Thursday Summary at Sepang: Of Penalty Points, Modern-Day Gladiators, Racing as Entertainment, & Ducati

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Just a few hours before the bikes hit the track, all the talk should be about the prospects for the riders in the coming weekend. At Sepang, though, it was all different.

Nobody was talking about who might end where, whether the Sepang is a Honda or a Yamaha track, whether Ducati will benefit from Sepang’s long straights or suffer around the fast corners, about whether Scott Redding or Pol Espargaro will have the upper hand in Moto2. It was not the prospect of on-track action, but off-track drama which captured the attention.

For Thursday was D-Day (or more accurately, perhaps, RD day) for Marc Marquez at Sepang.

The championship leader faced a further hearing in front of Race Direction over the incident at Aragon, where he clipped the back wheel of Dani Pedrosa, severed a rear wheel sensor, which caused Pedrosa to highside as soon as he touched the gas.

Marquez was given one penalty point for the incident, and Honda stripped of Marquez’ result for the constructors’ championship (see full details here).

The net result? In short, next to nothing, except perhaps to add a small carbon fiber protector that should have been there in the first place. One more penalty point brings Marquez’s total to three, one short of him having to start from the back of the grid.

Honda lost 25 points for Marquez’s result, but still received 13, for Alvaro Bautista’s fourth spot at Aragon, maintaining a healthy 14-point lead in that (relatively unimportant) championship.

But that was not the point. The point, Race Director Mike Webb explained to the press afterwards, was to send out a message, to Marc Marquez, to other riders, and to the manufacturers.

We shall get to the riders in a moment, but the message to the manufacturers is interesting. The legal basis for the penalty against Honda is pretty thin, the penalty being based on section of the FIM rulebook (see below). If ever there was a catch-all regulation, this is it, it basically says that Race Direction can impose any penalty for anything they deem to be ‘prejudicial to the sport’.

The message Race Direction are sending is that if the manufacturers insist on building motorcycles that are so totally reliant on electronics, they had better make damn sure that if there is a problem with those electronics, nobody gets hurt.

There have been electronics issues before. Nicky Hayden’s Estoril race in 2011 was the prime example, Hayden stuck with a turn-by-turn electronics system that was half a lap out of sync with reality, giving him gentle power along Estoril’s long front straight, then full power around the tight and twisty sections, especially the first corner chicane.

Dani Pedrosa has been thrown from his bike when he tried a practice start without launch control, and both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies suffered massive highsides when the electronics hadn’t switched modes and engaged traction control. All of those, however, can mostly be attributed to human error of one form or another.

Pedrosa’s highside was down purely to HRC’s failure to protect their sensor cable, and having a default fallback mode of full power. Doubtless there was a warning light on the dash, but warning lights are hard to see when you’re hanging off the bike in the middle of the corner.

And so to the heart of the matter. Marc Marquez’s single penalty point generated an awful lot of heat, but alarmingly little light. Mike Webb told the media that their intention was clear: to send a message to Marc Marquez, that he had to respect the riders he shares a track with, especially the riders immediately in front of him.

But also to send a message to younger riders who were watching, making an example of Marquez to strike fear into the hearts of younger riders, and make them aware that lines had been drawn in the sand, and that if you crossed them, you would be punished, no matter how famous you are. Though that sentiment is understandable, it might be communicated more effectively if it was backed up by action against those younger riders.

For even the worst rider in MotoGP is a paragon of virtue compared to some of the moves which happen in Moto2 and Moto3. Especially in the trenches: mid-pack of any Moto2 race is a bloodbath, riders doing everything and anything to gain a place, especially if it puts them in the points, which can be the difference between a contract next season and none. If Race Direction wants riders in the support classes to learn quickly that some behavior is simply not acceptable, they would do well to start punishing it.

Jorge Lorenzo also believed the single penalty point sent a message, but an entirely wrong message in his eyes. Or at least, that is probably how we should interpret his rather bizarre outburst. Tired of the arguments, Lorenzo turned to irony to make his point, saying that he had changed his mind, that Marquez should be given an extra championship point for making the show more attractive.

“This kind of riding improves the spectacle,” Lorenzo told Spanish media, “it doesn’t matter if we get injured, the important thing is the audience, that people enjoy it, and the action at Jerez was very entertaining, watching the marshals run for the lives at Silverstone was very entertaining. The overtake outside the track at Laguna Seca as well, watching Dani flying through the air at Aragon was incredibly entertaining, I think we should give people incentives for this kind of action, so that young riders will take it as an example. Making a more entertaining sport that way is a very good idea.”

Irony? Anyone watching Lorenzo’s face knew it was surely ironic, but thrice did he deny it. Are you being serious? “I’m being serious,” Lorenzo said. Totally ironic? “It’s my opinion, I’m not being ironic,” Lorenzo said again. You are not being ironic? “Why do you keep going on about being ironic? I gave my opinion, and you should respect it.'”

It must have been hard to suppress the urge to listen for a cock crowing.

Later, he made it clear that he it was not his desire to see riders crashing, but it was what the spectators appeared to want. Asked if he had enjoyed watching Pedrosa fly through the air, Lorenzo was clear. “It’s what people want to see. This is what they show on the replays. The arguments after incidents like these are what make audiences grow in the other races.” But it was not for him.

“I wouldn’t enjoy flying through the air. I hated seeing Dani flying, and if I’d had problems with my legs and couldn’t walk, I’d feel bad, but it’s what the people pay for, and what they ask for, like in the Roman circus, where crowds watched gladiators kill people. Obviously people don’t want to see anyone die, because times have changed, but when there are crashes, when riders collide, more people buy the product. There is no concern for the health of the riders in those moments,” Lorenzo said.

It was, to all intents and purposes, a stinging attack, but on whom? On Race Direction? Perhaps. Above all, it was an attack on the audience, on what people pay to watch. Lorenzo is of course correct, crash reels are a big hit with TV audiences, as witnessed by the many TV shows specializing in the subject.

Times have of course changed, as Lorenzo says: after each crash it is made very clear that the participants involved came away with relatively minor injuries. It would, after all, be bad form for a truly spectacular crash to be shown which had resulted in death.

Seeing the disclaimers under those crash reels, however, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, a little too much like seeing a disclaimer under an adult movie advising that nobody was impregnated during the making of the picture. The audience for both products don’t really care about the outcome, they care only for the thrill of the moment.

Is Lorenzo right? It is true that Dorna is trying to increase the spectacle, because that is what the crowds demand. While rider safety is a paramount consideration, there is one thing which Lorenzo overlooks, however: MotoGP, like all forms of professional sport, is first and foremost entertainment.

It is an agreeable way to pass an hour on a Sunday afternoon. While the purity of the sporting challenge must be protected – this is, after all, unscripted entertainment, and so the outcome must remain open for as long as possible – without a paying audience, there is no MotoGP, there is no NFL, there is no Premier League, La Liga, Champions League, and World Cup.

It costs millions of dollars to organize and run a Grand Prix race weekend, and somebody has to pay. Currently, it is the circuit organizers and TV channels who are paying, which in the end, means ordinary viewers. And ordinary viewers want entertainment. No entertainment, no audience, no sport. It’s a simple equation.

In one thing, Lorenzo is right: the health of the sport means protecting the health of the riders. If there are no actors in what sports promoter and marketing genius Barry Hearn described as “a soap opera for men” then there is also no show.

If the names keep changing as riders die or are crippled out of competition, then audiences have no fixed stars in their firmament by which to navigate. Audiences may want to see a fight, but they need to be shown a clean fight, with as few injuries as possible, bearing in mind this is a motorized sport. We don’t need any more Shoya Tomizawas, Peter Lenzes, Marco Simoncellis.

The elephant in the room is the fact that the four-strokes have made the situation infinitely worse. Some fifteen years ago, the precursors of the MotoGP bikes, the 500cc two-strokes, produced 190hp and weighed 130kg (already up from the previous minimum of 115kg).

Now, the 1000cc MotoGP machines weigh 30kg more, produce at least 60 more hp and can travel 20kph faster. The energies involved are much larger, as mass and speed increases, making the bikes more difficult to change direction, traveling further when crashed, and creating a much bigger impact when they hit other bikes, or even worse, other riders.

Marc Marquez pronounced himself unimpressed with the penalty. He would continue to ride as he always had, he said, though he would also continue to attempt to avoid any contact, as had always been his intention. Marquez’s problem is his style, carrying more corner speed, which means he runs into the back of riders who brake harder and make it harder to judge. However, for the first time, Marquez’s body language betrayed him.

He had a more serious look on his face than he has when his behavior has been questioned previously, clearly feeling the pressure. Whether this will affect how he rides or not remains to be seen, but for the first time, he did not look like a young kid larking about at a race track. He looked like a man surprised by the tumult he had stirred up.

While Marquez’s case held the attention in Sepang, the situation in Ducati spread across two continents and three countries. The rumors that Gigi Dall’Igna had been contacted by Ducati had been circulating for some time, but shortly before noon, the bomb burst.

A press release stating that Dall’Igna would be leaving Aprilia appeared on the Piaggio corporate website, was pulled again, then reappeared after noon. At noon, Ducati Corse sent out a press release announcing Dall’Igna’s appointment as head of Ducati Corse, reporting solely to Claudio Domenicali, Ducati CEO. At the same time, current Ducati Corse boss Bernhard Gobmeier was shuffled off to Volkswagen, there to lead the German car maker’s motorsports division.

It is just part of a titanic upheaval inside of Ducati Corse that will take several months to work out. Dall’Igna’s appointment gives him carte blanche to clean out the race department, something which was badly needed. There has been too little communication, and too little listening to the needs of riders over the past years.

It led Casey Stoner to eventually leave Ducati, meant Valentino Rossi spent two barren years at the factory, and has been a cause of massive frustration for Andrea Dovizioso this year. Changes will come in the team – Davide Tardozzi is constantly being linked with a role alongside Paolo Ciabatti in the MotoGP team – but more especially, changes will come in Borgo Panigale. Working processes, engineering dogma, everything will change. The old guard will make way for new recruits.

It is badly needed. Ducati only hung on to Philip Morris as a sponsor by the skin of their teeth this year, after suffering through three dismal seasons without success. Philip Morris want to see progress, and Dall’Igna should be able to achieve that. He was key in the development of the WSBK championship winning RSV4 bike at Aprilia, and knows what it takes to win.

He has a proven track record, is Italian (making communication much, much easier) and understands both racing and running a race department. Cal Crutchlow’s surprise decision to move to Ducati is looking more and more like a clever investment, and less like a wild gamble.

It also leaves the future at Aprilia up in the air. The Piaggio press release mentioned both a difference in strategic vision between Dall’Igna and Aprilia, as well as a lack of success in World Superbikes this season. Aprilia seem keen to use their racing division as a way of making money, selling the ART to MotoGP teams and the RSV4 to WSBK teams.

But with teams dropping the ART – Cardion AB has switched to Honda, and Aspar will either also switch to Honda, or take up the option of a customer bike from Ducati, along similar lines to the bikes Yamaha is supplying to NGM Forward – that strategy was changing, and Aprilia was showing no interest in expanding their MotoGP activities.

The switch to EVO rules will also not help the Italian factory, the RSV4 not being competitive in stock trim. Where that leaves Aprilia’s race program remains to be seen.

There will of course be racing on Sunday, and we cannot leave without a mention of that. It appears that it could be a very wet weekend, with rain expected on all three afternoons.

The first fully wet weekend of the season could throw up a few surprises, though the Malaysian weather is likely to throw up a few surprises of its own. If it rains, all bets are off, and that could be very good for the championship as well.

MotoGP regulations: Authority and Competence

The Race Direction has the authority to penalise automatically riders, teams’ personnel, officials, promoters/organisers and all the persons involved in any capacity whatsoever in an event or in the Championship for :

  • Infringements of the Regulations.
  • any voluntary or involuntary action or deed accomplished by a person or a group of persons during a meeting, contrary to the current Regulations or instructions given by an official of the meeting.
  • any corrupt or fraudulent act, or any action prejudicial to the interests of the meetings or of the sport, carried out by a person or a group of persons occurring during an event.
  • having been unable to ensure the smooth and efficient running of the event or for serious breaches of the Regulations.

The Race Direction is competent to adjudicate upon a protest relating to infringements of the Regulations.

Source: MCN & Motociclismo; Photo: Repsol Media

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