“So the lunatics ARE running the asylum,” was the text, presumably aimed at the riders, which appeared on my phone as the fiasco otherwise known as the Argentine round of WorldSBK unfolded over the weekend.
But if it was referring to the six riders who refused to ride in the first leg on Saturday because they believed the track was too dangerous, then, in my opinion, it was aimed at the wrong people. It is the responsibility of the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme) to make sure that a championship circuit in a world series comes up to certain safety standards. It didn’t.
The FIM are supposed, well in advance of the meeting, to inspect the circuit – gravel traps, run off areas, track surface, facilities etc. – and if it doesn’t come up to spec they don’t homologate it and the race doesn’t run.
This process should’ve been started a year ago. They knew they had problems last year when the then-new surface broke up in places. As I understand it, after last year’s inaugural meeting there was a small list of problems, mostly to do with the track surface, which had to be rectified in order for homologation to be granted for this year’s event.
That’s fine, teething problems are to be expected and they would normally send an inspector, and maybe a rider, three or four months before the event to ensure the work had been done. If everything has been completed to requirements it’s fine, homologation granted.
If all the work hasn’t been carried out, homologation is refused and the event is removed from the calendar, way before flights have been booked, hotel rooms reserved, bikes and equipment packed into flight cases and the local populous has spent their hard-earned on tickets.
In this case some of the resurfacing work was still being carried out a week before the bikes were going to be on track. Way too late. The teams and riders arrived to find two major problems: Firstly the track was very dusty, especially off the racing line and secondly, the newly-surfaced sections became really slippy when the temperature went up every afternoon.
Neither of these issues would’ve been a problem if known about six months ago. New tarmac is often a bit green and will settle down with use and time, and sweepers could’ve been arranged to get rid of most of the dust but when you discover all this only when bikes have gone on track your options are obviously going to be a bit limited.
It should never, ever have come down to riders trying to take affairs into their own hands. It matters little whether there were six riders refusing to race or 16, when riders are doing that something has gone wrong in the months before, not in the days before.
Once you get to a meeting there are all sorts of pressures – from teams, from the championship and from yourself. If, like Michael van der Mark or Alex Lowes, you’re battling for third in a championship you’re going to ride whether you consider it safe or not.
If you have a 24-point lead in a championship and you get to the last round and somebody starts muttering about safety, you might immediately agree and vote not to race. If you have a 20-point deficit you might think very differently and see an opportunity when half the paddock refuses to race. You must listen to the riders because it is their life at stake but not just before a meeting when everyone may have different opinions according to their circumstance.
Riders have to be consulted on safety matters but putting them in a situation where some or all of them must make a decision to race or not on the day creates a problem. Everyone has different opinions as to what ‘safe’ means and it is affected by what they can gain and what incentive they have to ride or not ride. Racing motorcycles at those speeds with that much power has an inherent danger, as do many other sports. Well, the exciting ones anyway…
Would I have ridden? I think I would because I would have probably gone with the majority. Now I’m not saying that’s right. I raced in the Isle of Man, the Ulster GP, the North West 200, Macau and my list of favourite short circuits would include some that are now considered unsafe for world championship racing. But then again I never raced a 240 horsepower motorbike so you could say any opinion I have is a bit out of date. In my day I would have raced but that is not to say that what anybody did here was right or wrong.
I think some riders were put under pressure to race by their teams but others were given a free choice. Jonathan Rea, who had already won the championship, claimed he was not under any pressure and why should he be? Or Bautista who said from the start that he was going to race when his team mate Chaz Davies decided not to when the track temperature was high.
As mentioned earlier Lowes and van der Mark had their own reasons (championship positions) for wanting to race. There were lots of rumours floating around about riders being fined or threatened with the sack if they didn’t ride. But putting a gun to someone’s head is not going to work with anyone of any stature.
The fallout from this is two fold. On a personal level there are going to be riders who have lost a bit of respect for each other on the basis that some stuck together and others broke ranks. That is not a good thing. The paddock has always been a friendly place, with a sort of band of brothers feel because you’re all doing the same thing and a dangerous thing.
The second is that the riders have to respect and trust their organisation the FIM (to whom each one pays a licence fee) to have their best interests at heart or, at least, their safety at heart. If the riders come to believe that all their organisation thinks about is money then they’ll think, ‘What’s the point?’
Of course, organisations have their own pressures. It is a sport but a professional sport and it has to be run on that basis with a balance being struck between riders, teams, spectators, viewers. Not easy.
But all this should’ve been sorted out here long before last weekend, even if it meant flying someone like Leon Camier out there with a bike to have a lash round. That should’ve happened. It didn’t.
There is a guy who goes out to circuits pre-meeting and says what needs to be done. But what appears to have happened in this case is that promises were made to make things right in time for the meeting. But when they got back there they were still painting the place and putting the tarmac down!
Most circuits have to deal with their own local issues. The Villicum circuit is in quite a remote place, high up and the landscape is quite barren. Not exactly a desert but it is quite dusty. Other circuits, like Qatar, suffer from dust too. Cadwell used to be covered in moss under the trees when it hadn’t been used for a while. Kyalami is so high above see level that bikes produce less power. But if you know about these things you can plan for them…
So, why do we go to Argentina? Well, the championship needs to explore new countries, new markets and new circuits. And it was a great success last year with 80,000 turning up for the weekend although a lot less this year. The Villicum circuit, setting aside its teething problems, is fantastic and in a beautiful part of the world, right in the foothills of the Andes, it’d be a shame not to go back.
But let’s just have a deadline six months before the meeting, any meeting, where there has to be certainty that it can be run properly or cancelled saving everybody a lot of money and a lot of aggro.