Same Crime, Stricter Penalties? The Dilemma Facing MotoGP Race Director Mike Webb

After Marc Márquez' 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.

One step stronger

The instructions mean that any penalties issued would be one step stronger than they might have been in previous instances, Webb told me. "Probably the perfect example is the Marquez penalty, the grid penalty, and also, sadly, Pol [Espargaro]," he explained. "It’s irresponsible riding."

But irresponsible riding is a catch-all term, meaning that defining what irresponsible riding actually entails is left up to the interpretation of the FIM Stewards. "Unfortunately, irresponsible riding is everything," Webb said. "In Marc's case, irresponsible riding and riding slowly on the line disturbing another rider, but that's different to irresponsible riding causing a crash."

So to interpret the punishment for Márquez' infraction, the FIM Stewards Panel had looked at what punishments had been imposed previously. "Going back for the last two years, what we always do is look at precedent. What have we done in the past? Going back to the last two years, the penalty in qualifying in MotoGP has always been a warning from the stewards if it’s a first offense. In one case it was penalty point, when we had such things."

That penalty point was given to Valentino Rossi back in 2015, when he got in the way of Jorge Lorenzo in the final moments of qualifying at Misano, riding slowly on the racing line.

Normally, however, the punishment would have been a formal caution. "The precedent is Marc would have been getting a warning," Webb said. "So as I explained to [Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro], as of Thursday of Argentina you’d be sitting here getting a warning from us. This is the new rules. The previous precedent is warning. That can no longer be because we've been instructed to make it higher. The next thing I can do is a grid position."

Hypothetical retrospective

How would the new penalty policy have been applied if it had been in place for the race in Argentina? I put that question to Mike Webb, and he couched his reply with the caveat that this was an entirely hypothetical situation, and each actual case would need to be judged on its merits at the time.

What would the penalty have been for Marc Márquez in Argentina? "Obviously, a step higher than what we did," Webb said. "For the change position penalty for running into Espargaro, you gained a place by doing something wrong, so you have to give that place back. That would now be probably… It’s subjective. We would have to discuss. I would say it would still be a change position penalty, but a higher one. Probably three or four or five positions, depending on where the race track position is. So you have to be significantly worse off than you were when you started that maneuver. Probably having to drop more positions." What about the incident with Valentino Rossi, for which Márquez was given a 30-second penalty, as it was too late to serve a ride through penalty? "The second one almost certainly would have been black flag."

Higher penalties are not completely automatic, however. When I asked whether Márquez would have been punished more harshly for his behavior on the grid, when he was given a ride through penalty for riding backwards on the grid, Webb found it more difficult to give an immediate answer. "It’s a valid question," Webb mused. "Everything is so subjective. I actually think the ride through for the grid indiscretion was high enough already. That was probably higher than we normally would have given. So that’s probably in line with what the current strategy is. But the other two you can imagine a much bigger track position loss in the first one, and disqualification in the second one. That’s probably where we would be at."

The 30-second penalty imposed on Márquez at the end of the race meant he was classified as eighteenth, and left scoring no points in the championship. If he had been disqualified instead, it would have had very much the same outcome. "The only difference is the written record," Webb explained. "You’re shown as disqualified as opposed to finishing last." But for a rider, that can make a big difference, on ex-racer told me after I spoke to Webb. "A DQ is a mark of shame. You really don't want it next to your name. It's much worse than just not scoring any points."

Measured justice

The new rules did make life a little more complicated for the FIM Stewards Panel, Mike Webb admitted, though not excessively so. "It makes it more complicated only in that it’s harder to justify the penalty we’re giving," Webb told me. "A very good example is Pol Espargaro. The same offense as Marc, he disturbed another rider on line, he even knew the other rider was coming and thought, I’m far enough out of the way, and by error, he was not far enough away. So he had the same effect, the same penalty, and yet he’s incensed that he’s got this penalty. He said, this should be a warning. But that was the old rules."

The most difficult thing from the riders' perspective is to understand that the new policy applies to everyone equally. "The hard thing is the transition," Webb said, "for the riders to understand this is what it’s like now. That’s really it. The review process of incidents on tracks stays the same because we review them all the time anyway. First you have to cross the threshold of there is a crime to answer. If you don’t cross the threshold, the penalty, I’m not really giving penalties for different things on track."

This is a crucial, and perhaps misunderstood aspect of the new policy. Once an incident is judged to be an infraction, a violation of existing rules, then a harsher penalty will be applied to the rider committing the crime. But the judgment of what constitutes actually breaking the rules remains the same. The standards by which incidents are judged have not changed, it is just the penalties which are to be imposed are harsher.

Same standards, different penalties

This was what had dismayed Jorge Lorenzo. When Jack Miller dived up the inside of the gap left open by Lorenzo in Turn 1, Lorenzo had expected Miller to be punished under the new regime. The incident was subject to intensive video review, from all of the camera angles which Race Direction have available to them, which are far more than the audience ever see on TV. "We reviewed it to death in Race Control, and all of our rider advisors, our event stewards, everyone went, that was really hard, but it’s a race incident," Webb explained. So that doesn’t make the threshold, therefore there’s no penalty to make stronger. The threshold of the penalty stays the same, but the strength of the penalty changes."

The pass by Miller on Lorenzo perfectly personifies the quandary Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel find themselves in, and the two different schools of thought on the MotoGP grid. Some riders believe any touch of another rider should be an automatic penalty, others believe that "rubbin' is racing" as the old adage has it, and that accidental contact is just a part of racing. Distinguishing between the two is very difficult, as it requires Race Direction to make a judgment call.

Even Jorge Lorenzo, one of the strongest proponents of racing without any contact whatsoever, said that distinguishing between a close pass and a dangerous maneuver was subjective. "It's interpretation," the Factory Ducati rider said. " It's like in soccer, it's interpretation." If it was a rider you supported, you were more likely to take a more lenient view of it, Lorenzo added.

Touching or no touching?

Aleix Espargaro, who had complained bitterly on Thursday about the actions of Danilo Petrucci throughout the Italian's career, tried to make a distinction between close racing and dangerous riding. "The contact has to be there," Espargaro said. "Actually I'm a rider who thinks the contact has to be there. If not it's very boring. Contact, close passes I agree. It's nice. Adrenaline for the people. But one thing is a contact pass and another thing is to hit a rider. Two completely separate things and I think it's not too difficult to see the difference."

Asked to explain the difference, the Gresini Aprilia rider pointed to his collision with Marc Márquez in Argentina. "For me, for example, Marc hit me. He was 25km/h faster. That is not touching." Espargaro contrasted that with close racing at Phillip Island or Assen. "If you touch somebody to overtake like we see many times in the last corner at Assen, this is racing. Phillip Island last year in the downhill. This is racing. It's fun. But it's completely different thing if you hit somebody than if you make a close pass. If you touch a bit the other rider as you pass but both riders finish the corner, this is a close pass. When you hit somebody and the other guy went out and you make the corner…"

Espargaro highlighted the difficulty Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel face. Espargaro had stayed upright when hit by both Marc Márquez and Danilo Petrucci, and neither rider had faced a harsh penalty for it. The Spaniard contrasted this decision to the penalty imposed on Márquez for forcing Valentino Rossi wide and onto the grass, where he fell. "I'm really angry about this actually because look like in this championship we only penalize when the other rider crashes. But I didn't crash because when I went out of the track I didn't go on the grass. For this. If I went in the grass, I crashed. Was it harder with Valentino because Valentino crashed? No, it was the same. So it doesn’t have to be connected to whether you crash or not. The action is the same."

That Canet be right

What is clear is that the new penalties will not fix the problems facing the FIM Stewards Panel. "I don’t know how they penalize, I don't know why they penalize sometimes or not," an exasperated Espargaro proclaimed. "Why was Aron Canet not penalized on Friday in Argentina? He was fully to crash this guy and zero penalty. So I don’t understand the job of these Stewards."

The case of Aron Canet, who clipped the bike of Makar Yurchenko during practice in Argentina, looks like exactly the kind of error of judgment which can undermine the faith in Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel. From the outside, it looked like an open and shut case. One can only surmise that Canet must have been able to talk his way out of a penalty when called into the Stewards' office to explain his actions. Not imposing a penalty certainly made the job of the Stewards a great deal more difficult in the events which occurred afterwards.

While there is merit in demanding stiffer penalties after the events of Argentina, the danger is that imposing them is in danger of being a kneejerk reaction to a particular situation. Norms in race shift along with the norms in society at large. There is a much greater intolerance toward fatalities than there was perhaps 20 years ago, for example. But in the frenzied times of social media reaction and wall-to-wall coverage of the sport, the pressure to make changes can be huge, whatever the wisdom of those changes.

Pendulum swings both ways

That intense pressure disguises the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the sport. Fans are drawn to motorcycle racing in part because of the thrill of danger inherent in the sport. Fans love to watch close racing, riders going at it hammer and tongs, which no quarter given nor any asked for. But they also hate seeing riders injured, or worse, or one rider knocking another off into the dirt. On the one hand, the fans demand insanely close battles. On the other, they call for the head of any rider who dares to imperil the others. Racing another rider at close quarters, aboard a 270hp 157kg bike, at speeds of up to 350km/h, without endangering either yourself or your rivals is nigh on impossible task.

This is the tightrope Race Direction and the FIM Stewards Panel must walk. To punish miscreants sufficiently that they will think twice about engaging in dangerous riding. But not to punish so frequently that the riders are intimidated into inaction, turning every race into a procession where riders are terrified to attempt a pass anywhere except on the main straight. MotoGP has to remain MotoGP, and not become neutered into something like F1 has become, where racers are too scared to pass. It is imperative that races be decided out on track, by who crosses the line first, rather than having the results determined afterwards, once the stewards and officials have been through all of the footage and given every on-track maneuver their blessing.

The pendulum is currently swinging towards harsher punishment. But the thing about pendulums is that they tend to keep swinging under their own momentum. Finding the right balance, between minimizing danger and giving the riders maximum freedom to race, is far more difficult than you might think.


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Total votes: 67
Total votes: 111

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Comments

But some riders seem to be getting rubbed up the wrong way!

 Anyway, crap jokes aside.  When David posted the full FIM rules after Argentina it struck me that the penalties were not specified. There needs to be a clear sentencing guide as a judge would have when sentencing a criminal. Then there can be a standardised response with debriefings from the stewards for the riders to understand why the sentence. This really isn't that hard. 

Total votes: 65

"The new rules did make life a little more complicated for the FIM Stewards Panel, Mike Webb admitted"

As they always do. Something happens and the kneejerk reaction is to make more rules. And then something else happens. Then what? More rules? Harsher penalties just because... why exactly?

Outcry culture is having too much effect on every aspect of life these days. Stop listening to stupid people shouting out of emotion rather than fact on Twitter, Facebook and indeed this website. That should be step 1. Step 2 is stop being so damn reactive to outcomes. Review the systems in place based on statistical analysis over a longer period of time and not just based on random outliers.

And Espargaro and Lorenzo are absolutely right, don't look at the outcome of a move but look at the move itself. If it's more advantageous for Lorenzo to take the risk to hold his line and have Miller crash into him than to do the safe thing and sit up, something is utterly wrong. The fact whether the other ride in a tangle crashes or not should not be a factor in the punishment whatsoever.

Please please please don't go down the same rabbit hole F1 did and are just about climbing out of.

Total votes: 73

Having been a big fan of Jorge I find some of this latest crap worrying.

If he wasn’t riding like a mobile chicane, he wouldn’t be getting overtaken.  And if one takes a late apex with a view to dropping down into the corner, is the other rider expected to hand you the corner?  Really, Jorge?  And do we toddle of for a game of whist and then some croquet, perhaps?

The standards were set years ago, when a sycophantic administration allowed a certain rider to do pretty much whatever he pleased to his rivals, with impunity.  And that has become the standard - except of course when the self-same rider, and other champions, are on the receiving end.

It’s racing.  Not whist or croquet.  If you put a firm move in and everybody stays upright, well and good.  If you tip over the dominoes because of the move, expect some investigation.  It ain’t that hard, Mike Webb.  Man-up, or find someone else who is prepared to.  That goes for you, too, Jorge.

Total votes: 90

Like it or not the outcome of an action always has a bearing on what penalty is applied. the intention behind the action also needs to be considered.

This is true across all forms of sport and in society in general. Its how the law works.

eg. for whatever reason person A decides he wants to punch person B in the head. 

outcome 1 - The punch misses. Person B doesnt see it and walks off none the wiser. nothing happens.

outcome 2 - The punch hits but doesnt cause much damage. A scuffle may ensue, or the police may be involved. Possibly a fine and maybe a conviction for assault.  

outcome 3 - The punch hits, Person B collapses, has a brain hemmoraghe and dies. The offender goes to jail for a long time.

 

Same action, different outcomes, different penalities. Now motorcycle racing isnt life and death (its much more important apparently) but the same principles apply

Total votes: 53

David I would be very interested to hear what Mike Webb had to say (if he was asked of course) about the Canet incident and why it didn't pass the "threshold".

 

P.S: after reading for looong years on a daily basis your excellnet site (which is the only one I follow) I found my way around creating an account :)

Total votes: 53

if disney isn't building "Marc Márquez' wild ride" as we speak, they're leaving money on the table.

Total votes: 64

With riders making the odd mistake.  Decisions are made in milliseconds while riding at the extreme limit. Expecting perfect judgement is just not reasonable, not to mention everyones judgement is is different with “acceptable” having as much definition as a 60’s TV.

But what I do have an issue with is recidivist offenders. We all make mistakes, many of us have miscalculated the beer vs time equation and have suffered the consequence of a DUI charge (or worse) and been penalised accordingly. Then there are the recidivist drink drivers who place their own needs before others and continue to re-offend again and again. Clearly the latter require penalties in a different range to the former.

Webb and co don’t seem to have any idea how to tackle the latter type of offending. Even now each incident seems to be discussed in isolation, with no weight given to the fact certain riders are involved again and again.

When I see Dovi expecting an all or nothing dive bomb from Marquez and altering his line accordingly, I get uncomfortable. Not because of the potential contact but because sooner or later Marquez will win the drag race to the line, because Dovi (or “insert name here”) knows Marquez has zero regard for their safety. Winning by sheer skill, bike setup, tyre/fuel management etc is one thing, winning by putting riders in fear of their safety makes me turn off the TV, I don’t want to watch that or the inevitable escalation. 

 

Total votes: 80

"all or nothing dive bombs" from certain riders (three prime offenders over the last quarter century) prior to Marc Márquez first racing in GP125, but only now is it becoming an issue?

Total votes: 57

e.g., "...That Canet be right...", are very clever. Have wanted to complement you on them. 

Total votes: 61

'I actually think the ride through for the grid indiscretion was high enough already...'  WTF?? He onestly thinks that they made no mistake at all. I was expecting something like:' That was our mistake. We should have aborted the start procedure and take him of the track...'  It looks like they have a 'we're never wrong' policy. Disappointing...

Excellent work David. Thanks

Total votes: 59

The rules are very subjective. Have a look at other sports. How do referees judge the difference between a fair and a harsh tackle in rugby, soccer (football) or NFL? I’ve played rugby at a high level and know the difference between a fair and a harsh tackle / contact. It’s in the intent or the degree of control the oher player exhibits in the execution of the tackle. 

Contact is a given, deliberate take out is not acceptable nor is lack of control resulting in someone being taken out. It’s time for yellow and red cards in racing. Make contact deliberately and you get a red card / black flag. Make a mistake and you get a yellow card. Do it twice and you’re off. I can’t think of a fairer system. The onus is on the individual riders to show control. 

It’s time for everyone to race on their own merits and stop hiding behind the drama. 

Jack Miller youre a legend ........ until you bugger it up by almost taking out Jorge :-) It comes across as a bit hypocritical

Total votes: 49

Miller probably thought Lorenzo had an issue as he was wobbling around so far off the racing line.

Total votes: 74

According to the results posted by Zara Daniela, on this excellent web site, Mr Lorenzo finshed 31.335 behind the winner, Mr Miller finished 28.67 behind. Mr Lorenzo resembles an unhappy and quite slow chicane at this point and his proximity to the apex is correlated to his credibility. 

Total votes: 103

I don't think that Mr. Webb has yet realised that he should retire.

Total votes: 69

Should be a simple start from the back of the grid penalty and if break rules barging thru riders during the race to come from the back, it should be black flag for being infraction on top of infraction.

Total votes: 67

The penalty points system was removed because Rossi got the ‘start at the back of the grid’ penalty and every one got upset (or at least that’s what looked like what happened).

Ironically, I wonder how many penalty points Marquez would have received from Argentina and if that would have actually given him a harsher penalty.

Total votes: 68

As i recently said, (irony #1) the penalty point system was introduced bcause of Marc Marquez’ erratic racing (including some serious crashes involving other riders) and he never suffered a bit of it. With the abolishment of that system Marquez seemed to continue where he left off before the introduction, only to escape punishment again (add to insult).

Rossi starting at the back of the grid was caused by two penalites; Sepang and Misano (irony #2) 2015, the latter not so much because of purposely riding on the racing line, as Marquez had no problems with admitting, but mistakingly doing so. Having that said, if it was not for the Misano penalty point I am convinced Rossi would have gotten 3 penalty points for the Sepang incident, having resulted in the same - starting at the back of the grid at Valencia.

Final irony (irony #3), in that Valencia race, not known for many overtaking points, Rossi rode the wheels off the Yamaha passing the entire grid (except for the top 3) without touching a single rider.

 

Total votes: 64

OK, OK you're a Rossi fan, we get it.

Total votes: 56

Mistake was made by RD re Canet. This sticks out. Not a good enough job of RD role.

Mistake was made. Again! By Marquez. Dangerous riding, multiple infractions in one race, even after getting a penalty to give up a position. Repeat offender. Not a good enough job of safe rider role.

Lesser mistake in my view relative to these, RD should have done either a black flag one race ban for Marquez.

I see this change as a correction of their error. Openly declared and future focused seems smart. Looks right to me now, good move. Not thinking we need to worry about more. No polite era return. No slippery slopes. Things returned to normal.

Shaddap Jorge. Carry on!

Total votes: 49

Marquez should have been black flagged after riding the opposite direction on the grid. If riding in the opposite direction is supposed to be a basic big time no-no, then it should be considered a black flag level offense.

Total votes: 56

I like Jorge, I think he can come off as abrassive and has a tendency to go into a defensive posture all too often, but I don't think he's a bad guy.

That being said, he has a way of changing his lines to something unrecognizable by other riders, and then complaining when they take advantage.

He left the door wide open for Miller,and you don't do that in a track full of racers without expecting to get overtaken.

I think it's time for him to move on to Suzuki if he can, no one will think of him as a lesser rider because of that, there is no future for him at Ducati.

Total votes: 60

While Marc Marquez is a stunning rider talent he has never given a toss about any other rider on the track, even going back to moto2 days. Race Direction have consistently chickened out of slapping him for his dangerous riding. It's a miracle he's not been seriously injured yet, with the number of crashes he has it's only a matter of time. It's not a sport for saints, nor pansies running round a field chasing some ball, but he doesn't care.

Total votes: 57

I think they should've kept it. One thing that hasn't been mentioned was a typical behaviour of riders or how repetitively offensive he/she is. For example, Marquez was overly aggressive the entire weekend in Argentina. It wasn't just the incident with Rossi. It was also with A. Espargaro, and Vinales during one of the practice sessions. Had Marquez accrued so many points and understood that, say, 1 more penalty point would've caused him a black flag, I think he would've been more conscientious of his maneuvers. The fact that Marquez said afterwards that this is his style, sort of implying that 'this is me, and I won't change it', clearly shows he lacks some respect for the race direction. I'd think he'll change his attitude if he was facing a race ban bc of so many points accrued. 

Total votes: 56

This is a propos of nothing but has bothered me for a long time.  With all the money Dorna is raking in why don't they clean the track before the first race and between each race?  They do it for NASCAR.

Total votes: 74

I think the penalties have been proportionate all along, from the Marquez grid mistake and hitting other riders in Argentina, through to the grid demotions in Austin. The organisers look indecisive - should have stuck to their guns instead of mucking about with the sanctions.

As far as Jack Miller goes, he had a good line and took it; Jorge left the door open and paid the price. If Jorge had the pace (unlikely on current form) and was behind someone else in that situation he would have done the same. However, Jack apologising was the right thing to do in the current atmosphere.

Total votes: 51

In reading the article and comments my view is:

  • when you try so hard for pole a 3 place penalty is a bit of a knock-back equivalent to slightly slowing another rider. The other rider will never acept missing pole....
  • there is a difference between being 'hit' (as opposed to 'touched'; touching is nice); being pushed off line/sat up is different to being run off the track; being pushed into crashing is worse than being run off.
  • if someone is as smart/brave as Miller was in Argentina he should benefit to the full effect. It is relatively easy to calculate the time lost from a pit lane start that has been abandoned for safety reasons. Everyone who should have started from pit lane should have the average time added to their finishing time. A grid gap should be a bonus. It may be safer to enforce the pit lane speed limit until the end of the pit lane under this condition - no-one is coming through, and racing down the pit road is fraught with danger at some circuits. I know you cannot do that everwhere under all conditions - especially marginal wet/dry, but as with everything it's possible to make exceptions under certain conditions, and that goes both ways for pit lane exit speeds/traffic.

I am totally against 'sterilising' bike racing and F1 shows what a boring event you can make of motorsport at the highest technology/skill levels. The sport has to be seen as being 'sensible' about safety if it going to attract and retain a global audience. You may love or hate him, or not sure, but one thing I think is difficult to deny about Rossi is the entertainment value he brings and his engaging personality in the media. My view (not necessarily popular, I know...) is that he has risked his neck at least as much as he has threatened others with his 'moves' and most of his controversial overtakes have occurred at lower-speed corners. People, racers included, are attracted to the sport by what they have seen - they cannot express surprise at some level of contact for all sorts of reasons. If you accept crashing as a consequence of your own over-confidence then being involved in someone else's error is also part of the sport's risks from time to time. The stewards job is to act on the transgressors who just make too many mistakes, or the odd big one. For the sake of themselves as well as their fellow competitors. The type of person that creates exciting racing is not going to be easy to manage in these terms of safety. I feel that MotoGP has it about right with their mix of 'rule maker/reader' types and ex-racers making judgement. Nothing is perfect and the sort of punishments now being talked about/enacted seem proportional when you consider the risks these gouys take every time they go out on track. The odd Rossi/Biaggi type grievance procedure is probably as effective now as it was as long as its kept off-camera. Everything in moderation is a healthy balance over time.

Total votes: 143