If there is one thing which is bound to rile up the fans and get them complaining, it is the prospect of a race which requires the riders to carefully manage their tires. "Let them race!" people cry. "It should be a test of who goes fastest, not who can save their tires!" The clamor invariably ends up with a single, indignant demand: "Bring back the tire wars!"
If you needed proof of the wrongness of that opinion, you need only look at Sunday's Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island. In a race where tire preservation was paramount, we saw countless passing maneuvers throughout the race, a pass for the win on the last lap, and the first seven riders finishing within a second of one another. Yes, you read that right. The top seven were within one second. 0.884, actually.
With riders worried about tire wear, the Phillip Island race allowed riders to come from the back -way back – and join the front group. It produced a surprise winner and a thrilling podium. It shook up the title chase, as riders and teams gambled on just how slow it would be, and adjusted their strategies and their electronics setups accordingly. Phillip Island 2022 proved the universal racing truth: forcing riders to save their tires produces fantastic racing.
The main concern on everyone's mind before the race was which tires to choose. Both front and rear were critical, because of the circuit's seemingly never-ending fast lefts which chew up the tire, combined with the cold winds which suck the heat out of the rubber.
What you want is the hardest possible compound on the left, and the softest possible compound on the right, but in both cases, you are at the mercy of the elements. Choose the hard front, and you risk crashing out because the tire loses too much heat into the headwind on the Gardner straight. Choose the medium front, and you risk chewing through the left side of the tire before the end of the race.
Compounding this issue is the fact that Phillip Island has barely any braking. Brembo rates it as the least stressful circuit on the calendar for braking. The downside of that is that you can't force load (and therefore temperature) into the front tire by braking hard into corners. There are very few corners where you actually need to brake hard. And even fewer left handers which need hard braking.
What does this mean for a race? It means that the way to win at Phillip Island is by going as slowly as possible, or rather, as slowly as your rivals will let you go. It helps, of course, that your rivals want to go slowly as well, because they are facing exactly the same dilemmas as you are: pick the right tires, front and rear, then figure out a way to make them last.
That is how we ended up with the first seven riders within nine tenths of a second, and the top ten within 6 seconds. How Enea Bastianini, who finished fifth, just 0.557 behind the winner Alex Rins, had managed to come through, not just from fifteenth on the grid, but had found himself down in twentieth at one point, 5.5 seconds behind the leaders, after his airbag went off when he hit a bump.
How slow was the 2022 Phillip Island Grand Prix? It was the second-slowest race since 2014, the first full race after the track was resurfaced. It was 7 seconds slower than 2019, 2 seconds slower than 2016, 4 seconds slower than 2014, and a massive 16.8 seconds slower than the epic battle in 2015. Only two races were completed in a similar time: 2017 was 0.882 faster, 2018 was 0.427 slower. Over a 40'50 race, that is nothing.
And that is one of the ways we ended up with one of the most thrilling races in recent years, a classic for the ages. Marc Marquez put it succinctly. "You want a strong pace and no overtakes? It’s better to have a slow pace and many overtakes. You enjoy it more. Me too."
There's more to overtaking than that, of course. But it starts with the field being close enough for riders to actually attempt a pass. But what about the aerodynamics and ride-height devices which have made passing impossible at other circuits? Why can riders pass at Phillip Island, but not at, say, Jerez?
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