James Whitham: Was Tom Sykes treated fairly? - Bikesport News

James Whitham: Was Tom Sykes treated fairly?

Picture: Impact Images

That was the question on everybody’s lips and keyboards as they left Donington Park’s WorldSBK round on Sunday.

The general consensus was that he wasn’t and somebody should be held responsible for making a bad decision. And that was certainly Tom Sykes’ view when he confronted race director Stuart Higgs after discovering he had been (apparently) robbed of second place.

But in actual fact it wasn’t anybody’s decision to make. It is just the actual rules, whatever you may think of them, to cover every eventuality. The trouble is that nobody really understands many of the rules other than the people who implement them, especially those for situations which very rarely happen. And there have to be rules for every possible situation.

The rule in question says that in a red-flag situation the riders, and their bikes not directly involved in the incident causing the stoppage, in this case Peter Hickman, have to make it back to the start within five minutes to be considered a finisher.

In the past they used to count back to the previous full lap if there was a stoppage (and the race had gone over two-thirds distance). The problem with that system was that it was possible to win a race from the gravel trap.

This happened to me in the Silverstone WSS race in 2002. It was a wet race and I crashed out of the lead with three laps to go. It happened that race direction had decided to red-flag the race because of standing water building up, at the precise second I was cart-wheeling towards the barrier.

The result was determined by going back to the last lap where the whole field had crossed the start and finish line, in this case the lap before, and what do you know at that point I was still in the lead. I obviously took the world championship points and prize money but I have to admit that it didn’t seem fair to the riders who hadn’t crashed.

This newer rule, so far as I am aware, is to stop someone who has caused the red flags being given a result or, in the event of it being resumed, starting again. It is a real quirky little rule which has to be there but I have to say that on this occasion it did not seem quite fair to many people, and I have sympathy with Tom, in not understanding the rules and, in fact, in commentary there was a bit of confusion.

This is because different rules can apply, for example in the Superpole race a result can be called after 50 per cent of the race which, in that case, is five laps not two-thirds which is the rule in a ‘normal‘ race.

And does it seem reasonable to require riders to get their bikes, lying bent in the mud, back to the start in five minutes. Especially when the race is not going to be restarted. But the fact is, and I chatted to the organisers afterwards, that everyone races to a set of rules otherwise there is chaos.

This is one which has been put in place and it would therefore be difficult, indeed inappropriate, not to implement it if and when the situation arises.

The fact is, and I said it at the time, the red flags went out as the leaders got to Craner Curves and were displayed round the track from then on at every marshal post, with waved diminished adhesion flags (oil flags) at the three posts before the incident.

They also get a message on their dash saying the race has been stopped. The riders knew there was a red-flag situation somewhere round the track and, as a rider, you would assume that if you first saw the red flags near the beginning of the lap then the incident was likely to be somewhere in front of you and you could expect to come across it.

The rules say that under red-flag conditions you slow down and should be prepared to stop because you don’t know what you might encounter.

My argument would be that regardless of what you think to the rules or whether they should be implemented or not, the front bunch of riders came over that hill before the Melbourne loop going reasonably quickly. If you fall off on oil and your bike goes barrel-rolling 60 or 70 metres nearly swiping a marshal, who fortunately jumped out of the way, you are still cracking on in my opinion.

So my question is, and this doesn’t apply only to Tom Sykes, why were they going as fast as they were, making it necessary to brake on the oil at all? Everybody is getting bogged down with rules that shouldn’t have been needed in this case anyway because nobody should’ve crashed after the race was stopped.

Whether you think there should have been marshals on the track waving vigorously to divert them away from the oil, or whether you think the riders should’ve been diverted back to the pits via the old national circuit chicane is irrelevant.

When you come out of the Foggy Esses it is completely blind until you crest the hill and have about 150 metres to the Melbourne loop. So in a red-flag situation you should be coming over that rise at a pace able to avoid whatever is on the track ahead of you.

I have a load of sympathy for Tom Sykes but if he had been doing 40mph he wouldn’t have fallen off. He was, of course, not the only one. The other two riders with him led by Jonathan Rea were doing the same thing. I am sure they are going to fall out with me for saying it but, in my humble they were going too quick.

Should the rule be changed? Maybe, but if a rule is in place you work to it. And I am sure if you asked 20 riders on the grid ‘change to what’ you would get 20 different answers. The rule is in place in an attempt to make a situation which is never going to be fair just a little fairer.

For those of you not asleep by now I cannot avoid mentioning the performances of our two greatest riders at the moment, Jonathan Rea and Cal Crutchlow.

Rea’s three wins at Donington giving him leadership of the World Superbike Championship were exceptional and has set the battle with Bautista alight. After the last race of the weekend his words to me were “We’re making hay while the sun shines” so he expects a battle ahead.

But his performance in the wet race on Saturday where he was lapping two seconds a lap faster than riders of quality was amazing. What made him go that fast, he didn’t need to?

Crutchlow was unbelievable at Sachsening. He was lifted on to his bike from his crutches, the result of a broken leg, and finished third. Absolutely amazing. On the way back from Donington Matt Roberts and I were discussing Crutchlow. We are both fans, not only because of his riding but his sheer doggedness and resilience.

How the hell do you break your leg - and he’s done it before with his ankle - and still be fighting for rostrums in MotoGP. It seems he’s almost at his best when he’s been knocked about and has had to pick himself up.

He definitely doesn’t get the recognition he deserves but then which top motorcyclist in this
country does? Crutchlow is his own man, perhaps not particularly media friendly but neither was Carl Fogarty in that respect.

Nowadays, it is more difficult because nobody is allowed to say what they think. Being a character used to be good, not any more. Ah well

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