Race day at Brno felt chaotic. The chaos was controlled, for the most part, and expertly managed when circumstances allowed. But Sunday was filled with the unexpected, the surprising, the fearsome, as well as the best motorcycle racers in the world. It was a strange day.
It started in Moto3. John McPhee had a problem on the grid with his pit lane limiter, which meant he was painfully slow off the line. The miracles of racer reflexes meant that almost all the grid avoided him, despite the fact that McPhee started from the front row of the grid. Almost, but not quite: Yuki Kunii, starting from eight rows behind McPhee, saw the Petronas rider a fraction too late, and clipped the rear of his Honda very hard.
McPhee could continue, though he had to retire shortly afterward with severe and painful contusions on his left leg, but Kunii was thrown off his bike. He was lucky to only break bones in his hand. It was a bizarre and unusual accident, and a reminder of just how dangerous the start of each race can be.
Moto3 and Moto2 saw a lot of fallers, Saturday's rain having washed most of the rubber off the track, taking the grip with it. Then just as the podium ceremony for Moto2 was underway, it started to rain, gently at first, and then a sudden downpour. The paddock and the front straight from the final chicane and all through the first corner was soaked.
The view from the outside
That presented a problem. The nature of the Brno circuit – long and large, sitting in the middle of a forest on top of a hill west of Brno – is such that summer rainstorms can be highly localized. How localized? The storm just clipped the paddock and the front straight, the rear of the circuit seeing nothing more than a couple of brief, light showers. While the front straight was soaking wet, my wife, who was sitting on the grass bank overlooking the exit of Turn 7, was puzzled by the fact that Race Direction had called a Wet Race, as the track was pretty much bone dry at that point of the circuit.
As the riders came round after the sighting lap on slicks, there followed an intense conference with Dorna officials, including Carmelo Ezpeleta and his son Carlos. The grid was cleared, much to the consternation of those in pit lane, and without an easy view of the TV screens. The start was delayed, as we waited for the track to dry. That was met with little sympathy: these are the best motorcycle racers in the world, we said to each other. Surely they are capable of handling the conditions?
I was guilty of the same comments. When I suggested to Petronas Yamaha SRT team boss Wilco Zeelenberg that the riders should be able to cope with the conditions, he put me firmly in my place. "That's easy to say if you're standing around with your hands in your pockets," he said. He had a point.
The start is where the danger is
What I, and many others, hadn't understood was the specific difficulty posed by the wet track. From the exit of Turn 2 all the way up the hill to the final chicane, the track was dry. Use wets in those conditions, and the tires would be destroyed in a few laps, necessitating a bike swap. But the track from the final chicane to the exit of Turn 1 was soaking wet, too wet for slicks, and it remained that way for the best part of 30 minutes.
The issue here was not so much one of riding, but of the start. Because so much of the track was dry, the riders would have elected to race on slick tires had the race been started. But a full grid of riders barreling into a sodden Turn 1 on slick tires would only have ended in disaster. If anyone had fallen, they would have taken multiple people down with them, with the risk of severe injury.
"For me, because everybody would have to use the slicks, it was very, very dangerous if we arrive all together at the first corner," Valentino Rossi said. "Especially at the start, on a full wet track. For me it's the most dangerous thing you can do."
"The worst place to be wet with slick tires is the start, where you have the launch control and so much horsepower on the rear wheel," Pol Espargaro agreed. "Imagine if I crash, in the second row, at the start of the race, and someone in the back of the grid hits me and kills me because of this situation. Today I think Dorna did a very, very good job."
If any other part of the track had been wet, but the first corner and the starting straight had been dry, then it would have been different, Espargaro agreed. "It would be different for sure. For me, the situation was not that the first corner and the last corner were wet. In the end, we are MotoGP riders, and for sure this is so dangerous. But for me, the biggest concern was the start. The launch control, we've seen that some riders on a more-or-less dry track, they had a lot of problems to start, imagine with the track fully wet. That was so dangerous."
Riders might have been able to pick their way relatively safely through the corners if, say, Turns 5, 6, and 7 had been soaking and they had been out on slicks. The grid would have been a little strung out, so a crash by one would not automatically have taken the whole field down. But at the start, with riders struggling to control the power of the bike off the line, and the grid all bunched together, if anything had happened, half the field would have gone down. And having 10 riders and 10 bikes all sliding around would not have ended well at all.
As Espargaro said, you could see the effect of water on the grid at the start, when the race finally got underway 40 minutes later. Those on the inside of the track found themselves on a damp line, and had trouble launching the bikes, losing places from the start. Those who qualified on the outside of the grid – position 1 or 2, 4 or 5, 7 or 8, etc – had a better shot at finding dry track, and shot forward on the run to the first line.
Line selection mattered too: if you could pick your way onto a section of dry track and find a clear path to the outside, you could make up ground. If you got stuck on the inside, or had your path to dry track blocked, you went backwards.
Watching the start from helicopter footage on the MotoGP.com website, you can see who had the benefit of a dry line: Marc Márquez and Jack Miller were on the front row and a dry part of the track. Andrea Dovizioso and Pol Espargaro quickly found dry asphalt. Valentino Rossi and Danilo Petrucci also started in the dry, but Petrucci got pinched and pushed onto a wet part of the track, losing ground. Johann Zarco and Maverick Viñales were on the wet part of the track, and dropped back a long way before the grid even started to brake for Turn 1.
The speed differentials were remarkable, and quite alarming in some cases. If the track had been much wetter, it is easy to imagine how badly this might have ended. The delay was irritating and confusing, but it was the right call.
What unfolded was a race that felt tense for the first ten laps. Marc Márquez led, but he had Andrea Dovizioso, Alex Rins, and Jack Miller behind him keeping him honest. Dovizioso sat on Márquez' tail for half the race, shortened from 21 to 20 laps due to the start delay, and from the outside, it looked like he was biding his time, waiting to attack in the last part of the race.
He was not biding his time. When Márquez pushed at the halfway mark, he broke the tow to Dovizioso. After holding steady at under half a second, within three laps, Márquez had increased his advantage to over two seconds. Just how much of an advantage Márquez had over the rest was made plain when he had a moment at Turn 10, the bike twitching and his foot slipping off the peg. He lost two tenths in that sector, but still ended up putting three tenths of a second into Dovizioso.
Just how hard Dovizioso had been trying to keep up with Márquez, he explained during the press conference. "I'm happy also about the race, because at the beginning Marc was so hard," Dovizioso said. "He was so fast and he had the softer option. I knew I had to stay there to try to fight with him. I was really on the limit, but I was able to stay with him. In the middle of the race when he try again to push, he brake a bit later. That was the key to creating the gap."
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