Fixing Moto3 Penalties - Pedro Acosta Shows Pit Lane Starts Aren't Enough

The Moto3 race at the Doha round will live on in the collective memory of race fans for a very long time. The fact that Pedro Acosta won the Moto3 race in Qatar at the tender age of 16 years and 314 days, becoming the eleventh youngest Grand Prix winner of all time, was remarkable enough. The fact that it was just his second Grand Prix made it even more remarkable, especially after Acosta finished on the podium in his first race.

But what Acosta's victory in the Qatar 2 Moto3 race will be most remembered for is the fact that the Spanish youngster won the race after starting from pit lane. Acosta, along with six other riders – Romano Fenati, Dennis Foggia, Sergio Garcia, Stefano Nepa, Deniz Öncü, and Riccardo Rossi – was punished for dawdling on the racing line between Turns 15 and 16 in the final moments of FP2, as they jockeyed for position looking for a tow to help them get through to Q2.

It was a breathtaking progression. The green light went on for the riders in pit lane a couple of seconds after the last rider had passed the line marking pit lane exit. Acosta slotted in behind Garcia as they fired away, but soon took over the lead. Acosta passed the timing loop marking the end of the first sector some 12 seconds behind Gabriel Rodrigo, who led the race at that point. By the end of the lap, he had cut the deficit to just over 11 seconds.

Cream always rises

Acosta, Garcia, and Fenati soon pushed on and broke the rest of the group. Over the course of the next ten laps, the trio hunted down the rest of the pack, who had stayed bunched together. Once they arrived at the back of the group, Acosta immediately started to slice his way through, arriving at the very front of the field with three laps to go. Two laps later, he led. And on the final lap, he crossed the line just ahead of Darryn Binder to take a momentous maiden victory.

After Acosta's win, fans and media alike were in awe of the ride by the Spanish youngster. To come from so far back and still win, in just his second win, was unparalleled. The closest comparison was to when Brad Binder won at Jerez in 2016. The South African – also racing for the Red Bull KTM Ajo team – had been forced to start from the back of the grid, after being penalized for using an unregistered software map for his KTM Moto3 machine.

But there were two big differences: firstly, Binder was already starting with the main pack; and secondly, it was his 79th Grand Prix. This was only Acosta's second.

What all the euphoria seemed to miss was the fact that Acosta's pit lane start was supposed to be a punishment. The objective of making the riders start from pit lane is to punish the riders, and more importantly, the teams, for unsafe riding during free practice and qualifying. Too many riders spend their time lingering on the racing line waiting for a fast rider to come past that they can latch on to and hopefully use to set a faster time. Teams pressure their riders to look for a tow, and riders know their future can depend on getting a decent qualifying position and scoring points during the season.

Raising the stakes

That pressure means the riders have so far disregarded all previous attempts at penalizing them. Race Direction and the Panel of FIM Stewards have gone through a cycle of penalties in an attempt to find something which will discourage such dangerous behavior. We have had grid penalties, first of a few places, and then the back of the grid. We have had long lap penalties, double long lap penalties, and riders being forced to sit out long sections of practice. So far, nothing has worked.

And so at Qatar 2, the Stewards went straight in with the second harshest penalty after outright disqualification: forcing riders who rode dangerously to start the race from pit lane. And the race showed exactly how ineffective that penalty is: one rider who started from pit lane won the race, another finished in the top ten, a third was running inside the top ten until he ran off track and lost ground, and a fourth made a mistake on the final lap and just missed out on points.

Without taking anything away from the brilliance of Pedro Acosta's ride – it was genuinely exceptional, in so many respects – the fact that four of the seven riders who started from pit lane can catch the leaders clearly illustrates just how weak a penalty a pit lane start is, in Moto3, at least. And the reason a pit lane start is not much of a penalty in Moto3 is clear in the data.

Below is a table containing data for the first four finishers in the MotoGP race. Included is the time each rider took in Sector 1 in the first lap, the average in Sector 1 in the remaining 17 laps, the average in the other three sectors over all 18 laps, and the average lap time over laps 2 to 18, excluding the first lap.

  Acosta (1st) Binder (2nd) Antonelli (3rd) Migno (4th) Difference Acosta to Binder
Lap 1, Sector 1 47.032 35.035 35.532 35.370 11.997
Average Sector 1, no lap 1 27.963 28.275 28.303 28.280 -0.312
Average Sector 2 31.919 32.046 32.319 32.050 -0.127
Average Sector 3 30.429 30.558 30.556 30.598 -0.129
Average Sector 4 36.543 36.660 36.360 36.620 -0.118
Average lap time without lap 1 2:06.873 2:07.534 2:07.548 2:07.556 -0.661

The data makes a number things immediately very clear. Pedrosa Acosta made up the 12 seconds he lost in the first sector by being nearly seven tenths of a second quicker than second-place finisher Darryn Binder per lap. Though Acosta was quicker everywhere, he was making up the bulk of his time in just a single sector: Sector 1 at the end of the main straight. In Sectors 2, 3, and 4, Acosta was a little over a tenth of a second per lap quicker. In Sector 1, he was over three tenths of a second a lap quicker.

First corner carnage

Anyone who watched the Qatar race – or indeed, any Moto3 race with a long straight – should hardly be surprised by this. The nature of Moto3 is such that a long straight encourages a mass drafting exercise, with riders exploiting the slipstream of the riders ahead to gain as much speed as possible. What that means is that at the end of the straight, the leading group spreads out eight abreast and attempts to outbrake each other on the way into Turn 1.

As a result, nobody hits their brake markers and takes the perfect line. Instead, eight or nine riders all try to haul on the anchors and get the bike stopped to still make the corner, inevitably pushing each other wide, and slowing it all. And at Qatar, the tight right of Turn 1 is followed by the flick of Turn 2, another corner where riders try to block each other as they get settled out of the first corner. If the rest of the lap is a fierce battle, the first corner or two at Qatar are absolute carnage.

So much so that it negates about half of the disadvantage of starting from pit lane, the data shows. Finding the other half in the remainder of the lap, when a front group are taking it in turns to hold each other up, is clearly not that difficult.

The penalty that wasn't

What conclusions can we draw from all this? The obvious conclusion is that a start from pit lane is not much of a penalty. Certainly not enough to prevent a talented and experienced rider from scoring a good result (although Acosta's performance suggests that experience is optional).

What to do about it? Firstly, we have to remind ourselves of the point of these penalties. Riders are behaving dangerously by riding slowly on the racing line, and endangering other riders in the process. They are doing so because they need a tow to get through to Q2 (and in Q2, to secure a good starting position). That is the nature of the smallest capacity Grand Prix machines: horsepower differences are so small that a draft, especially along a long straight, can take several tenths off a lap time. The upside of equalizing machine performance is it creates thrilling racing. The downside is that there are advantages to be found in leaching off the speed of others.

The riders aren't entirely to blame. Their future usually rests quite literally on scoring points in races, and for riders in mid-pack teams, that is not as easy as it seems. Teams, too, have to keep sponsors happy, and their grid slots can depend on their results as well. And so teams put pressure on riders to qualify well, telling them to go out and look for a tow.

If Race Direction and the FIM Panel of Stewards want to prevent the Moto3 riders from causing dangerous situations on track in search of passage to Q2, then they have to make sure the punishment imposed is effective in changing the behavior of the riders, and persuading the teams it is a bad idea to pressure riders into hanging about for a tow. It is likely impossible to prevent riders from seeking out a tow, but if the penalties are severe enough, then teams might start to encourage their riders to look for one safely, rather than hanging around on the racing line.

Serving time

Clearly, a pit lane start alone is not enough. The FIM Stewards may also have come to this conclusion: for the comical fisticuffs in the gravel after their crash, Jeremy Alcoba and John McPhee were punished with a pit lane start after a delay of 5 and 10 seconds respectively.

That may prove to be sufficient, though Portimão, where the penalties are to be served, may not be such a good place to tell. Last year's contest at the Portuguese circuit saw the field relatively spread out for a Moto3 race. Other circuits – Barcelona, Aragon, Mugello, Motegi, Phillip Island, to name a few – might offer a better chance to recover from a pit lane start and 5 second delay.

But adding a time delay on top of a pit lane start looks like the only effective penalty in Moto3, short of outright disqualification. Disqualification is such a harsh penalty, with knock-on consequences down the line in terms of sponsorship and support, that it should only really be used as a last resort.

If the point of penalizing dangerous riding is to ensure that it is not worth it, that the punishment far outweighs the proceeds of the crime, then a pit lane start plus 15 seconds looks like being the only effective remedy. The riders start far enough behind that they have no chance of catching the leaders, yet close enough that they are extremely unlikely to be lapped. Riding around in anonymous ignominy should persuade teams and riders to finally try to clean up their act.


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Source: 
year: 
2021
round_number: 
2

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Comments

A bit of a push back on the conclusion that the pit lane start is an insufficient penalty, as it is based solely on Acosta's remarkable result.  The other pit lane starters finished 10, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 23.  As David notes, the purpose of the penalty is to create a disadvantage sufficient to prevent the undesirable behavior.  Would any of these riders, Acosta included, be inclined to risk a pit lane start again?

Here's a thought -- as a penalty, simply add 3 seconds (or 5? 6? some well thought out number) to the rider's total race time. That's much harder to overcome than a pit lane penalty when races tend to be won by less than a second, and therefore serves as a harsher penalty while still allowing the rider to compete fairly on track.  Might also increase the spectacle, as you'll potentially get penalized riders trying to build a 3-5 second lead at the front in order to overcome the time penalty. Probably impossible, but they'll still try like hell which is great for all of us!

You'd potentially have a rider who knows he will not score any points (hence is 'free' to do as he likes) in the midst of the lead pack where he could deploy all manner of dastardly tactics to shape the outcome of the race - the obvious one being very subtle blocking of a title rival to shuffle him down the order.  Their sponsors are also still getting TV time, and even added commentary about the penalty whilst on camera.

I'd agree with David that punished riders unfortunately need to be riding around in relative obscurity and separate from the lead pack.

Starting from pit lane and spending more than half the race in clean air with a couple other racers that are working together greatly reduces the odds of not finishing due to a competitor's moto cartwheeling into your face due to the lead group's shenanigans.

What would have happened to Acosta if he had started on the front row ?

I was surprised by the number of riders who had to start from the pit lane. I thought more riders offended than just seven. Possibly one of the issues race control face is the number of offenders. If they had a zero tolerance it may become a little farcical and in the case of pitlane starts potentially dangerous. However, if hanging around for a tow only risks a penalty then there is a chance you may not be penalized. To a mid grid or lower rider/team that may add up to the best deal regardless of the penalty. Win = no penalty and Q2. Lose = mid pack or worse including pitlane start. A nothing to lose scenario if not offending means a near certain loss.

If the benefit of a tow is a faster lap time then maybe a zero tolerance approach and fastest laps cancelled is best ? The zero tolerance part being the significant part. I say that having no idea how to check all riders at all times and if it's even possible. Just thoughts. Nice read David, thanks.

Besides all that, Moto3 leading group, where is John Nash when you need him.

Acosta's win from pit lane will likely never be repeated so there is no need to change the system for a "black swan" moment.

Instead celebrate what happenend and the great entertainment that it offered. Not that the race needed much more happening to thrill. For most of the second half of the race I was having Isle Of Man type viewer terror at the braking zone after the straight expecting mass carnage.

I think as you mentioned David, the pit lane penalty start ended up not being as effective as it should've, simply due to the big pack style racing that Moto3 has become these days. It's become almost impossible for anyone to break away and with constant passing, everyone just slows each other down. In Moto2 and MotoGP it's certainly much harder to recover and score points from the pitlane with slipstream being less importance. It's often said Moto2 is a hardest championship to compete in, but I think Moto3 has surpassed that. The huge packs and slipstream fest makes for brutal racing.

It's ironic the stewards keep trying to find ways to discourage riders from various penalties they keep collecting in Qualifying, when arguably Qualifying has become quite meaningless in Moto3 I feel now. It doesn't seem to really matter anymore where you start. Everyone has almost the same pace. Get a good slipstream one lap and you could fly by 6/7 bikes in one go. It's just staying out of trouble and bide your time for an attack in final few laps when it really matters. In many ways, they may as well just make Moto3 a quick 5 lap dash.

Make no mistake, it was still a sensational performance from Acosta. Though let's not forget, the last time a rider scored a 2nd and 1st in their first two races in Moto3, was a certain Romano Fenati!

Race Direction is caught between a rock and a hard place here. This isn't amateur sport where the most important thing is complete fairness and the only losers through sanctions are the athlete and team. MotoGP is an entertainment and the most important thing is that the paying customer comes back next time. It's less entertaining if a big chunk of the field, especially front runners, are banned or otherwise taken out of the running each weekend. And Moto3 is very much serial offender territory. Personally, I think the pit lane start is just fine, in fact after last weekend even more so. Usually, it does ruin the race for the rider and certainly did for the four of the seven whose names no-one can now even remember, but  there has always been a thin chance it might actually make the race even better! Two caveats; firstly, the penalty arises because loitering for a tow can be unacceptably dangerous. Black flag the miscreant and disqualify them from further practice/qualifying including those sessions for the next race if necessary; secondly, there is a risk that this might exacerbate dangerous riding in the race (I'm looking at you, No. XX, with your tendency to treat slower riders as mobile berms in such situations). But this is true whatever the penalty.

Just a thought. Single long lap penalties would have to be taken on the last lap, a double on the last and penultimate laps etc.. This would take away a lot of the chance to make the time back up through the remainder of the race and would still give the audience the result as seen. Penalties for not taking the long lap could remain as at present. Non finishers could either have the penalty quashed as the DNF was deemed to be adequate punishment or carried forward to the next race if not.

Alternatively, is the ride through still available as a penalty?

 

Race bans don't work, teams need to justify sponsorship money; it's counterproductive especially in these uncertain times.

Starting position penalties apparently don't make enough difference.

What about finish position caps? You cannot score podium points or stand on the podium, perhaps a finish position deduction: +3 to finishing position? +10s to race time could be the difference between a win and 0 points in moto3 which is a strong incentive to not fuck about.

The other suggestion, and I've long thought this about top flight football is to punish in the only manner that really matters: points. You get championship points deducted, rider and team, for behaviour that we're not just trying to discourage but eradicate. 10pt deduction really matters to everyone involved, all team personel will collectively remove the practice together if it negatively affects bonuses and prestige. Imagine, at Valencia, (I wish the final round was literally anywhere else but so it goes...) X could be in with a shot at the title were he not a dangerous and irresponsible idiot in Q1 at Assen. 
Points are an arbitrary meta game to quantify who is the fastest but they matter immensely to those involved. Adjust the abstraction because as P.Acosta (Turbo legend) proved moto3 is too chaotic for adjustments to the game itself.

Just a thought.

Of all the ideas floated here I like this one best. It totally preserves the integrity of the race itself - if you win, you get the parc ferme spot, the silverware, champers and everything else - but you still only get 15 points. Perfect. That'll hurt. And if you're a 1 or 2 pointer most weekends, try a minus number for size!

I never liked superpole, probably for the same reason I don't really enjoy the IOM TT (I know, that's heresy); I love watching racing, not fast solo laps. If Acosta had started from pole instead on Sunday and pulled a 10 second gap, I for one would have nothing to say on the matter. I don't like the current Q1/Q2 system much either, always preferred the excitement of someone sandbagging for 40 minutes and blitzing the grid with one fast lap in the dying moments, ebay style. And last but not least, Valencia.... why oh why do we have the grand finale at such a charmless track. It should be at one of the cathedrals.

Me too!  I rather like the idea of points deducted before the race takes place.  The information is out there in the public domain so everyone knows the situation when the race gets underway.  There is also enough time between final qualifying and the race start for the stewards to have heard and settled any appeal should that be deemed appropriate.  

I'm not so sure the headline is accurate. Pit lane start for Pedro Acosta is not enough to keep him from winning but it is enough for all the non-aliens. If we start legislating to the one meteoric talent in a generation the penalties will become positively draconian for the rest of the more human racers. Pedro Acosta rode one of the finest races I've ever seen or heard of. I don't think we need to start rewriting the rule book just yet. If he makes a mockery of Moto3 this year he'll move up. If he is still making a mockery of things in 3 years books will be written about him.

Only problem with him moving up for next year is that signing decisions keep being made so early in the season. If we get to, say, Mugello and Aki has a vacancy because Gardner is moving up to MotoGP, that makes it easier for him to move Acosta up. Otherwise, it might be tricky.

Let's be honest, Aki (and KTM) will want to hold onto Acosta for dear life - even if it means keeping him in Moto3 for another year.

Riders dawdle to get a tow to try and get through to Q2 to get a good starting spot

Whatever the starting spot, the race is a big pack melee holding each other up

Therefore someone with a bit of pace starting behind can catch up and compete outright in the results

->what's the point in getting a good starting spot?

--> what's the point in dawdling looking for a tow in the first place?

Mind you, no one said there was any logic involved in motor racing; that's why we love it.

One of the Moto3 races a couple of years ago had half the field demoted grid spots for dawdling and that still didn't stop them all. I'm not sure what level of penalty the powers-that-be think is appropriate for dawdling in practice is when so many of the field are doing it and the series ultimately wants a straight race on track without time penalties or aggregate races etc - if the penalty was so harsh that they're never going to catch up and are just rolling around behind the pack, why even go out for the race? I don't really know the answer. I think the long lap loop is much better than a pit lane ride through for jumping the start, etc.

It is clear that the penalties don't work. It is time to change the qualifying system. If they adopt the system that MotoE uses, i.e. one rider gets one qualifying lap on his own, then they won't be in each others way.

They also won't get a tow but nobody gets one, so that means equality. Plus side of this is that they can work on race setup in the other sessions without having to go into dangerous antics and ridiculous waiting games in pitlane. It may not be spectacular tv but qualifying like this has its own charm and drama.

I used to love WSBK superpole, the only time you ever got a really clear comparison of lines and riding styles. it produced good narratives too: some mad lad down in 10th would take his brain out for a lap and you would watch him move up the grid the whole way through the session...

And then Troy Corser would take pole. 🤣

Im all for it though it would take a while to do the whole grid...

I don't know if there's time to run Superpole-type qualifying for 28 Moto3 riders, as you say. WSBK only did the top 16, if I recall. Would be really boring telly as well, IMO.

You could do it like the TT: send them out in groups of, say, six and release each rider at 10-second intervals. That way everyone gets a clear run and you get through the session in a reasonable amount of time. Plus you still get the excitement of lots of riders putting in red sectors at the same time.

I'm a fan of this idea.  Granted I don't watch Moto3 qualifying anyway, but I feel like I'm always tuning in and having to get caught up on penalty drama.  I say send them off like an enduro race, 10 second intervals between riders.  Each rider gets and out lap and a hot lap.  If they can't make it work oh well.  The high stakes and constant tension add a drama all their own.  Just watch some downhill mtb racing.  One at a time against the clock, yet still plenty dramatic. 

The idea of a rider basically being consigned to a race on the opposite side of the track to where the TV cameras are looking is a good one... until there's a championship on the line and someone decides to start playing silly buggers (cough, cough, Arenas).

the fifteen points-scoring riders from that first race start from the back in inverse points position, winner in the rear.  Riders who scored out of the points will start in the front, based on previous finish in non-points position.  Riders who DNF'd for whatever reason will be in-between the points scorers and the non points finishers from the previous race.  This gives the top fifteen a huge incentive to get to the front, the bottom finishers get a welcome assist for the next race, and the DNF's will have a bit of a helping hand to get back in the game if they are victims of their own ambitions, someone else's carelessness, or a mechanical. Of course, since the starting field is primarily based on points, if a rider DNF's, or finishes out of the points in a certain race, their starting position for the next race is still based on total points accumulated up to that race. Throughout the season, the more points you have, the closer to the back of the starting field you will be - but if you are championship material, your starting position will matter little as you'll be passing all the pretenders anyway.  

Second option - penalties for general free-practice and/or qualifying fuckery will be a dead-engine, rider-dismounted pit lane start, replete with all the trimmings, i.e., pit lane speed governance.  Then and only then, the penalized riders will be allowed to start after they have all lined up at the pit exit line, and the last gridded rider has passed, plus ten seconds.  That ought to guarantee shananigan-free FP and qualifying.

Not sure if either of these modifications would work outside of Moto3.       

It's hard to find good, working and fair punishments. I think they need to rethink the way they do the Q. 
Superpole has been mentioned, and while the old system may use too much time an adapted system with letting them out on a calculated distance depending on the track should prevent the posibilty for a slipstream or why not simply prohibit slipstreaming in Q. If let out one by one the straights will never be crowded and if one rider happen to be right behind another he of she have to be out of the slip stream before a mark on straight. Riders ending their lap must finnish on the dirty side... I am sure they can come up with a bulletproof set of rules _if they want to_. I am not sure that is what they want.

 

Acosta's performance shows that the pitlane penalty for dangerous behavior was ineffective and that the qualifying position did not matter for him at Qatar 2. Since the perceived importance of the highest grid position possible is what leads to the dangerous behavior during qualifying, why not get rid of the qualifying session?

Have a lottery for grid position. That will end the incorrigible behavior immediately.

The natural tendency of the mind is to create more rules to stop perceived bad behavior. Maybe in this case, creating a structure that moves away from more rules is the appropiate move.

how about re introducing qualifying tyres ?

2 sets per rider , tyres that last 2 -3 laps max 

nobody is going to p*ss about looking for a tow if it f*cks their tyres in the process