Misano is still casting a long shadow over the Grand Prix paddock. Or at least parts of it. Most specifically, the aftermath of Romano Fenati's disqualification after touching Stefano Manzi's brake lever during the Moto2 race, and the decision by the Reale Avintia team to draft in Frenchman Christophe Ponsson to replace the injured Tito Rabat.
First, Fenati. The Italian had the suspension of his license confirmed by the Italian federation FMI on Friday, after a hearing held in Rome. Fenati is suspended from taking part in any sporting activities sanctioned by the FMI for at least two months, while the Italian federation conducts further investigations. They will decide on further action at the end of that period.
Even if Fenati's suspension had not been upheld, he would not have been eligible to race. Fenati is serving a two-race ban during Aragon and Thailand, and will not be eligible to race in Grand Prix again until Motegi. Fenati's future is still unclear, though he is due to appear at a hearing with the FIM in Switzerland today. He himself has said he has retired from racing altogether.
With Fenati suspended, the Marinelli Snipers team have drafted in Andorran rider Xavi Cardelus to take the Italian's place. Cardelus has already made seven appearances at European rounds this year as a wildcard, in anticipation of making the step up to a full-time ride in Moto2 in 2019. The intention is that Cardelus will replace Fenati for the rest of the season, after making his first appearance for the team at Aragon.
The incident with Fenati has caused the team to reevaluate its plans for 2019. For next season, the Marinelli Snipers team will leave the Moto2 class to concentrate on Moto3. The team will be keeping current rider Tony Arbolino, and adding the Kazakh rider Makar Yurchenko. Yurchenko started the season with the CIP Green Power team, but was dismissed by the team after a falling out between his management and the team. His best result was a twelfth place finish in Barcelona.
Replacing a replacement
The other piece of fallout from Misano is the replacement of substitute rider Christophe Ponsson in the Reale Avintia team, who was in turn the replacement for the injured Tito Rabat. Ponsson was met with a tidal wave of criticism when he was announced as Rabat's replacement for Misano, with everyone complaining that it was dangerous for a rider to have to learn the intricacies of riding a MotoGP machine – carbon brakes, Michelin tires, and getting on for 300 horsepower – during free practice, rather than at a test first.
"It’s so difficult to ride a MotoGP bike for the first time in a GP, understanding the tires, the electronics, many things. I found him this morning and sure he was very, very slow," Marc Márquez said after practice on Friday at Misano. "But it’s normal. I was very slow for the first time on a MotoGP bike." (That's not quite true: Márquez was seventh fastest, 1 second behind Dani Pedrosa, at the 2012 Valencia test, his first time on a MotoGP bike).
Márquez, like most of the riders, tried not to blame Ponsson directly. "It’s not his fault but for sure we need to understand for the future. When everybody has more or less the same speed then you can believe in the front guy that will do a normal line. But when there are five or six seconds of difference then it can be dangerous." It was, they said, the fault of the team for selecting Ponsson, rather than the fault of the rider himself.
This seems a little unfair. MotoGP has a simple norm for evaluating whether a rider is fast enough or not: if they can get within 107% of the fastest rider during free practice, then they get through to qualifying, and will be allowed to start the race. Ponsson was within 107% by FP2, and his best lap in the race on Sunday was 4.7 seconds a lap slower than Andrea Dovizioso's fastest race lap. When the leaders came up behind him to lap him, Ponsson moved out of the way carefully, making sure not to get in their way.
But Ponsson's behavior has gone unrewarded. At Aragon, Jordi Torres is to take the place of Rabat in the Reale Avintia team. Torres, like Ponsson, has no experience of a MotoGP bike, though the Spaniard did spend several seasons in Moto2, before moving to the WorldSBK class.
Ponsson was bitterly disappointed by this decision. The Frenchman posted a statement on his Facebook page, claiming that he had been told that he had been kept out of MotoGP because several riders had demanded it, Ponsson naming Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller as the main riders behind persuading the MotoGP grid to keep Ponsson out of the series. Ponsson claims he still has a contract with Avintia for four races, of which Misano was the first.
There seems to be merit to at least some of Ponsson's claims, though not to all of it. The process of obtaining permission to ride in MotoGP runs through IRTA, who represent the teams. IRTA evaluate whether each entry is qualified, and then propose the rider to Dorna and the FIM. If everyone agrees, then the rider is granted an entry.
There was resistance to Avintia's request to field Ponsson even before Misano. I understand that initially, the series had not wanted to accept his entry, but the team pleaded that it was impossible to find any else to ride the bike. It is believed that Loris Baz was willing to step forward as a replacement rider, but Baz had been dropped by the team at the end of 2017, after the Frenchman had made a number of posts on Social Media expressing profound disapproval of bullfighting. One of the team's main sponsors has a lot of connections to bullfighting, and so Baz was not acceptable to the sponsor.
After Misano, and despite Ponsson complying with both the 107% rule and his exemplary behavior in the race, the selection committee of Dorna, FIM, and IRTA refused Ponsson as a substitute rider. That forced Avintia to seek out another replacement rider, this time in the shape of Jordi Torres.
Been here before
The outcry over Ponsson is remarkable for a number of reasons. In 2016, Australian rider Mike Jones was drafted in at Motegi to replace Hector Barbera in the Avintia squad, who had been promoted into the factory Ducati team to replace the injured Andrea Iannone. Jones performed broadly similarly to Ponsson, yet there was no outcry over the Australian's entry. Jones went on to score a point at the following race in Phillip Island.
The whole situation highlights just how difficult it is to find suitable replacement riders. Almost anyone with the experience to ride a MotoGP bike is either already under contract in either of the Grand Prix paddocks, or else has a testing contract. Michele Pirro, Ducati's official tester, was already engaged at Misano as a wildcard, and as he is still hoping for a full time return to MotoGP at some point in the future, has no desire to be extremely uncompetitive on a two-year-old bike.
Other riders already under contract do not want to jeopardize their current contract status by risking injury or humiliation in MotoGP, on a bike they didn't know, riding without a test. Even Randy De Puniet, experienced former MotoGP rider, and signed up to replace the injured Mika Kallio as KTM's test rider, did not want to step in for the injured Pol Espargaro at Silverstone, as he had not yet had a test on the KTM RC16.
The problem, perhaps, is that teams are forced to find a replacement of an injured rider at very short notice. The value of doing so is open to question. Once, back in 2010, say, when there were just 17 riders on the grid, a rider absent through injury would be noticed. Now, with 24 riders on the grid and close and exciting racing, MotoGP can afford to lose a rider for a race or two without anyone noticing. That, rather than the 107% rule, or the creation of some kind of Superlicense, seems to be the simplest solution.
The question could well soon be moot, however. In an interview with the official MotoGP.com website, Rabat said he would really like to try to make his comeback in Thailand, in just over two weeks time. After an open fracture of the femur, which he broke in three places, plus fracturing both the tibia and fibula, that seems extremely optimistic, to say the least. But with his recovery going well, there is a chance he could at least attempt to ride in Motegi.
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