Freddie Spencer To Lead FIM Stewards: The Politics Of MotoGP Disciplinary Bodies

Once upon a time, disciplinary measures in MotoGP were simple. If a rider was felt to have transgressed the rules, they were hauled up before the Race Director and given a punishment, and that was just about the end of it. Sometimes, riders appealed against those judgments, and sometimes, the FIM even found in their favor.

But times change, cultures change, social mores change. What was once regarded as acceptable is now frowned upon. Physical contact and riding with the intent to obstruct others became less and less acceptable. Suspected transgressions were examined more closely and judged more harshly. The increase in the number of cameras covering the track, and the vast improvement in resolution and picture quality, helped identify more potential offenders. In turn, this created more pressure on Race Direction to punish these transgressions.

Then came Sepang 2015. When the two biggest names clash on the track amid a bitter personal feud, then the pressure on the series organizers to treat the situation with kid gloves becomes almost unbearable. In the fallout of that ugly incident, Race Direction was reorganized, and the disciplinary duties moved to a separate body, the FIM Panel of Stewards. The official explanation was that this would allow Race Direction to get on with the job of managing the race, while the Stewards could focus on assessing whether a particular action needed to be punished or not.

The Forever War

One minor detail threw a spanner into the works of that plan. That minor detail is that the protagonists at Sepang, Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez, are still racing against one another, and their feud continues unabated, though it feels very much like one side is much more invested in the feud than the other. And so from time to time, the two clash on track once again. And given that one of those two has a reputation for disregarding any idea of safety on the track, such clashes raise yet more controversy, and more calls for reform of Race Direction.

Argentina this year is a case in point. After stalling on the grid, then committing a litany of rule violations to get his bike restarted, Marc Márquez was handed a ride through penalty. Unfortunately, the conditions for Márquez were perfect: a damp track with variable grip made most riders cautious, while Márquez was lapping 2 seconds or more faster than anyone else. He cut through the field with impunity, and with complete disregard for anyone else, forcing riders off line and running Valentino Rossi off track, causing him to crash.

Márquez was not the only offender. Danilo Petrucci was also called out for riding dangerously, igniting a feud between Petrucci and Aleix Espargaro. Other riders piled in, expressing their outrage at both the relative leniency of the punishments handed out, as well as the perceived inconsistency of the way incidents were judged.

Something better change

There were calls for Race Direction to change their approach, and take this more seriously. "Sometimes, to change something, something big needs to happen," Jorge Lorenzo said in Austin, two weeks after Argentina. "In a dangerous sport, you need to protect the rider. It's one thing to be crazy when you are making a hot lap or you are alone, it's another thing when you are putting the risk and the health of other riders. The referee or Race Direction should penalize strongly these actions."

The fact that such actions continued were all down to Race Direction, Lorenzo said (though penalties are actually applied by the FIM Panel of Stewards). "It's not the riders fault. It's Race Direction fault," the Spaniard said. "If Race Direction gives hard penalties, next time the rider won't make this action, for sure. So it's always Race Direction's fault. Race Direction can sometimes make a mistake, like a soccer referee. But it should not be usual to make a mistake."

Valentino Rossi was, unsurprisingly, far more outspoken. "I want to speak with Race Direction, sincerely because I don’t feel protected from the Race Direction. When you don’t feel protected, you have to make your own, because nothing happen. Next race if nothing happen, he will do exactly the same."

Consistency demanded

With emotions in an already febrile state, three riders collided at Jerez. Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa all tried to occupy the same piece of tarmac in an unfortunate sequence of events at Dry Sack. In the view of Race Direction, it was a racing incident, but Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa saw it differently, each blaming the crash on the other, though not ascribing malicious intent.

Pedrosa once again called out Race Direction (and once again, he meant the FIM Panel of Stewards), demanding they be more consistent, and clearer. After the incident, he had gone to speak to them, he said. "I go there to understand what is the point and how they judge things because from my point of view, it wasn't just that easy."

After spending time arguing with the Stewards, he left frustrated. "So finally they said if you don't agree with our decision, which I don't, make an appeal. But this meant I would say that I want Jorge to be penalized, because I don't agree with the decision. But what I want them to understand is that I don't want a penalty for Jorge, I want them to understand correctly what is happening on the track because they don’t."

One solution proposed by the riders in Argentina, and several times afterwards, is to have a former racer join the FIM Panel of Stewards. Having someone who has raced at the highest level on board should mean they have a better insight into what is going on in the minds of the riders. Such a person should have a more personal, intimate understanding of racing, of what is a racing incident, and what is a dirty move. That, at least, is the theory.

Power play

Now, Dorna has called the riders' bluff. From Valencia, Race Director Mike Webb will step aside from the second part of his role, as Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards, and concentrate on his main role as Race Director. Instead, a permanent Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards will take over, leading the two other stewards in assessing all infringements of the Grand Prix regulations. The permanent Chair appointed is none other than Freddie Spencer, double 500cc champion, and the last rider to win a 500cc and 250cc title in the same season.

Spencer has obviously been appointed because of his impeccable credentials. The American is not just any old ex-racer: he is arguably one of the most naturally talented riders ever to swing his leg over a racing motorcycle, and a perennial candidate in the debate over who deserves to be called the greatest racer of all time. He is widely respected because of intelligence, and his clarity of vision and thinking.

But this is also a brilliant tactical move. Mike Webb used to take a kicking both from the riders and among the fans when they disagreed with his decisions. Despite having raced himself many years ago, Webb has been an official in Grand Prix racing for a long time now, having been Technical Director before taking over from Paul Butler as Race Director. He is an easy target for criticism for those who don't like the decisions he makes.

Irreproachable

Such criticisms will be a good deal more difficult with Freddie Spencer in charge. Spencer commands the respect – even the awe – of most modern riders, and most MotoGP fans. No one can argue with his record or his credentials. He is widely regarded as a neutral observer – despite the many and obvious comparisons with Marc Márquez – who is fair and measured with his criticism. When the FIM Panel of Stewards make an unpopular call on some incident or another, it will not be a faceless bureaucrat whom few outside the paddock know making the decision. It will be Fast Freddie Spencer, the triple world champion, and the man who beat Kenny Roberts. It will be official MotoGP Legend Freddie Spencer making the call.

From a purely organizational point of view, the split in responsibilities also makes sense. Race Direction, under the control of Mike Webb, can get back to the task of ensuring the race is run as safely as possible. When things happen on track, as they always do, those incidents can be passed on to the FIM Panel of Stewards, led by Freddie Spencer. It is a better arrangement.

It would be easy to see this as a criticism of Mike Webb, and the two hats he was forced to wear. That seems unjust to me: Webb is a scrupulously fair and honorable man, who refused to buckle to pressure, even when it was applied by almost irresistible forces. That refusal to comply may in itself be the reason Dorna have chosen to appoint a separate Chair of the FIM Panel of Stewards. With the appointment of Freddie Spencer to take over that role from Mike Webb, those who applied the pressure which helped precipitate the change may find themselves with even less power of persuasion.

Below is the press release from Dorna announcing the appointment of Freddie Spencer:


Freddie Spencer appointed Chairman of the FIM MotoGP™ Stewards Panel

American Champion and MotoGP™ Legend set to take on a new role for 2019

MotoGP™ Legend Freddie Spencer will be taking on a new role in 2019, with the American set to assume part of the role of Mike Webb and become Chairman of the FIM MotoGP™ Stewards Panel. Webb is currently both Race Director and Chairman of the panel, and the arrival of Spencer will permit Webb to concentrate exclusively on his function as Race Director and focus his attention exclusively on tasks within Race Direction. Spencer therefore both debuts as a Steward in 2019 and takes on this new role as Chairman.

The FIM MotoGP™ Stewards Panel comprises three people: the Chairman and two other Stewards, both of whom are nominated by the FIM and approved by the permanent bureau. They meet whenever required during events and are responsible solely for disciplinary decisions; imposition of penalties and the adjudication of protests.

>From 2019, Spencer will play a pivotal role within the panel – almost 40 years since the Louisiana native made his debut on the world stage. That debut came in 1980 in the Belgian Grand Prix, but the American first began to set the world alight in 1982 when he finished the year third overall in the 500cc Championship and took his first win in the Belgian Grand Prix, soon after taking another in the San Marino GP. The following season Spencer took his first premier class crown and in 1985 he did it again – as well as competing in, and winning, the 250cc World Championship that same year. A record breaker from the off, Spencer was the youngest ever premier class race winner, polesitter and Champion until current reigning Champion Marc Marquez took the honour in 2013. Involved in the sport from his days of competition to the present, 2019 will mark another new chapter for the American as he takes on this new role at the heart of MotoGP™.

“I appreciate the consideration and respect shown to me in offering me the position as Chairman,” says Spencer. “One of the motivating factors for me in doing all the classic events as well as talk shows, broadcasts and my book is because of my passion for my sport and what it has given me.

“In addition, one of the key factors in deciding to accept this position is my belief in this being an opportunity to be a positive influence and a constructive, resolving voice in issues that will arise; a voice that can impact the reputation of our sport both within it and in the outside world. I have spent the majority of my lifetime developing the skills required for this position. I know it is imperative to have the trust and respect of – and the ability to communicate with – the riders, teams, media, and hopefully fans too. Complete objectivity is absolutely essential in order to protect impartiality and to cultivate trust and respect in our decisions. The integrity and reputation of the sport has to come first; our sport has reached the heights it has because of the incredible effort everyone has put in to make it such a success.”

Spencer will next attend the Gran Premio Motul de la Comunitat Valenciana this season.


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Total votes: 42
Total votes: 12

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Comments

Smart move. Not much the riders can complain about here. I do hope he reins Marquez in as it seems everyone is in agreement that he is a bit out of control. I'll have to go back and listen to what he thought would have been a fair punishment there. To be fair though it seems Marquez has been riding more calmly lately.

Total votes: 20

However personally I'd like to see it go a bit further (and this will likely be unpopular here) and emulate F1 in as much as have a rotating cadre of ex riders that join Spencer in this decision making thoughout the season. Reason being I don't believe there is an unbiased human being alive on planet Earth, so it's always valuable to have differing views to guide one's final decision. 

What say you Motoshrink?

Total votes: 10

I prefer consistency there. Seems like a good arrangement.

Did you see the letter from Jorge btw?
"Attention Mr Spencer, as I am sure you have been following my excellent Mamba Snake starts with great interest you of course know that there are riders that do not always let me have my line into corners such that more skilled riders can lead flag to flag when possible. Enclosed are diagrams of them for each track, the sweeping arc of race line corner entry list for your review. Politeness is mandatory within Mamba territory. Mambatory if you will, as I am sure you will as a racer perhaps of my stature.

If in need of further assistance feel free to listen to my press conferences. You can also point to the red X on the enclosed hat, t-shirt, jacket, poster, pen, sunglasses, umbrella, keychain, boy shorts, throw pillow, or flag to indicate that you would like to briefly visit with me in the future.

P.S. seeing that you are not Italian are you concerned that Marc will not be as good a teammate to me as Pedrosa has been for him? Does this strike you as fair play? If I must get the "Mapping 8" dashboard signal while "holding up Dovi for 12 laps during the final championship showdown," should not Marquez be getting "Map 99" approaching the 27 corners listed below? Or will riders have to fly off the handle themselves when so much butter is on their hammer?"
- The Champion #99 Jorge Lorenzo who also won on Ducati

;)

Total votes: 21

Freddie Spencer believed  that it was Pedrosa at fault as Danny was the rider trying to overtake.

Total votes: 7

this is a good choice and a step in the right direction. Of note, I believe FS is not only the”latest” rider to in both the 500 & 250 championships in the same season, but the only one. If my memory serves... thanks for all the hard work and enjoyable writing David. Much appreciated 👍🏽

Total votes: 9

the interview ends as they're about to enter the corner, supposedly just after KR's "braking fake" occurs. So that puts them both too deep into the corner.

Is there anywhere we can find the rest of this interview, so we can know what happens next in Freddie's viewpoint? Because there's no doubting the actual outcome, right? Freddie does push Kenny off track?

Total votes: 7

Twice as he is anticipating the anxiety provoking aspect of this, he does interesting movements with his eyes and a subtle facial expression shift. Indicative that it is stressful and carefully delivered, but not deceit. Eye movement reveals much.

Total votes: 7

Is Freddie talking himself into justifying that move as a racing incident? Where as a result of KR's "braking fake" and both men going too deep, that the racer on the outside (KR) would inevitably be pushed wide and off track? (Sorry, you have to spell it out for me)

In all fairness, I suppose you can't base a season's ultimate result on just one corner's/one race's outcome, although King Kenny is still very much aggrieved by that move in Sweden.

Having said that, it's very much a feature of moto racing these days, the block pass and running another racer wide, especially on the last lap, where the gloves come off and it's a bare knuckle brawl. But in those days, you could very easily be killed or seriously injured by being run off a track.

Total votes: 6

Meaning that Freddie honestly believes it was a racing incident, and that it makes him uncomfortable/stressed.

Note that KR refers to a different corner, but that the one in question has run off? What do you think of that?

Total votes: 8

Sorry, I don't know exactly what you mean when you say that KR refers to a different corner. I always thought the being run off-track incident referred to one specific corner.

I speculate that Kenny got so pissed because they sort of had a tacit Gentleman's agreement about running each other off the track, because circuits were so bloody dangerous back then. He felt Freddie stepped over a line. Thank goodness it didn't escalate, vis-a-vis Marquez/Rossi.

Plus rider armor as we know it today was non-existent at that time. It was just a suit of leather and your underwear. :)

Total votes: 5