With the title chase so incredibly tight, it is inevitable that every MotoGP race from now until Valencia will result in journalists and writers – and I include myself in that group – spend most of their time writing about the clash between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. The outcome of that confrontation matters, as it will decide the 2015 MotoGP championship.
This is tough on the rest of the MotoGP field and the riders in other classes. They, too, are riding their hearts out, aiming for – and in Moto2 and Moto3 attaining – glory, yet they are ignored as the rest of the world gazes in wonder at a few names at the front of MotoGP. They do not deserve such treatment, but life in general, and motorcycle racing in particular are neither fair nor just.
There were plenty of tales to tell at Motegi, however. The biggest, perhaps, is the tale of tires. To some extent, this has already been covered in part 1 of the round up, as tire wear ended up determining the outcome of the race. Jorge Lorenzo pushed early, then went backwards in the second half of the race. Valentino Rossi tried to follow Lorenzo at the start, realized that was not possible and so paced himself, and found himself catching and then passing Lorenzo in the latter stages of the race. And Dani Pedrosa felt uncomfortable in the first part of the race, as he figured out what the rear tire needed, then gradually upped his pace – or more accurately, maintained his pace – from about lap 8, and started reeling in the riders ahead as their pace began to flag. Whether accidental or deliberate, Pedrosa's strategy ended up winning the race.
The question on the lips of a lot of fans after Rossi finished ahead of Lorenzo was how much influence the winglets used by Lorenzo made to tire wear. Rossi elected not to use them, and did not slow as badly in the second half of the race as Lorenzo did. Andrea Dovizioso also suffered badly with front tire wear, though the second pair of winglets which the Ducati GP15 had sprouted during practice were dropped for the race. Could these have caused the problem?
Wings or Wear?
Without access to a lot more data than we actually have, it is hard to say anything definitive about it. But we can draw a few tentative conclusions. It was not just Lorenzo and Dovizioso who were complaining about excessive wear on the front. Cal Crutchlow told reporters that his front tire was shot as well. "It seems that Bridgestone says ours was the worst out of everybody's, and also Marc's because of how much we push with the front." Everyone, from Lorenzo and Dovizioso to Márquez, Crutchlow and Yonny Hernandez complained of the same thing: the front tire held up, but had to be taken care of.
The one thing where both Lorenzo and Dovizioso did differ from the other riders is how hard they pushed from the start of the race. Lorenzo's pace was positively – and perhaps literally – scorching, loading the tire from the beginning. Dovizioso too was fast in the early laps, pushing Valentino Rossi for second. Pushing so hard will have loaded the tires and generated a lot of heat in the soft rubber, especially in the carcass. Once the track started to dry, the additional heat of riding on a dry line would have pushed tire temperatures over the edge, and started to severely degrade performance. Did the winglets play a role? Perhaps, by not as much as Lorenzo's string of low 1'55s and a 1'54 with which he opened.
Dovizioso's issue was at both ends. He was unable to brake as hard as usual, and that meant he lost a lot of ground. The rear was spinning a lot, forcing him to switch engine mapping in search of more grip. No grip front and rear meant no speed, and the Italian fell back into the clutches of Marc Márquez. The reigning world champion was himself not making any inroads into the leaders, his problem not so much his broken hand – wet races make coping with broken bones much easier – as the lack of a wet set up. Not enough time on a wet track meant that he and his Repsol Honda team had been unable to find a good set up in warm up, and the few changes they made for the race did not help. Márquez told the press he was never really comfortable in the wet, and unable to match the pace of the leaders. He was forced to settle for fourth, while Dovizioso slipped back to fifth.
Brit vs Brit
One of the better battles of the race was the fight for top satellite honors between Bradley Smith and Cal Crutchlow. The two fought fiercely from about the halfway mark, with Crutchlow coming out on top. Both were more relieved than pleased, as neither man had much left in the way of tires. After a slow start struggling with a lack of heat and grip in the rear, Crutchlow soon forged his way forward. That cost him his front tire. "The front tire was completely bald," he said, "so even to finish the race was hard work." But finishing, and finishing in sixth ahead of Smith, was an acceptable result, where so many others had fallen.
Smith was a little more disappointed, having lost out on sixth when he lost the front and had to save a crash, finishing behind Crutchlow was all that was possible. His rear tire was so shot that he was "moving about on the bike like a motocrosser" in the search for grip. At one point, he had even sat on the back of the seat unit to try to get more weight over the rear.
The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was pleased with his weekend overall, though. He had been fast and consistent all weekend, despite the three crashes he had on Saturday. Risking those crashes had been a deliberate strategy, to make a point to the Yamaha bigwigs who were present. "I just wanted to see what the next level is," Smith said. He is at the limit with the bike he has, having run out of adjustment options with the 2014 frame he is using. So far, Yamaha have refused to give him upgrades, and Smith has had to learn to ride around the issues. By pushing just that little bit harder, he illustrated all too graphically that he has reached the end of what is possible with his current bike. Doing so in front of Yamaha bosses sends a message which they should be able to understand.
It is a common tactic. The Japanese Grand Prix is the only race where all of the senior executives from the Japanese manufacturers are present. It is an ideal opportunity to talk to them, but also to show what you are capable of as a rider. Every rider linked with a factory does the same, using the opportunity to push that little bit harder and demonstrate where the weaknesses of their current bikes are.
Dreams of being champion
The withdrawal of Tito Rabat on Friday meant that Johann Zarco was the de facto champion. With Rabat lacking the strength in the wrist he fractured in a training crash at Almeria, he was unable to ride, and so pulled out. Zarco gave a press conference on Friday, but found it hard to focus on his achievement. There was still the small matter of the race on Sunday to attend to first, and Zarco wrapped his championship up in style. He reigned supreme in the wet, much as he has in the dry all year, celebrating his title with a win. Jonas Folger found himself at the front once again, settling for a strong second, while Sandro Cortese, who is having a strong second half of the season, grabbed the final podium slot. He did so at the expense of Azlan Shah, the Malaysian rider impressive in the wet, and showing real promise. The other Malaysian Moto2 rider Hafizh Syaharin finished in fifth, a sign that Asia is slowing starting to produce some real talent. With Sepang still to come, there is hope that the Malaysian crowds could be in for a treat in 10 days' time.
The Moto3 race was dominated by Niccolo Antonelli, much as he had ruled in practice. His first victory at Brno had liberated Antonelli, who has been competitive ever since. The Italian youngster just gelled from the beginning with the Japanese track, his victory in a shortened race coming as no surprise. Miguel Oliveira kept Antonelli honest, but could find no way to stop him. Jorge Navarro followed up a debut podium at Aragon with another at Motegi, the Spaniard starting to get into his stride in Moto3.
All eyes in Moto3 were on the title battle behind the leaders. Enea Bastianini got away well, running close behind the leading group. Championship leader Danny Kent made a more cautious start, worried about getting tangled up with other riders in the thirteen-lap dash. The Englishman was down in sixteenth for the first couple of laps, but slowly picked up his pace and worked his way forward. He caught Bastianini with three laps to go, and on the final lap, got past the Italian youngster with an audacious into Turn 7, then held him off to the line. He knew he was faster than his title rival in the second half of the circuit, and exploited that to ensure he finished ahead of Bastianini.
Kent leaves Motegi with a 56-point lead in the championship. He needs just 19 points to be sure of the Moto3 title, no matter what Bastianini does. 19 points should not be too difficult in three races, Kent said. "You can score that in just one race." A second place at Phillip Island would be sufficient, but just finishing ahead of Bastianini will ensure that he wraps up the title this coming weekend.
Risk vs reward, or the price of safety
The Japanese Grand Prix was marred by a couple of ugly incidents, causing concerns over safety. On Saturday, Alex De Angelis suffered a horrific crash in which he fractured several vertebrae, suffered a bruised lung, and took a heavy blow to the head. The accident was strange, but happened because De Angelis held on to the handlebars of the bike in an attempt to save it, rather than letting go and crashing normally. The rear of the bike came round in Turn 9, and De Angelis hung on. The bike stayed upright, and the Italian ended up heading into the crash barrier.
Should there have been some protection on the crash barrier? It was a freak accident, one which is hard to take into account. The outside of Turn 9 is where riders tend to crash and has safety measures to cope with it, but De Angelis ended up on the opposite side of the track. It was reminiscent in a way of Marco Simoncelli's crash at Sepang, another incident where the rider tried to hang on to the bars instead of letting go, and found himself in a bad place. De Angelis posted a picture today on Facebook, showing himself lying in a hospital bed, with an oxygen mask, but giving the thumbs up. He is still in a serious condition, but being conscious and responding is a positive sign.
On Sunday, fog moved in over the circuit and prevented the medical helicopter from flying. After a series of delays, warm up was started nearly two hours late, and without coverage from the medical helicopter. Two years ago, the same situation had been enough to stop all activity at the track. The difference, Race Director Mike Webb explained, was that medical facilities at Motegi had been greatly improved in the past two years. New facilities had been added to the medical center, and better equipped ambulances were now present, which made it possible to transport seriously-injured riders to the nearest hospital – Dokkyo University Hospital, 50 minutes away by road – with sufficient medical support. In addition, the circuit had liased with local police to ensure safe and clear passage to the hospital, with the very minimum of delays.
Was this a safe decision? Race Director Mike Webb gave a very full explanation to Steve English of Motorcycle News, in which Webb explains the background. The key points were the upgraded medical facilities, but Webb pointed out that the decision was not up to him. Decisions on whether to go ahead or not on medical grounds are taken by the Chief Medical Officer – the senior doctor appointed by the circuit – and Dorna's Medical Director Dr. Michele Macchiagodena. The CMO and Medical Director are both experts in trauma medicine, and able to make informed decisions on the safety of an event. Medical facilities at a circuit are sufficient to stabilize an injured rider and prepare them for transport. Both helicopters and ambulances used to transport riders are provided with the highest level of equipment, and staffed by experts in trauma care. Helicopters are not mandatory, the medical regulations merely requiring that riders can be evacuated quickly and safely to a hospital which provides the necessary care.
The other nasty incident at Motegi involved Pol Espargaro. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider crashed at the end of the straight, folding the front as he got on the brakes, and sliding very closely along the crash barrier, clipping it on the way. When he stood up, he was clearly shaken, though uninjured. When I asked Mike Webb about the crash, he said that the situation at the end of the straight is similar to straights at several other tracks. He was certainly concerned about the incident, and would be investigating it, but said it was too early to comment on the situation.
Unlike the incident with De Angelis, crashes like Espargaro's can always happen, especially in the wet. The saving grace is that any contact with the barrier takes place at a very obtuse angle, so that riders only really suffer a very glancing blow. Energy transfer in such a crash is minimal, reducing the risk of serious injury. The rain complicates the situation even further, as riders are braking much earlier than they would otherwise, and so they are likely to crash earlier if they lock the front. Pushing the barrier back may be a solution, but it is hard to calculate the benefits of such a move. Circuits have to accommodate paying spectators, and cannot remove them too far from the action.
Motorcycle racing is a dangerous activity, and while the FIM rules are aimed at reducing risk and injury as much as possible, there is always a point at which the benefits of making track changes are less than the costs of doing so. If a crash happens rarely enough, and the risk of injury from such a crash is low enough, then you have to ask yourself whether the money needed to make the change could not be put to better use elsewhere, in places where riders are exposed to real and regular risk. It is a dilemma common with many forms of public policy, including whether to cover the cost of a particular medicine for a rare disease, or spend money modifying a road intersection to prevent accidents. Unfortunately, it is necessary to put a price on human life in such calculations. We cannot wrap the world in cotton wool. Nor, to be honest, would we want to.
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