Q&A: MotoGP Race Director Mike Webb Interview, Part 2 — The Phillip Island Tire Debacle

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In part one of our interview with Mike Webb, the MotoGP Race Director talked about the penalty point system and how it had worked in 2013. In the second part, Webb talks about the tire debacle at Phillip Island.

Webb explains what the teams were told about the rules and the penalties they would incur, and he discusses the incident on the exit of pit lane between Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo. He explains how Race Direction felt the dry flag-to-flag race went, and whether the situation could be handled any differently.

He also explains why penalty points are only handed out at the front of the race, while the battle mid-pack can be much fiercer than anything happening for the lead. Finally, Mike Webb casts an eye on the future, and explains the next steps towards improving safety, and improving communication with the riders.

Q: Phillip Island. First of all, I’ve seen the sheet of paper that was passed out to all the teams …

Mike Webb: Several sheets of paper, unfortunately. It changed several times, we were forced to. There was Moto2 for a start, that changed several times, and the same situation in MotoGP, where we had a meeting with the tire supplier, and they told us, OK, this is how many laps the tire can safely do, our recommendation from the tire supplier is that how many laps the tire can do, now it’s up to you to make a decision on the race.

And that information changed, during Saturday and then after Sunday warm up, so we had three different instructions to the teams based on what the tire companies told us their tires were able to do. And the last one was of course after warm up on Sunday, which is a horrible time to change anything. I know I hated that whole thing, but it was forced on us.

Q: When did you receive the information? Were you already racing, was Moto3 already racing when you received the information from Bridgestone, or was it before the Moto3 race started?

MW: It was immediately before the Moto3 race. After MotoGP warm up, I’ve got something like 15 minutes before I have to be on the grid ready to start the Moto3 race, so it was in that interval. There wasn’t a race on, but I was putting my headphones on, ready to go to the grid. So there wasn’t exactly time to have a riders’ meeting or anything like that, it was ‘OK, this is how long the tire can last for: either we cancel the whole thing, or we find a way to have a race.’

Safety’s number one, obviously, but once we’d established that we can run X number of laps safely, we’ve got a promoter who’s paid good money to have a show, and to cancel that when you don’t have to… I’m really proud of the work that we did and that we got a race run, a relatively exciting race albeit in strange circumstances, where the other alternative to not have a race at all, so I’m really happy that we got that race done.

Q: It was made clear to the teams that anyone exceeding the number of laps would get black-flagged?

MW: In the notice that went to the teams, I didn’t specifically say ‘black flag’, I said there would be a penalty and it is forbidden to complete more than ten laps on any one tire. I didn’t specifically say what the penalty was. After the notice went out, some teams asked what would be the penalty, and they were told exclusion.

So verbally with the teams that asked, we told them. I didn’t write it in the piece of paper. Normally, we don’t prejudge, Race Direction over the whole year, we very very rarely point out ‘this behavior will result in exactly this penalty’, because we take it case by case. We inside Race Direction were very clear in our own minds that exclusion would be the penalty, and that’s what we told teams. But it wasn’t written on the piece of paper.

Q: The race itself, flag-to-flag races in the wet, speeds are lower, gaps tend to open up more. That was different in the dry, because Marquez exited exactly where he left the race, and if such a situation happens in the future, we’ll get the same sort of situation. Do you think it’s safe to have pit stops in dry conditions? Or was it the least worst of the options?

MW: In answer to your first question, if we had to run that same scenario again in the dry, as you say about the speeds and the lap times, we’d probably end up with people exiting at a similar time. But back to the last point, it was the least-worst option. For both us and the organizers, a ten lap race was simply not something we wanted to be involved in.

Two separate starts for a race to us was worse, because the start is when most accidents tend to occur, we’d rather not do that. So the flag-to-flag race for us was the best workable option. It was something we hadn’t done in the dry before, and so it did become apparent that the big gaps didn’t open up, and people did exit at more or less the same time.

I think it’s manageable. After the Phillip Island experience, we’re looking to move to a marked pit exit onto the racing line, marked like Formula One does, with a line you have to stay inside of before you join the race track, as a safer way in general. So we’re learning those things as we go. And overall, I’m pretty happy with the way the Phillip Island worked.

The contact between Marquez and Lorenzo, Marc did exactly what he was supposed to do, he looked behind, he knew where he was, he didn’t exceed the speed limit, and he stayed inside the line. On that lap and ONLY that lap of the entire race, Jorge was significantly wider in Turn 1 than he was on any other lap.

So it was like any other racing incident, two riders ending up on the same piece of tarmac, not intentionally trying to run into the other.

Q: Who has priority in that case? Trying to think through it logically, once Marquez passes the white line, he is racing.

MW: Exactly.

Q: And even though he’s slower, he is technically leading the race.

MW: That’s the technical viewpoint, it’s up to the rider behind to be aware of that, and obviously they can see him. I have to say, I have a lot of sympathy for the rider behind, because Turn 1 at Phillip Island is enormously fast, and once you’re committed to a line, that’s it, you’re not changing it.

So it’s a horrible situation, but technically, from a rule point of view, none of us in Race Direction could pin blame on any one rider having done something severely wrong to impede the other.

Marc did what he was supposed to do, Jorge was following his line, which happened to be wider than the one he had been following previously, but we believe neither rider was actually trying to impede the other. So it was just a racing incident.

Immediately after the race in Jorge’s interviews, he said ‘I was off line and he was there, and it was fifty-fifty,’ it was just one of those things. He did change his opinion later on, but his immediate reaction was that.

Q: When we asked Cal Crutchlow about the point system, he said the way that the Moto3 riders go to the grid, you’ve got riders going very slow and some going very fast. He said every Moto3 rider on the grid should get a point for that.

Which raises the more general point, the points which are being awarded are very often awarded to incidents which were highly visible, they’ve been incidents which have been on TV.

Whenever I’ve spoken to Moto2 riders about the passing that goes on for fifteenth place, it can be pretty vicious. Why do you give points for stuff that happens at the front, and why do you not give points for stuff that is going on mid-pack?

MW: It’s not intentional, but it’s a limit of the technology. The technology we have available, we have cameras all round the circuit, but they’re nowhere near as good a quality as the live feed. So the live feed is our primary source of information, and that typically is at the front of the pack. So that’s why more points awarded there because it’s what we see first.

The incidents that occur further down the field rely on a little more antiquated methods, as in marshal reports from the side of the track, and then finding that incident on the CCTV. And with CCTV we have limited camera angles, we have more than one angle, but nowhere near as many in the live feed. So in a live feed incident, I can request any number of shots, and determine quite clearly if anybody was at fault and who it was.

The ones that happen further down the pack, I have to say, they suffer a little from the technology available to view every incident. And I have to be honest, we do not always see every incident. Although we’ve got pretty good back up to go back and look at things, it relies in the first instance on a report, either from a marshal or even from a rider after the race.

I’ve often gone back and penalized someone for an incident that has been brought to my attention that we didn’t get a marshal report on so we weren’t looking. That’s always possible, but the honest truth is we don’t always see everything.

Q: Plans for the future. Is there anything that you really think that needs to change for next year? So for example the points system, you said you needed to find a way to manage them over a season?

MW: That’s fine tuning. Those are small things. Some of the bigger things to me would make things run a bit better are technology and investment. Thinks like having light signals for yellow flags, backing up yellow flag signals, so it’s harder for the rider to say they didn’t see it.

And we’ve already made a step in that direction with flag signals being displayed on the bike dashboard for next year, so red flags and black flags, and information like that are going to be displayed directly to the rider, in all three classes. That’s coming in and I’m really happy we’ve got that underway.

But it’s a first year for that, so step by step, we’re doing the basic signals that I absolutely want, like a red flag or a black flag. Things like yellow flags and rain flags are much harder to manage, because that information is from the marshal on the ground who feels a rain drop or who sees a crash. If he has to wait for Race Direction to tell him to put his flag out, we’re way too late.

So the things that are managed only from Race Control, which are red flags, black flags, we can display immediately on the dashboard. The things that rely on a decision on the ground, it’s much harder to get that information directly to the bike. So we’re working on things like that, things like yellow lights around the track like Formula One.

Q: So basically, just much better communication with the riders?

MW: Yes. That would help a lot. We’re always working on track safety, as in removing objects that could be dangerous, improving the way bikes behave when they crash, or riders. Trying to remove the risks of the circuit is ongoing and it’s always ongoing, and I’m happy we’re doing that.

We’re trying to do more steps in the way of rider equipment like the airbags and things like that. And the rider communication that I just mentioned is another facet of that.

Q: Radios?

MW: We’re very dubious about the value of radios. Mostly because of small experiments we did quite some years ago, where the unanimous opinion of the riders was ‘don’t bother us with that, we’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, go away.’

I believe technology has moved on where we could do that again. There are some things that are higher priority, like the flag signal communications that we’re working on. Radios is one of the ones that it’s in the to-be-done tray.

Q: If radios were allowed, would you also allow communication with the crew, or would it just be solely for Race Direction to communicate?

MW: I haven’t really thought all the way through all of the implications of that. We haven’t had that discussion yet. We’re working on other stuff, so radios is something we’ve tried in the past, abandoned it, and before we move back into it again, we need to discuss right the way through.

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.