As objects to look at, motorcycle racing tires are neither particularly impressive nor very interesting. They're round, black, shiny when new, matte when used. Some are wider than others, some are larger than others, some have a taller profile, some have a rounder profile. Some tires are covered in a system of grooves, to channel surface water away from the body of the tire, and allow it to grip, others are smooth as an eight ball. The only splashes of color on tires come from the manufacturer's logo and the yellow bar code, used to track the riders' tire quotas during a MotoGP weekend.
So it may come as some surprise to find that these rather dull-looking rubber rings have been the center of attention of the MotoGP world for at least the past month. For although they might be thoroughly mundane to look at, the tires are arguably the most important part of a racing motorcycle, and ironically, the only part of a racing motorcycle that the motorcycle manufacturer does not and cannot produce in-house. Honda, Yamaha, or even Ducati can invest as much time and money as they like in designing engines to produce as much horsepower as possible, but if the tires they choose are not able to transfer that power to the track surface, then all of that effort is to no avail. Similarly, Suzuki and Kawasaki can spend millions of dollars researching the optimum weight distribution, center of gravity, steering rake and trail and swing arm length to allow their motorcycles to switch direction as quickly as possible, whilst maintaining stability in a straight line, but if the tires are unable to cope with the forces involved in extreme lean angles, or the shape of the tire resists being flicked from side to side, then those research dollars might as well have been spent on chroming the tailpipe, and gold-plating the fairing.
Hence the ruckus which has been brewing almost since the start of the season, as the rules which were meant to remove Michelin's geographical advantage seem to have played into the hands of Bridgestone's technical advantage. Over the past few weeks, pressure has been building around the issue, with talk of some teams going to Bridgestone, then Bridgestone refusing to supply them. Dorna threatened to impose a single tire maker on the series, then Carmelo Ezpeleta withdrew the threat again. The dramatic climax came when Valentino Rossi hinted darkly that he could still decide to switch to Bridgestones for next year, much to the surprise of Jorge Lorenzo, his team mate for next year. Meanwhile, Dani Pedrosa, who held off signing a new contract with Honda over tires, was suspiciously coy about the issue.
Can We Talk About Something Else Now?
Frankly, once practice started at Phillip Island on Friday, there was some relief that we could get back to talking about racing again, and stop talking about paddock politics. But Phillip Island is a very special place, for many reasons, and the unpredictable weather, with squally showers alternating with dry, sunny periods, complicated by strong blustery winds coming in off the Bass Strait, meant that once again, the talk was all about tires, which ones might work in the conditions, which ones might be needed if the conditions changed, and whether one type of weather favored one manufacturer or another. Debate raged on, only to abate a little after qualifying, where the top six places were shared out evenly between Bridgestone and Michelin runners, with Dani Pedrosa taking a convincing pole with one of his best laps of the season, ahead of Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner, the former two on Michelins, the latter on Bridgestones. But just as we thought the issue had started to slip from the limelight, at the post-qualifying press conference, Rossi intimated that he could switch tire makers, and Stoner made a few gibes about champions changing tire brands when the going got difficult. Once again, it was tires dominating MotoGP, not racing.
On Sunday, fickle as ever, the spring weather along Australia's southern coast pitched in to settle the issue. On the afternoon of the race, Phillip Island was sunny, dry, and warmer than it had been all weekend. These were conditions which no one had practiced in, leaving everyone guessing as to what tires to run. Although the talk was still of tires, it was no longer about unfair advantages, it was about who had gambled right. Phillip Island is one of the toughest tracks for tires, with the bikes spending a very long time on the left hand side of the tire at very high speeds. Other tracks usually have hotter track temperatures, but Phillip Island sees the hottest tire temperatures of the year. With track temperatures several degrees higher all of a sudden, having a tire that could last suddenly became a priority.
As the lights faded from red, and the riders unleashed the pent-up fury of hundreds of horsepower, the deafening roar finally made talk about tires impossible, and all eyes were on the racing once again. The pack was led by a bright red bullet, as Casey Stoner got away from the line as if fired from a gun. A Repsol Honda shadowed the Australian's Ducati, but it was not the bike of polesitter Dani Pedrosa, but rather that of Nicky Hayden. Deposed as world champion at the last round, Hayden was set on salvaging some pride from his star-crossed season, and started by heading into the first turn, Doohan Corner, ahead of team mate Pedrosa, with Valentino Rossi slotting his Fiat Yamaha into 4th position, in front of the Ducatis of Alex Barros and Loris Capirossi.
By the time the pack had rounded the Southern Loop and headed back towards the Honda hairpin, Capirossi had put his factory Ducati ahead of Barros' satellite bike, while behind Barros, Marco Melandri had shot up the field to 7th from 12th on the grid, ahead of Shinya Nakano and John Hopkins. Hopper had made a similarly spectacular start, shooting to 9th from 14th. At the front of the field, it looked like being business as usual, Casey Stoner leading the field as they snaked their way across the fast, flowing Phillip Island circuit. Stoner eked out a gap round the first half of the track, only to see it closed down in one fell swoop, as Nicky Hayden plummeted down Lukey Heights into MG, hitting the brakes and hanging on to Stoner's tail.
As they crossed the line for the first time, Stoner still led Hayden, but only by a couple of tenths. A fraction behind, Pedrosa led Rossi, The Doctor right on the Spaniard's tail, while Loris Capirossi followed in their wake. Barros held 6th across the line, but lost it to Melandri just yards later, last year's winner determined to try for a repeat win here.
Casey Stoner leading a race is a very dangerous man, and anyone with ambitions of victory faces a stark choice: catch him before he's gone, or admit defeat. Seeing Stoner ahead, Valentino Rossi knew he had to get on to Stoner's back wheel before the Australian champion did his usual disappearing act. Rossi's problem came in the pint-sized shape of Dani Pedrosa and his Honda RC212V. But most problems can be solved, and the Doctor found his remedy by closing Pedrosa down through the Southern Loop, then whipping out of the Spaniard's draft through Turn 3 to stuff his Yamaha up the inside of Pedrosa into the Honda hairpin. Pedrosa resisted at first, but then succumbed.
Once past, Rossi was free to attempt to chase down Casey Stoner, a task he has been faced with all too often this season. Knowing he had no time to lose, he set about it with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Which was just a little bit too much as it turned out, for as Rossi piled on the power round the 120 mph left hander of Turn 12 leading back on to the front straight he ran wide on to the rumble strip, then wider on to the grass, kicking up a big cloud of dust, forcing him to back off a fraction to get back on to the track and terra firma, allowing Pedrosa to sneak back past and into his way again.
Fortunately for Rossi, his fears of Stoner disappearing into the sunset on his own had not yet come to pass. Despite Stoner pushing with all his might, he still had the Kentucky Kid for company. Hayden was right on Stoner through the first few turns, but as the lap progressed, the Australian inched his Ducati away. More than Hayden might like, but not enough to break the tow, and make good his escape.
Behind Hayden, Rossi had recovered from his excess of fervor, and was right back on Pedrosa's back wheel. He started lining the Spaniard up through Siberia, getting ready to pounce at the top of the hill, before swooping down into MG and 3rd place. But Pedrosa knows the score at Phillip Island as well as The Doctor, and kept the door firmly shut as they rounded the hairpin at the bottom of the hill, then blocked as Rossi tried to push him through Turns 11 and 12, smoke pouring off Rossi's rear tire as he powered the bike round the interminable left hander.
Where Rossi failed, Melandri succeeded. Rossi's battle with Pedrosa had allowed Loris Capirossi to close up, with Marco Melandri right behind. Where Pedrosa succeeded in fending off The Doctor's unwelcome advances at the bottom of MG, Capirex met with less success, Melandri stuffing the nose of his Gresini Honda ahead of Capirossi's Ducati through the hairpin, and into 5th.
Braking Is Hard To Do
Rossi may have been denied at MG, but he was not deterred. As Pedrosa started to pitch his Repsol Honda into the Southern Loop for the 4th time, he found a Fiat Yamaha in his way, Valentino Rossi having forced his bike up the inside, and into 3rd. But Pedrosa is as stubborn as Rossi about being passed, and the Spaniard hung on to Rossi's Yamaha round Turn 3, before trying to wedge his Honda ahead of Rossi into the Honda hairpin. But Rossi is a hard man to outbrake, and as brilliant a rider as Pedrosa is, very hard braking remains his weak point, and as his RC212V fishtailed on the brakes, Pedrosa ran wide, and instead of gaining a place from Rossi, he lost a place to Melandri, now in full flight forward.
With Stoner ahead, but still being chased hard by Hayden, behind the leaders, the pursuit was taking some kind of shape. Now past Dani Pedrosa, Rossi was inching closer to Nicky Hayden, though with over a second to make up. The fight for 4th was not yet settled, however, with Pedrosa resolved to make good his mistake and take back 4th place from Melandri. He chased the Italian's Hannspree Honda for all of lap 5, lining Melandri up through Turn 12 before blasting past and into 4th over the line and into Doohan. But while Melandri knows that he can't compete with the factory Honda on top speed, his strength is Pedrosa's weakness, and as they flicked left through Turn 3, Melandri closed on Pedrosa, then brutally jammed his Honda ahead of Pedrosa's on the brakes, leaving Pedrosa with nowhere to go except down into 5th.
If Melandri were to stay ahead of Pedrosa, he had to get enough of a gap to prevent the Spaniard blasting past on the front straight again. As the pair fired round the flowing river of tarmac that is Phillip Island, Melandri gave it his all, but it was not enough. As they crossed the line to start lap 7, Pedrosa was once again past Melandri, and into Doohan in 4th place. With the Honda hairpin approaching, Melandri knew what he had to do, but Pedrosa knew it equally well. Melandri forced his way ahead again into the hairpin, but Pedrosa had taken a wider line, to apex later. As Melandri ran slightly wide, the inevitable consequence of such a hard pass on the brakes, the wily Pedrosa sneaked back underneath and back into 4th, his racecraft belying his tender years.
At this stage, all concerned knew the next few laps would be crucial. Previous races had seen Stoner up the pace and break his pursuers, getting away to win by a big margin. And after being feted as the new world champion after his return to Australia, he was intent on becoming the first Australian to win his home Grand Prix since Mick Doohan in 1998, the man Stoner is so often compared to. Having clinched the title already, he had nothing left to lose, and it showed, his Marlboro Ducati snaking under him as he pushed it as hard as he could.
If Stoner was pushing hard, behind him, Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi were pushing just as hard. After an abortive attempt at learning to ride the Honda RC212V like a 250, Hayden had returned to his wild, hang-it-all-out, dirt-track style earlier in the year, and luckily for him, this is also the best way to get around the Phillip Island track. Try as Stoner might to break Hayden, he could not dislodge last year's champion from his back wheel, the gap hovering between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds. And while Stoner tried to break Hayden from in front, Rossi attacked from behind, trying to close the gap to the Kentucky Kid to turn the duel at the front into a three-way fight. But where Hayden was holding station against Stoner, Rossi was losing ground, a tenth of a second at a time.
By the end of lap 9, it was looking like turning into a straight fight between Hayden and Stoner, but on lap 10, disaster struck. In one lap, Nicky Hayden lost nearly 1.5 seconds as his engine lost power, putting in a lap of 1'32.3 against Stoner's 1'30.9. He lost another second on the following lap, allowing Rossi to get ahead, and a second again on lap 12, before his engine finally gave up the ghost, dropping a valve and seizing up entirely, Hayden pulling to one side, signaling frantically with his foot to his team mate Pedrosa to pass on the left, to allow Hayden to pull off the track and out of the race. Nicky Hayden, the nicest, politest man you could hope to meet, was livid, as angry here as he had been at Estoril last year, but for entirely different reasons. His body language made clear that a stream of invective was being shouted into his helmet, and a couple of vicious punches to the tank made eloquently clear where the problem lay.
Hayden's retirement is indicative of Honda's difficulties in keeping up. HRC have found the horsepower they needed to keep up with the Ducati, but as the only manufacturer still using conventional valve springs to close the valves, they are running into reliability problems keeping the engine running at the necessary revs. The engine is generating large amounts of heat, and that heat is killing the engines. In a normal year, Honda engines are the very pinnacle of reliability, but so far this year, the 800cc V4 has failed publicly several times, including Toni Elias' exit in clouds of smoke at Barcelona, and Nicky Hayden's engine explosion during practice at the Sachsenring, scattering a trail of engine parts down the front straight, and triggering a rather unsightly scramble in pit lane to bag a few souvenirs.
With Hayden no longer standing between Rossi and Stoner, The Doctor was free to go after the Australian champion. But though gifted the opportunity, Rossi was no longer able to give chase. The hard pursuit over the past few laps were starting to take their toll on Rossi's Michelins, his lap times dropping from 1'31.0 down to 1'31.6. But Rossi wasn't the only one to pay the price of the hostilities over the past few laps: Casey Stoner's Bridgestones were also showing signs of fatigue, the Australian's lap times starting to drop, a sign of just how hard he'd had to push to stay ahead of Hayden. However, where Rossi was half a second slower, Stoner was losing just two tenths a lap, and pulling away.
Once Hayden had gone, what everyone had feared might happen came to pass. Casey Stoner, with less pressure to face from behind, could focus on riding smoothly for lap after blistering lap, building an insurmountable lead within the space of the next 6 laps. By lap 17 of 27, Stoner was over 6 seconds ahead and completely out of reach. In yet another display of faultless riding, the newly crowned Australian champion went on to take his home Grand Prix, becoming the first home winner at Phillip Island since 1998, and the first Bridgestone winner here ever. On the podium and after the race, Stoner was elated, saying that this win was the most important win of the season and meant almost as much as winning the world championship. The crowd got what it came for, to see their new young hero win, in the form he has shown all season.
While Stoner may have had the race sewn up, there was still a podium to fill, and a host of hungry candidates. Rossi's pace had slackened enough for the men behind to start catching him. At first, Pedrosa and Melandri followed together, their Hondas close enough to resemble a single machine at some parts of the track, but on lap 16, the tire issue reared its ugly head again. Only this time, it wasn't the Michelins of Dani Pedrosa which were starting to go off, it was the Bridgestones of Marco Melandri. The Italian had gambled on a medium compound tire, and while this had allowed him to keep with Rossi and Pedrosa during the first half of the race, now that strategy was starting to unravel. Melandri's lap times plummeted from low 1'31s to mid 1'32s on lap 16, then high 1'33s on lap 19, to end up in the 1'35s. As his times plummeted, so did his position, sliding back down the order, his hopes of a podium as destroyed as his rear tire.
Best Of The Rest
That left Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa to slug it out for the podium. Pedrosa crept closer to Rossi, until he was close enough to use the power of his Honda to edge ahead of Rossi at the end of the straight and into Doohan corner. But getting ahead is one thing, staying ahead is another. With Rossi right on his tail, Pedrosa demonstrated just how hard staying ahead was out of the Southern Loop and through Turn 3, his Honda quivering like plucked guitar string as they rocketed down towards the Honda hairpin.
The tussle between Pedrosa and Rossi for the remaining two spots on the podium was fierce, but worked against them. While the Honda and Yamaha were holding each other up, Loris Capirossi had finally gotten past the ailing Marco Melandri and was closing on Rossi. Pedrosa had passed Rossi on lap 18, but by the next lap, the two-way dice had become a three-way fight. From Siberia to the line, the three were close enough to see the stitching on each other's leathers, and down the front straight, Capirossi unleashed the massed hordes of Bologna thoroughbreds to power past Rossi and into Doohan in 3rd place. But Capirex can do more than just use excess horsepower, and as the three picked their bikes up to flick into the Southern Loop, Capirossi had stuffed his Ducati up the inside of Pedrosa's Honda as well. Two passes in two corners: After his win at Motegi three weeks ago, Capirex was back, and he meant business.
Pedrosa's travails were not yet over: two corners after losing out to Capirossi, the Spaniard was outbraked by Valentino Rossi going into the Honda hairpin. For the third time in the race, the Repsol Honda rider lost out at the Honda hairpin. Pedrosa hung on bravely for another attempt at Rossi a lap later, but it was not to be. By lap 23, Pedrosa's shot at the podium was over.
That left two men in the race for the remaining spots on the rostrum: Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi. For three laps, Rossi pushed Capirossi as hard as he could, but the Ducati veteran was unleashed. Capirossi was the fastest man on the track, and Rossi's tires were starting to give up the ghost. On lap 24, Rossi had no more to give, losing over a second on Capirossi, and the podium was settled.
Loris Capirossi's ride to 2nd place was outstanding in more ways than one. Not only did it confirm Capirossi's return to form, finally getting to grips with the 800cc GP7, it also clinched the constructor's and team championship for Ducati, and gave them another 1-2 after Troy Bayliss' win at Valencia in 2006. If Casey Stoner didn't quite clinch the title in the manner he might have wished, he and Loris Capirossi certainly helped secure the manufacturer's title in style.
The last place on the podium went to Valentino Rossi, The Doctor riding his Fiat Yamaha home to take 3rd, satisfied he had done all he could, but unhappy that his Michelin tires had not quite lasted long enough to stay at the front all race. Rumors after the race suggest that he will have the Bridgestones he so desires next year, but time will tell whether getting what he asked for is the panacea Rossi believes it will be.
Dani Pedrosa missed out on the podium, coming home in 4th spot, and even more disappointed than Rossi. Like Rossi, Pedrosa must be hoping for a tire switch, as his complaints about his tires were more vocal than Rossi's. While little has been said about it, if Rossi makes the switch to Bridgestone, the odds must be very strong that Pedrosa will follow.
Behind Pedrosa, Alex Barros had ridden a lonely race to bring his Pramac d'Antin Ducati home in 5th place, after losing touch with the leading group on lap 5. With 3 Ducatis in the top 5, there can be no doubt that the Italian bikes work exceptionally well here in Phillip Island.
The 6th spot was more tightly contested: Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet and Suzuki's John Hopkins had scrapped for the position almost all race long, the Frenchman finally coming out on top after Hopkins made a mistake going into Doohan corner, leaving Hopper with 7th as consolation.
The fight for 8th position saw the most entertaining action of the day. For most of the race, Chris Vermeulen, Colin Edwards, Carlos Checa, and Ant West had fought a thrilling battle for supremacy, the order changing almost every lap. In the end, it was Chris Vermeulen who came out on top, taking 8th behind his Suzuki team mate, ahead of Colin Edwards in 9th. Both Vermeulen and Edwards had struggled to find a set up all weekend, Vermeulen having problems with the wind, while Edwards suffered with a lack of grip, so both men were extremely relieved to at least have been able to fight mid-pack, fearing ending up as tail enders.
Marco Melandri ended up splitting the mid-pack scrap, managing to bring his completely shot tires home in 10th place, the slowest man on the track for much of the second half of the race.
Carlos Checa finished 11th on the LCR Honda, ahead of Ant West, the Australian Kawasaki rider ending up at the back of the mid-pack group. Shinya Nakano came home in 13th, after losing touch with the group halfway through the race.
After his spectacular 4th place finish in Motegi, Sylvain Guintoli was very disappointed to finish in 14th, the Dunlop tires not working as well at Phillip Island as they did in Japan. But Guintoli still got his revenge on Toni Elias, the man who took the podium from him at Motegi, the Spanish fan favorite taking the final point in 15th.
Guintoli's team mate Makoto Tamada came home in 16th, just ahead of Kurtis Roberts on the KR212V. For most of this season, the Team KR bike has been the perennial backmarker, denied the engine upgrades already provided to the other Honda teams. But for the first time in a very long while, Roberts was able to fight for a place, and looked like avoiding finishing last, but he lost out on the final lap.
Change Is The Only Constant
The run up to the Phillip Island MotoGP round was dominated by the issue of tires, and the one thing that Dorna must have feared most was that tires would be at the center of the race as well. As it happened, tires were central to the result, but not in the way that Dorna had feared: As a result of the variable and difficult climatic conditions, the riders and teams ended up gambling on their choice of tires. Some of those gambles paid off, while others went disastrously wrong, but no one could point the finger at one tire brand or another being dominant.
The fact that the Marlboro Ducati team gambled correctly speaks volumes. All year long, Casey Stoner hasn't put a foot wrong, and that consistency has been rewarded with a MotoGP title. But it hasn't just been Stoner who has done things right, the factory Ducati team have been very close to perfect race in, race out as well. Wrapping up both the manufacturer's title and the team title at Phillip Island was the crowning achievement of some astute guesses, some ingenious design, and an awful lot of hard work by the Ducati team, and was very well deserved.
The good news for the rest of the field was the narrowness of Stoner's margin of victory. Where the young Aussie had the race wrapped up after the first 7 or 8 laps, this time out, he had to work a lot harder, for less of an advantage. What's more, if Nicky Hayden's engine hadn't blown up, the outcome of the race might have been very different indeed. If Hayden had been able to dice with Stoner, that could have allowed Rossi to catch up at the front, and given Stoner a lot more trouble than he was left with in the end. But ifs count for nothing in racing, where the only reality is the cold, harsh print of the results sheet.
The Phillip Island race made it clear that Honda and Yamaha are closing the gap to Ducati, and Michelin is getting closer as well. That's the nature of competition: sometimes it takes a real humiliation of the dominant player in an area to get their attention, and force them to adapt to the new circumstances. Casey Stoner's world championship, on Bridgestone tires, has achieved just that, for Michelin, for Honda, for Yamaha, for everyone. Stoner has been at the center of a perfect storm this year, but the tide is starting to turn. It won't be anywhere near as easy next year.