Race Director Mike Webb Interview, Part 1: On Penalty Points, Precedent, Jerez, Sepang And Whether Motorcycle Racing Is A Contact Sport

It has been a busy year for MotoGP Race Director Mike Webb. Since taking on the job of ensuring that MotoGP events take place safely and efficiently, stepping into the shoes vacated by Paul Butler at the start of the 2012 season, Webb has faced some tough decisions and unusual situations, his second year in the job even more eventful than the first.

In response to criticism over the warning system in 2012, a new penalty points system was introduced to allow for harsher penalties for persistent offenders. There were several high-profile incidents involving Marc Marquez in his rookie season, including a clash with Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez, a touch which severed the traction control sensor of teammate Dani Pedrosa's Honda and caused Pedrosa to crash, and the situation at Phillip Island, where the new asphalt at the circuit caused the tires to degrade much more than the two spec tire manufacturers had expected, requiring last-minute adjustments to the race schedule on the fly.

We spoke with Mike Webb extensively at Valencia, on the Thursday evening before the race, covering the above subjects and more, and reviewing his second year as Race Director. In the first part of the interview, Webb talks of whether motorcycle racing is a contact sport, how the penalty system has worked out, explains why Marc Marquez was not given points at Jerez, why Jorge Lorenzo wasn't penalized for the touch at Sepang, and of changing perceptions.

Q: You're at the end of your second year in the job of Race Director. Was it easier than the first?

Mike Webb: Easier, in that I've done it once before. The first year of anything is a super-steep learning curve. It's still really steep, and I'm learning lots, and you never know what's going to happen next. But yes, easier, just because I'm more relaxed about it, because I've done it before.

Q: Do the decisions in the second year get any easier? Do they get any quicker?

MW: Certainly not easier. Probably a little bit quicker because a lot of the situations, even though every situation is different, you've had a similar situation in the past, and you've either been happy with the decision you made the first time round and you easily make it again, or you've been unhappy and you modify it because of that. So the experience makes it easier.

Q: It certainly felt to the outside world like there was a new sheriff in town? You seem to be more strict on rider behavior.

MW: If I can explain that as rather than a setting out to bang the table and try to be the tough guy, it's a reaction to what are the norms now. And that applies in society as well as motorcycle racing. I speak a lot to my old boss Wayne Rainey, he laughs at some of the decisions we make now. 20 years ago, you wouldn't even have that discussion. The things that get penalized or looked badly upon were a non-event ten years ago. The general perception of what's acceptable changes over time. To me, I'm reacting to that, as to what's perceived to be reasonable. It's even feedback from riders, I sit in a room full of MotoGP riders, and discuss what's going on, and they're expectation of what should be allowed and what shouldn't be has changed over the last years. It's a reaction to that more than anything.

Q: In an interview with Dennis Noyes, your predecessor Paul Butler said 'Motorcycle racing is a contact sport.'

MW: Yup, that was his famous headline!

Q: Is motorcycle racing a contact sport?

MW: No, I would phrase that differently. The simple answer is, inevitably, yes, but it's more like an unintended consequence rather than that it's intended to be contact. I mean, boxing's a contact sport because it's intended to be. Rugby's a contact sport because it's intended to be. Motorcycle racing is not intended to be, but sometimes by circumstances, it becomes one.

Q: It's more like soccer in that contact can happen and that each time it happens you have to make a judgment?

MW: Sure. As a kid I played basketball, and I was told at the beginning it's a non-contact sport, well sorry, it ain't! But it's intended to be non-contact. So we're in that same game.

Q: The points system was new for this year. How do you feel that's worked out?

MW: It's good, it could do with some fine tuning, but I'm really happy with it, because what it's done is it's replaced the formal or informal warning. And it's become an accountable thing, whereas a formal or informal warning was kind of a vague concept about you've been a naughty boy. So I'm happy that we've actually made it accountable. I have to come up with a better way of handling the end of the season, because a penalty point at the last race of the season is meaningless, unless you've already got a certain number.

Q: As soon as the riders line up on the grid on Sunday afternoon for the last race, the penalty points are irrelevant...

MW: They don't count. The thing is, what we do is because the system is written that way, we consciously make the decision that if something needs punishing in the last couple of races, rather than points, it tends to be something else, so we're modifying our behavior because of the way the points rules work. I think we could modify the points rule to make it a bit more workable. But overall, I'm really happy with it.

Q: Do you think points should be carried over between seasons, is that possible?

MW: It could be a possibility, for a limited time. I don't think it needs to be cumulative over a rider's career, but there could be an expiry date, something like that might be workable. Or I might just continue to change the behavior of Race Direction, and choose another penalty rather than a point, something that's more immediate.

Q: You've faced a lot of criticism, you've had a lot of difficult decisions to make this year. Just to go through them one by one. Marc Marquez has been the worst offender, certainly, as far as points are concerned. Jerez he got no points for. What were your considerations?

MW: It's mostly precedent. Mostly it's Rossi/Gibernau precedent. And the way, not just that one incident, but in several incidents of a similar nature, there was a big gap there, and a rider is entitled to go for a gap. All of that kind of thinking. So that was the decision, and it was unanimous among Race Direction at that point, it was 'that's a racing incident'. Moving on from there, just the way Marquez has been all year and all of that, I think it could logically be argued that perhaps a point was justifiable at that time. Right there, on the set of circumstances we had and the precedents, we were happy that it was a racing incident.

Q: So if the same thing had happened at for example Sepang, which has a similar hairpin at the end, but is the 15th race of the season, then there could have been a point there.

MW: I'd have to be honest and say it's probably more likely, having had the year's experience of seeing how Marc rides and all of that. And I'm happy that he's getting better, but he's still a little bit close for comfort at some times.

Q: The Aragon incident was a big headache for everyone.

MW: Exactly.

Q: Why in the end does Marc get points? Because there was a defect, there was a design defect which is why Honda was penalized, and there was what looked like a totally harmless touch.

MW: Exactly. I think we can all agree that the touch itself was a racing incident of the more harmless variety. It was as I said in interviews at the time immediately after, in both cases, the Honda penalty and the Marquez penalty were sending messages. And it was a case of, I know not everyone agrees that we should take precedent into account, but it was a number of incidents that didn't result in any kind of accident that Marc was involved in, and this was kind of the one straw that broke the camel's back, if you like. It was one incident more, and he needed to be told, hey, stop.

Q: The trouble with precedents is that it can look arbitrary. Because one rider does something and gets away with it, and another rider does something and gets points.

MW: Exactly right. That's the one thing I dislike about taking precedent into it, but overall, I'm happier judging things over a period rather than everything on one incident at a time. A rider who's totally blameless and has never put a foot out of line, and makes one mistake will get judged differently than a rider who is continually in front of Race Direction for doing something wrong. And I think that's fair and reasonable.

Q: For example, there have been a few times when it looked like Jorge has been a little bit more physical with Marc. Because you must have looked at the incident at Sepang, you must have looked at the pit lane exit for both riders at Phillip Island.

MW: Yes, over and over.

Q: When you talk about precedent, would that be a reason for not penalizing Jorge at Sepang, but maybe if he did it again and again, you'd maybe start looking at points?

MW: You've pretty much got it. I know there is a desire to be completely objective and judge every incident on its own, and I'd like to do that, but as I said before, although there are downsides to it, overall I'm happier taking precedent into account. Which is exactly what happened in Sepang, where Jorge doing what he did to Marc, it was basically doing back to Marc what Marc had done to him a number of times, so it's all fair and reasonable. However, if it's once, that's fine, if it becomes a pattern of behavior, absolutely not. And that's what we're trying to do with Marc, is to stop that being a pattern of behavior. It's clearly not a pattern with Jorge, and so at that time, it didn't get a penalty, it would in the future if it becomes his normal style.

Q: Because to me, it looks like Jorge is changing his behavior, it looks like he's becoming more physical with Marc, in part because he's tired of the physical intimidation from Marc, and he's showing that he's giving it back as good as he gets.

MW: Yes, you've pretty much summed it up. I've said before about the general opinion about what's accepted and what's not, and in the riders we currently have in the championship, Jorge is a little bit off center of what the general opinion is. He would like things to be a lot more strictly controlled, and a lot less possibility of contact or anything dangerous. So he is frustrated that we don't always share his opinion on every incident. Sometimes we see eye to eye and sometimes we don't, and his frustrated that we don't automatically think the same way he does. So I think there's a certain amount of frustration creeping in, where he thinks 'well, Race Direction's not going to do anything, I might as well behave like the others.' I certainly wish he didn't think that way, but it seems to be that perhaps saying 'hey, you guys aren't going to do anything about it, so...'

But I would make the point that as that general consensus of what's acceptable and what's not slowly changes, I think we're pretty much on the money of reacting to that, and stopping people doing things that perhaps ten years ago were acceptable, and today isn't.

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I agree with him. Also, the penalty imposed to Honda was also fair because Dani would have continued racing even after being "touched" by Marc.

He says you give penalty points based on a pattern of behaviour, so if a rider does something wrong but it's an unusual occurrence for that rider, he'll get no points. But surely that's the reason you have penalty points in the first place?? If a rider continually rides in a dangerous manner he'll continue to rack up penalty points and eventually there will be real repercussions. If the safer rider does something dangerous he should still get penalty points for it, but he won't accrue enough penalty points to actually get punished because he doesn't normally engage in riding behaviour that would attract penalty points.. Surely the system itself is designed to take previous behaviour into account via the accrual of previous points before the riders actually receive any punishment, but that only works if you apply the points based on the severity of the incident irrespective of who the rider is or what stage of the season it's at. This is why Jorge is annoyed with the way the system is being applied. If Marquez was receiving points when he should have been it would actually have become a deterrent to overly aggressive riding as the season wore on, but Webb is giving the riders so much latitude that it's very hard to see a situation where a rider will ever actually incur a real penalty, so as a rider who wants to win the title the only recourse Jorge feels is left to him is to give as god as he's getting which is fair enough IMO.

I don't like the idea of one race intefering with the other, but if there must be points they should carry on from one season to the next.

it should be a rolling # of races - like regular driver's license points. X points over the last 18 races.

He seems inconsistent and naive. I don't see a lot of logic in his arguments, or evidence he has thought things through. For example, if you have a point system where there first several levels of points don't incure a tangible penalty, you are explicitly establishing a consistent precedent. He doesn't seem to get this and wants to take historical behaviour and precedent into account before even giving the first point, which in and of its self is ultimately meaningless. All in all it seems much more obvious to me why race direction ends up being arbitrary and inconsistent.

They wanted to get away from arbitrary warnings, yet points aren't applied in a consistent manner. MM is on the radar so he'll be given points and yet JL can do the same thing and not receive ponts.......too bad this interview didn't occur after the race! I'd love to see an update taking into account JL's riding and nearly taking Pedrosa out.

I think it would be a good idea for the points given at the end of one season to be carried on to the next. How many races from the end that would mean is another story.

He says that what was acceptable ten years ago is not acceptable today.
Well, the racing was better ten years ago!

I hope they never penalize Marquez into riding like Lorenzo would have him do.

I hope Lorenzo quits whining being a hypocrite and just rides like he did last week - like he used to.

I hope Pedrosa rides like he did last week. He's obviously capable. Now do it every week, please.

Generally its a do or die sport within the blink of an eye. All the safety protocols and systems are most welcome. We all want them to come second or last intact.
On the other hand ,I for one deplored the cancellation of MGP Sepang 2011 when Marco tragically lost his life. It is definitely not a contact sport and many over the years have been psyched into employing those tactics merely to stay in touch.Given a great rider like Petrucci or Hernandez has to give way to the FORCE of celebrities whilst facing being lapped on hopelessly inferior kit. They should actually get rid of the BLUE FLAGS aswell. If you are such a high hotshot, you don't actually need authority to tell the servant to get out of the way now do you? Misdemeanors they are,not felony ticket. Personally this points deduction system is plain stupid. Poor old Mike Webb needs to not be distracted by tactics employed by Gladiatorial Combatants. They are all painfully aware of the potentially crippling and killing risks within the ambit of the sport. Ask Wayne Rainey. George is painfully aware of it. I guess they would both say..'Can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'.. rider/racer perspective and shit happens. Analyse this and analyse that. The more they try to sanitize the safety of the sport, the more it will lose its allure. Just another parameter to incorporate into the GP ECU algorithm.

given points should count for 364 days. that way, end-of-season points are just the same as begin/mid-season points.

...to say very little. In the US we call that bloviating, and if you're good at it, we elect you to congress.

He seems good at it.

It's all based on what happened, except for when it's based on what previously happened, and sometimes it's based on what might happen next, and maybe it's cumulative, or associative, possibly precedential, and maybe some guys get a free shot because they're frustrated and the other guy had it coming because of that cumulative precedential associativity and some other stuff. Because, like, fairness.

In the US we would call that arbitrary and capricious, and if you're good at being that, we make you a supreme court justice.

He seems good at it.

Where's that guy who posts here about Dunning–Kruger effect? We could use him now.

God, thank you for that post. It really should be pretty simple - something is either right or wrong, no matter when it's done, who does it or what they did before.

The son of a military father, I was raised to believe that you are either right or wrong. My mom put it another way, "you're either pregnant or your not." It wasn't based on the sum of my life's actions, but regarding what I had just now done/not done. If you are not going to coach/reprimand in the moment why bother at all?

In my opinion, to have the guy responsible for adjudicating races and with the authority to influence race outcomes (and with that WC outcomes) acting rather ad hoc is very disconcerting. We saw Jorge become "frustrated" and increasingly "aggressive" as the season wore on, but what we began to see was retaliatory behavior culminating with the last race where he basically said "you won't act so I will" for failing to reel in MM. By the way, I know that JL is no Saint and does seem to have a short memory regarding his past indiscretions, but on the whole, he has largely reformed himself.

I am not suggesting racers wrapped in bubble wrap, just race direction that applies the rules all the time and somehow insulated from politics.

Since Stoner was fined Eu 5k for the de Puniet incident (even though de Puniet appealed against that on Stoner's behalf!) and claimed it to be 'worth it, because at least Race Direction has done SOMETHING positive for rider safety.'

Of course, that fine was for 'bringing the sport into disrepute' - not a safety issue. So, one concludes, it is more important for Race Direction to keep the sport photogenically attractive than consider rider safety as its primary responsibility.

The riders are the ones who have to be patched up, or buried. Draw your own conclusions about the role that the sport sees for the riders: gladiators, disposable bags of flesh and blood.

'The things that get penalized or looked badly upon now were a non-event ten years ago.' and who is to be blamed for that....

The media circus,the fanboys and racers themselves crib even at a small contact between riders if that contact somehow hampers 'their' guys race. I remember the times when such things were insignificant and you would be called a 'pu$$y' to complain. People would tip their hats to a great battle on track, sometimes grudgingly of course,but always admiring it nonetheless.

Even most of the current days racers seem to be cut from the same cloth but the team managements have a much bigger say in the course of events, and that is the root cause of decline of the sport.

Well Im going to buck the trend, I think the penalty points idea has some merit and I think race direction did a decent enough job over the season. There a definitely lots of improvements to be made but at least there's a system in place now.
As with anything related to the law its all about the context. That's why people can plead self defence, or why repeat offenders are treated differently to first timers.

The points system certainly has merit: it means that you don't need to think about prior form, you just react to the incident as it happens. The prior form looks after itself via the accumulation of points.

That's the point of the points: it makes the accounting for prior behaviour transparent.

So to then start talking about applying points based on prior form is silly. I'd suggest Mike Webb understands that very well, and was just trying to wriggle out of explaining the political interference he's suffering.

For eg, to conclude that Marquez's touch on Pedrosa deserved points despite being "a racing incident of the more harmless variety" because in the past, MM had been less harmless... you don't kick your dog Thursday because it shat on the carpet Monday, or the dog concludes you are being completely arbitrary. Were the points at Aragon because of ignoring the flags at Silverstone (where he had already received points, but arguably not enough) or for Jerez? Or just because Puig had whipped the media into a frenzy?

is a complex issue. There is no such thing as absolutely safe or absolutely dangerous in everyday life or sport of course. If someone died every time they tried something basic instincts would prevent anyone other than those with suicidal tendencies from even thinking about doing it. Cliff jumping or diving is more popular when there's water at the bottom.
Lots of racetracks have been consigned to history because of safety issues. The equipment riders wear nowadays is hugely different to the stuff people rode in even 10 years ago.
Things do move on and it's called learning. Stop learning and you're a Dodo.
Marquez is learning. So is Mike Webb. Learning makes you faster, or safer. It's a choice.
Sometimes the response to learning is not as good as it could be and you adjust.
I think that MGP has it about right at present , but a few tweaks are needed to keep the pressure on behaviour between the end of one season and the start of the next.
If people are approximately equally complaining about it being too safe, or not safe enough, you are in the middle ground where you can say it's about right.
He has a difficult job.

Are a good system, but it's not perfect. Do you set the bar so that someone gets a ban or other penalty? Or do you set it so that no-one actually gets penalised, just a points score? In my view the latter, because that shows that the system is working and people are avoiding points(or too many of them).
In reality, a pit lane or back row start is a huge penalty because you are taking a big chunk out of a riders chances, and when titles are decided by 10 or so points that's a big blow, for the front-runners especially.
Most points systems get abused by the operators or the users. Public speeding is an example. Speed guns/cameras and arbitrary trigger points have no intelligence - in an urban area 10 mph over the limit late at night or early morning is usually OK if no pedestrians etc. are around and traffic is light. Ditto +40/50/60 on an out of town/highway and it's only you. Most cops not hunting KPI's or straight revenue are 'sensible' about such things.
If a policeman checks your licence and you have points accrued he is much more likely to ticket you than if you are 'clean', when he is weighing choices.
We don't know what Webb or his team said to HRC/Marquez as part of those early incidents. I suspect he had a verbal warning, and then....
That seems pretty fair to me.

My Favourite part:
Q: In an interview with Dennis Noyes, your predecessor Paul Butler said 'Motorcycle racing is a contact sport.'
MW: Yup, that was his famous headline!
Q: Is motorcycle racing a contact sport?
MW: No, I would phrase that differently.

He's been one or two steps behind the action throughout the season. It's unclear what his priorities are, or whether he has any. His comments defy logic - what on earth has Rossi and Gibernau got to do with decisions in 2013. Too often, they have the smack of hastily cobbled together post-event justification. The riders don't seem impressed by him, increasingly taking safety into their own hands which he, astonishingly, seems to think is ok when it is doing it back. Finally, does anyone else have a problem with his view that motorcycle racing presents the same issues on contact as football or basketball?

Given his constraints (in a show trying to look like a sport, trying not to piss off Honda or Yamaha or Dorna or the promoters), I'm sure I couldn't.

Based on your savvy comment above, as long as you didn't bend to the factories, I think you could do a better job!