Fans watching the Moto3 race at Le Mans faced mixed emotions. On the one hand, they were thrilled at yet another scintillating Moto3 race featuring close quarter battles. On the other hand, they were bewildered by the time penalties issued to Jakub Kornfeil and Niccolo Antonelli during the course of the race. Kornfeil was handed a 1.3 second penalty, while Antonelli was given a 1.8 second penalty. Fans found it difficult to make head or tail of the penalties issued.
Their confusion turned to outright anger once the Moto3 race had ended. Fabio Di Giannantonio crossed the line in first, after Marco Bezzecchi lost the rear in the final corner and took Jorge Martin down with him. But Di Giannantonio would not get to enjoy his victory: the Italian was handed a 2 second penalty after the race had finished, demoting him from first to fourth.
The anger of the fans was fueled mainly by a feeling that the penalties appeared to be arbitrary, with no logic to their structure. The FIM Stewards Panel appeared to be handing out penalties almost at a whim, and with no way for those outside of the panel to understand what was going on.
The logic behind this
To get to the bottom of this, I emailed Race Director and head of the Stewards Panel Mike Webb about the penalties. Webb replied with a clear and cogent explanation of why the penalties had been given, and how they had been assessed. He also explained that the teams and riders knew that penalties would be given at Le Mans, as they had been issued a letter explaining the protocol which would be used to judge penalties. Unfortunately for the fans and the media, the letter was not sent to the media, and so journalists and commentators had to take a guess at what was going on.
The reason for the penalties was simple, Webb wrote. "The penalties in the Moto3 race were due to 'course cutting' (i.e. making the track shorter) as opposed to 'track limits' (running out of track, i.e. making it longer)," he said. Such penalties do not apply at every track, but there are a number of tracks where cutting corners is a serious problem, and for which serious penalties are applied. "There are only a few tracks where it’s possible to do this; Austin T3/6, Le Mans T3/4, T9/10, Catalunya T1/2, Assen T6/8, T16/18, Silverstone T3/5, T5/6, Misano T1/3," Webb explained.
Time gained by cutting corners is measured using dedicated timing loops which monitor every rider, and check how much time they have gained or lost in the sector where they cut the course. "The criteria applied is that a rider must lose time in a short cut (i.e. shut the gas) and if they don't, we will add a time penalty. Therefore, you have to lose at least a second if you short cut and if you don’t then we’ll give a bigger penalty," Webb said.
"We use dedicated timing loops to identify these sectors, the software calculates the rider’s average time through that section and notifies us of the time difference when he makes a course cut," Webb wrote. "The penalty is simple; a) at least 1 sec slower = no penalty, b) less than 1 sec slower = 2 second penalty minus whatever loss the rider had, c) faster sector = 2 second penalty plus whatever gain the rider made."
Virtual gravel traps
The penalty system was put in place after extensive discussions with the riders in the Safety Commission, where the riders and Dorna had tried to find a system acceptable to all involved, and which fairly reflects the advantage gained by cutting the corners. The problem was caused by the fact that more and more tracks are replacing gravel by the side of the track with asphalt run off, allowing riders to safely run wide with no risk.
In some places, the asphalt run off is tempting riders into making passes they would never have previously considered because they risked serious injury if the went down in the gravel by the side of the track. They can now attempt the pass and lose little or nothing, a state of affairs which is seen as undesirable. "The overall principle is to make it more fair and to reward staying on track," Webb said. "The sizable time penalties are a disincentive to short cut, but way better than the old days where you’d crash in the gravel or lose 20 seconds if you managed to keep it upright." The penalties serve as a "virtual gravel trap," as Webb neatly phrased it.
Once explained, the penalties suddenly make a lot more sense. And given the teams and riders had already been informed that these penalties would be applied, they should have known what to expect. However, the fact that the media (and as a consequence, the fans) had no idea that the course-cutting penalty system had been put in place, they were left in a state of confusion, where there was no need. It might be better if Dorna were to issue an official communique ahead of the next race where the course-cutting time penalties will apply (Barcelona), reminding the media that such penalties could be enforced.
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