American Honda Efforts In Indy GP Moto2 - The Best Laid Plans...
American Honda looked to have everything in place with its major effort in the Moto2 class at the Red Bull Indy GP--but racing never goes according to plan
American Honda really wanted to win the Moto2 race at the 2010 Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix. They hired the best people: Kevin Schwantz was the team manager; Kevin Erion was chosen to pick the crew responsible for everything from building the motorcycle to handling all the logistical details. And they hired Roger Lee Hayden, who - in his first year racing outside of America - had become something of a hired gun. His underfunded Pedercini Kawasaki WSBK team couldn't claim exclusive use of his talents, so when LCR Honda needed a rider for the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, Roger Lee got the call. And when American Honda needed a rider who knew how to get a 600cc Moto2 racebike around a track, the former Supersport champion was the rider Schwantz chose.
The chassis would come from Moriwaki, which has a strong working relationship with Honda Motor Company. Erion was in charge of sourcing the rest of the parts and the testing program, which included three two-day tests at tracks all across America. First came a shakedown test in the stifling heat of the newly built Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, located about 70 miles east of Palm Springs, California, in the middle of the Coachella Valley desert. Then came two days at Barber Motorsports Park, where Hayden had a small off that was instructional (each Moto2 rider is allowed only one motorcycle; a big crash ends the program). Finally, there were two days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the daily rental fee is $15,000.
All of which should have put Hayden toward the front end of the pack when practice began on Friday afternoon at The Brickyard. But it didn't. Instead he was 23rd and 1.32 seconds off the lead after missing much of the session with a rear brake problem. In the next session, on Saturday morning, he would drop to 25th of 39. Now it was panic time. Qualifying was a few hours away and, with a nearly 40-rider field, it was imperative that Hayden start from the front half of the grid. And so the team made a decision that should have been made on the very first day that the principals convened. It helped - but by then it was too late.
There were three Americans in the Moto2 race at Indy. There was Hayden; Kenny Noyes, the ex-pat who races for Antonio Banderas' Jack & Jones team; and there was Jason DiSalvo, late of the ParkinGo BE1 Triumph World Supersport team and a former Hayden rival in the AMA Supersport and Superbike wars. The American Honda crew wasn't concerned with Noyes. Not because they questioned his talent, but because he wasn't a natural rival; DiSalvo, though, they had to beat.
Other than Hayden's small get-off at Barber, everything had gone smoothly for the American Honda effort. They'd logged almost 1000 miles of testing over six days without incident. Then, on the second flying lap of the first practice session, Hayden came to an agonizing stop coming onto the front straight. "First fing ten minutes into the real deal, and the fing thing in front of God and everybody fs up. And I'm [thinking], 'You must be fing kidding me. Is it amateur hour now?'" Those were the words of a team member who didn't want to be quoted, and for good reason; the team's job was to make sure the motorcycle went around the track the entire weekend, and not just for a lap or two.
The team knew that Roger Lee uses a lot of rear brake. It runs in the family. Erv Kanemoto, who worked with Nicky Hayden at Repsol Honda, said the middle Hayden went through a set of rear brake pads a weekend on his RC211V. Because of how he rests his heel on the peg, Roger Lee has a tendency to drag the rear brake. This was taken into consideration when they built the rear brake caliper, but they used the wrong parts, which caused the rear brake seizure.
"We spent six days testing and then the fluke thing happens the second lap of practice and you lose 20 minutes," Hayden said after practice. "I thought the engine was locking. And after turn 13 I knew there was a problem. It was really slowing and I thought, 'Oh man...if we've lost an engine, then we're going to miss the whole first day. This is not going to be good.'" Hayden was down in 23rd spot by end of the first session, which all things considered, wasn't disastrous. More tellingly he remarked, "We're just fighting for rear grip. My biggest issue is I'm spinning all over the place. Hopefully we can get some ideas for that." DiSalvo, meanwhile, was a surprising tenth fastest and 0.6 seconds faster than Hayden.
There were other problems. Hayden's top speed was well off the leaders despite being given a brand new motor by supplier Geo Technologies. (The cost of the motor, entry fee, and ECU was €12,500 /$16,630.) A common theory is that it needed time to break in, but the engine never got appreciably faster.
The team was belatedly told the engines could run hot. IRTA tech boss Mike Webb told the team their engine was running 10°C hotter than normal, which probably cost them a few horsepower. When Erion went to the grid for the race, he saw other teams using battery-operated blowers on the radiator and intake. Did Moriwaki make a bigger radiator? "We didn't have one, we didn't know if there was one. We didn't ask," Erion confessed. Moriwaki technicians told the team they needed to cut holes in the bodywork, at which point American Honda stepped in and said, "Wait a minute...we can do some of this, but not all because we spent a lot of money on the look of this bike and that's going to change the look of the bike." Then the question became, "Why didn't you tell us this three or four weeks ago before we painted everything?"
When the project was initiated, there were a number of non-negotiable conditions: one was the use of KYB suspension. On first blush, it made little sense in a class in which everyone had the same motor and ECU, and many used the same chassis. The one area where teams can create their own advantage in a spec-racing class is with suspension. Jumping into the game was hard enough on equal equipment, but to try untested suspension when the use of Öhlins was universal was a significant handicap.
Schwantz knew something about the Kayaba suspension: he'd used it on his Suzuki RGV500 during his championship year of 1993. "We used to go test Kayaba stuff for a day or two," Schwantz began, "then, just out of curiosity, we'd tell the Showa guys, 'Hey, let us try some of your stuff.' They'd give us one shock, 'here's a base setting, go try this.' And just like that, it would almost be as good.
"Once we knew where that setup range needed to be every weekend, it was much easier. But when you're trying to throw everything together like this, the adjustability needs to be a little bit greater there. I think that's a negative aspect of Kayaba - but a lot of the time it helped us fine-tune the thing even that much better." Basically the team noticed that they'd reach a certain point, and no matter what they did to the bike, once Hayden got to that wall, no more progress was made.
Just before qualifying, Schwantz was seen walking towards the pit box carrying an Öhlins TTX36 rear shock; "You're not supposed to see this," he said with a smile. "We simply asked Moriwaki if we could try an Öhlins shock because we felt the KYB was holding us back," Erion said. "They said, 'Oh, we understand racing is very important and sometimes if there's something you want to try that's going to make it better we don't want to stop it.'" The next day the team was asked to put the KYB back on. The answer was an unequivocal "no."
Hayden had more grip almost everywhere. "Also, getting into a couple of the fast corners, I could get in a lot better. And overall just the stability seems a lot better for me. I just felt more comfortable." The team also raised the forks and made a few small changes. "The lap time might not be better, but after ten laps my tire's going to be a lot better than what we had." And that wouldn't be the final major change.
On Sunday morning, a new updated swingarm suddenly showed up on Hayden's bike after Spaniard Fonsi Nieto crashed his Holiday Gym Moriwaki MD600 during Saturday's qualifying session, breaking his left heel and ankle and putting Nieto out for the weekend. Hayden leaped from 29th in qualifying to 12th in morning warm-up after only nine laps, his lap times dropping by 0.6 seconds and the gap to pole-sitter Julian Simon now 1.064 seconds. So basically all the days and miles of testing - the thousands of dollars in track rentals and airfares and hotels and rental cars and tires - were pretty much a waste of time. Hayden would start his first Moto2 race on a motorcycle configuration that he had exactly 20 minutes of time on.
But the surprises didn't stop there. What are the odds that the three Americans would be involved in the same crash on the first lap of the race? A close examination of the video footage from the MotoGP helicopter camera shows that both DiSalvo and Noyes were coming up the inside much too fast as the pack slowed for Turn Two, and tried to squeeze into a space that wasn't there. But Noyes was actually entering the corner even faster than DiSalvo, as he was several bikelengths behind DiSalvo as the pack began slowing for Turn Two. While it looked very doubtful that DiSalvo would make the corner, Noyes' speed ensured that his fate was sealed; he and DiSalvo collided, with Noyes falling and taking out Hayden, along with three other riders.
These shots capture the first-lap melee that ironically involved all three Americans in the Moto2 race. Jason DiSalvo (just out of far left) and Kenny Noyes (9) have just collided, sending Noyes torpedoing into Hayden (34), who then bowls into Vladimir Ivanov (61), the late Shoya Tomizawa (number 48, tragically killed at the following Misano GP) and Yonny Hernandez (68). Note in the last shot that Hayden's bike has run over his head, twisting it at a horrific-looking angle; he suffered a possible concussion in the incident, but still made the restart to finish 17th.
"I had a perfect start and I got to the second turn and I thought, 'Don't do nothing stupid,'" Hayden recalled. "I made enough spots I didn't need to be a hero, and then somebody just drilled me from behind" ramming his right leg, he said. "I just heard somebody's tire screech behind me and then, boom, I was down."
There were four more riders involved in another crash not 50 feet further down the track, and the race was stopped. Initially the team was told Hayden couldn't re-start because he didn't return to the pits under his own power within five minutes. "The problem was that the initial start never completed a lap," Schwantz said. "Typically if it hasn't completed three laps it goes back to a complete re-start, original grid spots, everything. That being the case, the rule that you've got to get the bike back within five minutes is completely irrelevant. It can come back in on a crash truck at that point. If you have the time to fix it and get it fixed, you get back into the race."
The crew, led by John Ethell, worked furiously to rebuild the bike. Unfortunately, the rear brake sustained damage that couldn't be repaired in time, so they had to send Hayden out with a non-functional unit. Worse than no rear brake, however, was that Hayden suffered a possible concussion.
It was obvious to Erion that Hayden "was not 100 percent" after the restart. Hayden circulated around to finish 17th. "We worked too hard to sit in the pits and watch the guys race," Hayden said. "Couldn't settle the bike down and it wheelied out of the exit on some of the small corners," he said of riding with no rear brake. "It's disappointing. We wanted to do a lot more, but we had no rear brakes. It got broken completely off and they didn't have time to fix it all. Just a few little things and they add up to a lot, and then also just trying to regain my head. Being on the bottom of that pile just took a lot out of me, I guess." A look at the crash photo sequence shows Hayden's helmet getting run over by his own bike, contorting his neck at a horrific angle.
And yet as cloudy as his head was, Hayden didn't consider skipping the race. "Never," he said, though the race wasn't without problems. "Where my leg got hit, it was kinda giving me little problems. Everybody has problems. I'm just glad we made it. We got top 20, it's not great, we definitely wanted a lot better. We just got caught up in somebody else's mess."
And what of DiSalvo? Twenty-fourth on the first of 17 laps, the New Yorker patiently made his way through the field on a track where passing was difficult. Twelfth at the halfway point, he moved to ninth three laps from the end and won a spirited three-way battle for the spot, edging series regular Anthony West by .028 seconds. DiSalvo was understandably ecstatic.
"I'm extremely happy. I'm over the moon," he said as sweat poured down his face. "I just can't thank the crew enough. They did an amazing job getting this thing put together and everything. It was a war out there and I had one of the best weapons there was in the field."
The American Honda Moto2 team definitely wouldn't disagree with the term "war".