After Marc Márquez' wild ride in Argentina, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promised the riders present in the Safety Commission in Austin on Friday night that in the future, the FIM Stewards Panel would hand out harsher penalties for infringements of the rules. That new policy saw action the very next day, with Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro being punished three grid places for riding slowly on the racing line and getting in the way of other riders.
Not everyone was happy, however. Towards the end of the race on Sunday, Jack Miller dived up the inside of Jorge Lorenzo, after the factory Ducati rider left the door wide open at Turn 1. Lorenzo, going for a very late apex, found Miller on his line, and was forced to stand the bike up. "Things didn't change so much, no?" the Spaniard grumbled after the race. "If I don't pick up the bike, I crash. So if the rider doesn't impact you or you don't crash, they don't do nothing."
On Sunday night, I went to speak to Mike Webb to hear how he, as Race Director and chair of the FIM Stewards Panel, viewed the new instructions issued by the Grand Prix Permanent Bureau. He explained both what instructions had been given, and how he and the FIM Stewards had interpreted them.
One step stronger
The instructions mean that any penalties issued would be one step stronger than they might have been in previous instances, Webb told me. "Probably the perfect example is the Marquez penalty, the grid penalty, and also, sadly, Pol [Espargaro]," he explained. "It’s irresponsible riding."
But irresponsible riding is a catch-all term, meaning that defining what irresponsible riding actually entails is left up to the interpretation of the FIM Stewards. "Unfortunately, irresponsible riding is everything," Webb said. "In Marc's case, irresponsible riding and riding slowly on the line disturbing another rider, but that's different to irresponsible riding causing a crash."
So to interpret the punishment for Márquez' infraction, the FIM Stewards Panel had looked at what punishments had been imposed previously. "Going back for the last two years, what we always do is look at precedent. What have we done in the past? Going back to the last two years, the penalty in qualifying in MotoGP has always been a warning from the stewards if it’s a first offense. In one case it was penalty point, when we had such things."
That penalty point was given to Valentino Rossi back in 2015, when he got in the way of Jorge Lorenzo in the final moments of qualifying at Misano, riding slowly on the racing line.
Normally, however, the punishment would have been a formal caution. "The precedent is Marc would have been getting a warning," Webb said. "So as I explained to [Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro], as of Thursday of Argentina you’d be sitting here getting a warning from us. This is the new rules. The previous precedent is warning. That can no longer be because we've been instructed to make it higher. The next thing I can do is a grid position."
How would the new penalty policy have been applied if it had been in place for the race in Argentina? I put that question to Mike Webb, and he couched his reply with the caveat that this was an entirely hypothetical situation, and each actual case would need to be judged on its merits at the time.
What would the penalty have been for Marc Márquez in Argentina? "Obviously, a step higher than what we did," Webb said. "For the change position penalty for running into Espargaro, you gained a place by doing something wrong, so you have to give that place back. That would now be probably… It’s subjective. We would have to discuss. I would say it would still be a change position penalty, but a higher one. Probably three or four or five positions, depending on where the race track position is. So you have to be significantly worse off than you were when you started that maneuver. Probably having to drop more positions." What about the incident with Valentino Rossi, for which Márquez was given a 30-second penalty, as it was too late to serve a ride through penalty? "The second one almost certainly would have been black flag."
Higher penalties are not completely automatic, however. When I asked whether Márquez would have been punished more harshly for his behavior on the grid, when he was given a ride through penalty for riding backwards on the grid, Webb found it more difficult to give an immediate answer. "It’s a valid question," Webb mused. "Everything is so subjective. I actually think the ride through for the grid indiscretion was high enough already. That was probably higher than we normally would have given. So that’s probably in line with what the current strategy is. But the other two you can imagine a much bigger track position loss in the first one, and disqualification in the second one. That’s probably where we would be at."
The 30-second penalty imposed on Márquez at the end of the race meant he was classified as eighteenth, and left scoring no points in the championship. If he had been disqualified instead, it would have had very much the same outcome. "The only difference is the written record," Webb explained. "You’re shown as disqualified as opposed to finishing last." But for a rider, that can make a big difference, on ex-racer told me after I spoke to Webb. "A DQ is a mark of shame. You really don't want it next to your name. It's much worse than just not scoring any points."
The new rules did make life a little more complicated for the FIM Stewards Panel, Mike Webb admitted, though not excessively so. "It makes it more complicated only in that it’s harder to justify the penalty we’re giving," Webb told me. "A very good example is Pol Espargaro. The same offense as Marc, he disturbed another rider on line, he even knew the other rider was coming and thought, I’m far enough out of the way, and by error, he was not far enough away. So he had the same effect, the same penalty, and yet he’s incensed that he’s got this penalty. He said, this should be a warning. But that was the old rules."
The most difficult thing from the riders' perspective is to understand that the new policy applies to everyone equally. "The hard thing is the transition," Webb said, "for the riders to understand this is what it’s like now. That’s really it. The review process of incidents on tracks stays the same because we review them all the time anyway. First you have to cross the threshold of there is a crime to answer. If you don’t cross the threshold, the penalty, I’m not really giving penalties for different things on track."
This is a crucial, and perhaps misunderstood aspect of the new policy. Once an incident is judged to be an infraction, a violation of existing rules, then a harsher penalty will be applied to the rider committing the crime. But the judgment of what constitutes actually breaking the rules remains the same. The standards by which incidents are judged have not changed, it is just the penalties which are to be imposed are harsher.
Same standards, different penalties
This was what had dismayed Jorge Lorenzo. When Jack Miller dived up the inside of the gap left open by Lorenzo in Turn 1, Lorenzo had expected Miller to be punished under the new regime. The incident was subject to intensive video review, from all of the camera angles which Race Direction have available to them, which are far more than the audience ever see on TV. "We reviewed it to death in Race Control, and all of our rider advisors, our event stewards, everyone went, that was really hard, but it’s a race incident," Webb explained. So that doesn’t make the threshold, therefore there’s no penalty to make stronger. The threshold of the penalty stays the same, but the strength of the penalty changes."
The pass by Miller on Lorenzo perfectly personifies the quandary Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel find themselves in, and the two different schools of thought on the MotoGP grid. Some riders believe any touch of another rider should be an automatic penalty, others believe that "rubbin' is racing" as the old adage has it, and that accidental contact is just a part of racing. Distinguishing between the two is very difficult, as it requires Race Direction to make a judgment call.
Even Jorge Lorenzo, one of the strongest proponents of racing without any contact whatsoever, said that distinguishing between a close pass and a dangerous maneuver was subjective. "It's interpretation," the Factory Ducati rider said. " It's like in soccer, it's interpretation." If it was a rider you supported, you were more likely to take a more lenient view of it, Lorenzo added.
Touching or no touching?
Aleix Espargaro, who had complained bitterly on Thursday about the actions of Danilo Petrucci throughout the Italian's career, tried to make a distinction between close racing and dangerous riding. "The contact has to be there," Espargaro said. "Actually I'm a rider who thinks the contact has to be there. If not it's very boring. Contact, close passes I agree. It's nice. Adrenaline for the people. But one thing is a contact pass and another thing is to hit a rider. Two completely separate things and I think it's not too difficult to see the difference."
Asked to explain the difference, the Gresini Aprilia rider pointed to his collision with Marc Márquez in Argentina. "For me, for example, Marc hit me. He was 25km/h faster. That is not touching." Espargaro contrasted that with close racing at Phillip Island or Assen. "If you touch somebody to overtake like we see many times in the last corner at Assen, this is racing. Phillip Island last year in the downhill. This is racing. It's fun. But it's completely different thing if you hit somebody than if you make a close pass. If you touch a bit the other rider as you pass but both riders finish the corner, this is a close pass. When you hit somebody and the other guy went out and you make the corner…"
Espargaro highlighted the difficulty Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel face. Espargaro had stayed upright when hit by both Marc Márquez and Danilo Petrucci, and neither rider had faced a harsh penalty for it. The Spaniard contrasted this decision to the penalty imposed on Márquez for forcing Valentino Rossi wide and onto the grass, where he fell. "I'm really angry about this actually because look like in this championship we only penalize when the other rider crashes. But I didn't crash because when I went out of the track I didn't go on the grass. For this. If I went in the grass, I crashed. Was it harder with Valentino because Valentino crashed? No, it was the same. So it doesn’t have to be connected to whether you crash or not. The action is the same."
That Canet be right
What is clear is that the new penalties will not fix the problems facing the FIM Stewards Panel. "I don’t know how they penalize, I don't know why they penalize sometimes or not," an exasperated Espargaro proclaimed. "Why was Aron Canet not penalized on Friday in Argentina? He was fully to crash this guy and zero penalty. So I don’t understand the job of these Stewards."
The case of Aron Canet, who clipped the bike of Makar Yurchenko during practice in Argentina, looks like exactly the kind of error of judgment which can undermine the faith in Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel. From the outside, it looked like an open and shut case. One can only surmise that Canet must have been able to talk his way out of a penalty when called into the Stewards' office to explain his actions. Not imposing a penalty certainly made the job of the Stewards a great deal more difficult in the events which occurred afterwards.
While there is merit in demanding stiffer penalties after the events of Argentina, the danger is that imposing them is in danger of being a kneejerk reaction to a particular situation. Norms in race shift along with the norms in society at large. There is a much greater intolerance toward fatalities than there was perhaps 20 years ago, for example. But in the frenzied times of social media reaction and wall-to-wall coverage of the sport, the pressure to make changes can be huge, whatever the wisdom of those changes.
Pendulum swings both ways
That intense pressure disguises the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the sport. Fans are drawn to motorcycle racing in part because of the thrill of danger inherent in the sport. Fans love to watch close racing, riders going at it hammer and tongs, which no quarter given nor any asked for. But they also hate seeing riders injured, or worse, or one rider knocking another off into the dirt. On the one hand, the fans demand insanely close battles. On the other, they call for the head of any rider who dares to imperil the others. Racing another rider at close quarters, aboard a 270hp 157kg bike, at speeds of up to 350km/h, without endangering either yourself or your rivals is nigh on impossible task.
This is the tightrope Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel must walk. To punish miscreants sufficiently that they will think twice about engaging in dangerous riding. But not to punish so frequently that the riders are intimidated into inaction, turning every race into a procession where riders are terrified to attempt a pass anywhere except on the main straight. MotoGP has to remain MotoGP, and not become neutered into something like F1 has become, where racers are too scared to pass. It is imperative that races be decided out on track, by who crosses the line first, rather than having the results determined afterwards, once the stewards and officials have been through all of the footage and given every on-track maneuver their blessing.
The pendulum is currently swinging towards harsher punishment. But the thing about pendulums is that they tend to keep swinging under their own momentum. Finding the right balance, between minimizing danger and giving the riders maximum freedom to race, is far more difficult than you might think.
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