Why MotoGP’s latest stewarding moan highlights a rules of engagement flaw

Complaints about officiating in sport is a tale almost as old as time itself. Stewarding in MotoGP has come under an immense amount of fire over the past few years, largely for its inconsistency, which has often led to some bizarre calls.

While riders have often been outspoken on this, and crunch talks were held last year after some big flashpoints in the first part of the 2023 campaign (much of which emanating from the wake of the Marc Marquez penalty wording reversal saga), things have gotten heated again.

At the Spanish Grand Prix, Johann Zarco regaled to the media how he launched into a tirade against chief FIM steward Freddie Spencer (who is also twice a 500cc world champion) and the fact he felt the American was incompetent in his role. This was sparked by the way his hearing over an incident with Aleix Espargaro was handled following the grand prix, though from the latter’s report this led onto Zarco laying into Spencer on numerous problems.

Zarco rowed back on this at the French GP, saying his conduct was unprofessional and that he held a positive meeting with the stewards to discuss many topics to better MotoGP officiating.

After the French GP, following a run-in with Enea Bastianini that forced him off track on lap 12 of 27 and a similar one with Franco Morbidelli on the final tour, Espargaro took aim at the stewards.

«[With] Enea I had to pick up the bike, it was very quick. But Franco also, If I didn’t pick up the bike I would also crash,” Espargaro said. “So the feeling is that they just put a penalty if you crash. But you have to judge and penalise the action, not the outcome, not the result.

“If I hold the line we both had a big fly, we were very fast and I saw the replay, he [Bastianini] was far when he attacked me. I didn’t really understand.

“I lost my race. I wasn’t that bad at that stage of the race. Not really to fight for the victory, for the podium, but I was good. But I lost six seconds there.”

He added: “They [the stewards] saw the images, they didn’t act. They say, ‘I would like that you come and explain’. We try. But nothing changes, I don’t mind keeping going.”

Triple MotoGP race winner Espargaro has long been a voice of reason in the MotoGP paddock, but does have a reputation for letting his emotions get the better of him and that sometimes softens his arguments. But in the interest of fairness, Motorsport.com feels both incidents Espargaro has spoken about deserve a further review.

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing

Aleix Espargaro, Aprilia Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Bastianini run-in – Lap 12, Turn 9, French GP

As you can see in the video below, Espargaro leads Ducati’s Bastianini coming out of the double right at Turn 8.

Espargaro has a bit over a bike length in hand over the Ducati rider and remains ahead as they begin the braking phase for the Turn 9 right-hander. As he begins to tip in, Bastianini is still lining up the move and gets alongside as Espargaro begins to bank slightly.

There is space on the inside, but Bastianini is clearly carrying too much speed because he never gets near the apex and has to take the escape route through Turn 10. Espargaro is forced to check up here and runs straight on.

His claims of losing six seconds are wide of the mark; his previous lap was a 1m32.635s vs a 1m33.727s taking the escape road, while his gap to first went from 2.531s to 4.414s.

But he did end up losing two positions from sixth down to eighth, as Bastianini held sixth while Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo took advantage to climb to seventh. Bastianini was given a long lap penalty, but for cutting the chicane at Turns 9/10. He ended up recovering to fourth at the chequered flag.


Morbidelli incident – Lap 27, Turn 12, French GP

This incident never made it to the live feed, but as you can see from the motogp.com snippet below that there is footage of it.

Because of the lack of angles available to us, this one is much harder to judge as we don’t have any of the build-up to this in the same way we do with the Bastianini incident.

Pramac Ducati rider Morbidelli does appear to have gained a decent amount on Espargaro on the dash from Turn 11 to 12 and gets almost halfway alongside.

But Espargaro is, once again, beginning to lean into the corner as Morbidelli tried to complete his overtake. What we can’t see from this angle is if there is any contact, nor clearly how much space there is to the apex.

Espargaro was seventh at the time of this incident and drops to ninth afterwards. His lap time drops from a 1m32.931s on the previous tour to 1m34.332s, while the gap to the leader goes from 8.932s to 11.392s.


What do the rules say?

Both of these incidents ultimately went unpunished. The latter incident with Morbidelli could be chalked up to the rules of engagement being given some leniency (as is often the case) in last-lap battles.

Espargaro noting that he had to sit up to avoid an incident weakens his argument somewhat because that suggests that there was still room enough for Morbidelli to be there.

The Bastianini incident is clearer cut, however, as it’s obvious that the Ducati rider was not going to make the overtake successfully had Espargaro still been on his outside and a long lap penalty for that as well as the shortcut was merited.

The FIM’s rule book, under Article 1.21.2 states: “Riders must ride in a responsible manner which does not cause danger to other competitors or participants or gain an unfair advantage, either on the track or in the pitlane. Any infringement of this rule may be penalised by the FIM MotoGP Stewards.”

The stewards could argue that Bastianini didn’t gain any advantage because he was subsequently penalised for another incident. But by that standard, it’s hard to see how Morbidelli doesn’t gain an unfair advantage by sticking his bike up the inside and expecting Espargaro to move out of the way.

Ultimately, that’s a matter of opinion when there is no escalation of those actions such as contact or even a crash. MotoGP’s stewards try their best to ensure racing is allowed to take place without being overly restrictive while also assuring it is as fair as possible.

But the wording of that regulation does leave little room for actions to be penalised relative to consequences. And ultimately, the action has to be the main factor behind a punishment rather than the reaction or else the precedent is set that any action is fine so long as the consequence doesn’t fall into what is deemed either an ‘unfair advantage ’or ‘causing danger’ to a competitor.

What will be some frustration to Espargaro – and to any rider caught in a similar position – is that penalties have been dished out for far less. At the 2023 Spanish GP, Francesco Bagnaia was ordered to drop a position after an aggressive overtake on Jack Miller at the Turn 6 hairpin (watch here).

There was less room than either of the moves Espargaro was on the receiving end of at Le Mans this year and there was the slightest of touches. If the defence on the Morbidelli move is that it was just hard racing, then surely the same was true of Bagnaia/Miller at Jerez in 2023?

One particular part of the wording of Article 1.21.2 also doesn’t really make sense in the context of motor racing, because any action could be deemed to “cause danger” to a rival. Bagnaia’s contact with Marc Marquez at Turn 10 at Jerez this year as they battled for the Spanish GP lead could be deemed as such.

Franceso Bagnaia, Marc Marquez, Gresini Racing

Franceso Bagnaia, Marc Marquez, Gresini Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Mercifully, it went unpunished, but it does beg the question: why is ‘danger’ and ‘unfairness’ concepts so vaguely dictated in a rulebook almost 300 pages long?

And that’s kind of the rub. The people defining that aren’t on the bikes, and the ones who are will always feel one way or the other depending on how an action has impacted them.

Was Espargaro hard done by at Le Mans? There is enough to suggest that yes, he was. Do the stewards have a difficult job? Unbelievably so. But are the rules of engagement comprehensive enough?

Arguably, no, they’re not.

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