In The Paddock Column

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Hero-Zeros

Dorna’s aim at making the racing closer has been thrillingly successful. But making it so close can make fools out of heroes. Here are some examples. Honda, Yamaha, Quartararo. And the panel of stewards.

Honda is paying the price of having one super-strong rider who then got hurt. Development concentrated on Marc’s extraordinary abilities, which left a machine with shortcomings that only he could ride around. Most of the time.

His prolonged and frequent absences since 2020 left the most successful racing manufacturer scrabbling to find technical direction.

Short of grip, acceleration and, as a consequence, good speed, the bike has left Marc in full-risk mode, as demonstrated all too painfully in the opening round in Portugal, when a crash under braking wiped him and Oliveira out and left him out of action for the next three races. And again in his return at Le Mans, when another front-end fail ended a convincing run to the podium.

Marc Marquez asks, “what are you complaining about?!” (not really) to Bagnaia. But in all seriousness, the riders have not been happy with the Stewards this year.

At least three new factory chassis have obviously not given the bike the balance it needs, while new factory teammate Joan Mir is continuing the crash-crash-crash disaster.

Hence the commissioning of a chassis from the dominant Moto2 specialists Kalex. Whether this is admitting their own designers have run out of ideas or conversely a clever way of short-cutting research, it is almost unprecedented for Honda.

But not quite.

Honda has twice previously had to face being more of an engine than a chassis company.

The first time was in the 1960s, for another timeless racing genius, Mike Hailwood. Narrowly defeated on Honda’s first 500 by Agostini’s MV in 1966 and 1967. Mike dubbed the fast but clumsy bike a camel.

Honda quit GPs at the end of 1967, banning Mike from the championship, but allowing him to contest big-money international races. During 1967 he’d already commissioned and tested a Colin Lyster frame. For 1968 came a chassis by Ken Sprayson, using Reynolds 531 tubing, for two early-season races in Italy. He won one, and was second in the other, after falling and remounting. He never raced the 500 Honda again.

That was unofficial. The factory went shopping on their own account in 1980, the second year of the doomed but still marvelous attempt to beat the pesky two-strokes with the ambitious 20,000-rpm oval-piston NR500. The first monocoque “clamshell” monocoque chassis was an awkward failure, so again British technology was sought, this time from Ron Williams of Maxton.

Good handling couldn’t overcome the ultra-complex bike’s other shortcomings.

So, to 2023, and to German engineers. The Kalex chassis appeared first in post-Jerez tests, and again at the next race at Le Mans, where a stupendous effort by Marquez came within a lap-and-a-half of a podium. Too soon to hail a breakthrough, too late to offer title chances this year. But encouraging all the same.

Having scrutinized how Yamaha’s difficulties have undermined their superhuman star Quartararo a fortnight ago and watching as the trend continued in the French GP, I don’t want to labor the point.

His struggles are painful. His ability to qualify well has gone, and his struggles in mid-pack off the line have seen more prangs than passes, race after race ruined.

The rider’s comments have also become familiar over the past year and more. He explains that while the Yamaha has improved, the others have improved more. And that having to over-ride a bike lacking acceleration has overcome its strong point of corner stability.

So, let’s rather return to the question of Freddie Spencer’s Stewards Panel, who’s special by-invitation visit to the Le Mans riders’ safety meeting did nothing to reverse the growing chorus of complaint. Inconsistent penalties and a lack of transparency were the complaints; the response answered neither. Nor a third one, about pettifogging rules interfering with race results.

His struggles are painful. His ability to qualify well has gone, and his struggles in mid-pack off the line have seen more prangs than passes, race after race ruined.

The panel would examine every single collision and then use its judgement for appropriate sanctions, riders were told. Every touch, no matter how inadvertent or innocuous, would be likely to attract a penalty.

With no further explanation necessary. The panel will exercise its judgement, and it is not to be questioned.

Conversely, however, they are not prepared to exercise judgement in another matter, which frequently affects race results, and often clearly unfairly. In this case, electronics take over from humanity.

This is the automatic “Lose One Place” sanction for exceeding track limits on the last lap, nowadays even by a millimeter, thanks to electronic monitoring equipment.

The penalty applies whether or not the rider gained any advantage. And in a tight battle it’s easy to stray unintentionally, more often by force of circumstances than by intention.

Surely this is an area where considered judgement would be valuable.

Or are the stewards determined to make fools out of heroes, at the risk of the same thing happening to them? CN

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