Common Tread

MotoGP: How the best of times became the worst of times

Nov 05, 2015

After the Phillip Island MotoGP round, with more than 50 passes among the top four riders and a tightened points battle, several commentators gushed that 2015 was one of the best seasons in many years. Even decades, some said.

A week later, after the seventh lap at Sepang and all that followed it, some of those same comentators were disgusted with the season and even the sport.

Now, we may end up with that most dissatisfying of all outcomes in sports: a championship decided not on a fair playing field, but in a courtroom. How quickly we went from declaring these the best of times to the worst of times.

Update: Shortly after we posted this article, the Court of Arbitration for Sport denied Valentino Rossi's request to suspend his penalty until his case is heard. That means he will start the race at Valencia Sunday from the back of the grid.

Before we look at the legal wrangling that may prove crucial in determining who wins this year's MotoGP world championship, let's see how the matter could be decided on the track Sunday at the Motul Comunitat Valenciana Grand Prix. Unless the court intervenes, Valentino Rossi will start the race at the back of the field, because of the penalty for his actions at Sepang that led to Marc Márquez's crash. Rossi will have to pass a lot of riders to keep from losing his seven-point lead over teammate Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo has more wins this year, six to Rossi's four, so if they tie in points, Lorenzo is world champion. That sets the table for these scenarios, if Rossi is to hold on to the lead he has had all season and win a 10th world championship at age 36.

How Rossi can win the championship
If Lorenzo finishes: Rossi must finish:
1 2
2 3
3 6
4 9
5 11
6 12
7 13
8 14
9 15

What this shows is that Rossi's job of cutting through the field and getting close enough to Lorenzo becomes far, far easier if the two Repsol Hondas can get in front of Lorenzo and stay there. The progressive nature of the points heavily favors those who finish on the podium.

Of course it's possible Rossi will not start at the back of the field. Race Direction imposed the penalty in Sepang and Rossi's team appealed. The FIM stewards unanimously upheld the penalty. But Rossi took his appeal to the next level, the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Since the case won't be heard until after the season is over, Rossi asked the court to suspend the penalty. That would allow him to start the race Sunday wherever he qualifies, and if the court later denies his appeal, he'll have to take that penalty at some future race. Of course the likelihood is that Rossi will never have a more important race than this one, so taking the penalty at some future date will make it less costly.

The court will issue a decision on the suspension of the penalty by Friday. We'll report it here when we hear the news. (Editor's note: See update above.)

More than what happened on track

Meanwhile, what has so many people disillusioned is not just what happened on the track between Rossi and Márquez, but all that has followed. Rossi and Márquez are unrepentant and sticking to their positions, even when the evidence doesn't support them. Lorenzo, who had the chance to act like a champion and stay above the fray, instead stalked off the Sepang podium to complain bitterly that his teammate, Rossi, deserved harsher punishment.

Honda issued a news release about the incident, claiming to cite only the agreed-upon facts but referring to a "kick" by Rossi that caused Márquez to crash at Sepang. This despite the fact that exhaustive review of slow-motion footage led all but the most biased commentators to conclude that Rossi's leg moved after contact from Márquez's head, so it was not really a "kick." Rossi is guilty of several things, and Honda says telemetry does show a spike in braking on Márquez's bike (and photos appear to confirm that the lever guard was displaced). But Rossi is not guilty of kicking Márquez. Yamaha responded with its own release.

In case you haven't already seen it too much, here's the incident again.

Fans traded nasty comments on social media. Spaniards and Italians drew up sides. An Italian TV show known for bedeviling celebrities went to Márquez's house and an ugly scene ensued.

Even Dorna, the MotoGP organizer, showed a poor understanding of public relations by cancelling the usual pre-event press conference at Valencia. Any PR professional will tell you the way to handle a crisis is to give out more information, not less. The hundreds of journalists covering the final MotoGP round won't decide to write nothing because there's no press conference. They'll just be more likely to write rumor and speculation.

What was, a few weeks ago, an exciting points battle between one of the all-time greats, the most popular motorcycle racer in history, and his surgically precise and demoralizingly fast teammate, has been stripped of much of its appeal. That Valencia promotional video I posted a couple of weeks ago? Seems like a joke, now. (Though I suppose the promoters don't mind, since all tickets to the race have long ago sold out.)

Why this bothers us so much

One of the reasons people love sports is the clarity of it. Life is ambiguous. How are we really doing on the job? How do we measure up with what we owe to our families and friends? And nobody knows when the game will be over. By contrast, a sporting contest is clear. The buzzer sounds or the checkered flag falls and someone is a winner, someone else is not. That's why an asterisk is the worst thing to see in a record book. It drags messy, real-word complexity into the sporting realm we escape to for clear outcomes and definitive winners.

Whatever happens on the track at Valencia or in a European court, the 2015 MotoGP season is going to need an explanation beyond the numbers in the record books. And while it's excessively dramatic to say we went from the best of times to the worst of times — nobody has died, after all — that is the reason we'll never feel quite as good about this season as we did in Phillip Island.