The Moto2 class has not had a lot of luck with their starts in 2016. First there was Qatar, where a mass jump start saw some riders called in for a ride through, some issued with a time penalty, and few people very happy about the way it was handled. That situation was all down to a problem with some of the high-speed starting grid cameras which check for false starts.
In Mugello there was more starting grid misery. This time, though, the problem was not with jump starts, but with restarts. An interrupted race and a quick start procedure ended up causing chaos, the first running of that procedure catching a lot of teams out, which in turn caused problems for Race Direction. As is their wont, unforeseen circumstances managed to catch everyone out, causing the first quick start procedure to be abandoned, and a regular restart instituted.
The reasons for red-flagging the race were sound. Xavi Vierge crashed at the entry of the Biondetti chicane, his bike piercing the air fence, and deflating it. Without an air fence in place, the track was simply too dangerous to continue.
Quick restart? What's that?
That is when the trouble started. Race Direction announced there would be a new restart using the quick restart procedure. Under a quick restart, teams can refuel and change tires if they wish, and make set up adjustments. Five minutes after the quick restart has been called, the pit lane opens for a period of 60 seconds. Riders head out for the sighting lap, and are met on the grid by one mechanic. They must keep their engines running, and tire warmers are not allowed.
This quick restart procedure is new for this year, though it has been in use for the past three season in the World Superbike championship. The new procedure caught several teams out, and eight riders did not manage to exit pit lane before the 60-second window allowed ended.
In itself, that is not a problem. The rules are clear: if a rider doesn't get out of pit lane in time for the sighting lap, and manage to take up their position on the grid, then they have to start the warm up lap from pit lane, and then start from the back of the grid. The logistics of lining eight riders up at the back of the grid may have been possible, though it would have strained the organizational abilities of the grid staff (bearing in mind that eight riders is basically one quarter of the Moto2 grid).
The problem was that six of the eight riders had not waited at the exit of pit lane, but had sped off on the warm up lap passing a red light. That left the IRTA and circuit staff on the grid to deal with a situation which was quickly growing more complex. All the while, the riders who had obeyed the rules were sitting on the grid, their engines overheating and their tires cooling. Danny Kent told us that during that first restart, his water temperature reached 127° Centigrade. With confusion among the organizers, and a mounting sense of panic among the riders, the restart was called off, and a second quick restart procedure called.
Spreading the blame
The blame for the chaos lay partly with the teams, and party with Race Direction, Mike Webb acknowledged. "The first problem is that it's the first time we've ever done [a quick restart]," the MotoGP Race Director told us. "And the second problem, unfortunately many, many other times the teams only glance at the rulebook, if at all, and don't really get the gist of it. Some of them got it wrong."
The quick restart procedure started off working fairly well, Webb said. "The quick restart procedure was working fine. We had the grids on time. The mechanics went to the grid as they were supposed to. Not always; we had to fight some of them off because they were trying to take trolleys and things. It generally worked okay. The teams that got it wrong, there were six riders that went out and crossed a red light at the end of of pit lane, but in total eight I think that didn’t make it out in the one minute."
That may have been the fault of the teams, but that generated a situation which Race Direction had not foreseen when the rules were being drawn up, and one which they were not prepared for. "From there, I have to be honest and admit that our system didn’t work as well as it should do," Webb acknowledged. "Dealing with that large number of riders, who are supposed to start at the back, it’s like, in what order do you start at back? We needed another grid. The grid was very delayed coming out, which was why we had to take everyone off the grid."
The mess Race Direction found themselves in due to mass disobedience meant that the riders who had obeyed the rules were being unfairly disadvantaged. "All those guys sitting there, saying, 'Hey, the engine’s overheating because we’ve got to keep it running, and the tires are getting cold. What’s going on?' So it's completely unfair to those guys to have them sitting there any longer. So that was it, start delayed. Let’s do the whole thing again."
Stopping the rot
The biggest mistake which Race Direction had was allowing the riders out of pit lane after the red light had come on. "We have to improve our procedures in the way we deal with first of all even allowing them to go out of pit lane. They should have been stopped."
That caused a cascade of problems once the riders reached the grid. "We’ve got grid staff telling a rider who’s on the grid, and a mechanic on the grid, 'no, you don’t belong there. You belong back there. Get back there,' with the engine running," Webb said. "We’ve discovered that if the rider is actually on track and has got to come back to the grid there is not enough time to rearrange the grid."
The solution is find a more sure way of preventing riders from leaving pit lane. "We have to be able to stop them exiting the pit lane if the light’s red. They exited, their fault, but also I have to say, we should have had a way in place to make sure it was actually impossible to get out there, because once they’re on the grid it takes far too long to put them in the right place. So we know that. We’ve learned the very hard way, not looking good, delaying the race, all of that. It won’t happen again. And the teams, we’ll be having meetings in the next race leading up to with very, very clear instructions, questions and answers, whatever they want, to make sure everyone knows exactly what’s supposed to happen."
But Webb emphasized that the problem was down to a few teams, not all of them. "I have to say, a big majority of the teams sent their guys out on time. They’re on the grid. One mechanic was waiting, as he should have been. Were ready for the start. The guys that got it wrong caused us to abandon that start. But I have to say, we have to learn some lessons too for sure."
Preventing a repeat
Should Race Direction have done more to ensure that the teams were more familiar with the rules? Webb insisted a lot had already been done, and that it was the responsibility of the teams. "It’s been in the rule book since the beginning of the season. The teams have been notified. The riders have had briefings for the teams. Everyone’s had plenty of time to understand what the rules are."
Should the quick restart procedure be abandoned? Webb insisted that it had worked perfectly well in the World Superbike championship for the past three years. The reason it failed was because the teams were unprepared, and created a situation Race Direction had not planned for. Race Direction's mistake was overestimating the team's knowledge of the rules. That ended up creating a huge problem for Race Direction, and one which threatened to penalize the riders and teams who had done everything right.
It should not be a surprise that the teams are not as familiar with the rules as you might expect. Or rather, it should be a surprise, but it isn't. Even some MotoGP teams were caught out when Valentino Rossi did nine practice starts from pit lane exit during a wet FP1. They had not realized that this was legal, despite it being expressly allowed in the MotoGP rules. The rulebook – especially the procedural rules – can be complicated in parts, because it has to cover many possible circumstances. It catches us journalists out on a regular basis, and we proceed to feed mistaken information to the public.
The good thing to come out of the mess up in Moto2 is that the same sequence of events will not happen again. Teams have learned the value of understanding the rules, and seen the severe consequences of getting them wrong. Alex Rins, championship leader at the start of the Moto2 race, found himself demoted to the back of the grid, after his team failed to get him out on time. Though he made a strong recovery in the sprint race, and his main rival Sam Lowes struggled with tires, he went from leading Lowes by 5 points to trailing him by 2 points. That could end up making the difference in the championship by the end of the season.
Of course, just because the teams have now been warned, and Race Direction have been made aware of a weak spot in the quick restart procedure, it doesn't mean that everything will run smoothly from now on. A repeat of the mess at Mugello is unlikely to happen, but it won't stop the teams, riders, Race Direction, and fickle fate from finding new ways of throwing a spanner in the works...
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