Opinion: More Knee-Jerk Rule Changes Come to MotoGP in Response to the Sepang Clash

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Farewell, MotoGP penalty point system, we barely knew you. In a press release issued today (and rather bizarrely, leaked to a Spanish journalist two days ago) the FIM announced that the Grand Prix Commission had decided to modify the penalty point system.

From now on, the only penalty to be imposed will happen once a rider accrues a total of ten points, at which point they will be disqualified for one race. The penalties for four (starting from the back of the grid) and seven points (starting from pit lane) have been dropped.

At a stroke, the penalty point system has been emasculated.

In fact, it is worse than that. The penalty point system was introduced to try to clamp down on persistent offenders of relatively minor infractions, and especially of Moto3 riders waiting on the racing line for a tow.

The idea was that putting those who had not learned their lessons after the first couple of warnings would start to feel the consequences of their actions if they were subject to a rising scale of punishments.

Get Out of Jail Free Card

That system is now gone, but the penalty points remain. In effect, the punishment for persistent offenders has been as good as removed. Riders can look for a tow, pick up a point here and a point there, and get away scot-free.

Meanwhile, Race Direction and the newly appointed FIM MotoGP Panel of Stewards have not been given an alternative for punishing persistent offenders.

In the light of recent experience, it will be difficult for them to do anything other than hand out penalty points. Any other punishment will be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who will look at precedents in recent Grand Prix history, and change the punishment to the awarding of penalty points.

The riders playing caravan in Moto3 will carry on as before, knowing they are virtually immune from punishment. MotoGP’s disciplinary proceedings have had their fangs thoroughly and surgically removed, and been given nothing to replace them with. This is, quite literally, the worst of all possible worlds.

Too Big to Fail

And all because the two biggest names in motorcycle racing got into a spat at Sepang, and behaved like petulant brats before, during and afterward.

Or rather, because the series organizers did not have the gumption to stand up to their shining stars and chief moneymakers, and Race Direction failed to anticipate just how badly the situation would get out of hand.

We have been over this ground before, and so I shall restrict myself to a short recap of events, just to highlight where the series organizers failed. Valentino Rossi, mulling his fourth place at Phillip Island, decided to blame Marc Márquez for his misfortune, rather than the obvious target, Andrea Iannone, the man who had bumped him off the podium.

Rossi made a series of attacks on Marc Márquez in the press conference at Sepang, accusing him of conspiring against Rossi, and of helping Jorge Lorenzo to win the 2015 MotoGP title.

A bizarre claim, given that Márquez had beaten Lorenzo into second place when he could easily have allowed the Yamaha rider to win the race.

Inaction Man

At this point, Yamaha management did not step in to warn Rossi against this course of action. Race Direction did not call Rossi and Márquez in to discuss the dispute. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta did not call Rossi in to ask him what the hell he was thinking.

When Rossi and Márquez met on track during practice, and starting acting the fool, slowing down to what in cycling is known as a sprinter’s sur place, Race Direction did not call the pair in to try to defuse the situation, despite pleas from Yamaha management.

For their part, neither Honda nor Yamaha management took either man aside, and gave them a stiff talking to, and demanding they start acting like grown ups.

Then there was the actual clash on track during the race, and the three penalty points handed out to Valentino Rossi, forcing him to start from the back of the grid.

There were accusations from Marc Márquez’s entourage that Rossi had deliberately kicked his handlebar, and tried to make him crash. There were further accusations from Rossi that Márquez had let Lorenzo through and was deliberately trying to slow Rossi up to help Lorenzo in the championship.

For once, Race Direction did the right thing: they did not make a hasty decision, but waited until the end of the race, examined the footage of the incident and events leading up to it from as many angles as possible, called both riders in to explain themselves, and handed down a reasonable and fair punishment.

Out of the Frying Pan, And into the Fire

At Valencia, Dorna then did the worst thing possible, and canceled the pre-event press conference. Instead of facing an uncomfortable, thorough, and likely very long public grilling from the press, where we journalists would immediately be able to put each rider’s responses to the other, get their reaction, and force them to defend themselves in a neutral location, Rossi and Márquez were able to sit in their own territory and handle softball questions from a largely friendly press.

HRC – under pressure from Márquez’s entourage, and very much against their own better judgment, sources tell me – made promises they would release the data from Márquez’s bike, which, they claimed, would prove that there had been a kick at Sepang, then reneged on that promise under pressure from Dorna and the FIM.

Throughout the entire process, the FIM have managed only to make the situation worse, by trying to sweep the whole thing under the carpet.

At no point did anyone who were charged with actually running the show pull the protagonists – make no mistake, this was between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, and no one else, despite Jorge Lorenzo’s regrettable show of disapproval on the podium at Sepang – in to give them a stiff talking to and tell them to pull the socks up.

Nobody stood up to either Rossi or Márquez to tell them they were behaving like spoilt toddlers. Instead, Dorna called everyone into a rider briefing, at which they skirted round the issue, never addressing it directly.

Deus Ex Machina

The low point of the entire situation came after the Valencia race, when Carmelo Ezpeleta went into Valentino Rossi’s garage to commiserate with him, and Rossi told the Dorna CEO, and the man who is supposed to be running the whole show, to come to his motorhome, where they would talk about what happened.

When the boss of the MotoGP series is afraid to stand up to the main star of the series, and a corporation as mighty as Honda is afraid to stand up to the people who surround Marc Márquez, there is a serious failure of authority. The lunatics are running the asylum.

Since then, there have been a series of knee-jerk reactions to events, and a series of hastily made changes to the rules that look both unnecessary and ineffective.

The responses of Dorna, the FIM and the factories are reminiscent of Macbeth: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound of fury, signifying nothing.

Am I being excessively harsh on the responses of the series organizers? There is a maxim in legal history, that hard cases make bad law. Underlying this is the idea that basing rules and regulations for general application on very specific circumstances and exceptional protagonists is a bad idea.

Rules are better made to be as generic as possible, to cover general situations, no matter who is involved. Justice, after all, is supposed to be blind.

Alternative Histories

As a mental experiment, it is worth imagining that the events that unfolded between Rossi and Márquez had happened between two other riders, of lesser fame and (I hope they will be forgive me for saying this) of lower significance.

Going into Sepang, just two points separated Hector Barbera and Loris Baz in the Open class classification. Being top Open rider may not have meant very much to the average fan, but for those involved, it usually meant six figure bonuses from their teams.

For a rider who is either on a minimal income, or even paying to ride, such a bonus is a much bigger deal than the championship bonus for a top factory rider.

What would have happened if Loris Baz had called out Hector Barbera ahead of Sepang, and tried to run him off the track? Given how Race Direction handled the Rossi – Márquez clash, you would expect them to behave broadly similarly, putting Baz to the back of the grid.

Would the Valencia press conference then have been canceled? Would the president of the FIM have issued an open letter calling for fair play?

More importantly, would the penalty point system and the organization of Race Direction have been altered, and a panel of stewards introduced to handle infractions of rule 1.21.2, irresponsible riding?

What’s in a Name?

Of course they wouldn’t have. The penalty point system may have been examined in due course, but it was constantly being tweaked to try to make it more effective.

Discussions may have been held about the role played by Javier Alonso of Dorna in Race Direction, his involvement perhaps being reduced, or removed from disciplinary matters. But there would not have been a wholesale re-evaluation of the entire disciplinary system, and the accompanying soul searching.

If Baz and Barbera had clashed on track and off the way that Rossi and Márquez did, they would have been called straight in to Carmelo Ezpeleta’s office, where they would have been given a proper dressing down.

They would have been forced to shake hands, and if necessary, forced to sit together through a press conference in which they made amends.

All this is not to say that the entire #SepangClash incident has not been good for MotoGP. In fact, it has been fantastic, generating masses and masses of media coverage well beyond the reach of the specialist media. It has got Formula One drivers praising the vibrancy of MotoGP as a sport.

Dorna probably made a very large amount of money off the back of the incident, as interest from TV companies around the world has increased. Of course, this was not part of some giant Dorna plan: never did the old adage “do not assign to malice what can safely be attributed to incompetence” hold more true.

Beyond the Status Quo

Did the penalty point system need changing? Perhaps, but its wholesale evisceration has only made things worse. A much stricter application with harsher punishments could have made a bigger difference. Most of all, a lot more consistency was needed than has been shown so far, but such things take time.

Alternatively, it should have been abandoned altogether, and Race Direction granted more freedom in the penalties they were allowed to hand out.

If Race Direction had been able to hand out much harsher penalties when they felt it was warranted, they may have been able to stamp some of the more egregious abuses of the rules in the bud.

Motorcycle racers, like all elite athletes, are not like ordinary people. They respond better to direct, harsh punishment, than to just, fair and considered action.

That does require that Race Direction can treat every rider in the same way, and that in turn requires the support of the series organizers and the FIM. There can be no doubt about who is in charge of the MotoGP series.

As it is, the suspicion is that riders such as Marc Márquez, and especially Valentino Rossi, wield more power than they rightly should. When things start to get out of hand in the psychiatric ward, the staff should be putting the place on lockdown, not handing the keys over to the inmates.

Commercial Interests vs. Sporting Regulations

The perception that nobody is at the helm of MotoGP is reinforced by the formal addition of an existing contractual obligation into the rules.

Currently, when factories and teams sign up to compete in any of the three Grand Prix classes, they sign an agreement not to criticize the series beyond reason.

This contractual obligation is only loosely enforced, mostly by way of a few sharp words from Manel Arroyo, Carmelo Ezpeleta’s right-hand man.

Now, the same contractual obligations are to be included in the regulations. While this isn’t nearly as bad as having a “bringing the sport into disrepute” clause, it transfers the conditions of a commercial agreement into the sporting regulations, thereby handing over the enforcement of those conditions to an organization that is supposed to stand above the sport, and outside of commercial considerations.

Who, after all, is to judge whether a press release or statement is “irresponsible and hence damaging to the sport”?

The issue was highlighted with hilarious clarity by TV commentator and noted wit Duncan Bishop. “Quotes of ‘we will try our best, the important thing is to have fun on the bike etc’ are damaging. Because they are so BORING,’ Bishop wrote. “And what are the penalties for these statements? Just so I know if I’m going to get a 1 race ban and fine for a press release.

There is a place for managing the statements made by teams, factories and riders, and that place is right where it has been: in the participation agreements signed between the parties.

Putting such stipulations in the rules is the best possible way of reducing riders and teams to impossibly bland and empty statements, devoid of any interest or humanity.

This is a tendency that has been gaining ground in recent years, as sponsors and factories clamp down on what riders can say or do. Adding an extra layer of bureaucratic enforcement with penalties that could affect the racing out on track would be the final nail in the coffin.

The whole statement smacks of a compromise cooked up among the factories and Dorna to try to keep everyone happy. Yamaha and Dorna were not pleased by Honda’s press release claiming that Rossi had kicked at Marc Márquez’s brake lever and caused him to fall.

In turn, neither Dorna nor Honda were enamored with Valentino Rossi’s claim that the 2015 championship had been rigged, and that the Spaniards had conspired against him, precluding a fair and open championship.

Physician, Heal Thyself

The irony is that the change once again merely makes the situation worse, rather than better. It is yet another knee-jerk reaction to a situation caused by riders who are bigger than the sport.

Instead of attacking the root cause of the situation, and putting pressure on the riders to behave a little more like adults, they try to handle the whole thing in the rulebook.

Whatever Valentino Rossi or Marc Márquez may have done at the end of the 2015 season, their actions were nowhere near as bad as the knee-jerk responses coming from the men (for it is almost entirely a group of men) who are ostensibly supposed to be running the sport.

If the Grand Prix Commission want to enact a rule preventing people from issuing press releases and statements which may be considered damaging to the sport, they may want to start by fining themselves, for the wanton chaos they have created in the wake of the Sepang incident.

The official FIM press release containing the rule changes is shown below. For the purposes of both information and entertainment.