting the Italian to have crumbled already may end up sorely disappointed.

Biaggi does have his work cut out, though. Carlos Checa bagged his third win out of four races on Sunday, alongside his worst result of 2011, a 3rd place in race one. The Althea Ducati rider dominated most of the proceedings at Donington, so much so that his race one podium could almost be classified as a disappointment. But the Althea team - Ducati's factory WSBK effort in all but name, given the presence of at least half of Noriyuki Haga's former Xerox Ducati pit crew, plus various other former factory personnel - clearly has the situation under control, and Checa is still odds-on for the title this year.

The surprise of the weekend was Marco Melandri, the MotoGP refugee winning a World Superbike race at just the 3rd attempt, on a bike that was far from competitive last season, and still recovering from shoulder surgery over the winter. But perhaps it's not such a surprise after all: championship leader Carlos Checa and reigning champion Max Biaggi are both former MotoGP riders, and both have proven extremely competitive in World Superbikes. The level of competition in MotoGP is without question the highest in the world, with no question that the series contains the best riders.

But Melandri's - and, to a lesser extent, Biaggi's and Checa's - success in World Superbikes also points to another factor which is proving crucial to success in both series: the role that the tires play, and especially the curiously specific requirements of the spec MotoGP Bridgestones, in determining the success of riders in MotoGP. Hampered by satellite spec equipment, and with no great love for the spec Bridgestones, Melandri was mid-pack at best in MotoGP. James Toseland went from threatening the top 5 on the Michelins to barely making the top 10 on the Bridgestones, before being shunted off to World Superbikes. And now Toni Elias, once a MotoGP race winner on Michelins (though admittedly, the Saturday-night specials prepared for Dani Pedrosa), now three seconds off the pace on the spec Bridgestones.

Cut to World Superbikes, and Melandri has gone from mid-pack to title candidate, and though the factory Yamaha YZF-R1 must take some of the credit, much of the difference has to be down to the tires. Former World Supersport champion and WSBK race winner Cal Crutchlow remarked at Qatar how different the tires are: "They keep telling me I have to load the tires to get them working," Crutchlow told reporters at the Qatar test. "That's hard, I spent all my time on a Superbike trying my best NOT to load the tires." The lack of grip of the Pirellis is how a motorcycle racer expects a tire to behave, it would appear, rather than the extraordinary grip that the Bridgestones seem offer as long as they are up to temperatures. The lack of grip certainly makes for much better racing, for the World Superbike races are usually closer than MotoGP races, and offer opportunities to recover from mistakes, something the surgical precision of the Bridgestones punishes mercilessly.

BMW's Leon Haslam is clearly frustrated, but making progress. The Derbyshire native knows Donington like the back of his hand, his father having had a track riding school at the circuit for many years, and Haslam was using every ounce of that experience to battle his way around Donington. But he could still only manage two 4ths, falling short of the podium in both races. The problem, it appears from an interview which Haslam did with Visordown, is the complexity of the BMW, the German factory falling into the all-too-common trap of choosing engineering over simplicity. There are too many options, too much to change, and the team is losing too much time chasing their tails, instead of letting the riders get on and ride the bike. When they get it right, the BMW is fast, when they don't, Haslam and Corser end up well down the order. Until they arrive at a base setup and stick to making smaller adjustments to get the bike right, Haslam will be fighting for podiums, rather than fighting for the championship.

The news at Kawasaki is much better. In race one, Tom Sykes vied for the final spot on the podium before crashing out on lap 16, while in race two, WSBK rookie Joan Lascorz rode an outstanding race to finish 5th. In previous years, Kawasaki have been lucky to get top 10 finishes, but the new ZX-10R is behaving more like a race bike than any of its predecessors, and proving itself truly competitive. The first podium for the marque since 2007 cannot be so far away.

While both Sykes and Lascorz are proving their mettle, the outlook for former MotoGP race winner Chris Vermeulen is not great. Since having reconstructive surgery on his knee last July, his recovery has been painfully slow. Vermeulen rode during FP1 and QP1 on Friday, but was still over two-and-a-half seconds off the pace, and only capable of 16 laps in each session, or about two-thirds of what most other riders did. Vermeulen remains relentlessly optimistic, and hopes to return to racing at Assen, and even to be competitive. But with each difficult race weekend, his hopes of ever making a truly competitive return must surely be starting to fade.

In the World Supersport class, Yamaha dominated just as they did (though to a lesser extent) at Phillip Island. Luca Scassa's only challenge came from his ParkinGO teammate Chaz Davies, the two Yamahas finishing some twenty seconds ahead of the rest. The bikes - basically the YZF-R6s used by Cal Crutchlow to take the 2009 World Supersport title - are still supremely competitive, and Scassa has to be regarded as the favorite for the 2011 title.

But the dominance of the Yamahas was flattered by the failure of the PTR-prepared Hondas. Both Sam Lowes of the Parkalgar team and James Ellison of Bogdanka PTR suffered clutch problems forcing them to retire. Lowes looked to have the measure of the Yamahas in the early laps, rapidly closing the gap built up after he got caught in traffic, until a failed clutch caused him to pull out around the halfway mark. Similarly, Ellison appeared to have 3rd firmly in his grasp until he suffered a similar plight. No doubt both Lowes and Ellison will make the Yamahas work for victories this year, but with Lowes already 34 points behind Salom, they have left themselves with a big hill to climb.

World Superbikes now has a three-week break, returning at Assen on April 17th. Assen, with its flowing final section and a stop-and-go first part of the track, should be somewhat similar to Donington. We shall see whether former MotoGP riders will continue to dominate the series at the historic Dutch circuit in three weeks' time.


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Can someone spell out for me what is this "tyre loading" of which so much is said?

It seems to me there are two forces on tyres: gravity, and the lateral reaction force that causes the bike to change direction. Other than radical eating strategies, there doesn't seem much the rider can do about gravity. Similarly, at a given corner radius and speed, the required lateral force is determined by physics.

So, are we talking about the rate at which the load is applied? Or is it about over-riding the temperature specific grip: tip in, let it slide a bit and trust that in the process the temp will come up enough to grip before one's shoulder is on the tarmac?

As an aside, I once took to a couple of front slicks with a hacksaw, to see what was the difference between a 250-specific Dunlop and "for superbikes but it will work, sort of" Bridgestone. The difference in structure was clear: where the sidewall met the tread on the Dunlop, the structure thinned right down, like it was meant to be a hinge. Bridgestone was more uniform. I loved the 'stones on a 600 but couldn't get any feel from them on a 250... and crashed when I tried going beyond what felt like the limit.

I wonder to what extent those philosophies have continued and explain the sticky-but-no-feel MotoGP tyres and the soft-but-no-grip Moto2 offerings?

I'll take a stab. I'm just guessing but loading the tire is done by the braking forces applied to the tire. This causes the tire to deform and that's what generates the heat, at least in the front tire. The carbon brakes can generate massive amounts of braking and the riders seem to brake heavily all the way to the apex. I'd like to know what others think

>>at a given corner radius and speed, the required lateral force is determined
>>by physics.

That's a yes, but. The but is that different riding styles in the same corner create different actual turning radii and speeds, braking and acceleration loads, etc. GP style high corner speed does not have as much braking and acceleration loads but loads the tire midcorner while the usual superbike get-it-stopped-and-turn-it technique has a small tight arc that you don't spend much time in but have lots of braking and high acceleration loading the tire.

Another difference is that the GP guys seem to be on it from once the the flag drops. Backing off is a good way to cool your tire and fall while in superbike backing off is a good way to help your tire last longer after abuse. GP is like F1. In F1 you can't back off at all because then downforce decreases which decreases traction and braking limits which is a viscous circle ending with cold tires and a spin out.


I was so disappointed to see Marco get dumped out the bottom end of MotoGP. I'm really pulling for him to do well in WSBK.
I said this in a different comment section but I feel like whenever I start to warm to Biaggi a little bit he pulls this sort of stuff and turns me off again. He's such a fascinating character regardless.

Clearly Checa picked the wrong tire for race 1. I expected Melandri to deliver a great performance.As expected,he did. The remaining results surely challenged the expectations.
Max raised a lot of concerns. Even a rookie would know that he's up for a 'jumped start' penalty and keep an eye out for the board.
Is it too early to suggest that Max has Marco and dare I say it,as of race 2, Leon Camier in his head ?.
Carlos is certainly deserving of the absolute best Ducati can give him. Maybe they have had the good fortune of having had someone read them the riot act by telling them the GP11 project and all the associated hype is not where they are at. Their current GP project smacks of what Haslam's BMW commitment alluded to...aptly described as 'chasing their tails'.
Maybe the cold track was a huge issue,but confusing it was.The racing itself was,as ever,most enjoyable.

I think Melandri ran the hard tire in race #1 and it worked so he didn't change. Hard to argue with that. But maybe if he'd have gone for the softer tire that apparently had the life in it to go the short race distance he could have been closer to Checa in the end.

Or am I remembering incorrectly and he actually ran the soft in both races?

Dear David, I find myself craving for these analysis of yours :) Thank you so much for these insights.

I enjoyed Donington immensely. Marco is proving highly adaptable and he's going to be a threat every weekend. Camier rode well, hanging onto Melandri like grim death when I thought he would be gapped. Most impressive and he should win a few. Felt bad for Tom Sykes. It's always a hard road for that fellow, but he's still underrated. Yamaha muffed it when they let him go. Hopefully he can help put Kaw back on top. Haslam had the speed for awhile, but eventually got slower and slower, while Melandri and Checa held their pace almost to the end. I was glad to see him claw his way back up in race 2 after making mistakes mid way. It shows how strong a racer he is.

I was hoping Chaz could steal the SS win late, but I guess he thought better of it and let his team mate have it. He ran a fast penultimate lap, but then pulled up on the last one. Can hardly wait for round 3.

It was wild (and scary) to see Maxime Berger lose his rear wheel. That kind of weird accident is doubly scary when there's a following rider... Ayrton Badovini did very well to avoid Maxime as he slid backwards under his bike.

Not sure if it's kosher to post the image inline, but it's a pretty wild shot:

I'm not sure that whomever tightened the rear axle bolt is going to keep his job after this incident. Dangerous!

It was actually a failure in the wheel spokes, you can just see them at the bottom of the swingarm.

I was gonna say the say the same thing as monkeyfumi but he beat me to it. It seems that the wheel had a "fatigue" fracture.
If I'm not wrong, as a cause the commentators (British Eurosport 2 I believe) talked about prolonged use of wheels for the small privateer teams. This sounds logical, but I thought at least they were checking them before the races. I don't think they're gonna fire anybody though.
Nice photo by the way :)

There may be excellent grounds then to require all wheels to be serial numbered, dated and x-rayed by an approved aviation NDT facility, and then lifed. Also investigate who is manufacturing said wheels,in case there are some "pirate" copies being flogged off.

I really hope that the team hasn't modified the wheel to take off weight. But this may just be the price of the ultra light wheels. If it wasn't a trade off, all the factories would save metal and cast thinner wheels. The odds of them breaking are just higher. One in a million will hit the mark at some point.

looking at those pictures, wow. I think you are absolutely right-- likely an unintended consequence of the quest for an advantage gained from lighter wheels.

Also, thank you David for your excellent writing.

To clarify; what I meant by the Eurosport comments was not the above video but the actual race commentary by James Whitham and the other commentator (I don't know his name). I saw that video (Fogarty, Hodgson) and that's not it.
I live in Istanbul and I watched race one live on Turkish Eurosport (with horrible Turkish commentary) and then for the second race they switched to Eurosport 2 (which I believe is the British Eurosport) and showed a summary of race one before race two, and that's when I heard it. I hope I didn't cause any misunderstanding.

Long ago, but the problem was caught early on in product testing, and I don't remember any on-track failures, though there was a recall. It turned out the quarry where they got their casting sand had dug into a new strata and the slight difference in minerals caused a reaction in the molten metal which produced brittleness in the finished wheel. No static-testing detected it, only when a couple wheels failed in dynamic-destruction testing did it show up. Marchesini immediately investigated AND recalled the wheels from that production run. A real quality company, to act as quickly and publicly as they did, advertisements detailing the issue were placed in all the major motorcycle publications (at least in the US), and, as I recall, they offered free testing/inspection to Marchesini owners.

I think you might be thinking of Marvic - their Penta wheels caused some grief at one point, most notably for Robert Dunlop at IoM in 1994. The "Mar" in Marvic was actually Mr Marchesini, who went his own way and started making his own wheels because he did not agree with how Mr Vicario was going about things.

Dunlop's crash (camera caught the moment that the wheel came apart):