Once upon a time, disciplinary measures in MotoGP were simple. If a rider was felt to have transgressed the rules, they were hauled up before the Race Director and given a punishment, and that was just about the end of it.
Sometimes, riders appealed against those judgments, and sometimes, the FIM even found in their favor.
But times change, cultures change, social mores change. What was once regarded as acceptable is now frowned upon. Physical contact and riding with the intent to obstruct others became less and less acceptable. Suspected transgressions were examined more closely and judged more harshly.
The increase in the number of cameras covering the track, and the vast improvement in resolution and picture quality, helped identify more potential offenders. In turn, this created more pressure on Race Direction to punish these transgressions.
Then came Sepang 2015. When the two biggest names clash on the track amid a bitter personal feud, then the pressure on the series organizers to treat the situation with kid gloves becomes almost unbearable. In the fallout of that ugly incident, Race Direction was reorganized, and the disciplinary duties moved to a separate body, the FIM Panel of Stewards.
The official explanation was that this would allow Race Direction to get on with the job of managing the race, while the Stewards could focus on assessing whether a particular action needed to be punished or not.
The Forever War
One minor detail threw a spanner into the works of that plan. That minor detail is that the protagonists at Sepang, Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, are still racing against one another, and their feud continues unabated, though it feels very much like one side is much more invested in the feud than the other.
And so from time to time, the two clash on track once again. And given that one of those two has a reputation for disregarding any idea of safety on the track, such clashes raise yet more controversy, and more calls for reform of Race Direction.
Argentina this year is a case in point. After stalling on the grid, then committing a litany of rule violations to get his bike restarted, Marc Márquez was handed a ride through penalty.
Unfortunately, the conditions for Márquez were perfect: a damp track with variable grip made most riders cautious, while Márquez was lapping 2 seconds or more faster than anyone else. He cut through the field with impunity, and with complete disregard for anyone else, forcing riders off line and running Valentino Rossi off track, causing him to crash.
Márquez was not the only offender. Danilo Petrucci was also called out for riding dangerously, igniting a feud between Petrucci and Aleix Espargaro. Other riders piled in, expressing their outrage at both the relative leniency of the punishments handed out, as well as the perceived inconsistency of the way incidents were judged.
Something Better Change
There were calls for Race Direction to change their approach, and take this more seriously. “Sometimes, to change something, something big needs to happen,” Jorge Lorenzo said in Austin, two weeks after Argentina.
“In a dangerous sport, you need to protect the rider. It’s one thing to be crazy when you are making a hot lap or you are alone, it’s another thing when you are putting the risk and the health of other riders. The referee or Race Direction should penalize strongly these actions.”
The fact that such actions continued were all down to Race Direction, Lorenzo said (though penalties are actually applied by the FIM Panel of Stewards). “It’s not the riders fault. It’s Race Direction fault,” the Spaniard said.
“If Race Direction gives hard penalties, next time the rider won’t make this action, for sure. So it’s always Race Direction’s fault. Race Direction can sometimes make a mistake, like a soccer referee. But it should not be usual to make a mistake.”
Valentino Rossi was, unsurprisingly, far more outspoken. “I want to speak with Race Direction, sincerely because I don’t feel protected from the Race Direction. When you don’t feel protected, you have to make your own, because nothing happen. Next race if nothing happen, he will do exactly the same.”
With emotions in an already febrile state, three riders collided at Jerez. Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa all tried to occupy the same piece of tarmac in an unfortunate sequence of events at Dry Sack.
In the view of Race Direction, it was a racing incident, but Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa saw it differently, each blaming the crash on the other, though not ascribing malicious intent.
Pedrosa once again called out Race Direction (and once again, he meant the FIM Panel of Stewards), demanding they be more consistent, and clearer. After the incident, he had gone to speak to them, he said. “I go there to understand what is the point and how they judge things because from my point of view, it wasn’t just that easy.”
After spending time arguing with the Stewards, he left frustrated. “So finally they said if you don’t agree with our decision, which I don’t, make an appeal. But this meant I would say that I want Jorge to be penalized, because I don’t agree with the decision. But what I want them to understand is that I don’t want a penalty for Jorge, I want them to understand correctly what is happening on the track because they don’t.”
One solution proposed by the riders in Argentina, and several times afterwards, is to have a former racer join the FIM Panel of Stewards. Having someone who has raced at the highest level on board should mean they have a better insight into what is going on in the minds of the riders. Such a person should have a more personal, intimate understanding of racing, of what is a racing incident, and what is a dirty move. That, at least, is the theory.
Now, Dorna has called the riders’ bluff. From Valencia, Race Director Mike Webb will step aside from the second part of his role, as Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards, and concentrate on his main role as Race Director.
Instead, a permanent Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards will take over, leading the two other stewards in assessing all infringements of the Grand Prix regulations. The permanent Chair appointed is none other than Freddie Spencer, double 500cc champion, and the last rider to win a 500cc and 250cc title in the same season.
Spencer has obviously been appointed because of his impeccable credentials. The American is not just any old ex-racer: he is arguably one of the most naturally talented riders ever to swing his leg over a racing motorcycle, and a perennial candidate in the debate over who deserves to be called the greatest racer of all time. He is widely respected because of intelligence, and his clarity of vision and thinking.
But this is also a brilliant tactical move. Mike Webb used to take a kicking both from the riders and among the fans when they disagreed with his decisions. Despite having raced himself many years ago, Webb has been an official in Grand Prix racing for a long time now, having been Technical Director before taking over from Paul Butler as Race Director. He is an easy target for criticism for those who don’t like the decisions he makes.
Such criticisms will be a good deal more difficult with Freddie Spencer in charge. Spencer commands the respect – even the awe – of most modern riders, and most MotoGP fans. No one can argue with his record or his credentials. He is widely regarded as a neutral observer – despite the many and obvious comparisons with Marc Márquez – who is fair and measured with his criticism.
When the FIM Panel of Stewards make an unpopular call on some incident or another, it will not be a faceless bureaucrat whom few outside the paddock know making the decision. It will be Fast Freddie Spencer, the triple world champion, and the man who beat Kenny Roberts. It will be official MotoGP Legend Freddie Spencer making the call.
From a purely organizational point of view, the split in responsibilities also makes sense. Race Direction, under the control of Mike Webb, can get back to the task of ensuring the race is run as safely as possible. When things happen on track, as they always do, those incidents can be passed on to the FIM Panel of Stewards, led by Freddie Spencer. It is a better arrangement.
It would be easy to see this as a criticism of Mike Webb, and the two hats he was forced to wear. That seems unjust to me: Webb is a scrupulously fair and honorable man, who refused to buckle to pressure, even when it was applied by almost irresistible forces.
That refusal to comply may in itself be the reason Dorna have chosen to appoint a separate Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards. With the appointment of Freddie Spencer to take over that role from Mike Webb, those who applied the pressure which helped precipitate the change may find themselves with even less power of persuasion.