The problem of waiting on the racing line for a tow in Moto3 is an intractable one. Race Direction have tried just about everything to stop them. First, they tried issuing warnings. Then they started handing out penalty points. When that made no difference, they brought everyone in for a stiff talk.
That had little impact, so they brought them in for another talk, and a new kind of penalty. Anyone guilty of going slowly (110% of their fastest sector time) through three consecutive sectors would be punished by dropping three places on the grid. The aim was to take away the benefit they gained from looking for a tow. In some cases, Race Direction also forced the Moto3 riders in question to sit out the first ten minutes of warm up on Sunday morning.
It didn't help. At Sepang, there were once again gaggles of Moto3 riders waiting on the racing line, looking for a two along the Malaysian circuit's two massive straights. At Valencia, it will be much the same, given the amount of time which can be gained down the front straight at the track.
Fans and pundits are left frustrated by the lack of effect the punishments imposed have had. So instead, they come up with their own ideas at solving the issue. Putting riders to the back of the grid. Banning them completely for one race. Splitting qualifying into two groups. Even, dumping the current qualifying format and using the old World Superbike one-rider-at-a-time Superpole system.
All of those suggestions are fatally flawed in one aspect or another. If you punish riders for towing by putting them to the back of the grid, you have to figure out a way to handle multiple transgressors. If one rider hangs around for a tow, then the punishment makes sense. If five riders wait for a tow, you have to figure out a way of determining which order those five will line up in. If you order that by qualifying times, then you reward those who are successful at getting a tow, and merely encourage them.
If you do it by the order in which they committed the offense, then you encourage riders to game the system. If the first rider to be punished for getting a two goes to the back of the grid, and the second rider to be punished goes behind him, then it pays to be the first rider to break the rules and look for a tow. And of course, how do you handle it at circuits like Sepang, where twenty or more riders are looking for a tow? Riders may actually stand to gain even more from the punishment than they did from the tow.
Splitting qualifying into separate groups means you merely formalize what happens now, where there are a couple of large groups going for a tow. Sending riders out one at a time is fine if you have 20-odd riders and plenty of time, but if you have a grid of 32 Moto3 riders all on 2'15 laps, sending them out one at a time could take well over an hour. Handing out race bans is exceptionally harsh, and would be likely to be overturned on appeal as excessive.
Reverse your perspective
But perhaps Race Direction, fans and pundits are all looking at this from the wrong direction. Perhaps, instead of punishing bad behavior, they should be rewarding good behavior. Instead of fining riders for looking for a tow, how about trying to pay them not to hang around on the racing line looking for a tow?
The system would be simple. Every rider in Moto3 would be given a relatively small sum – perhaps €50 or €100 – paid for out of Dorna's funds after each weekend they were not found to have held anyone up waiting for a tow. Should they at any point be seen loitering on the racing line, or riding too slowly, according to the current criteria (110% of their best time in a sector), then they will forfeit that payment, and go home empty handed.
Would a relatively small sum make such a difference to a professional motorcycle racer? In MotoGP, the sums involved would not make an impression on many riders' salaries, but it is a very different situation in Moto3. Most riders in Moto3 are paying to ride, usually through bringing in personal sponsors. That sponsorship also pays their salaries, or at least their costs for travel and accommodation.
Moto3 riders are barely scratching a living, and so money could be a prime incentive. Taking home €100 a weekend for not looking for a tow won't make anyone rich, but it might be the difference between just scraping through financially, and ending up in debt. It would pay for a night or two in a hotel, a flight with a budget airline to the race. Though it would be a small sum, it might be enough to convert the worse offenders.
A fair price to pay
Though the scheme would cost money, it won't make that much of a dent in Dorna's finances. If a full grid of 32 Moto3 riders behaved perfectly for all 18 races, and each earned €100 every race, it would still only cost Dorna €57,600 that year. Doubling the premium to €200 a race would double the total cost to €115,200. Given that there will still be some offenders, the total cost is likely to be somewhat lower over the course of a season.
Of course, giving riders a financial incentive would not prevent them from looking for a tow – a widely accepted tactic in Moto3 – but it might persuade them to take a different approach. Instead of loitering on the racing line, doing 70 km/h where the fast guys are doing 190 km/h, they may try to ride a little more tactically, trying to find the right time to exit the pits. They might make more use of some of the short cuts many circuits offer to get from the rear of the circuit back to the pits. They may still wait for other riders, but instead of riding very slowly, they ride at closer to normal pace. Or they may wait much further off the racing line, instead of right in the way.
That, in itself, would be an achievement. The reason waiting for a tow on the racing line is so dangerous is because of the speed differential, with slow riders getting in the way of much faster riders and causing them to take drastic evasive action. By persuading riders to either stay completely off the racing line, or if they are going to use the racing line, to ensure they have enough speed, that would drastically reduce the number of dangerous situations during practice and qualifying. Paying riders who behave well may force riders to make subtle but important changes in their behavior.
The idea may well seem insane at first glance, but there is some solid behavioral research behind it. The most interesting parallel is in tackling traffic congestion: several pilot projects in the Netherlands have turned up very positive results, when drivers were paid small amounts (a few euros per trip) not to use specific roads during peak periods. In one project around the Dutch city of Eindhoven, the number of peak-period trips was cut in half, and drivers had learned to avoid peak congestion periods, even after the project period came to an end.
If it can work for something as intractable as traffic congestion, where drivers believe they have to leave at a particular period to be somewhere at a particular time, why might it not work to stop towing in Moto3? Race Direction have nothing to lose by trying. It can't be any less effective than the system we have at the moment.
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