Q&A: MotoGP Race Director Mike Webb Interview, Part 1 — On Penalty Points, Precedent, & Contact Sports

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It has been a busy year for MotoGP Race Director Mike Webb. Since taking on the job of ensuring that MotoGP events take place safely and efficiently, stepping into the shoes vacated by Paul Butler at the start of the 2012 season, Webb has faced some tough decisions and unusual situations, his second year in the job even more eventful than the first.

In response to criticism over the warning system in 2012, a new penalty points system was introduced to allow for harsher penalties for persistent offenders.

There were several high-profile incidents involving Marc Marquez in his rookie season, including a clash with Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez, a touch which severed the traction control sensor of teammate Dani Pedrosa’s Honda and caused Pedrosa to crash, and the situation at Phillip Island, where the new asphalt at the circuit caused the tires to degrade much more than the two spec tire manufacturers had expected, requiring last-minute adjustments to the race schedule on the fly.

We spoke with Mike Webb extensively at Valencia, on the Thursday evening before the race, covering the above subjects and more, and reviewing his second year as Race Director.

In the first part of the interview, Webb talks of whether motorcycle racing is a contact sport, how the penalty system has worked out, explains why Marc Marquez was not given points at Jerez, why Jorge Lorenzo wasn’t penalized for the touch at Sepang, and of changing perceptions.

Q: You’re at the end of your second year in the job of Race Director. Was it easier than the first?

Mike Webb: Easier, in that I’ve done it once before. The first year of anything is a super-steep learning curve. It’s still really steep, and I’m learning lots, and you never know what’s going to happen next. But yes, easier, just because I’m more relaxed about it, because I’ve done it before.

Q: Do the decisions in the second year get any easier? Do they get any quicker?

MW: Certainly not easier. Probably a little bit quicker because a lot of the situations, even though every situation is different, you’ve had a similar situation in the past, and you’ve either been happy with the decision you made the first time round and you easily make it again, or you’ve been unhappy and you modify it because of that. So the experience makes it easier.

Q: It certainly felt to the outside world like there was a new sheriff in town? You seem to be more strict on rider behavior.

MW: If I can explain that as rather than a setting out to bang the table and try to be the tough guy, it’s a reaction to what are the norms now. And that applies in society as well as motorcycle racing. I speak a lot to my old boss Wayne Rainey, he laughs at some of the decisions we make now. 20 years ago, you wouldn’t even have that discussion.

The things that get penalized or looked badly upon were a non-event ten years ago. The general perception of what’s acceptable changes over time. To me, I’m reacting to that, as to what’s perceived to be reasonable.

It’s even feedback from riders, I sit in a room full of MotoGP riders, and discuss what’s going on, and they’re expectation of what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be has changed over the last years. It’s a reaction to that more than anything.

Q: In an interview with Dennis Noyes, your predecessor Paul Butler said ‘Motorcycle racing is a contact sport.’

MW: Yup, that was his famous headline!

Q: Is motorcycle racing a contact sport?

MW: No, I would phrase that differently. The simple answer is, inevitably, yes, but it’s more like an unintended consequence rather than that it’s intended to be contact. I mean, boxing’s a contact sport because it’s intended to be. Rugby’s a contact sport because it’s intended to be. Motorcycle racing is not intended to be, but sometimes by circumstances, it becomes one.

Q: It’s more like soccer in that contact can happen and that each time it happens you have to make a judgment?

MW: Sure. As a kid I played basketball, and I was told at the beginning it’s a non-contact sport, well sorry, it ain’t! But it’s intended to be non-contact. So we’re in that same game.

Q: The points system was new for this year. How do you feel that’s worked out?

MW: It’s good, it could do with some fine tuning, but I’m really happy with it, because what it’s done is it’s replaced the formal or informal warning. And it’s become an accountable thing, whereas a formal or informal warning was kind of a vague concept about you’ve been a naughty boy.

So I’m happy that we’ve actually made it accountable. I have to come up with a better way of handling the end of the season, because a penalty point at the last race of the season is meaningless, unless you’ve already got a certain number.

Q: As soon as the riders line up on the grid on Sunday afternoon for the last race, the penalty points are irrelevant…

MW: They don’t count. The thing is, what we do is because the system is written that way, we consciously make the decision that if something needs punishing in the last couple of races, rather than points, it tends to be something else, so we’re modifying our behavior because of the way the points rules work.

I think we could modify the points rule to make it a bit more workable. But overall, I’m really happy with it.

Q: Do you think points should be carried over between seasons, is that possible?

MW: It could be a possibility, for a limited time. I don’t think it needs to be cumulative over a rider’s career, but there could be an expiry date, something like that might be workable. Or I might just continue to change the behavior of Race Direction, and choose another penalty rather than a point, something that’s more immediate.

Q: You’ve faced a lot of criticism, you’ve had a lot of difficult decisions to make this year. Just to go through them one by one. Marc Marquez has been the worst offender, certainly, as far as points are concerned. Jerez he got no points for. What were your considerations?

MW: It’s mostly precedent. Mostly it’s Rossi/Gibernau precedent. And the way, not just that one incident, but in several incidents of a similar nature, there was a big gap there, and a rider is entitled to go for a gap. All of that kind of thinking. So that was the decision, and it was unanimous among Race Direction at that point, it was ‘that’s a racing incident’.

Moving on from there, just the way Marquez has been all year and all of that, I think it could logically be argued that perhaps a point was justifiable at that time. Right there, on the set of circumstances we had and the precedents, we were happy that it was a racing incident.

Q: So if the same thing had happened at for example Sepang, which has a similar hairpin at the end, but is the 15th race of the season, then there could have been a point there.

MW: I’d have to be honest and say it’s probably more likely, having had the year’s experience of seeing how Marc rides and all of that. And I’m happy that he’s getting better, but he’s still a little bit close for comfort at some times.

Q: The Aragon incident was a big headache for everyone.

MW: Exactly.

Q: Why in the end does Marc get points? Because there was a defect, there was a design defect which is why Honda was penalized, and there was what looked like a totally harmless touch.

MW: Exactly. I think we can all agree that the touch itself was a racing incident of the more harmless variety. It was as I said in interviews at the time immediately after, in both cases, the Honda penalty and the Marquez penalty were sending messages.

And it was a case of, I know not everyone agrees that we should take precedent into account, but it was a number of incidents that didn’t result in any kind of accident that Marc was involved in, and this was kind of the one straw that broke the camel’s back, if you like. It was one incident more, and he needed to be told, hey, stop.

Q: The trouble with precedents is that it can look arbitrary. Because one rider does something and gets away with it, and another rider does something and gets points.

MW: Exactly right. That’s the one thing I dislike about taking precedent into it, but overall, I’m happier judging things over a period rather than everything on one incident at a time.

A rider who’s totally blameless and has never put a foot out of line, and makes one mistake will get judged differently than a rider who is continually in front of Race Direction for doing something wrong. And I think that’s fair and reasonable.

Q: For example, there have been a few times when it looked like Jorge has been a little bit more physical with Marc. Because you must have looked at the incident at Sepang, you must have looked at the pit lane exit for both riders at Phillip Island.

MW: Yes, over and over.

Q: When you talk about precedent, would that be a reason for not penalizing Jorge at Sepang, but maybe if he did it again and again, you’d maybe start looking at points?

MW: You’ve pretty much got it. I know there is a desire to be completely objective and judge every incident on its own, and I’d like to do that, but as I said before, although there are downsides to it, overall I’m happier taking precedent into account.

Which is exactly what happened in Sepang, where Jorge doing what he did to Marc, it was basically doing back to Marc what Marc had done to him a number of times, so it’s all fair and reasonable.

However, if it’s once, that’s fine, if it becomes a pattern of behavior, absolutely not. And that’s what we’re trying to do with Marc, is to stop that being a pattern of behavior. It’s clearly not a pattern with Jorge, and so at that time, it didn’t get a penalty, it would in the future if it becomes his normal style.

Q: Because to me, it looks like Jorge is changing his behavior, it looks like he’s becoming more physical with Marc, in part because he’s tired of the physical intimidation from Marc, and he’s showing that he’s giving it back as good as he gets.

MW: Yes, you’ve pretty much summed it up. I’ve said before about the general opinion about what’s accepted and what’s not, and in the riders we currently have in the championship, Jorge is a little bit off center of what the general opinion is. He would like things to be a lot more strictly controlled, and a lot less possibility of contact or anything dangerous.

So he is frustrated that we don’t always share his opinion on every incident. Sometimes we see eye to eye and sometimes we don’t, and his frustrated that we don’t automatically think the same way he does.

So I think there’s a certain amount of frustration creeping in, where he thinks ‘well, Race Direction’s not going to do anything, I might as well behave like the others.’ I certainly wish he didn’t think that way, but it seems to be that perhaps saying ‘hey, you guys aren’t going to do anything about it, so…’

But I would make the point that as that general consensus of what’s acceptable and what’s not slowly changes, I think we’re pretty much on the money of reacting to that, and stopping people doing things that perhaps ten years ago were acceptable, and today isn’t.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.