Romano Fenati burst onto the racing scene like a meteor, burning bright and lighting up Moto3. In his first race, at Qatar in 2012, he finished second behind Maverick Viñales. In his second, at Jerez, in difficult conditions, he won by a fearsome 36 seconds. Here was surely a rider to watch for the future.
His ascension to greatness did not run as smoothly as those early races promised. A couple more podiums in 2012 saw him finish sixth in the championship on the underpowered FTR Honda.
After a tough 2013, he rediscovered his form when he was invited to become part of the VR46 Academy, and signed to ride a KTM with the Sky VR46 Racing Team the following year. The change did him good, winning four races and finishing fifth in the championship.
2015 saw less success, Fenati showing signs of frustration. During the warm up in Argentina, the Italian lashed out at Niklas Ajo inexplicably, first trying to kick him, then stopping next to the Finn for a practice start, and reaching over a flicking his kill switch.
Things went from bad to worse in 2016. The relationship between Fenati and his crew deteriorated during the season, with arguments becoming increasingly frequent. In Austria, an argument with the team became so heated that the Sky VR46 team sacked him on the spot.
The incident had been the last straw, with Fenati already having been given two formal warnings before the Austrian GP. Fenati had refused to move to Pesaro and fit in with the ethos of the VR46 Academy, which includes a full program of physical training both on and off the bike, as well as coaching in other areas, such as PR skills and English.
Missing half a season seemed to teach Fenati an important lesson. In interviews, he showed the kind of humility that had been missing previously. He found a new home for 2017 with the Marinelli Snipers team, and reaped the rewards of his new attitude. He won three races, and was the only rider capable of offering consistent opposition to eventual champion Joan Mir.
Was Fenati finally back on the right track? His move up to Moto2 proved to be a rocky road. In the first eleven races of his debut Moto2 season, he scored points only twice, his best finish a seventh place at Le Mans.
Qualifying went little better, Fenati regularly starting from the middle of the grid, or worse. At Silverstone, he got the worst of the weather and qualified 31st before the race was washed out. At his home race in Misano, he could get no further than 22nd.
When the Going Gets Tough
Perhaps that explains why his frustration boiled over at Misano. During the race, while he was in the group fighting for eleventh place, he had a couple of run-ins with Stefano Manzi of the Forward Racing team. Manzi, with a reputation as something of a reckless rider, pushed Fenati wide a couple of times, making contact at one point with both men ending up in the gravel.
Fenati lost his cool. He chased Manzi down, and as the pair went along the back straight, Fenati pulled alongside Manzi, reached over, and gave the Forward Racing rider’s front brake lever a tweak. It was only for a fraction of a second, but it was hard enough to have produced a brake pressure of 20 bar, Manzi later told the Italian press. The average braking pressure a Moto2 rider uses at Misano is 9 bar. Manzi’s Suter twitched, but the Italian did not crash, a minor miracle at 217 km/h.
Unfortunately for Fenati, the cameras around the track caught what he had done on video. The FIM Stewards reviewed the tape, black-flagged Fenati, and later handed him a ban for the next two races.
That, at least, is the phrasing used in the penalty notice: “For the above reasons and considering the seriousness of the infraction, the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel has imposed on you a penalty of suspension from the next two (2) FIM GP World Championship Moto2 races.”
The next two Moto2 races are at Aragon, Spain and Buriram, Thailand.
On Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the race, many hot words were said about Fenati’s actions, and the leniency of the penalty. The general consensus was that Fenati’s actions were outrageous, and his penalty was nowhere near stiff enough.
“I think he should never race a motorcycle again,” said Cal Crutchlow, among the fiercest of the critics. “He should have walked back in his garage and his team should have just kicked him straight out of the back.” Motorcycle racing is dangerous enough with madness such as this, Crutchlow felt.
“You can’t do this to another motorcycle racer. We are risking our lives enough. If somebody grabbed your brake – sure, maybe there was contact before, but there is contact all the time. I don’t think from the replay what Manzi did, he tried to pass. Fenati ran wide, he tried to go under him, and they made some contact. This is racing. But to grab the brake lever on the straight he deserves to just be kicked straight out.”
Pol Espargaro went so far as to apologize on behalf of all motorcycle racers. “This is something that we hope to never, ever, ever see again in racing,” the KTM rider said. “This is not racing. I feel shame if someone sees the races and sees a professional rider do something like that. I mean, you can be frustrated. You can be really angry. But this is something that the riders can never do because after people see on TV and as I said this is a shame. I apologize in the name of the riders because this was a shame.”
Whatever punishment the FIM Stewards came up with, it would not go far enough for Pol Espargaro. “There is no punishment, even one or two races. A professional rider cannot do something like that. I mean for sure Race Direction will take the measures they think. It’s their job. But whatever they do, it’s not going to be enough because somewhat who does that is not a professional rider and if a rider that is not professional is racing here it’s not good.”
Maverick Viñales pointed out that Fenati has previous form for this type of behavior, pointing to the incident with Niklas Ajo in Argentina. “I don’t know,” the Movistar Yamaha rider said. “I never thought about grabbing the brake of someone on the straight.”
“I don’t know what is wrong, but many times he does things, also to my friend Niklas [Ajo], he did stupid things [in Argentina]. I hope these two races make him think. For sure he has a lot of talent, but if you don’t work, you don’t think, you don’t try to work more on the track, I don’t know.”
This was just the start of a Luciferian fall from grace. At first, the Marinelli Snipers Team issued a press release expressing their anger at the actions of Fenati, but on Monday morning, a second followed, announcing they had released Fenati from his contract. Or to put it another way, they had sacked him.
A few hours later, a press release followed from the Forward Racing Team, who had signed Fenati to ride for them in 2019, alongside Stefano Manzi, ironically. They, along with MV Agusta, who are building the chassis for the Forward team, did not want to continue with Fenati. Fenati was left without a job this year, and without a job next year.
Earlier in the day, Fenati had released a statement that struck almost exactly the right tone. He had not been acting as a man, he said. A man would have waited until the end of the race, then taken the matter up with Race Direction. The fact that Stefano Manzi also got a six-place grid penalty suggest that they were aware of Manzi’s reckless riding.
Yet the statement also contained hints that Fenati had not learned from the incident. “It’s true, unfortunately I have an impulsive character, but my intention was certainly not to hurt a pilot like me, but I wanted to make him understand that what he was doing was dangerous, and that I could have made some mistakes as well as he had just made them to me!” Fenati wrote.
Though he then insisted that this was not meant to try to justify his actions, his words certainly smacked of justification, rather than penance.
What Is Enough?
Is a two-race ban a strict enough penalty? The FIM Stewards try to base their judgments on some kind of precedent. The problem is, this behavior is pretty much unprecedented, so what to do? I have contacted Race Director, along with Dorna, for an explanation, but I have as yet to receive a reply.
To an extent, the situation has already resolved itself, Fenati having lost a job for both this year and next. Even worse, this is the second chance he has blown in the Grand Prix paddock, and it is hard to see who will give him another chance. Though getting a shot at a rider of such obvious talent as Fenati, and probably for free, could prove a little too tempting for teams further down the Moto2/Moto3 grid.
Though grabbing the brake lever of another rider is so far beyond acceptable as to be outrageous, it is worth pointing out that Manzi did not crash when Fenati pulled that stupid stunt.
Fenati may have squeezed the brake lever, but he didn’t grab it for long. He didn’t jam it on, he squeezed and released. Had Fenati really squeezed the lever, Manzi would have been down. And probably, Fenati along with him.
Out of Control
The problem is not even that Fenati grabbed Manzi’s brake lever, but that a) the idea popped into his head; and b) he couldn’t stop himself actually carrying out the idea. If you banned every rider who had such an idea pop into their head, you would have a pretty empty field. But racing, like life, is about self control, managing your emotions, and choosing the best course of action. Anyone who gets to b) deserves to be banned.
This is the crux of the matter. Romano Fenati is clearly an immensely talented rider, but he has two serious flaws. He is young, and he is impulsive, which taken together produce an explosive mix. The former quality will take care of itself. The latter needs a prolonged and committed approach to change.
Fenati’s biggest problem is that he does not have the environment around him to help him manage himself emotionally. He is not surrounded by people who can help ground himself, and help bring him down to earth. He has no one to help him manage the tension, and as a result, the tension can cause him to explode in unpredictable ways.
Does Romano Fenati deserve a life ban? Life is a very long time. Fenati is just 22-years-old, old enough to know better, but still young enough to struggle with self control.
I know that my 22-year-old self was a walking disaster of a human being. It took me a while to find my feet, and become a little less of a disaster. With age, and with guidance, perhaps Fenati can learn to control his inner demons and channel his aggression. It is hard to change a person’s underlying character. But with time, you can learn to manage it better.
The trouble for Fenati right now is that other riders may simply refuse to ride with him, after what he did. Any team signing Fenati may have to not only persuade sponsors to give him a chance, but also to contain a baying mob of riders and fans calling for his blood.
And all this talk of Romano Fenati glosses over another serious problem. If you thought the battle was fierce at the front of the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, in the middle of the pack, it is relentless and blood curdling.
The battle for a podium could involve bonus money for positions scored. The battle for the final point can be the difference between racing next season, and having to raise another €200,000 or more to pay for a ride. Or worse, the end of a career as a professional motorcycle racer.
Why doesn’t Race Direction catch all this blood and gore further down the field? They are reliant on the footage shot by the Dorna cameras around the track, and by the many CCTV cameras which line the circuit. But all those cameras don’t necessarily capture every crime and misdemeanor which happens on track.
Hard passes, physical contact, and deliberate attempts to run each other off the track can slip between the cracks, as the cameras switch back from one group to another. This is where so many real battles are fought. And this is where poor behavior is learned. Intervening here would be a big help.
What does the future hold for Romano Fenati? In the short term, a period of inactivity. And unless something changes in his surroundings, more of the same in the long terms.
But, with coaching, guidance, and the right approach, he might be allowed back into the bosom of a racing paddock, and he might even start to perform up to his obvious potential.
To be frank, Fenati is not the only rider who would benefit from such an approach. Most young motorcycle racers grow up learning that the only thing that counts is riding the bike, and being fit enough to do so.
But so much of motorcycle racing is about mental control, emotional control, and managing yourself as a human, that professional coaching is required.
As long as young kids are being throw into the shark pool of World Championship paddocks without any idea of what awaits them, riders like Fenati will continue to be a danger to themselves, and to other riders. Time for a new, more professional approach.