Picking up the pieces

For a country that can boast a landscape as stunning as Patagonia and cities as rich in history, culture and zest as Buenos Aires, the Province of Santiago del Estero where one can find Termas de Rio Hondo is surprisingly unremarkable. Well, unremarkable by Argentinean standards anyway.

The flat, green fields and quiet, dusty towns that mark the region are a far cry from the scenery that adorns the country’s tourist board campaigns. Just as well for the area, then, its local racetrack ticks all the boxes.

Even by MotoGP’s recent theatrics, last year’s 24-lap contest in Argentina still stands out. The record for closest top tens and top 15s have repeatedly fallen over the past 24 months, and multi-rider freight trains have become a common sight, but the sheer volume of mouth-gaping drama on show during the 2018 event went way-beyond the 40 minutes and 36 seconds of race time.

As trite as it sounds, last year’s event really did have it all. From the downright daring of Jack Miller’s pole position lap in qualifying – set using slick tyres on a wet-but-drying track – to the subsequent furore that surrounded the grid formation, the spectacle was only getting started when 23 riders set off toward turn one five rows behind the Australian.

Such was the commotion behind the lead group of four, Cal Crutchlow’s victory – the 750th for a Honda rider across all class – over an unlikely trio of riders including Johann Zarco, Alex Rins and Miller had to take an undeserved backseat in the weeks that followed. Marc Marquez’s on-the-limit display was something to behold; a last-to-fifth sweep through the field that left a string of scuffed leather in his wake but showed that even the very best can occasionally lose their heads.

To see him getting affronted by a hoard of Valentino Rossi fans in the paddock before father Julià screamed them away, led one to fear for his safety – a state that wasn’t helped by his shrugging in the face of Yamaha-led indignation later that Sunday evening.

Sepang 2015 aside (a weekend where championship pressures were approaching unbearable) has a race in the past 20 years ever enjoyed such a comprehensive fallout in the weeks that followed? Even by the end of 2018, there was tweaks and changes to the decision-making process that date back to this particular cloudy afternoon.

First, there were rightful questions aimed at Race Direction and the FIM Stewards during a race. Marquez was not alone in feeling the brunt of ill will of his fellow riders. Danilo Petrucci came in for intense criticism from Aleix Espargaro after the Italian touched the Aprilia man early into the race. Johann Zarco was the subject of Dani Pedrosa’s ire after a first lap collision pushed the then Honda rider off-line, which resulted in him flying toward the clouds.

But ultimately Marquez’s antics were what caused a change. “What else does he have to do to be black flagged? Remove the black flag from the rules, we are not using it,” said Espargaro the elder at the next race.

There were subsequently heated exchanges at the Safety Commission meeting on the Friday at the Circuit of the Americas. As a result, Dorna, and Race Direction and the FIM Stewards, vowed to penalise each on-track incident one degree harsher than before. The results were immediate: Pol Espargaro and Marquez received grid place penalties during qualifying for round three. Scrutiny surrounding the decision making of the FIM Stewards intensified.

This in turn led to the appointment of Freddie Spencer, who now heads the Stewards Panel, an appointment that allows Race Director Mike Webb to get on with the job of race directing.

Such was the confusion regarding the start in Argentina, as riders scampered to pit lane to change from wet to dry tyres, rules regarding such situations were soon revised and clarified. From Mugello, it was determined a rider would have to start the race from his original grip position but serve a ride-through penalty.

And while Marquez and Rossi were never going to reach the back slapping love-in levels of 2013 in the wake of their Sepang contretemps, there had definitely been a thawing in relations prior to this encounter. Before then, the pair could occasionally be seen swapping brief exchanges in press conferences. Rossi even went as far as seeking the Spaniard out for compliments in parc fermé at Phillip Island the year before.

This exchange put paid to that. From there, relations reverted to rock bottom. Rossi’s feelings could be handily surmised by the reaction of best friend Alessio ‘Uccio’ Salucci in the Movistar Yamaha garage as Marquez approached post-race to offer an apology with Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig and personal manager Emilio Alzamora in tow.

Even when he warred with Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi didn’t reach for the extremes in his exchanges with the press as he did here. “He [Marquez] destroyed our sport,” “He doesn’t have any respect for his rivals” and “He hopes that you crash” were just a number of highlights from the verbal barrage he aimed at his great rival later that Sunday evening.

Some may argue Marquez maintained a quiet dignity in the wake of it all. But a refusal to accept his wrongs from that afternoon did little to endear him to the watching public. It wouldn’t have done him any harm to acknowledge his role in part of the chaos that had played out. Instead his reaction was a little too adamant he was not in the wrong – a rare blemish in an otherwise near-impeccable year.

By Neil Morrison @neilmorrison87

Photos by Monster Energy/Milagro

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