Trackside Tuesday: Pardon Me, Coming Through

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Cal Crutchlow Losail grid 2014 Ducati Alpinestars Scott Jones

With the start of the 2015 MotoGP Season right around the corner, we have some more changes to the official regulations that govern MotoGP.

Some changes have been talked about for quite a while, such as that when a rider comes in to swap bikes during a flag-to-flag race, the waiting bike must be closer to the track than to the pit box; lower bodywork on the bikes must be designed to catch oil and other fluids that might leak (Moto2 and MotoGP bikes must be able to catch five liters of fluids, Moto3 bikes three and a half liters); and so on.

But some other items have been added to the rules that haven’t received much attention. Why am I thinking about all of this? Something just caught my eye that will directly affect my work as a photographer on the grid.

Regulation 1.18.5 states: “When riders reach the grid after the sighting lap(s) they must stop at the rear of the grid and turn off the engine. The motorcycle will then be pushed at walking pace by a team member to the grid position. The rider may dismount or remain on the motorcycle to be pushed to the grid position.”

This rule change is going to make things much more different for a lot of people. Why? Let me tell you what it’s like to be on a MotoGP grid.

The story actually starts 30-40 minutes before the race begins. Shortly after the conclusion of the Moto2 race (assuming the usual schedule of Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP races in that order), the Dorna folks start preparing the grid for the main event by bringing the position markers back out on track.

As this is going on, the MotoGP section of pit lane comes to life. Box doors open, bikes are started and warmed-up, the riders appear in the garages dressed and ready to go.

20 minutes before the start of the race, the pit lane exit opens for sighting laps. Once riders leave for their sighting laps, the team members hustle their grid gear from the pit lane out onto the grid.

Dorna people try to keep the masses of folks in pit lane close to the garages so that any bikes leaving later rather than sooner have a safe path. This isn’t always easy!

And sometimes bikes come back into pit lane as people are trying to get out onto the grid. (Regulation 1.18.2: “Riders may complete more than one sighting lap by passing through the pit lane where they may make adjustments, change machines in MotoGP only, or refuel.”

Traffic on the grid is constantly growing with team members, umbrella holders, photographers, videographers, TV crews there for grid interviews etc., and many VIPs who have managed to secure grid access. Before any bikes approach, it’s already something like a subway platform at rush hour.

As the bikes approach the grid, the intensity rises another notch, because now is the time you have to try not to get run over. The bikes at the back of the grid have it pretty easy when it comes to finding their positions. Not only is there less distance to travel through a crowd, but there is less crowd at the back of the grid.

The riders who need to arrive at the front row of the grid have to weave through masses of people, some of whom know the drill, others of whom are wandering around enjoying the experience, not realizing that the pole-sitter has to pass through to reach the #1 spot.

Some teams send a guy back to help shepherd their riders to their grid spots, a role approached with varying similarities to an offensive lineman blocking for a running back. If you aren’t paying attention you might get an elbow in the ribs or even be knocked over.

Usually the rider, trying to help part the waters of the mingling VIPs, will rev his engine when he sees too much traffic ahead. This often brings the inattentive back to earth, but not always. It does punish the eardrums of anyone close by who has not put ear plugs in.

The front of the grid is crazy by now, with TV crews and VIPs and photogs waiting to get coverage of and exposure to the top riders. There’s a huge crowd around Rossi, photographers trying to get some portion of his pre-race ritual, VIPs holding their mobile phones up for selfies with Rossi in the background.

Each rider on the front row gets a lot of attention as well, and on the front row it’s risky to move around looking through a camera viewfinder.

The TV crews are also moving around for shots of the top three riders, they can’t see where they are stepping, and though some of them have assistants moving other people out of the way with varying levels of courtesy, some don’t and those can crash right into you, then scowl as if it’s your fault for not getting out of their way.

Once all the riders are in position, it’s relatively quiet, though not at all calm. (Did you know MotoGP riders are required to remove their helmets? Except in the case of a restarted to wet race, they are, as stated in the final clause of Regulation 1.18.5.) And here we reach the end of how the change to 1.18.5 will affect us.

I am guessing that the regulation change is intended to make people (probably VIPs, who are not accustomed to this environment and don’t from experience keep their heads on swivels) safer as the MotoGP bikes arrive and weave through the crowd to their grid spots.

It will certainly slow the bikes down, now that they are required to be pushed at a walking pace rather than ridden. But it’s going to make it harder for the riders in the front couple of rows to make it through all the humanity milling around on the grid without the revs of MotoGP engines.

Will the team member steering the bike have a horn, or some other attention-getting device? If not, he’ll be hoarse by the time he reaches the front row.

And which riders will stay mounted on their switched off bikes to make the journey, and which will dismount and walk?

I expect those who tend to visit the loo right before the race will dismount and head up pit lane. But some will stay with their bikes. Who will walk and who will ride?

As a photographer, I’m moving among the crowd looking for interesting images to grab. There are so many people, you can’t see from one side of the grid to the other.

I rely on the sound of engines to know another rider has joined the grid. Without that noise, it will be more difficult to know when riders in the front row have arrived.

A tradeoff will likely be this: for riders who stay with their bikes, either seated or walking, there will be drama to photograph.

A rider on a revving bike moving through the crowd has most people get out of his way, and he can move quickly enough to pass by the mobile phone folks.

But if he’s moving at walking pace, either seated or on foot, he’s much more vulnerable to those in the crowd who want a piece of him as he comes by. And different riders will respond in their own ways to this situation.

Time will tell how this regulation change affects the grid formation. It’s a good job we’re starting out in Qatar, where the population density on the grid is relatively light. We’ll get a chance to see how well this new plan works before we get to Austin.

© 2014 Scott Jones / PHOTO.GP – All Rights Reserved