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.
After Marc Márquez’s wild ride in Argentina, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promised the riders present in the Safety Commission in Austin on Friday night that in the future, the FIM Stewards Panel would hand out harsher penalties for infringements of the rules.
That new policy saw action the very next day, with Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro being punished three grid places for riding slowly on the racing line and getting in the way of other riders.
Not everyone was happy, however. Towards the end of the race on Sunday, Jack Miller dived up the inside of Jorge Lorenzo, after the factory Ducati rider left the door wide open at Turn 1. Lorenzo, going for a very late apex, found Miller on his line, and was forced to stand the bike up.
“Things didn’t change so much, no?” the Spaniard grumbled after the race. “If I don’t pick up the bike, I crash. So if the rider doesn’t impact you or you don’t crash, they don’t do nothing.”
On Sunday night, I went to speak to Mike Webb to hear how he, as Race Director and chair of the FIM Stewards Panel, viewed the new instructions issued by the Grand Prix Permanent Bureau. He explained both what instructions had been given, and how he and the FIM Stewards had interpreted them.
At the core of every great sport is great storytelling. Mighty heroes take one another on, and overcome insurmountable obstacles in pursuit of glory.
The leather patches, helmet designs, and in in the current fashion conscious age, tattoos in motorcycle racing bear this out: everywhere you look are nothing to loses, against all odds’, and never give ups.
Motorcycle racing has so many truly great story lines that it doesn’t need any artificial plot twists or turns to hold the viewer’s interest.
Sometimes, though, it feels like the script writer for MotoGP gets a bit lazy. The hero whose efforts went unrewarded at one race goes on to win the next race. The villain of the piece one weekend immediately gets his comeuppance the following week.
The plot lines are so self-evident and obvious that it they become more cheap made-for-TV melodrama than a grand sweeping blockbuster the sport deserves. It’s all just a little bit too obvious.
So it was on Saturday in Austin. The story of the day had been telegraphed two weeks ago in Argentina: the reigning world champion Marc Márquez made a stupid mistake on the grid before the start of the race, then turned into a one-man crime spree trying to make up for the ground he had lost, culminating in a collision with his arch rival Valentino Rossi, reigniting the slumbering war which has existed between the two since the 2015 season.
Two weeks later, at the regular meeting of the Safety Commission, where the riders meet the series organizers to discuss how to improve the safety of the sport, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta promises that in future, the penalties handed down by the FIM Panel of Stewards would be more severe, to try to prevent a repeat of the reckless actions such as those committed by Marc Márquez at Termas De Rio Hondo.
Maverick Viñales got some vindication today from the FIM MotoGP Stewards, as the rules committee handed Marc Marquez a three-position grid penalty for Sunday’s Americas GP.
The ruling comes after Marquez slowed on the racing line, and effectively blocked a charging Viñales, who was on his way to a then pole-setting lap time.
As such, the move means that Viñales will takeover the pole-position starting spot from Marquez, with Iannone and Zarco completing the front row, in that order.
Doing the math, Marquez will then obviously start from the fourth position, four meters directly behind the man he obstructed.
There was good news and bad news for the MotoGP paddock after the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas.
The good news is that the work done to the track to try to remove the bumps had not made the track much more abrasive, as some had feared. Tires are wearing normally, so pit stops or worse will not be needed.
The bad news is that the work done to try to remove the bumps has not done anything to remove the bumps. It has moved them about a little, improved them in some places, made them worse in others, but the net effect has been zero, or worse than zero.
What’s worse, the process used has generated a huge amount of dust, bikes coming down the back straight billowing clouds of dust in their wake.
“It’s worse than Qatar,” Jack Miller said. “I said to the guys, ‘I hope you’ve got the air filter in from Qatar, because you’re going to need it’.”
At the first race of the season, the teams have to run a special air filter to prevent the desert dust from entering the engine and causing excessive wear. “The dust is far worse than Qatar, it’s that crappy concrete dust,” Miller explained.
On Friday, the Hondas were looking pretty strong at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina. Dani Pedrosa led FP1, with Cal Crutchlow just behind him. In FP2, Marc Márquez opened a big lead over Crutchlow, with the rest some distance behind.
On Saturday, Marc Márquez looked just about unbeatable, despite his slip up in qualifying. Six tenths quicker than Johann Zarco, and effortlessly quick in a wet FP3.
Over a second quicker than his teammate Pedrosa in FP4, an advantage that was almost embarrassing. The portents were clear on Saturday night: this was Marc Márquez’ race to lose.
And that is exactly what he did, before the lights had even gone out. A combination of ignorance of the rules and panic meant he blew his chance of winning the race as soon as he jumped off his bike to try to restart it on the grid.
From there, he piled error upon error to make the situation worse. By the end of Sunday, he had managed to throw away any chance of salvaging points from the Argentina round, and run up a 15-point deficit to Andrea Dovizioso.
He had also managed to create a public relations disaster, though to be fair, he had more than a little help doing that.
Responding to the backlash in the media from this weekend’s Argentina GP round, Dorna CEO and MotoGP boss Carmelo Ezpeleta issued a statement via the MotoGP.com website, where he backed the decisions made by the MotoGP Race Direction officials.
Notably though, Ezpeleta’s statement focuses mostly on the decisions made during the starting procedure of the MotoGP race at the Argentinean round, and not the on-track action, which also gained the scrutiny of Race Direction.
Interesting too, Ezpeleta pleads the case for Dorna, noting how the media right holder for MotoGP is not involved in picking the FIM Stewards (that is the job of the FIM and IRTA), thus trying to absolve the Spanish firm from any controversial decisions, and the appearance of bias.
The MotoGP penalty point system is no more. The system, introduced for the 2013 season, whereby Race Direction could punish rider infringements with penalty points, which would accumulate throughout the year and could result in a race ban, has been scrapped at the latest meeting of the Grand Prix Commission.
The penalty points system had been introduced in response (at least in part) to a number of incidents involving Marc Marquez through the 2012 season. There were complaints from the fans, but also from teams and other riders, that Race Direction was not being even-handed in applying existing penalties to riders.
It was sometimes hard for Race Direction to explain why one rider had been given a particular punishment, but another rider who had done something apparently similar had not.
In an attempt to make the situation simpler for all to understand, a penalty point system was introduced, similar to that used in several countries for driving licenses.
At the beginning of the year, much was made of the addition of rules governing rider behavior to the Sporting Regulations section of the FIM MotoGP rulebook.
That gave the newly instituted panel of FIM Stewards, who oversee all disciplinary measures, the power to punish riders and teams for a range of activities related to the promotion of the series.
The biggest worry was caused by section 220.127.116.11, which threatened punishment of riders who made public pronouncements considered harmful to the championship.
The first punishments under these new rules have been handed out, and those punishments make it clear that Dorna’s main target is to prevent riders from skipping their promotional obligations which the teams commit to as part of their contract to compete in the series.
At Sepang, the factory Suzuki, Honda and Ducati teams were all issued fines for their riders either missing or being late to autograph signing sessions.
Jerez is an important punctuation mark in almost every Grand Prix season. Whether it kicks off the year, as it did ten or more years ago, or whether it marks the return to Europe after the opening overseas rounds, the racing at Jerez is always memorable and remarkable.
Not always necessarily exciting, but always portentous, marking a turning point in the championship.
So it was this year. The MotoGP race saw a shift in momentum, and Valentino Rossi win in a way we haven’t seen since 2009. The Moto2 race solidified the positions of the three best riders in the class, and edged winner Sam Lowes towards a role as title favorite.
And in Moto3, Brad Binder broke his victory cherry with one of the most astounding performances I have ever seen in any class, let alone Moto3.
Put to the back of the grid for an infraction of the software homologation rules, Binder worked his way forward to the leading group by half distance, then left them for dead. It is a race they will be talking about for a long time.