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Tire issues force first bike swap in MotoGP

Yamaha MotoGP rider Jorge Lorenzo of Spain (L) rubs his eye as his teammate Valentino Rossi of Italy watches during the post-qualifying news
Yamaha MotoGP rider Jorge Lorenzo of Spain (L) rubs his eye as his teammate Valentino Rossi of Italy watches during the post-qualifying news

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Tire problems have forced dramatic changes to Sunday's Australian Grand Prix where riders will have to change their bikes mid-race for the first time in MotoGP.

Phillip Island's new tarmac saw defending MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo clock a record lap during qualifying to take pole on Saturday, but also contributed to excessive degradation to the Bridgestone tires, stoking fears for riders' safety.

Officials have shaved the race by a lap to 26 and ordered all riders to take a mandatory pitstop in an embarrassment for the tire providers and organizers.

"We have been notified by Bridgestone that they are unable to guarantee safety of their rear slick tires beyond 14 laps," Race Direction said in a statement.

"This means that a bike/tire change before lap 12 will require a second bike/tire change to finish the race."

While certain to annoy riders and their teams, the overhaul will add intrigue to the battle between Lorenzo and champion-in-waiting Marc Marquez, who both eclipsed Casey Stoner's 2008 lap record in an incident-packed qualifying.

Lorenzo, fighting to keep his title defense alive, survived a bizarre brush with a seagull early in the session and was forced to pit when the bird became lodged in the fairing of his Yamaha at the circuit's Lukey Heights.

The Spaniard re-emerged later and was unflappable as he posted a scorching lap of one minute 27.899 seconds, smashing Australian Stoner's 2008 mark by more than half a second.

"This lap is a lap you can only do with a PlayStation," the affable Lorenzo told reporters, referring to Sony's popular video game console.

"I had an impact with a bird on the first few laps on the bike, luckily we could take it off and I could make a second attempt without a passenger, maybe because of this I went a little bit faster and was able to make pole position.

"It's impressive how much faster we can go with new tires.

"We're very proud of pole, but our most important thing is tomorrow."

Rookie sensation Marquez, who leads the championship by a yawning 43 points with three races left, also bettered the 2008 mark but was 0.221 seconds adrift of his more seasoned compatriot.

Marquez can become the youngest world champion with victory at Phillip Island, provided the title-holder finishes no higher than third, but the 20-year-old Honda rider will be hard pressed to dislodge Lorenzo, who was runner-up last year and in 2010.

Having fallen from his bike heavily during free practice on Friday and taken another spill earlier in morning practice, Marquez was content just to be top of the grid.

"The goal was to finish in the front row and we did that," he said. "The Yamaha guys were so strong today.

"Tomorrow's race will be difficult with the tires but I will try to do my best."

Lorenzo's team mate Valentino Rossi also secured a front row position, with Alvaro Bautista, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow lining up on the second.

Officials have also shortened the Moto2 category's race to 13 laps from 25 due to the tire problems.

(Reporting by Ian Ransom. Editing by Patrick Johnston)

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