The Moto3 race at the Doha round will live on in the collective memory of race fans for a very long time. The fact that Pedro Acosta won the Moto3 race in Qatar at the tender age of 16 years and 314 days, becoming the eleventh youngest Grand Prix winner of all time, was remarkable enough. The fact that it was just his second Grand Prix made it even more remarkable, especially after Acosta finished on the podium in his first race.
But what Acosta's victory in the Qatar 2 Moto3 race will be most remembered for is the fact that the Spanish youngster won the race after starting from pit lane. Acosta, along with six other riders – Romano Fenati, Dennis Foggia, Sergio Garcia, Stefano Nepa, Deniz Öncü, and Riccardo Rossi – was punished for dawdling on the racing line between Turns 15 and 16 in the final moments of FP2, as they jockeyed for position looking for a tow to help them get through to Q2.
It was a breathtaking progression. The green light went on for the riders in pit lane a couple of seconds after the last rider had passed the line marking pit lane exit. Acosta slotted in behind Garcia as they fired away, but soon took over the lead. Acosta passed the timing loop marking the end of the first sector some 12 seconds behind Gabriel Rodrigo, who led the race at that point. By the end of the lap, he had cut the deficit to just over 11 seconds.
Cream always rises
Acosta, Garcia, and Fenati soon pushed on and broke the rest of the group. Over the course of the next ten laps, the trio hunted down the rest of the pack, who had stayed bunched together. Once they arrived at the back of the group, Acosta immediately started to slice his way through, arriving at the very front of the field with three laps to go. Two laps later, he led. And on the final lap, he crossed the line just ahead of Darryn Binder to take a momentous maiden victory.
After Acosta's win, fans and media alike were in awe of the ride by the Spanish youngster. To come from so far back and still win, in just his second win, was unparalleled. The closest comparison was to when Brad Binder won at Jerez in 2016. The South African – also racing for the Red Bull KTM Ajo team – had been forced to start from the back of the grid, after being penalized for using an unregistered software map for his KTM Moto3 machine.
But there were two big differences: firstly, Binder was already starting with the main pack; and secondly, it was his 79th Grand Prix. This was only Acosta's second.
What all the euphoria seemed to miss was the fact that Acosta's pit lane start was supposed to be a punishment. The objective of making the riders start from pit lane is to punish the riders, and more importantly, the teams, for unsafe riding during free practice and qualifying. Too many riders spend their time lingering on the racing line waiting for a fast rider to come past that they can latch on to and hopefully use to set a faster time. Teams pressure their riders to look for a tow, and riders know their future can depend on getting a decent qualifying position and scoring points during the season.
Raising the stakes
That pressure means the riders have so far disregarded all previous attempts at penalizing them. Race Direction and the Panel of FIM Stewards have gone through a cycle of penalties in an attempt to find something which will discourage such dangerous behavior. We have had grid penalties, first of a few places, and then the back of the grid. We have had long lap penalties, double long lap penalties, and riders being forced to sit out long sections of practice. So far, nothing has worked.
And so at Qatar 2, the Stewards went straight in with the second harshest penalty after outright disqualification: forcing riders who rode dangerously to start the race from pit lane. And the race showed exactly how ineffective that penalty is: one rider who started from pit lane won the race, another finished in the top ten, a third was running inside the top ten until he ran off track and lost ground, and a fourth made a mistake on the final lap and just missed out on points.
Without taking anything away from the brilliance of Pedro Acosta's ride – it was genuinely exceptional, in so many respects – the fact that four of the seven riders who started from pit lane can catch the leaders clearly illustrates just how weak a penalty a pit lane start is, in Moto3, at least. And the reason a pit lane start is not much of a penalty in Moto3 is clear in the data.
Below is a table containing data for the first four finishers in the MotoGP race. Included is the time each rider took in Sector 1 in the first lap, the average in Sector 1 in the remaining 17 laps, the average in the other three sectors over all 18 laps, and the average lap time over laps 2 to 18, excluding the first lap.
|Acosta (1st)||Binder (2nd)||Antonelli (3rd)||Migno (4th)||Difference Acosta to Binder|
|Lap 1, Sector 1||47.032||35.035||35.532||35.370||11.997|
|Average Sector 1, no lap 1||27.963||28.275||28.303||28.280||-0.312|
|Average Sector 2||31.919||32.046||32.319||32.050||-0.127|
|Average Sector 3||30.429||30.558||30.556||30.598||-0.129|
|Average Sector 4||36.543||36.660||36.360||36.620||-0.118|
|Average lap time without lap 1||2:06.873||2:07.534||2:07.548||2:07.556||-0.661|
The data makes a number things immediately very clear. Pedrosa Acosta made up the 12 seconds he lost in the first sector by being nearly seven tenths of a second quicker than second-place finisher Darryn Binder per lap. Though Acosta was quicker everywhere, he was making up the bulk of his time in just a single sector: Sector 1 at the end of the main straight. In Sectors 2, 3, and 4, Acosta was a little over a tenth of a second per lap quicker. In Sector 1, he was over three tenths of a second a lap quicker.
First corner carnage
Anyone who watched the Qatar race – or indeed, any Moto3 race with a long straight – should hardly be surprised by this. The nature of Moto3 is such that a long straight encourages a mass drafting exercise, with riders exploiting the slipstream of the riders ahead to gain as much speed as possible. What that means is that at the end of the straight, the leading group spreads out eight abreast and attempts to outbrake each other on the way into Turn 1.
As a result, nobody hits their brake markers and takes the perfect line. Instead, eight or nine riders all try to haul on the anchors and get the bike stopped to still make the corner, inevitably pushing each other wide, and slowing it all. And at Qatar, the tight right of Turn 1 is followed by the flick of Turn 2, another corner where riders try to block each other as they get settled out of the first corner. If the rest of the lap is a fierce battle, the first corner or two at Qatar are absolute carnage.
So much so that it negates about half of the disadvantage of starting from pit lane, the data shows. Finding the other half in the remainder of the lap, when a front group are taking it in turns to hold each other up, is clearly not that difficult.
The penalty that wasn't
What conclusions can we draw from all this? The obvious conclusion is that a start from pit lane is not much of a penalty. Certainly not enough to prevent a talented and experienced rider from scoring a good result (although Acosta's performance suggests that experience is optional).
What to do about it? Firstly, we have to remind ourselves of the point of these penalties. Riders are behaving dangerously by riding slowly on the racing line, and endangering other riders in the process. They are doing so because they need a tow to get through to Q2 (and in Q2, to secure a good starting position). That is the nature of the smallest capacity Grand Prix machines: horsepower differences are so small that a draft, especially along a long straight, can take several tenths off a lap time. The upside of equalizing machine performance is it creates thrilling racing. The downside is that there are advantages to be found in leaching off the speed of others.
The riders aren't entirely to blame. Their future usually rests quite literally on scoring points in races, and for riders in mid-pack teams, that is not as easy as it seems. Teams, too, have to keep sponsors happy, and their grid slots can depend on their results as well. And so teams put pressure on riders to qualify well, telling them to go out and look for a tow.
If Race Direction and the FIM Panel of Stewards want to prevent the Moto3 riders from causing dangerous situations on track in search of passage to Q2, then they have to make sure the punishment imposed is effective in changing the behavior of the riders, and persuading the teams it is a bad idea to pressure riders into hanging about for a tow. It is likely impossible to prevent riders from seeking out a tow, but if the penalties are severe enough, then teams might start to encourage their riders to look for one safely, rather than hanging around on the racing line.
Clearly, a pit lane start alone is not enough. The FIM Stewards may also have come to this conclusion: for the comical fisticuffs in the gravel after their crash, Jeremy Alcoba and John McPhee were punished with a pit lane start after a delay of 5 and 10 seconds respectively.
That may prove to be sufficient, though Portimão, where the penalties are to be served, may not be such a good place to tell. Last year's contest at the Portuguese circuit saw the field relatively spread out for a Moto3 race. Other circuits – Barcelona, Aragon, Mugello, Motegi, Phillip Island, to name a few – might offer a better chance to recover from a pit lane start and 5 second delay.
But adding a time delay on top of a pit lane start looks like the only effective penalty in Moto3, short of outright disqualification. Disqualification is such a harsh penalty, with knock-on consequences down the line in terms of sponsorship and support, that it should only really be used as a last resort.
If the point of penalizing dangerous riding is to ensure that it is not worth it, that the punishment far outweighs the proceeds of the crime, then a pit lane start plus 15 seconds looks like being the only effective remedy. The riders start far enough behind that they have no chance of catching the leaders, yet close enough that they are extremely unlikely to be lapped. Riding around in anonymous ignominy should persuade teams and riders to finally try to clean up their act.
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