2013 Aragon MotoGP Sunday Round Up, Part 1: Pedrosa vs Marquez - Who Is To Blame?
The Aragon round of MotoGP left an awful lot to talk about in all three classes: Alex Rins' masterful victory in Moto3, forcing Maverick Viñales into an error; Nico Terol's emotional win in Moto2, dominating all weekend after illness; Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro's epic battle for the Moto2 championship, which Espargaro came out on top of, though only just; Jorge Lorenzo's astonishing speed at what should have been a Honda track; Marc Marquez' astounding victory, moving him closer to the 2013 MotoGP title in his rookie year; Valentino Rossi's wily race, holding off first Stefan Bradl and then Alvaro Bautista to get on the podium; and much, much more. But I won't be talking about any of that tonight.
I won't be talking about it, because what started out as a minor mistake turned into a massive incident, with a spectacular crash as a result, leading to an ongoing investigation by race direction and a lot of talk about dangerous riding. Do the facts justify the debate? In my opinion, no, but the issue needs addressing, and so address it we will.
First, the facts, insofar as we know them. Jorge Lorenzo led away from the line, and was quickly hunted down by Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa passed Marquez cleanly on lap 5, on the way up to the Sacacorchos, or turns 8 and 9. Marquez sat behind Pedrosa for a lap, harrying his teammate throughout. On lap 6, on the way into turn 12, Marquez made a small mistake, getting a little too close and braking a fraction too late. Seeing that he was going too deep, Marquez tried to stand the bike up and run it wide, in an attempt to avoid prejudicing Pedrosa's race. He did not quite manage to avoid contact with Pedrosa, just clipping the back wheel of his teammate, a contact which at first seemed to have no effect on Pedrosa. Marquez ran wide and off the track, Pedrosa continued for a few meters, before highsiding suddenly and unexpectedly.
What had happened, it emerged later, was that in the contact, Marquez had broken an electrical cable connecting the rear wheel speed sensor to the ECU. The cable was located just above the swingarm, and Marquez had ripped it either with his elbow or with his clutch lever. Marks on Pedrosa's swingarm suggested Marquez' clutch lever was to blame, while marks on Marquez' leathers were evidence that the rookie got a taste of Pedrosa's rear tire.
The electrical cable turned out to be a crucial part of the Honda's traction control system, according to team principal Livio Suppo. When Pedrosa then opened the throttle, the traction control had stopped working and the tire bit and flung Pedrosa off. Though the Spaniard was not seriously hurt in the incident, he suffered a couple of big bangs on his lower back, hips and groin. He was in pain, and could not walk properly.
Those are the facts, but they leave more questions open than they answer. The first question, and perhaps the biggest question, is whether Marquez is to blame for Pedrosa's crash. That is not as easy to answer as it at first appears, and both sides will make a passionate and reasonable argument either blaming or exonerating Marquez for the crash. What is clear is that Marquez made a mistake, and that he touched the rear of Pedrosa's bike, but from there, the waters soon turn very muddy indeed. So muddy, in fact, that Race Direction have taken the incident under investigation, and will not make a judgment until they have seen more data and a further technical report from HRC due at Sepang. It could be two weeks or more before Marquez knows what his fate will be.
Firstly, did Marquez' contact damage Pedrosa's bike such that it crashed? It would appear so. Certainly, when the bike was shown on TV - and here Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig plays a rather peculiar role, inviting the Spanish TV cameras in to Pedrosa's garage to get the damage on film - the cable was clearly broken. What was more surprising is that the cable broke and was not dislodged. At one end, the sensor is connected to a metal tab, which is held in place by a screw. At the other end, the cable ends in a connector, which sits in a plastic clip. The clip could have sprung open, the connector could have come loose, but the cable simply ripped.
The only mark on Pedrosa's bike is a small black stripe where what looks like the clutch lever contacted the swing arm. The contact between Marquez and Pedrosa was so minor that Pedrosa could hold his line through the corner, the rear of the bike moving almost imperceptibly. The problem came when Pedrosa opened the throttle, the bike spitting him off without warning. The Honda, it appears, uses only a single rear wheel speed sensor, and once that breaks, the safety mode the system goes into leaves the bike without traction control. Pedrosa's first touch of the throttle throws him off the bike and onto the ground.
This raises two related questions: the first is why such an important cable was so exposed. In this case, contact with another rider knocked the cable loose, but a crash or a trip through the gravel, or even being hit by a stone thrown up by another bike. Which, given the frequency with which the bikes travel through the gravel and come out unscathed, makes the breaking of the cable even more unusual. The second is why Honda's system - which is incredibly complex, and combines factors such as engine speed, gear, lean angle, track angle, suspension compression, throttle position, engine torque output and many others to calculate the correct amount of power to deliver to the rear wheel - uses only a single rear wheel speed sensor. The system used by Ducati uses two, one on each side of the wheel to insure against precisely such an occurrence.
Why, also, is the failure mode of the traction control system to switch off completely? With so many inputs, why remove TC, instead of ramping it up to a very high level, protecting riders from such an event? Is it a conscious decision to put control back in the hands of the riders, in the hope that they can continue the race, duly warned that the TC is not working correctly?
The answer to these questions is known only inside HRC, and is unlikely to ever emerge. When I asked Livio Suppo whether Honda will take another look at the design of the sensor and cable, he said merely, 'yes', and then walked away.
Then to the question of contact. Did the contact cause the crash? It is true that the contact caused the damage which caused the crash, but could Marc Marquez be reasonably expected to know that such relatively minor contact cause such a major incident? If one rider hits another with sufficient force to run them off the track or cause them to crash, then they may be assumed to have been aware of the consequences of their action. But does a relatively minor contact - large enough for Pedrosa to register it, but small enough for it not to knock him off his line - which dislodges a sensor in a vulnerable location constitute foreknowledge of the consequences of their action?
Should contact be allowed at all? The previous Race Director Paul Butler certainly believed so, as long as such contact was an unintentional consequence of a racing move. There is something to be said for that argument: If contact were to be punishable by exclusion, then the Moto2 and Moto3 grids would be permanently down to ten riders or less. The thrilling battle between Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro at Aragon would have seen both riders excluded, both men having pushed each other to the very limit, yet neither complained.
Does Marc Marquez have previous form for contact? Certainly. His 2011 crash with Ratthapark Wilairot was perhaps the low point of his career, and the fact that he was not banned for at least one race was a black mark against former Race Director Butler. Dani Rivas received a two-race ban for a less dangerous incident at Silverstone this year, a sign perhaps that new Race Director Mike Webb is taking such incidents more seriously.
Marquez has also come close to running into the back of riders in braking maneuvers throughout his career, though he has bettered himself since moving to MotoGP, something he says is a conscious effort to be more careful. And yet at Jerez - before the clash with Lorenzo - Marquez nearly ran into the back of Lorenzo a number of times, especially at the end of the back straight. Bradley Smith, who also raced against Marquez in Moto2, says of Marquez that he never keeps any margin of safety, always seeming to brake to his braking markers, regardless of whether there is another rider in his way or not.
This disregard for fellow riders is what has caused Marquez to receive such criticism. Jorge Lorenzo at Jerez, and now Dani Pedrosa at Aragon both roundly attacked Marquez' riding, saying he was too close to the limit too often. He is an accident waiting to happen, they both implied, referring to incidents in the past with previous riders. Throughout the discussion, there looms the specter of Marco Simoncelli, hanging over the discussion like Banquo's ghost, with no one daring to speak the name of the rider so often criticized as being dangerous, and who ended up dying in a racing incident at Sepang.
This, it seems, is why Race Direction is holding the incident between Marquez and Pedrosa under investigation. Jorge Lorenzo keeps insisting that the only thing that taught him to change his attitude was the race ban he received after Motegi in 2005. A race ban may help Marquez learn the same lesson, retaining his aggression by applying it more prudently. The trouble is, none of the incidents Marquez has been involved in since his move to MotoGP have deserved a race ban, being on the limit of acceptable rather than outright dangerous. By cleaning up his act, Marquez has made it more difficult for Race Direction to teach him the lesson which so many other riders would like him to learn.
Based on the evidence we have available to us at the moment, it would be an injustice of Marquez received a race ban for the incident at Aragon. It would not even be particularly just to hand him another penalty point, given that the incident lies half way between braking mistake and excessive aggression. What the further details being provided to Race Direction show in the future, we cannot know, but it seems hard to believe they would have much influence. At the moment, Race Direction is inclined to regard this as a racing incident, and I would be inclined to agree.
This does not mean that the incident was fair on Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa clearly had the pace to win at Aragon, and only a truly bizarre sequence of events saw him robbed of it. Did Marquez trigger that sequence of events? Certainly. Did Marquez cause Pedrosa to crash? That is a much, much more difficult question to answer, and one to which I would answer no. Pedrosa's crash was down to a minor error, a design mistake, and an unforeseen chain of events. It is yet another example of the inexplicably poor luck which has dogged Pedrosa throughout his career. And Pedrosa definitely does not deserve that bad luck.