One of the many good things about being a MotoGP rider is that you get offered a lot of free stuff. Take a careful look at the social media feed of any rider and you will see stickers and logos on display, discretely or blatantly, on all sorts of items: caps, sunglasses, t-shirts, jeans, jackets, bicycles, underwear, motorcycles, leathers, MX gear, helmets. You name it, and some brand or other will have given it to a rider to show off on their social media.
There can be a downside to this, however. Just ask Andrea Iannone – the Italian's protestations of innocence after testing positive for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid used to achieve a chiseled physique were undermined by the fact that he posted so many pictures on Instagram wearing nothing more than the underwear from the company paying him to do so, with the kind of muscle definition that makes you wonder. The price of getting free stuff is having to show it off to the world via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Precisely this deal appears to have caught out Fabio Quartararo. Though he was not named in the FIM press release announcing that two riders would face a hearing at Jerez for breaching the practice rules, which governs which bikes riders can use when riding at a track outside of officially sanctioned Grand Prix tests, it quickly emerged that Quartararo was one of the riders involved, the other being Sergio Garcia.
What appears to have happened is that Quartararo was invited to ride a Yamaha YZF-R1 prepared by French racing tuners Tech Solutions. According to an interview with Tech Solutions co-founder Franck Larrive by French website Paddock GP, the bike spec was a little lower than that allowed in the French Superbike championship, and with a less powerful motor.
Quartararo got two days at Paul Ricard out of the agreement, and a chance to get back up to speed, and used to the feeling of riding over 300 km/h again. In return, Tech Solutions got two days of valuable data with one of the fastest riders in the world, plus their brand splashed all over Quartararo's social media. As a relatively new company looking to expand its operations into the Spanish and Italian superbike championships, the exposure was more than welcome.
But Quartararo got a little more than he bargained for. It appears that a rival team may have informed IRTA and the FIM of the Frenchman's outing, and the pictures posted on social media and on the Paddock GP website will have raised some questions over the legality of the outing.
Crime and punishment
What did Quartararo do wrong, exactly? The short answer is he rode a bike on a track which hadn't been approved by MotoGP Technical Director, Danny Aldridge. All Grand Prix riders are allowed to ride bikes on track, as long as they are standard production bikes, with a few changes allowed to make them fit for the track. (Moto2 and Moto3 riders face further restrictions: Moto3 riders are not allowed to ride bikes made by their own manufacturer of between 200cc and 300cc, while Moto2 riders are not allowed to ride Triumphs of between 665cc and 865cc. Basically, they are not allowed to ride a production bike close to the machine they are racing.)
There is a longish list of parts which can be changed: bodywork, brakes, exhausts, suspension, footrests and handlebars, levers, tires, and wheels, though the aim should be for the bike to remain as close to stock as possible. But the most important part of all of this is that the bike, complete with swapped out parts, needs to be approved by Danny Aldridge. Approval is a relatively simple process: send an email describing the bike and a brief list of parts to be used, and Aldridge will reply with a yes or no, the answer being yes in 99 out of 100 cases.
So Quartararo did two things wrong here: he rode a bike which wasn't approved by Danny Aldridge, and the bike itself was a long way from stock.
Slap on the wrist
What penalty with Quartararo face? Most likely, he will get a stern talking to, and a reminder of the rules. It is improbable that Quartararo was trying to gain an advantage – if he was, he wouldn't have plastered photos of what he was doing all over his social media, or he would have made sure to have only posted carefully vetted pictures showing a standard bike. The Frenchman was offered a chance to ride a bike at a track, and jumped at the chance, not thinking about the consequences.
Indeed, Quartararo himself dismissed the idea that riding a Superbike-spec machine conveyed any advantage over a standard road bike. Would it help having a more highly-tuned bike, Paddock GP asked? "No, I think this is good enough," Quartararo replied. "I don't need a bike capable of setting fast lap times, I need a bike I can train on. This is more than enough, and I didn't find any shortcomings."
Quartararo has a point. As Pata Yamaha boss Paul Denning pointed out on Twitter, the difference in pace between a modern superbike in road trim and a fully race-prepped WorldSBK machine is surprisingly low. At the launch of the 2020 Yamaha YZF-R1 at Jerez last year, Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark were lapping at a pace of around 1'43. WorldSBK race pace at Jerez is around 1'40, so the benefits of spending hundreds of thousands of euros to go 3% is questionable at best.
The reason for the rules
Why are there any restrictions in place? The practice rules are an extension of the testing rules, and aimed at limiting costs. If there were no restrictions on testing, then the richest factories and teams would spend all their time on track, and arrive at each race with an advantage over those who couldn't afford to spend so much time preparing.
The practice restrictions are similar. "Fundamentally, we want to prevent MotoGP riders from practice with a true World Superbike machine," Ducati's Paolo Ciabatti explained to GPOne.com. Left to themselves, the factory riders could turn up at tracks on bikes which are as close as they can afford to make them to their MotoGP bikes, with race-tuned engines, carbon brakes, trick suspension, wheels, etc. Satellite riders, especially from the poorer teams, would not have the budget to follow suit.
The richest factory riders already have an advantage – take the dirt track ranches used by Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez as an example – and so anything that can level the playing field is welcome.
Quartararo is not the first rider to fall foul of practice restrictions. In 2016, Aleix Espargaro built a Suzuki GSX-R 1000 complete with carbon brakes, Ohlins racing forks, and MotoGP-spec wheels to use at Barcelona. When Danny Aldridge was alerted to Espargaro's project, the Spaniard was quickly reminded of the rules, and forced to revert to using a stock bike. It was obvious that no malice was intended – Espargaro had spoken openly about the bike, and posted pictures on his social media accounts – and as a consequence, no punishment was given. There is every reason to believe that the FIM Stewards will take a similar approach with Quartararo once he explains himself at Jerez.
This blew up
The fact that the FIM sent out a press release titled "Information and reminder" is also a hint at the course of action. With riders having suffered through a long period of involuntary inaction during the coronavirus lockdown, it is easy to make a mistake. They will have been eager to get back on track, and been less focused on the rules.
What didn't help the FIM's case, however, is the fact that the press release did not contain the names of the riders which had triggered the reminder. What should have been a low-profile jogging of the collective rider memories concerning the rules ended up unleashing a full-scale media witch hunt for the unnamed culprits in the press release. By remaining vague and anonymous, the infraction was made to sound far worse than it actually was.
Now, a day or so later, and calm has returned to the once tempest-filled teacup. At Jerez, the FIM Stewards will hear what the two riders accused of breaching the practice regulations have to say for themselves. After that, we may finally be informed officially of who did what.
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