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GP Week : Issue 111
Have you ever fallen off a motorcycle?” The question was fired back to me in a Press conference, back in the day, by Mick Doohan. He was leading the world championship, as usual, but earlier that day had suffered a rather less usual crash during practice. I had asked him what went through his mind as he slid from tarmac to gravel, bike bouncing alongside him. My reply was: “Yes, but never while leading the World Championship;” but he continued to make his typically matter-of- fact point: “ Then what went through mine would be pretty much the same as yours!” The thought processes between the moment of losing control and the time when you come to rest tend to concentrate on survival – wondering how you’re going to come out of this one. Tinged, of course, with regret. But I don’t think the ever-reticent Mick was telling the whole story, because racers at that level are different. The scandalous Rossi/Stoner crash at Jerez underlines the point. Both of those riders, in that split second between crunch and stop, had sized up the situation, weighed the alternatives, and made a clear decision of how to operate the motorcycle’s controls. That each instinctively made a different decision might prove to be the turning point of the championship. Rossi decided to keep his engine going. On the principle that ... well, you never know. He had to be helped from under the bike, but he never let it die. Stoner decided to kill his. On quite another principle. Since you only get six engines for the whole year, you can’t risk destroying one at only the second race, by letting it run with no oil pressure while lying on its side. Much was made, and is still being made, about the fact that the marshals flocked to help Rossi while leaving Stoner frustrated and alone. But there was this important difference. Rossi’s engine was still running, Stoner’s was not. Getting Rossi out of the way was feasible, so they did it first. Now it was Stoner’s turn. The marshals joined him, but soon realised it was hopeless and resumed their posts. Stoner was shocked to discover, as he turned to ask for more pushing power, there was just one guy helping him. In fact, the other marshals had been right, at least about the chances of starting the Honda. Like all the bikes, it has a slipper clutch, which makes a bump-start problematic. It is still possible, however, as we have seen more than once. But it seems the Honda’s slipper clutch is that bit slipper than the others. It requires two pins to be inserted, to lock the clutch mechanism, before you can be sure to get the engine turning with any force or speed. Then they have to be taken out again, before you go. As one ex-Honda pit crewman told me, shaking his head: “You’ll never bump-start that thing. Especially when it’s hot.” Stoner’s instinctive flipping of the kill- switch as he crashed may well have saved an engine. Then again, the factory Hondas are the most abstemious of all the bikes in engine use. Last year both riders were still using a first-race engine up to round ten or beyond; Pedrosa didn’t even use his full allocation, with one still in the box; while Dovizioso used all six, but only just. Of all their rivals, factory Honda riders can most afford to lose an engine. On the other hand, did Rossi keeping his Ducati running damage his engine? It’s possible. An engine idling (at around 3,000 rpm, don’t forget) can get badly hurt if the oil pick-ups are sucking air. Big-end and main bearings are especially at risk. We will find out the truth if that engine is retired forthwith. But a Ducati engineer told me last year that the Desmosedici engine is particularly resilient in this respect; it can survive running for a while without oil pressure. We saw proof of this when Hector Barbera’s bike continue running on its side for over a minute at Silverstone, and returned to race again undamaged at forthcoming GPs. So did Stoner make a mistake? Or did he simply uncover one of the few design weaknesses in the otherwise mighty Honda? Sometimes other MotoGP bikes seem remarkably easy to start with a push: why should the Honda be so different, when it can mean the difference between winning and losing? Casey opined that if the marshals had helped him up the hill and round the second corner, they might have got it going on the downhill exit. It’s a big call, however, for marshals to abandon their posts for long push like that. More to the point, he should ask Honda to fix the problem: but as he said after the race: “I don’t think this is the right time to be asking for anything special from Japan.” His fate was sealed the second he decided to flick that kill switch. Stoner clapped derisively as Rossi came past a lap or so later, but the loss of points was not only to the Italian. Lorenzo and Pedrosa also made significan t gains; and with one no-score the Australian is on the back foot. Flicking that kill switch could prove very costly, when the championship points are added up. 36