It is the sight every MotoGP fan fears. At the start of lap 9 of the Moto2 race in Portimão, bike after bike went down, bikes firing through the gravel at stricken riders like unguided projectiles. We sat holding our breath until the crashing had stopped, and miraculously, no one had been struck by a bike, the MV Agusta of Simone Corsi having gone up in flames after hitting the Kalex of Zonta van den Goorbergh.
After the race, there was a great deal of debate about the crash. Ten riders had gone down at Turn 2, the leaders of the race the first to go. There was anger in some quarters at how slowly Race Direction appeared to bring out the red flags after the race. With so many bikes ending up in the gravel, and at high speed, it should have been stopped earlier, the critics said.
Should Race Direction have ordered a red flag earlier? To test that assertion, I went back and watched the incident several times, and dived into the analysis timesheet on the results page of the MotoGP.com website. Taking the timestamp from the video of the race on MotoGP.com, I timed how long it took for the red flags to come out.
A matter of seconds
Shortly after the 30-minute mark on the video of the full session of the Moto2 race on the MotoGP.com website, the feed switches to the onboard video from Ai Ogura's Honda Team Asia Moto2 machine. You hear the Triumph engine of his bike hit the limiter at the end of the straight as he follows Cameron Beaubier and Aron Canet into Turn 1.
At the 30'16 mark, as Beaubier pitches his American Racing Kalex into the fast right of Turn 2, you can see the rear of the bike slide out, then catch and pitch Beaubier onto the track. An instant later, Ogura was flicked off his bike in the same way, while Canet was kicked up into the air but held on, running into the gravel before being thrown off, fracturing his radius in the crash.
From the moment Beaubier lost traction to the moment all three bikes ended in the gravel, 4 seconds had elapsed.
Just 2 seconds later, three more bikes were in the gravel, as Augusto Fernandez, Tony Arbolino, and Somkiat Chantra crashed at exactly the same point. Jake Dixon escaped incident, rolling off just enough as those three crashed in front of him to stay upright.
The six crashed bikes were joined by Sam Lowes and Albert Arenas 2 seconds later, Lowes and Arenas losing the rear in exactly the same way as the others. 4 seconds later, Pedro Acosta crashed in the same place, and 1 second after that, the red flag came out.
Zonta van den Goorbergh crashed 4 seconds later, possibly caught out by the rear of Marcel Schrötter's bike stepping out and sitting him up. Simone Corsi was the last rider to crash, 5 seconds after Van den Goorbergh went down, the Italian's bike catching fire as it hit Van den Goorbergh's RW Racing machine.
Red flag out
How long did it take for the red flag to be shown? By my timing, 10 seconds from the moment the leaders hit the gravel. Was that fast enough to prevent other riders crashing? Based on the closeness of the pack at that point in the circuit, it seems very unlikely. The gap from Canet at the head of the three leaders to Augusto Fernandez in third was 1.3 second crossing the finish line at the end of lap 8, with Arbolino and Chantra 1.6 and 1.9 seconds behind respectively.
The next group of riders, led by Tony Arbolino, were just over 4 seconds behind Canet, while Pedro Acosta had crossed the line 10.3 seconds after Canet. Zonta van den Goorbergh was 13.1 seconds behind Canet, Simone Corsi, the last rider to crash, 17.8 seconds.
Fernandez, Arbolino, and Chantra were into Turn 2 just as the yellow flags were starting to wave, Fernandez, Arbolino, Lowes a couple of seconds later. It seems unrealistic to expect the red flags to be out so quickly.
Could it be faster?
How quickly could the red flags come out? While flag marshals have the authority to show a yellow flag when riders crash, stopping a race can only be done by Race Direction. The reason for that is simple: the ultimate responsibility for the safe running of the race lies with Race Direction, a group of professionals who attend and watch over every race held at grand prix events.
While the standard of marshalling in MotoGP is very high, with a large number of people involved having many years of experience working corners at many racing series. They are, however, all volunteers. It would be harsh and unreasonable to put the responsibility for stopping races in the hands of a flag marshal, and risk the opprobrium of riders, press, and fans if their judgment was wrong. Race Direction are paid to make these decisions, and their jobs depend on them getting it right. And part of their job is to bear the responsibility, and put up with the torrent of complaints and criticism they face from fans and media.
Race Direction makes decisions about red flags based on what they see on the many screens in Race Control – they have access to every camera from the TV feeds, plus all of the CCTV cameras around the circuit – and reports from marshals at each corner. They can make a decision preemptively, or on the basis of requests from the marshals.
Experienced BSB and MotoGP marshal Stephen Moore attempted to simulate how quickly a red flag could be thrown in a situation, by simulating communication between Race Direction and a corner worker with his wife, also an experience marshal. He reported his findings on Twitter, and believed that Race Direction called the red flag faster than a marshal could have requested it.
The criticism of Race Direction by fans was caused by the terrifying scenes of bikes sliding along the tarmac and firing through the gravel while riders and bikes were lying and standing in the gravel. It was genuinely horrifying to behold, especially in the light of the recent deaths in motorcycle racing, all of which have been caused by falling riders being hit by other bikes.
Why were the crashes so dangerous?
The reasons for those scenes were twofold, however. Firstly, the incident happened on lap 8, when the field was still quite close together, as discussed above. But secondly, it also happened because of the rapid change in conditions, as the sprinkles of rain which had been falling turned into a sudden, hard downpour.
The intensity of the rain changed the grip drastically in a few seconds, and the highly localized nature of the shower gave no warning elsewhere. Though it had been spotting with rain – the rain flags had come out on the second lap – there had been no sign of the rain getting worse. Lap times were fast, two or three tenths off the pace of the same race last year, held in the dry. On lap 7, Ai Ogura set the fastest lap of the race so far, a 1'43.076, half a second slower than Remy Gardner's 2021 race lap record of 1'42.504.
There had been no sign of any problems in the first sector of the track, which includes Turn 2, prior to the riders crashing. Aron Canet's time through Sector 1 on lap 8, the lap before he crashed out, was 21.753, his fastest of the race so far. Canet entered Turn 1 at full speed, as fast as he had on previous laps. It was only once the leading trio hit Turn 2 that the problems started.
That sudden change in grip is the obvious culprit. From the onboard of Ai Ogura's bike as he reaches the end of the straight, the Honda Team Asia rider changes down to 3rd gear, and takes Turn 1 at just under 130 km/h. He then rolls on the throttle to accelerate toward Turn 2, reaching 165 km/h just as the rear breaks away and spits him off. If the rain had been falling at Turn 1, the riders would have stood a better chance, with more asphalt runoff, lower speeds, and more chance to correct the line. Turn 2 was a very bad place for the grip to disappear.
Opinion was divided on the state of the track during the race. "It was spitting but the grip was good. Never was there anything to say the grip was bad until everyone crashed," Jake Dixon said. Celestino Vietti agreed. "In the first race, not crashing was only luck. We arrived in T1 and we didn’t see any sign of rain. Then you arrive in corner two and you have a lot of water."
Cameron Beaubier had seen the raindrops, and had been concerned. "I definitely felt some sprinkles here and there, mainly the first couple of sectors, it was drizzling. I saw Canet’s rear end step out big time right in front of me then next thing I knew, I was flying through the air."
Tony Arbolino had seen those drops of rain too, but pointed out that racers were always going to race. "It was raining from the first lap," the Marc VDS rider said. "We saw it on the screen but the first rider was pushing and it was a race. I was hoping the rain would stop but it kept falling. But I knew it would be dangerous at one point, with more water on the asphalt. In the end it was like this."
Intervene or not?
"It was a really dangerous crash," Arbolino said. "It was possible that some riders had a worse outcome today. But we are all safe and, honestly, this is the most important thing." The Italian felt that there had been grounds for Race Direction to step in earlier. "We need to understand what happened in this situation. For me, after two or three laps you could see it was raining and it was better to put out the red flag than finish like this."
Jake Dixon disagreed. "I just think it’s one of them," the GASGAS Aspar rider said. "Race Direction are hard up against it. They cant always make the right call at the right time. Saying that, they made the right call because once the crash happened they red flagged it. It’s hard for them because the last lap it was dry and it wasn’t really raining any more."
The crash happened while the MotoGP post-race press conference was happening, and Aleix Espargaro was a great deal more critical, as he so often is. "It’s very difficult to manage the situation, very difficult," the Aprilia rider said. "For the riders, it’s very difficult to ride with the slicks on the rain. Very difficult."
It was easy to watch the race on a screen and think it was easy, Espargaro said. "When you see that it’s raining a little bit, behind the camera or sitting on the seat you can say, 'It’s not so much raining. Maybe we can wait one more lap.' But you cannot, because it’s very dangerous. We are not sitting behind the sofa with a bottle of water. We are risking. Maybe sometimes we have to put the red flag a little bit earlier. Looks like we have to wait for a big injury or something big to happen, and we can prevent a little bit before."
Espargaro neatly summarizes the dilemma facing Race Direction. If they wait too long, they risk a crash happening which could have very serious, or even fatal consequences. But if they red flag a race every time the first spots of rain appear, and with weather maps and radar showing no precipitation, then they will be accused of excessive caution. Motorcycle racing is an outdoor sport, after all, and the weather conditions is one of the challenges the riders must face.
Espargaro's criticism that it is easy to make decisions from behind a screen is a little harsh, though. Race Direction do not just rely on what they can see on their bank of screens. They are in constant contact with the marshal posts around the track, and there is constant two-way communication about conditions around the track. Decisions are made on the best information available, from marshals, Dorna TV staff, and what the cameras pick up. But sometimes, weather conditions can change so fast that riders will crash before Race Direction have a chance to intervene.
The harshest criticism leveled at Race Direction was over the decision to excluded the fallen riders. Given that all of the fallers were at the front of the field, it inadvertently rewarded the riders who were slow in the first race. "It’s not good that they restarted the race with the back of the grid," Sam Lowes said. "That was a bit strange."
Rules for restarting
Here, however, the fault lies not with Race Direction, but with the rules. The rules for Moto2 and Moto3 are clear: in the case of a red flag, riders have to return to pit lane within 5 minutes of the red flag being waved. That rule is there because there has to be a cutoff at some point for the race to be restarted, and this prevents riders from gaming the system by causing a red flag if their race is going badly, while also preventing riders with badly damaged bikes from trying to restart with repairs of uncertain quality.
In this specific case, though, it clearly penalized the riders who were fast. The leaders were the first to arrive at the spot where the track was wet, and so the first to fall. And because it was a high-speed section of track, the bikes were too damaged to return to the pits. So the riders who were left were those who were slow.
That salvaged Celestino Vietti's weekend as a result, and ended up giving him a massive lead in the championship. He now leads Ai Ogura – excluded from the restarted race – by 34 points. At the moment the race was red flagged, Vietti was running 11th, while Ogura as third, and in the mix for victory.
Fixing that, however, is up to the Grand Prix Commission, the rule-making body for Moto2, MotoGP, and Moto3. Edge cases and anomalies will always seem unfair. But it is hard to see how to deal with this without allowing Race Direction to make arbitrary judgments based on a sense of fairness. And that will leave them open to accusations of bias and unfairness far more often than they already are.
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