The Grand Prix Commission has approved the long lap penalty trialed by the MotoGP riders during the Qatar test last weekend. From the first race in Qatar, riders who exceed track limits, or are deemed to have unfairly gained time, will be punished with being forced to take a trip through a lane placed on the outside of a slow corner, handing them a penalty in the order of approximately three seconds. The penalty is to be used instead of forcing the rider to drop a position, although both penalties will remain available for the FIM Stewards Panel to impose as they see fit.
The penalty of dropping a position had come into question after an incident with Jonas Folger during the Moto2 race at Misano in 2014. In that race, Folger was handed a punishment of being forced to drop a position, while sitting several seconds ahead of the rider behind him. Giving up the position cost him over five seconds, and dropped him into the middle of a group scrapping for position. It also took Folger so long to drop back to the group that he was handed an additional penalty in the form of a ride through.
Folger's penalty was a symptom of a larger problem. As grass runoff has been replaced by asphalt, it has become easier and more tempting for riders to run wide, or as is the case at tracks like Misano, Qatar, Barcelona, Le Mans cut a large part of some corners. Up until the incident with Folger, dropping a position was the automatic penalty handed out by Race Direction (and now, the FIM Stewards Panel). But dissatisfaction with that punishment led to time penalties being imposed.
Though the time penalty system appeared fairer - times were taken through a series of additional timing loops at the track, and the time gained calculated on the average of a rider's laps through a particular section - the penalties were opaque to teams and fans who did not have access to the timing data.
And so Race Direction looked for an alternative, and fairer, option. What they came up with was adding a lane on the outside of a slow corner at each track, through which riders would have to pass. Passing through the lane would automatically impose a time penalty of around three seconds, Race Direction calculated, though when asked at Qatar, the riders felt it would be a little longer.
"They say that you lose three seconds," Valentino Rossi explained. I" think a little bit more, but it's not so bad. For me, it's more right compared to giving up one position, because sometimes if you give up one position, sometimes you lose half a second, but sometimes you lose five seconds. So this loop is always the same, so it's not so bad."
Speaking to Neil Morrison, Race Director Mike Webb explained the thinking behind the new penalty. At some tracks, there were a lot of riders exceeding track limits, especially in Moto3 and Moto2, Webb said. "When there’s a lot of [riders exceeding the track], it's difficult to manage from our point of view. If we give them the standard penalty, the change of position penalty, it's difficult to manage during the race. Plus it's quite unfair, depending on how close the rider behind you is. You can be giving up more time or less time by dropping a position. We’ve been looking to find a more fair and easy penalty for quite a while. This is our latest attempt.'
The penalty was inspired by the 'joker lane' in Rallycross, and similar penalties in Formula E. The aim is to have a consistent penalty for all riders, and at all tracks, making it independent of where other riders are on track. "The target is to give a penalty that is the same for everybody, so it doesn’t depend on their track position," Webb said. "And it’s going to end up being, in the amount of time lost, a bit more than dropping a position. We’re happy about that, because the track limits is a nightmare. It’s targeted at track limits infractions during the race, not practice."
In some cases, the existing penalty of dropping a position was barely a punishment at all. When large groups of Moto3 riders are battling for position, giving up one place means ceding a few meters, and hardly affects the outcome of the race at all, Webb explained. "One good thing is that, compared to a Moto3 race, when everyone’s in a group, losing one position is nothing. So losing a significant number of seconds is a greater deterrent and we’re happy about that."
Webb added that the new penalty was not limited to exceeding track limits, it could end up being applied in other situations as well. Any time a rider is seen to gain an advantage unfairly, the FIM Stewards could choose to impose this penalty. "A three-four second penalty is a reasonable penalty for something that happens on track," Webb said. The penalty will be communicated by the rider via board held out by Race Direction staff saying 'Long Lap', and by a message with 'Long Lap' being sent to the dashboard of the bike.
Where the penalty lane is placed will be important from a safety perspective. Race Direction and the FIM Stewards will examine each track for an appropriate area to place the 'Long Loop Lane'. That will always be in a slow corner, where the risks of an incident are minimal. "We want a slow speed," Webb said. "We wouldn’t want turn one. And where there’s an asphalt run off, or where there’s a safety area that you can do something off track. We’ve got our rider experts looking at the safe places at all the circuits we go to and we’ll do a similar thing wherever we go."
It had taken some time to get to this situation. But with all parties happy, including the riders, the proposal was put to the Grand Prix Commission, who adopted it. At Qatar, it gets its first outing.
The press release announcing the change appears below:
FIM Grand Prix World Championship
Decision of the Grand Prix Commission
The Grand Prix Commission, composed of Messrs. Carmelo Ezpeleta (Dorna, Chairman), Paul Duparc (FIM), Herve Poncharal (IRTA) and Takanao Tsubouchi (MSMA), in an electronic meeting held on 1 March 2019 made the following decision:
Sporting and Disciplinary Regulations
Long Lap Penalty
When the FIM MotoGPTM Stewards impose a Change of Position penalty on a rider, for Track Limits, or any other reason, there is a possibility of it being unfair, (depending on whether a rider is close to others or not) and it is also difficult to monitor when there are multiple infractions.
To make a more fair and verifiable penalty, the Grand Prix Commission, after consultation with the Safety Commission, have agreed to introduce a new “Long Lap Penalty”.
At every circuit a route will be defined and marked at a safe point around the track, (usually an asphalt runoff area outside of a turn), which is some seconds slower than the normal racing line. The penalised rider must ride through the defined area within 3 laps of being notified, thereby suffering a penalty equivalent to several seconds, (typically 2 or more seconds), on that lap. Procedures will be in place to enable the Stewards to use an equivalent time penalty in case the rider is unable to complete the Long Lap, (e.g. in case of a red flagged race).
This penalty will be added to the list of sanctions available to the FIM MotoGP Stewards, and whilst it is primarily intended for track limits violations, it may be used in any circumstances deemed appropriate by the Stewards. The drop position penalty will continue being available to the Stewards.