Trackside Tuesday: Rookie Rule Redux

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Jack Miller pit box losail Qatar 2014

For all the good that accompanied Marc Marquez’s arrival in the premier class, there was one casualty that we should consider reviving: The Rookie Rule.

A brief recap if you don’t recall the details: In 2010 the Grand Prix Commission approved a rule stating that no riders entering the premier class for the first time could ride for factory teams.

This was partly intended as a cost-saving measure and partly intended to placate satellite team owners who complained that without the rule, they would never have a chance to hire top rookie riders.

For several years The Rookie Rule worked nicely with one glaring exception, that of keeping Ben Spies out of the Factory Yamaha squad. Spies came to MotoGP as a multiple national series champion (AMA Superbike), as reigning WSBK champion, and most importantly, at 25-years-old.

Though he’d not ridden all of the GP tracks and didn’t know the Bridgestone tires, his experience with pressure and media attention made him the rookie perhaps most suited to going directly to a factory team. Cal Crutchlow could’ve also made a strong case based on his experience and maturity.

Jorge Lorenzo joined the Factory Yamaha team the year before the rule was adopted, but in my opinion became one of the best case studies to support the Rookie Rule.

In 2009 Lorenzo immediately had the speed required to set pole and win races, but by his own admission he lacked the experience to handle premier class media exposure and the pressure of a superstar teammate.

After a remarkable beginning of his rookie season, he suffered a series of spectacular crashes as he struggled to manage the move from 250cc racing to MotoGP.

When Marc Marquez won the Moto2 title in 2012 and was ready to move up, the might of Honda and Marquez’s Repsol sponsorship made the Grand Prix Commission see things a bit differently.

Teams were also restricted to supplying four riders, which made for complex difficulties of sponsorship and contracts, all of which was explained very nicely at the time by David Emmett.

So rather than make an exception to the Rookie Rule, given the unique case of Marquez, it was removed from the books. Perhaps an exception was not an option, or else what good is a ‘rule?’

But in my opinion, not only should the rule have been reinstated immediately after Marquez was allowed to join the Honda factory team, it should have been strengthened to include a minimum age/experience requirement for rookies wishing to ride the big bikes.

Consider the current situation and the 2015 Silly Season rumors: 19-year-old Maverick Viñales (though he will be 20 when the 2015 season begins) is a strong candidate to join the returning Suzuki Factory Team. 19-year-old Jack Miller (though he will also be 20-years-old when the 2015 season begins) just might skip Moto2 altogether and go from Moto3 directly to the premier class.

I think both of these possible moves are bad ideas, but forces that do not have the riders’ best interests at heart are involved.

At 19, you’re more likely to think you can conquer the world than to see discretion and patience as the proper companions for a long, successful career. So, the riders themselves are probably not the best people to be making such decisions without guidance from more experienced influences who are looking out for the riders’ welfare rather than their own.

Some might say that Marquez’s success as a factory team rookie proves that the Rookie Rule is not required to protect youngsters from competing against the wiser, more experienced riders on the most powerful bikes.

But I say, we must be very careful declaring that Marquez proves anything other than what an exception he is, even among the top class of racers. If he proves anything about humanity, it’s that very rarely someone comes along who can do things no one else can. So I don’t consider his success a sign that the Rookie Rule was worthless.

I think a better case study could be made about a guy named John Hopkins, who in 2002 joined WCM Red Bull Yamaha at the age of 19. Though he showed amazing natural ability, his career did not achieve the heights so many expected. Admittedly, he did not go directly to the Marlboro Yamaha team, and I was not in the paddock at the time, and thus was not able to observe him in person.

I also admit that much of what I know about him I learned from Faster, the 2003 MotoGP film by Mark Neale. The rest of what I believe I know about him I’ve heard from paddock veterans who have convinced me, sometimes in spite of themselves, that Hopkins would have enjoyed more success had he been allowed to mature before joining the 500cc 2-stoke world championship, competing against Rossi, Biaggi, Checa, Gibernau, and other riders who had spent years riding GP two-strokes of varying displacements on the GP circuits.

Some might say that those two-stroke beasts were different animals, not fit for direct comparison in this case with today’s four-stroke, ECU-tamed pussycats. But I say, it’s not only horsepower and power delivery that have changed since 2002.

Consider the rash of arm pump operations we’ve seen lately. It’s almost easier to compose a list of riders who haven’t undergone this surgery than one of those who have. Even 19-year-old Dakota Mamola, son of MotoGP legend Randy Mamola, just had this surgery.

Mamola senior explained recently that the arm pump problem is increasing as the braking forces increase in the sport. My hat is off to Dakota for showing this level of commitment to his chosen sport at only 19-years-old. But I hate to think that in a year or two Viñales and Miller might face the same decision.

I believe several riders have benefitted from not going to factory teams as rookies. Stefan Bradl, Bradley Smith, Scott Redding, and Pol Espargaro are the first to come to mind.

Each has had time to come to terms with the bigger bikes, the responsibilities of daily media appearances, the greater sponsor demands, and most of all, the internal pressure to continue winning when suddenly the competition is so high.

Marquez will likely also be responsible, through no fault of his own, for many a younger rider looking at his success and thinking, If Marc can do it, I can do it. I’m not going to predict we’ll never have another young rookie who can jump on the big bike and race like he was born to it as Marquez has.

This situation does remind me, however, of another group of top riders who looked at the results of one super-talented guy and said to themselves, If Casey can win on that thing, so can I.

The youngsters coming up through Moto3 and then Moto2 look so brave riding around in their superhero suits and helmets, it’s easy to forget that motorcycle racing is a kids’ sport.

All of us who support MotoGP and the supporting classes are in varying ways stewards of their futures, fans perhaps less so than the members of the GP Commission, the team owners, and those who make demands because they sponsor the sport.

But motorcycle racing is not, as they say, a knitting contest. The dangers are not limited to those on track. We should all be thinking about what we can do to make this exciting sport safer for those brave and skilled enough to do it for their own pleasures and our entertainment.

I believe we have a particular responsibility to the youngest riders. Is 19 too young to go to the top class? Without at least a couple of years on a Moto2 bike, yes, I think it is. I hope that, for their own good, Viñales and Miller stay where they are in 2015.

Photo: © 2014 Scott Jones /  – All Rights Reserved