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The trust issue created by MotoGP’s stewards that must be fixed

OPINION: The opening round of the 2023 MotoGP season was a dramatic start to the series’ new era. With that came numerous controversies, chief among which was the discontent riders expressed at MotoGP’s stewarding. A recurring issue, it seems trust levels are now at a worrying all-time low

Race start

Race start

Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“It’s unanimous – every rider in the safety commission isn’t happy. I know it’s not easy, but what we don’t feel comfortable with is that it’s always different. They aren’t always equal with the same actions.”

These were the words of Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro, and the ‘they’ he is referring to is MotoGP’s FIM stewards panel – back in August of 2020. Circumstances: the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Indeed, as MotoGP embarked on its new era last weekend at the Portuguese Grand Prix with its new-for-2023 sprint format, the headlines of the weekend are being dominated by controversies.

Riders and the FIM stewards panel have had a fractious relationship for several years now, which isn’t really surprising when you consider its genesis is in one of the series’ most controversial incidents. It was formed after the fallout of Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez’s infamous clash at Sepang in 2015, when the pair fell out spectacularly pre-weekend over championship sabotage allegations levied at the Honda rider by Rossi before colliding on track in the grand prix.

Marquez and Honda were furious, claiming Rossi had kicked Marquez. Fans felt race direction’s decision to award Rossi a back-of-the-grid start for the season-finale and title decider in Valencia was Dorna – a Spanish company – showing clear favouritism to Spanish riders. The entire episode was messy and dampened what was, to that point, one of MotoGP’s finest ever seasons.

In the wake of this, the FIM removed incident judging out of the sole control of race director Mike Webb’s hands and created the stewards panel, which was formed of three individuals whose purpose was to analyse incidents and determine punishments – allowing race direction to get on with its primary function of managing on-track sessions.

Since 2019, the stewards panel has been helmed by double 500cc world champion Freddie Spencer. It was a move that was welcomed by the field when this was announced in 2018, but that quickly changed. Since then, it seems as if MotoGP riders have been trapped in a time loop, complaining constantly about the lack of consistency in stewarding.

As this continues, trust begins to erode, and as MotoGP began the 2023 season this appears to be at an all-time low. That’s worrying when you consider there are 20 rounds still ahead of us and 40 races.

Marini escaped sanction for his contact with Bastianini, which riders have cited as another example of stewarding inconsistency

Marini escaped sanction for his contact with Bastianini, which riders have cited as another example of stewarding inconsistency

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

This all came to a head on Sunday following Marc Marquez’s crash with Miguel Oliveira, which left the former with a fractured hand and the latter with tendon damage – both of whom forced to miss this weekend’s Argentina GP. Marquez was given a double long lap penalty to serve in Argentina, which was issued before he had surgery on Monday and could no longer race at the Rio Hondo event this weekend. This was seen as a lenient punishment for a crash that could have had dire consequences for both. While Marquez made an innocent mistake, that didn’t matter to some.

“For me, they have to ban him for one race, minimum, like they [should have] with Nakagami in Barcelona,” Aleix Espargaro said. “For me, it’s ridiculous. I hope, but I don’t care, I don’t put the rules. I hope Miguel is good because the speed he hit Miguel you can destroy the knee, I know because Bradley Smith [once] hit me in Barcelona and he broke my knee. I had a lot of pain for one year.”

After taking out Francesco Bagnaia and Alex Rins, leaving the latter with a broken wrist, Nakagami’s Turn 1 calamity in Barcelona in 2022 was deemed a racing incident and no penalty was handed out. That raised eyebrows then. But the FIM stewards panel followed the letter of the law when determining Marquez’s punishment.

How you police action and reaction to determine a penalty opens up a legal minefield that has already been dictated by past precedent. This is the impossible situation the stewards panel faces

“In the briefing on Thursday on the rules, that was the penalty,” Marquez explained when told others felt his punishment was lenient. “So, was like if you overtake and you create a dangerous situation and you create a crash of another rider, it’s a double long lap the first time. Then second time I think it’s a pitlane start, and third time is a ridethrough. By the rules they explained in the briefing, it’s a double long lap.”

Insight: 10 things we learned from the 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

As the rule stand, punishments have to be dished out on the action – not the consequence. However, disregarding consequence does open the door to a negative precedent: if a rider trying to recover positions from a bad qualifying or a poor start, for example, knows that the limits they can push may only result in a fairly minor penalty then they will be willing to take some extra risks.

RNF issued its own statement on Tuesday afternoon urging the FIM to impose harsher penalties on what it called “reckless racing”, claiming the Marquez/Oliveira incident “should serve as a wake-up call for riders in MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3”.

Of course, how you police action and reaction to determine a penalty opens up a legal minefield that has already been dictated by past precedent. This is the impossible situation the stewards panel faces, and so any complaints made against it are never black and white.

However, the Marquez incident revealed that the application of a penalty is clearly flexible. On Tuesday morning, the FIM stewards panel issued a statement altering the wording of its own penalty. While it was thought Marquez would not serve the punishment issued specifically for the Argentina GP, as per the stewards’ signed-off document, due to his injury, there has been a U-turn.

Marquez will still have to serve his double long lap penalty for clattering Oliveira, even though he will have to miss Argentina this weekend

Marquez will still have to serve his double long lap penalty for clattering Oliveira, even though he will have to miss Argentina this weekend

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“Following the decision of the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel taken on 26/03/2023 at 15:13, the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel hereby clarifies its decision as regards applicability,” the statement read. “Considering the injury and non-participation of Marc Marquez, Rider #93, at the GRAN PREMIO MICHELIN DE LA REPUBLICA ARGENTINA, and with a view to comply with the intention underlying the decision taken by the FIM MotoGP Stewards Panel, the Double Long Lap Penalty shall be served by the Rider at the next MotoGP Race in which he will be able to participate.”

At this stage, it’s not clear what has prompted this move (though there was considerable backlash on social media about Marquez not serving his penalty, not that mindless keyboard bashing on the internet should ever be a consideration for anything). But the stewards now look weaker than they did in Portugal and the series as a whole looks silly.

Given the next round Marquez is likely to ride in is the Americas GP, which is generally a race earmarked as one he’ll always win, Honda might feel within its rights to lodge a protest at the revised wording of the penalty application – especially if it can find past instances where an injured rider didn’t have a punishment carried over.

The Marquez incident was just the tip of the iceberg. In the sprint race, there were two incidents of note. The first was the clash between Honda’s Joan Mir and Fabio Quartararo on the first lap, which resulted in the former crashing out and the Yamaha rider’s race being impacted. Mir was handed a long lap penalty for the grand prix.

On lap two of the sprint, Luca Marini crashed into Enea Bastianini. The incident left Bastianini with a broken shoulder and was unable to compete in the grand prix, nor will he be able to ride in Argentina. No punishment was given to Marini, who says the crash was triggered by him leaning over one degree more than on the previous tour as he sought to capitalise on Bastianini opening the door slightly.

By the letter of the law, as was told to the riders during their safety briefing, Marini should have been penalised given he – as Marquez put it – “created a dangerous situation and created a crash of another rider”.

“I mean, they have no idea,” Quartararo said of the penalties dished out in Portugal. “We said if someone hits someone and makes them lose time or hurt them, they get a long lap. Joan got a long lap, Marini – I’m sorry he crashed, but he hurt someone else, the other one crashed and broke his shoulder and nothing [happened].

“I don’t know what they [the stewards] are doing, but they must have a change at least. In the briefing it was the main thing, we stayed one hour to talk about one thing, and they didn’t do it.”

Quartararo is one of several riders aggrieved by the current situation

Quartararo is one of several riders aggrieved by the current situation

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Aleix Espargaro noted several incidents that didn’t result in crashes, but were clearly over the limit as far as he was concerned: “There is one thing that I don’t understand. We have one million cameras on the bike. I always say to Dorna I don’t want anymore because of the weight, but I have three or four cameras on my bike.

“Why can they [the stewards] not see these cameras and analyse them? It’s not that difficult. We are not 100 riders, we are 20. It’s just about to repeat anything.

“For me, the action between Mir and Fabio and Alex Marquez and Maverick [Vinales, in the sprint race] were exactly the same, but Joan crashed and Alex didn’t crashed. But Maverick lost five places, eight places. Why did Joan get a penalty and Alex not? I’m not saying Joan needs a penalty, but if you give a penalty to Joan, you need to give it to Alex.

"For Joan it’s a long lap, for another that’s doing the same thing it’s not a penalty. It’s quite similar to last year" Maverick Vinales

“In the past it was the same people working there [in the stewards panel], in the present it’s the same people working there.”

With a wry smile, Vinales said - when asked about the inconsistencies in stewarding in Portugal – “for Joan it’s a long lap, for another that’s doing the same thing it’s not a penalty. It’s quite similar to last year: I think you should ask them.”

It’s easy to dismiss some criticisms of stewarding as riders simply not liking the fact that their actions have consequences, and someone is making them deal with that. But the fact this narrative has been ongoing for the last few years now and the same complaints are being made, while nothing changes proves now – more than ever – the FIM’s stewarding panel needs to be re-evaluated.

Riders need to be able to trust in the process, especially in as dangerous a sport as motorcycle racing – the stark realities of which were laid bare during the Portugal round.

Change is needed, and soon, for riders to once more have trust in the officials

Change is needed, and soon, for riders to once more have trust in the officials

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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