There is one vital point that should be taken as read when discussing the issue of penalties for infringing the rules, and that is that there is no perfect answer. If there were, someone would have hit on it by now. The real question is: What is the least worse way of imposing a bit of discipline? The alternative is to leave them to get on with it, and indeed that works most of the time in top classes. In all sports that involve contact or danger, the players themselves tend to set the rules not the referee or umpire. Frankly, the front row of a rugby scrum is un-policeable because no-one understands what the hell is going on except the six people involved. If someone oversteps the line, self-policing tends to take place. An old racer at the recent Classic Bike Show told me how John Cooper put him in the straw bales on the last lap of a big race. “He sent me a nice letter in hospital and a check for a new fairing. None of the bloody prize money though.” Watching the two Ducatis at Barcelona this week brought to mind an incident at Cadwell Park a few years ago when my old colleague Keith Huewen was put on the grass, and you’re lucky to find any run-off at that place. Later in the day, the guilty party found himself spearing into the straw bales. “That was a bit harsh. Keith!” The facts of life were explained.
Amusing as these tales are, there is no way in the era of social media anyone can do anything like that now. Hell, we still don’t really know what Freddie did to Kenny at Anderstorp in 1983, but I’ve already seen what Rinaldi and Bassani did today from six different angles including on-board and slow motion.
The cry from all parts of the paddock is “All we want is consistency.” Ah, yes. They said that about exceeding track limits. Race Direction said OK, we’ll use sensors. That way you’re either in or you’re out, it’s binary, no mistakes, no moaning. What happened? More moaning, this time about being only a millimetre over the line, or it was the last lap, or it didn’t affect the result. The lesson is that you can have rigidly consistent application of rules or you can have ‘common sense.’ You really can’t have both.
Other sports have managed to adapt to new technology and instant replays, starting with – of all things – cricket, the most arcane of sports. The Hawkeye tracker was first used to predict the statistically most likely path of the ball in 2000. Tennis, that other hotbed of revolution, followed in 2006. Those two and other sports assimilated new technology almost seamlessly without altering the nature or ethos of their games. The other aspect of this, and the thing that MotoGP really needs to look at, is how decisions are explained. The best example here is rugby where a referee will make decisions about how to punish a rule infringement live. For instance, if there is a high tackle he may ask for a TV replay. He (or she) will say something along the lines of “High tackle by number 6 so that’s a red-card offense, is there any mitigation?” The video official, or the ref’s assistants who are watching a big screen as are the spectators, may say something like, “Number 10 slipped and was falling, that’s mitigation, agreed?.” And the guilty party is sin-binned, not thrown out of the game. The process may be longer than my simplified example, but the point is that no-one is in any doubt about what’s going on and the process is totally open on live TV. Fans get an explanation of the decision and the game has restarted before the victim’s had all their stitches inserted. Compare that to the the MotoGP stewards; no explanations, ever, and a cult of secrecy that would have been envied by the Inquisition.
It is, however, important to separate the decisions of the people who decide on the penalties from the actual penalties themselves, they are separate issues. MotoGP has swung away from retrospective penalties to in-race penalties. Of those, I have always thought the order to drop one place was fraught with problems. I recall one Misano race where the next rider was about eight seconds back, and another where the rider penalised was in a group dice. One situation clearly inequitable, the other impossible as well as dangerous. Long-lap penalties are the most recent innovation, brought in because stop-and-go penalties and pit-lane ride-throughs tended to produce overly harsh results. The only real problem with all those is that you can’t apply them in the last three laps so end up with a time penalty being applied after the event. So the spectators and viewers aren’t watching reality, always a good way to turn people off, like aggregate races only not quite as bad. I recall one two-part race at Mugello where someone (Aoki?) was leading part two by a distance and I had to keep explaining that he was in twenty-second place. I could feel viewers switching off as I spoke. Hence flag-to-flag races.
The only system that, in my opinion, avoids more problems than it creates is points, with totting up leading to increasingly harsh penalties at the next race. It does mean there can be no in-race penalty but in my opinion that is more than outweighed by the fact that everyone, including spectators and TV viewers, knows exactly what is going on. It also gives the chance for the authorities to look at relevant data. But of course you still need Race Direction to apply those penalties with regard to established parameters and precedent.
That is currently most certainly not happening at MotoGP where technical regulations and new formats have forced riders to increase the level of risk they have to deal with for even the most straightforward overtaking manoeuvre. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a penalty less deserved than Quatararo’s at Jerez and Bagnaia’s was nearly as ridiculous. By the standards of those decisions, Miller should have been shot at dawn! Yet the kids in Moto3 continually ignore some basic survival techniques without sanction. If you really want to fear for life and limb, I suggest watching some Supersport 300. But again, what should we expect when bikes of that type are put on big wide tracks like Barcelona with kids on them? Nevertheless, a lot of them should have been putting the bike in the van before the race started last week.
As I said right at the start, there is no right answer here. But what, based on observation and experience, is the least worst? In my opinion, the first guiding principle should be that what we are seeing on track is reality. If at all possible, avoid in-race penalties and especially time penalties that are added after the flag: “And Bubba finishes third – but he’s really sixth.” Yes, I know Race Direction has to retain the power to throw a black flag or to act in exceptional circumstances. Which leads to the other obvious requirement, which is that Race Direction or the Stewards explain how they came to their decision and do it quickly. And that explanation should show exactly which rules or precedents they are using, as in any legal framework. Other than that, leave the top guys to sort it out. If the Moto3 and Supersport 300 kids keep weaving, touring on the racing line, and crashing on slowdown laps, get medieval on their asses.