In The Paddock Column

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Race Results Wilting Under Pressure

Is it inevitable that rules spoil racing? Seems so, as a thickening forest of details in the expanding MotoGP rulebook combine to impinge on race results. A matter of not seeing the wood for the trees.

The track-limits controversy is a frequent case in point.

Race podiums and even victories snatched away for the offense of exceeding track limits on the last lap. This carries an automatic penalty: usually drop one position.

Most recently it happened to Brad Binder at Assen. Twice. The KTM rider was set for the podium in both the Sprint and Sunday’s main race, but, on both occasions, he narrowly clipped the green paint on the left kink after the Stekkenwal right-hander.

Deliberate? Definitely not. Any advantage gained? Again, definitely not. A perfectly normal event in the heat of battle. Yet in the Sprint, a three-second penalty dropped him from third to fifth. And in the main race, he dropped from third to fourth.

A natural gentleman, he took his punishment without complaint. And even blamed himself: “I feel like braindead to have done it again,” he said. Yet it remained deeply unfair.

Penalties for exceeding track limits have been around for more than five years. The last-lap refinement had a particular trigger point… at Misano in 2019. In the Moto2 race, rookie Fabio di Giannantonio, riding a Speed Up (ancestor of today’s Boscoscuro) took a maiden pole, and it looked as though he’d done enough to take a maiden win to boot. If only narrowly. Almost all race he’d been under attack from the more experienced Augusto Fernandez, whose Kalex had gotten ahead now and then.

They’d swapped to and fro at the start of the final lap. The crucial moment came into the very fast turn 11, where the Spanish Kalex rider strayed wide onto the green stuff. It gave him a better exit, and through the next corners he lined himself up for a brutal but decisive block pass. He won; Di Giannantonio was less than two-tenths behind.

It looked totally cynical; the stewards sat in judgement, but believed Fernandez’s explanation: he’d been forced wide at turn 11 to avoid colliding with Diggia’s rear tire. The victory stood.

Speed Up team owner Luca Boscoscuro protested. Other riders had been sanctioned at the same event. Why not Fernandez? But the protest was over-ruled, and race direction issued a long-winded statement, pointing out that in the past, track limits were marked not by green paint but in some cases by walls or trees, which imposed very definite penalties for transgressors. From now on, “an infraction on the last lap that has affected a race result must indicate that the rider in question was disadvantaged by exceeding track limits. If the stewards deem there is no clear disadvantage, the rider will be penalized.”

This was the seed that made last-lap infringements so costly.

At least back then the stewards were able to show some judgement. Also known as “common sense.” That ended with the introduction of electronic track-limit sensors. Where once there might be room for a little human error from rider or, indeed, stewards, not anymore. Even a micron onto the green paint triggered automatic punishment.

And led to a series of unfair absurdities that continue all too frequently.

Worse is coming, with the new decision to enforce minimum tire-pressure regulations—front 1.88 bar, rear 1.7 (it is the front that matters). From the British GP, a new regime was to have started: tire-pressure sensors monitor all bikes in real time, and a complex system of sanctions will come into play, if pressures are too low for more than a certain percentage of the race. A sliding scale of penalties runs from a first-offense warning through increasing time penalties up to potential disqualification.

This has the potential to interfere with race results in a major way. But there are also safety concerns.

Front-tire pressures, with the current Michelin tire, are very volatile, and performance of the tire likewise. Out front in cool air, pressures remain lower. Following another bike, the temperature, and thence pressure, soars rapidly. Too high, and you lose grip and crash. Too low, and you’re punished.

Furthermore, pre-race pressure has to be decided before the event. You have to guess whether you will be leading or following. “Washing” the air (two valves allow warm air in a pre-warmed tire to be flushed out with cool air) gives a little wriggle room, but only a little. Pressure choice becomes a strategic imponderable.

The planned Silverstone introduction was abortive, for unknown reasons; but the system is coming. And until Michelin makes a front tire that is less sensitive to pressure changes (or until Bridgestone comes back!) it imposes another barrier to simple first-past-the-post race results.CN


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