Don't Cheek The Beak, Or Why Marco Simoncelli Has Been Called To Face Race Direction At Barcelona
I'm sure you're all familiar with the situation - after all, if you're reading a motorcycle racing website, the chances are good that you are no stranger to speed - you're out for a ride or a drive somewhere, and you get pulled over by the local constabulary. There are a number of responses to getting stopped by the long arm of the law: loudly protesting your innocence and shouting at the officer who stopped you; sullenly sitting on your bike and responding to all questions with little more than a Neanderthal grunt; or giving the good man or woman a welcoming smile, admitting your failings (whether you believe the charges to be just or not), claiming it to be totally out of character and promising never to let it happen again. And of the three possible responses, it is fairly obvious which one will receive the lightest sentence (and no, it's not the one where you tell the officer exactly what part of the male or female anatomy they most resemble).
So after all the talk of his dangerous riding, and the incident in which Marco Simoncelli collided with Dani Pedrosa, which Race Direction ruled was caused by Simoncelli, and judged to be "irresponsible riding" - an infraction according to Section 1.21 2) of the MotoGP regulations - the press release put out by the San Carlo Gresini Honda team was rather puzzling. In it, Simoncelli expressed his - undoubtedly sincere - regrets at Pedrosa's injury, but went on to complain that he felt he had done nothing wrong and had been treated unjustly.
Simoncelli then went on to make the classic mistake that has landed so many people in much deeper trouble than they started off in: he attacked the judges. "I believe that my ride through was a result of all the talk over the past few days," Simoncelli said. In other words, he accused Race Direction of bowing to pressure from the riders gathered in the Safety Commission, and led by Jorge Lorenzo. He not only protested his innocence, he questioned the integrity of Race Direction.
Whoever is to blame for the crash at Le Mans, and whatever the rights or wrongs of the penalty awarded against Simoncelli, publicly arguing with Race Direction is not a smart move. Like an uncoming truck at a junction, they may not have right of way, but you'd have to be an idiot to pull out in front of them.
What Simoncelli and his team should have done is taken a leaf out of the book of every crafty teenager on the planet. When being reprimanded for staying out all night without phoning home and turning up the next day with their clothes on back-to-front and reeking of drink, the wily teenager shows contrition under the scolding of their frantic parents, and then promises to mend their ways. Their next step is of course to go out on the very next night, and repeat the process all over again. If Simoncelli had expressed his regret about the situation, muttered platitudes about the penalty, and raved about how encouraging his strong pace was, the whole affair would have blown over. With six races coming up over the next eight weeks, the whole affair would have been forgotten in the hectic mid-season rush, in which the title race is sure to take shape.
But the move is far from clever from Race Direction either. Calling Simoncelli to account three weeks after the fact smacks of being heavily influenced by the intervening media coverage. The root cause of the problem lies not with Simoncelli's behavior, or the discussions in the Safety Commission, but the fact that the riders never really get together and talk, and Race Direction never make it clear to the riders what they will and will not accept. There is very little that MotoGP can learn from Formula One - with the possible exception that switching to vastly inferior tires makes for much more exciting racing - but the compulsory driver briefings held by Formula One are a stroke of genius. Behind closed doors, the drivers can speak their minds, and the stewards can draw the necessary lines in the sand. That MotoGP does not have such meetings is a major failing, as it would allow grievances to be aired away from the intense scrutiny of the media.
The current - frankly overblown - media hullabaloo about rider behavior is the perfect opportunity to introduce such a measure. The riders are currently opposed to having such a meeting, as it would create yet more pressure on an already crowded schedule. However, given that everyone is voicing an opinion in one public forum or another, and a great many riders are calling for some kind of action to be taken - though few seem to be willing to offer specific suggestions - the time is ripe to hijack their goodwill and point it in the right direction. Paul Butler retires from his position as Race Director at the end of this year, handing over the reigns to the current Technical Director Mike Webb. As any departing director or interim manager knows, this is the best opportunity to take impopular decisions. People will bad-mouth you once you leave the sport anyway, blaming you for everything that goes wrong after you leave, and so this is a perfect opportunity to make some painful changes for the better. After all, if rider briefings are compulsory at track days and club race meetings, why aren't they compulsory at the very highest level of motorcycle road racing?