2020 is supposed to be a big year for Aprilia. The reorganization instigated by Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola has helped free up lead engineer Romano Albesiano to design a brand new RS-GP from the ground up. The bike is expected to be much more competitive than the 75° V4 which has served them up until now.
But they enter 2020 with every chance of being without an important part of the MotoGP program. Andrea Iannone's lawyer confirmed to Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport that Iannone's B sample from the drug test he failed in Sepang has also come back positive. The Italian now faces a four-year ban for use of the anabolic steroid drostanalone.
The quantities found in the sample were minute, Iannone's lawyer Antonio De Rensis told Gazzetta. "The counter-analysis showed the presence of metabolites equal to 1.15 nanograms per milliliter," De Rensis said. Taking into consideration that the sample was extremely concentrated due to Iannone being dehydrated from the hot and humid MotoGP race in Malaysia, that would point to an even lower concentration, De Rensis claimed. This would corroborate the theory of accidental contamination through food, according to Iannone's lawyer.
Iannone followed up this defense in another interview with Gazzetta. Sepang was the first time he had been tested this year, but last year he was one of five riders chosen to follow the ADAMS program, the system where athletes have to continuously track their whereabouts, and report where they are and what they are doing, and be subject to multiple tests during the season. Those tests had all come back negative. "I have no plan B," Iannone told Gazzetta. "Bikes are my life, I am not a fool who risks everything."
Iannone's options for appeal are limited. The FIM, like most international sports federations, has adopted the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) code, which states explicitly that athletes are responsible for the substances which end up in their bodies. There can be mitigating circumstances, but as drostanolone, an anabolic androgenic steroid, is a so-called 'non-specified substance', it is viewed as a substance which is extremely unlikely to be found as a result of natural processes or accidental contamination.
Once the results of the B-sample are officially announced, Iannone will automatically be banned from all competition for 4 years. He can appeal against both the ban and its duration, once the official notification has been sent. The first appeal has to be made to the CDI, the FIM's International Disciplinary Court, and filed within 5 days of the result.
Once the CDI has received the appeal, the court has 45 days to consider its findings. If the CDI finds against Iannone, then the Italian can take his case to the CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as the court of last resort. How long a CAS appeal could take varies, but it could take a very long time.
No significant fault
Does Iannone have a chance to get his ban lifted? From the outside, his chances look slim. If his defense is accidental contamination, the burden of proof is on him. He will not only have to prove that contamination was accidental, but also, that he had absolutely no way of knowing that the food might be contaminated. The FIM anti-doping code allows a defense of accidental contamination, under what is referred to as 'no fault or negligence', or 'no significant fault or negligence'. This is how it is defined in the code:
The Rider or other Person’s establishing that he or she did not know or suspect, and could not reasonably have known or suspected even with the exercise of utmost caution, that he or she had Used or been administered the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method or otherwise violated an anti-doping rule. Except in the case of a Minor, for any violation of Article 2.1, the Rider must also establish how the Prohibited Substance entered his or her system...
Proving that he had no way of knowing that food could be contaminated is not easy. If Iannone had a kept a diary cataloging his movements and everything he ate and drank, that might help. The USADA – the American anti-doping agency – has a list of recommendations which can help substantiate a claim of contamination, or no signficant fault:
- Dates of travel
- Dates eaten at various establishments
- Name and address of establishment
- Menu (physical menu or picture of menu)
- Food diary, including type and estimated portion size of meat (photo of assembled plate showing foods consumed is also helpful)
- Receipt of purchase, ideally itemized, to show specifically what food was ordered
This list was drawn up to help athletes support claims their food was contaminated with clenbuterol, another banned steroid. But whether that would help in the case of drostanolone, the substance Iannone is reported to have been found positive for, is open to question.
The common vector for contamination with anabolic steroids is meat consumption. Clenbuterol is widely used in Mexico, South America, and parts of Asia, so clenbuterol contamination is demonstrably a real possibility, as is contamination with a number of other steroids.
However, drostanolone, sometimes called by its commercial name Masteron, is much less commonly used in meat production. Drostanolone promotes lean muscle growth, and can help to reduce body fat and expel water. It is much more expensive than most other common steroids, making it less attractive in meat production, and so the chance of ingesting it via contaminated meat, as Iannone claimed initially, is very low.
"I’ve never heard of drostanolone-contaminated meats, like I have other steroids such as nandrolone and clenbuterol," nutritionist Victor Conte told boxing website Boxing Scene. Conte was talking about the case of Antonio Tarver, a boxer who tested positive for drostanolone in 2012. The boxer wasn't the only fighter to test positive for the substance: boxers and MMA fighters have been found to be using the substance.
It is commonly used by bodybuilders to cut body fat and drop weight, Conte explained, as well as by boxers looking to make the weight for their division. It can be used in relatively short cycles – two to four weeks – for dropping weight. One version, drostanolone propionate, clears from the body relatively quickly, disappearing totally after about three weeks.
Open to interpretation
The fact that only trace amounts of drostanolone were found in Iannone's sample could point to two possible conclusions: one is accidental contamination, but the other is in line with following an anabolic steroid cycle prior to the flyaways, the substance disappearing right at the end of the three weeks away from home.
That was the conclusion of one expert consulted by the Gazzetta dello Sport. The amount found was in line with either theory, professor Paolo Borrione told Gazzetta. He could not rule out drostanolone being used in animal feed supplements, but the quantity found was also consistent with ending an anabolic cycle two to three weeks before the test took place. It would certainly provide some benefits for a motorcycle racer, the professor said. "It increases strength, makes you lose weight and gain muscle mass."
Iannone admitted that he had been following a weight loss program through 2019, but said it had been done in concert with Aprilia, and the focus had been on aerobic training. He had done it to reduce the weight difference between himself and teammate Aleix Espargaro, whose cycling addiction has made him extremely light. With the Aprilia lacking outright power, being lighter, and also with a better aerodynamic profile, was helpful.
Iannone's positive drug test puts Aprilia in a very difficult situation. For the moment, the Italian factory is supporting its rider, until the legal process has run its course and Iannone has exhausted his options to appeal the decision. But with the Italian banned from taking part in any officially sanctioned activity, Aprilia needs a replacement. Especially with a new bike due to be rolled out at the Sepang test, a machine which is aimed at being much more competitive than the old RS-GP.
The most obvious candidate is test rider Bradley Smith. "I believe I'm first in line," Smith told me when contacted. The Englishman has performed admirably as test rider, and his relationship with Aprilia is good. That doesn't mean that he is a shoe-in to take over from Iannone if the Italian's ban is upheld, but it certainly makes him the favorite.
The options for Aprilia are relatively limited. Their other test rider, Matteo Baiocco, is set to race in the Italian championship in 2020. Karel Abraham is available, after having been pushed aside by Avintia Ducati to make way for Johann Zarco. Abraham could also take over as test rider if Bradley Smith does take Iannone's place in the factory team. Former Aprilia WorldSBK rider Lorenzo Savadori is also an option, as the Pedercini WorldSBK team is struggling with finding sponsorship to run the Italian.
The benefit for Aprilia is that they don't have to rush into a decision. With Bradley Smith already under contract as a test rider, they can wait for Iannone's appeal to the CDI. Smith will continue his testing duties at the Sepang test – both the shakedown, and the three-day official test from 7th-9th February – while Aprilia can draft in either Abraham or Savadori for extra testing duties in Malaysia.
By the time the MotoGP season officially kicks off at Qatar, on 8th March this year, the process at the CDI should have been completed, and if Iannone is still suspended or banned, then Smith can step in to take his place.
The end of Iannone?
The failed drug test puts Andrea Iannone in a much tougher situation. At the age of 30, he cannot afford to serve a full four-year ban, the automatic duration if he cannot persuade the CDI or CAS to intervene. The FIM doping rules allow for a ban to be shortened in duration, or even reduced to a reprimand, if no significant fault can be proved, as would be the case if contamination could be proved.
The burden of proof for this is extremely heavy, however. Riders are responsible for the substances found in their bodies, and demonstrating both realistic evidence of contamination, and that he had no way of suspecting he was consuming contaminated products will be very difficult indeed.
But even a one-year ban could prove fatal to Iannone's career. With the contracts of the entire grid up for grabs at the end of 2020, and a host of youngsters looking to move up from Moto2, it is easier for teams and manufacturers to pass over Iannone in favor of other riders.
For the moment, all of this still hasn't been confirmed officially. No announcement has come officially from the FIM, and Iannone hasn't officially filed an appeal with the CDI. We should know much more in the coming days.
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