When I was younger I used to travel to a beach on the west coast of New Zealand with some friends to enjoy riding our Motocross bikes. At low tide a wide, flat expanse of hard packed freshly groomed sand is exposed, perfect for doing endless wheelies & playing speedway round and round in circles. Sometimes we’d be concentrating so hard on keeping our slides going that we’d loose track of exactly where we were on the beach, more than once I slid sideways at high speed into the surf which meant spending time getting our salt water logged bikes going again, cleaning them out and towing them up and down the beach.
There was a place on the beach where a fresh water stream made its way across to the sea washing the sand away with it, forming a small shallow lagoon about 40ft/12mtrs across and about 2ft / 75cm deep. Because the hard packed sand was almost the same height as the fresh water we would winde our MX bikes up to full speed in top gear and make it across to the other side literally floating on the water the whole way. We learned by our mistakes that we had too keep your bikes completely upright. If you had the slightest lean angle, the front tyre with zero grip would slide, turn full lock and enter the water sending the rider face-planting into the water turning eyelids inside out as the front wheel dug in and the bike flipped over. Once we knew not to lean at all, it was relatively easy. We’d do it in all sort of ‘look mum no hands’ types of positions including legs over the handlebars! If you think that the 2-stroke MX bikes we were riding then, had low gearing that struggled to allow us to travel at much over 100kph without seizing at oxygen rich sea level. Now if you think about the fact that all large capacity modern race bikes exceed 250kph on the fast sections of circuits even in wet conditions you will start to get an idea of how dangerous it is to race them on standing water.
Watching the 2012 MotoGP race in Sepang, when the rain started coming down heavy it was the correct decision to stop the race. Standing water is dangerous at speed. I remember crashing a Bimoto out of both WSBK races at Sugo circuit in Japan, in the exact same place on the circuit! The races were run in a Typhoon. I’d never seen so much rain, and as a New Zealander i’d seen more than my fair share. There were shallow streams running across the track, when I hit one on the fast downhill corner before the chicane, that beach experience happened to me all over again. It was like hitting ice when moments before the grip was good. Basically the water was deeper than the tyre tread could cope with at high speed, so the tyres could not grip the road, they literally ski on the water – Like in a car on the motorway when you hit a puddle, but in a car you don’t need grip to balance.
Years later on the much faster YZR 500 I remember thinking that the bike was trying to highside me off on the straight at well over 200kph because although the bike was completely upright and in a straight line and the front tyre would go across the standing water, the rear would spin up and slide out to the side until it got to the other side of the standing water where it would grip again, coming back into line very violently. A scary experience.
A racers job is to quickly adapt his speed to how much grip there is available and use all the track necessary in order to go faster than the other riders. In all other conditions a racer must ride in, the grip is relatively predictable, but when tyres hit standing water everything becomes completely unpredictable. I would go as far as saying lethal, because the places that this standing water can make you crash are not the normal places you expect crashes to happen.
When the MotoGP championship leaders hand came up to ask for the Sepang race to be stopped, I felt sure that he must have had some very close calls on standing water because no rider wants to be the first to put his hand up and ask for a race to be stopped. Then shortly after he saved a crash and it was possible to see the depth of the water on television.
I have always liked riding and racing in the wet less than in the dry, but when I raced in the wet my results we more often slightly better, so I was better than average at it and definitely not afraid of it, but I’d go as far as saying that modern bikes are too fast to be raced safely in more than a little standing water. The tyres are wider than ever, the speed is higher than ever. Add these facts to standing water and unpredictable crashes will happen, that no amount of talent, bravery, strength or determination will control.
On Twitter I read comments from the public saying things like ‘Lorenzo has gone soft’ for calling for the race to be stopped. It is not justifiable to say that about any one of the guys in that race. Actually all motorcycle racers have a high level of bravery, but if they are stupid they wont make it to the top. Their teams are busy thinking of the results and the promoter is thinking of the TV.
This is why someone else is needed to stop the race when it becomes dangerous. Someone that must take the abuse from riders, teams and possibly promoters that all had something to gain from continuing to risk racing when conditions approach dangerous.