If You Have A Finger On The Trigger, Make Sure You Chose The Correct Target

After an epic journey to get home from Argentina, I still don’t know what to make of all the goings-on at San Juan at the weekend.

I travelled to Santiago in Chile again this year and took a road trip through the Andes to get to San Juan. It is truly and literally breathtaking. I was travelling with fellow photographer Vaclav Duska Jr this year and we attempted to drive over the old border on the original mountain road, past Cristo Redentor de los Andes. We did pass a sign that said ‘Camino Cerrado’ [road closed] but it was in the gutter and not across the road. Just press on, we’ll be fine. It was rough going and our little Chevrolet complained a few times but we made it – sort of.

Five hundred metres from the top of the pass we were stopped in our tracks by a wall of snow and ice across the road. Meh! We had come so far it was a shame not to visit the border so we set off on foot. It’s the first time I have felt such extreme effects of altitude. At almost 4000m above sea level it was really difficult to walk up hill and catch a breath. When we got to the top both Jr and I complained of feeling a bit dizzy and we had to stop for a bit before cracking on with the obligatory selfies. Because the road was indeed closed, so were the cafés but it was pretty cool to be on top of the Andes with no one else there.

We did almost get stuck, as when we got back to the bottom a JCB was physically blocking the road with a pile of earth. We were not very popular when the bloke had the clear a path for us but we got to San Juan safely.

It did mean we had to retrace our footsteps on Sunday night which meant a seven and a half hour road journey, a couple of hours sleep, a shower and a 13 hour flight to Madrid, two hours to London and final hour to Glasgow without stopping before getting home properly.

So I don’t know if I am a little travel weary or just confused but I have genuinely mixed feelings about the events of the weekend and the story of the now dubbed ‘San Juan Six’. I wonder if our grandchildren will speak fondly of their memory and a bronze statue of them will be erected outside the circuit in 2094 on the 50th anniversary?

It was a classic storm of ‘he said this and he said that’ mixed with the detritus from social media that meant that some riders took a lot of flack for the decisions they made when the main focus of the criticism should really have been directed elsewhere. It is easy to point the finger at one person when you are sat on your sofa and they have a public profile on social media and less so against a group or organisation you know little or nothing about.

Whilst it is part of my job to find out what is happening I also find myself in a privileged position of having casual conversations with riders and overhearing discussions that mean I know the veracity of some of the comments I subsequently read.

It was pretty clear on Friday morning that there was a problem with something when a few riders only did a handful of laps. The track was incredibly dusty, which itself was clear to see from photographs, especially a long shot. You could easily see the clean line on the tarmac when someone was on an in-lap or had gone off line exiting a corner. I don’t often notice through the view finder but I could also see riders struggling with front grip, then rear grip, then the front again, in the space of a few metres in the middle of a corner. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was the issue of the oils weeping out of the track surface and a newly laid tarmac.

My first observation was that we are in a dry dusty environment and this is always going to be the way. It’s part of any world championship. I believe a series should visit tracks in different environments and riders should have to ride in a range of conditions: hot; cold; dry; wet, you then find the true champion. This should apply for all outdoor sports. However, the sporting arena itself should be of the highest standard possible to have the privilege of hosting a world championship event.

San Juan and Argentina is a wonderful location but sadly one element of the facility was not up to scratch this year and in my view the blame for that lies with the local organisers and the FIM.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 12, 11-13 October 2019, WorldSBK, San Juan, Argentina

The resurfacing of the track was requested by the FIM in the review of the event last year. It was springtime when we were there in 2018 so the circuit owners had the entire summer to resolve the issue. They chose to do it however in the weeks before the event, with no other races scheduled in the interim. When we arrived at the circuit on Thursday there was still heavy rolling equipment working on a number of sections of the track. It meant that the first bikes on track on Friday morning were the first competition machines to run on the surface.

With the track also being so dusty the FIM requested that it be cleaned on Wednesday. It was, but I don’t know where they found the water because when it dried it left more dirt on the track than had been there in the first place. I only learned that on Sunday after speaking to the riders but from my pictures at turn two I was shocked how dirty the surface was.

That brings us to Saturday afternoon and the plight of the San Juan Six.

From what I know (and I acknowledge that wasn’t much at the time, as do most who were also not in the same room) it was clear after FP3 that many riders didn’t want to race as they felt the condition of the track was not safe. In a series of meetings with Dorna and the FIM representative at the event they expressed that view. Many people have spouted forth about the track in general being “unsafe” but that is a completely different subject. That argument relates to the design of the layout; run off areas; safety barriers; marshal posts; medical facilities and so on. What is at issue here is the condition of the track surface and everyone agreed that is was not suitable for world championship level racing.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 12, 10-13 October 2019, San Juan, Argentina,

The next contentious issue is whether or not there should have been a WorldSBK race on Saturday or not. Again, from what I know, most of the riders felt it was, at best, not ideal to race and, at worst, completely unsafe for any racing. However, one point that no one has mentioned was that we had already had a GP3 and a Superbike race from the Latin America Championship take place. If the organisers and the FIM had said that the track wasn’t safe for the World Superbike competitors to race on they would have effectively been saying that the safety of the Latin America riders was of no consequence. That for me is one of the key points in the matter.

An esteemed English journalist Bertie Simmonds once wrote a scathing piece on the safety of UK race tracks, pointing out that for MotoGP and WorldSBK the FIM demanded air fencing at their events in the UK but that for BSB and UK club racing there was no such requirement. Essentially his question was: does that make the value of one rider’s life more than another? Of course it isn’t and it’s ridiculous to assume so. That year the number of deaths at UK motorcycle events was in double figures.

In San Juan on Saturday, despite the protest from the WorldSBK riders, the FIM had no choice but to declare the track condition were safe for WorldSBK race one, having just witnessed two Latin America races and having approved the circuit’s homologation on Thursday.

That then put the WorldSBK riders between a rock and a hard place.

In life I can be pretty militant in my views on social injustice and I have a huge amount of respect for those riders who stood up and said no – the San Juan Six – but I am also someone who goes along with rules and conventions. I drive and ride at the speed limit (don’t want to incriminate myself); I wait in queues; I don’t complain in restaurants. Given the options on Saturday I would have lined up on the grid because I had been told to but also because personally, on an issue of safety, I couldn’t stand there and say it was ok for the local riders to race but not good enough for me.

In the aftermath there was a lot harsh words but from what I learned from a number of sources on Sunday was that riders being threatened with fines if they didn’t ride is not true. Dorna did have a meeting with the Team Managers where they were informed them that the FIM Safety Officer had declared the track conditions to be safe and I spoke to a number of riders who said that after that meeting they were encouraged to compete. How much pressure was put on each individual rider we will never know. However, saying that you don’t think something should happen, and saying you will not participate are two separate things and that’s where outside commentators have jumped to conclusions, formed their opinion and unleashed their views on the world. Yamaha press officer Ian Wheeler reminded us that MotoGP star Jack Miller once advised the media that “opinions are like arseholes…everybody has one”. It doesn’t however mean you know what happened.

As I said earlier, in my job I over hear a lot of things and in this case it would be wrong to betray confidence, but on the grid on Saturday I heard one team manager discussing the situation with his rider and agreeing that it was not ideal and not to take any unnecessary risks and ‘bring it home’. He did just that and scored some valuable championship points. It seemed that that was the view of most of the field that took part. Apart from Bautista, Rea, Razgatlioglu and, to an extent, VD Mark who fought hard for the lead in the opening laps, most riders found clear track and rode to their rhythm. Alex Lowes was caught by Leon Haslam towards the end of the race and I am sure if conditions were better Haslam would have made a lunge somewhere to get ahead but it was too risky to do so and he held his position. Thankfully no one crashed and injured themselves; but we say that after each race don’t we?

FIM Superbike World Championship, Round 12, 10-13 October 2019, San Juan, Argentina, Alex Lowes, Yamaha

Another thing I learned on Sunday was that the FIM’s track homologation process is somewhat rudimentary in comparison to that of the FIA for car racing. That is somewhat confirmed in the statement they issued on Monday. “At the request of the FIM in 2018, the circuit of San Juan was resurfaced to host WorldSBK in 2019. On Wednesday, October 9th during the inspection of the track, the FIM safety officer requested the circuit management to wash the track to remove the dust that had accumulated during the last days to ensure the safety conditions necessary for the smooth running of the Argentinean round” From what I understand this was the first time the FIM safety officer had inspected the track following the work having been done.

Questions therefore have to be asked as to why the requested works were only done after 11 months. Did the FIM give the San Juan circuit a deadline to carry out the job? If so it clearly wasn’t adhered to and on that basis why was the event not then immediately cancelled, and if they didn’t give them a deadline, why not? Inspecting the track for the first time the day before the event, when the entire paddock has arrived, is a ridiculous set of circumstances that left the FIM open to compromise and due criticism.
In the end no one, and in my view particularly the circuit owners and organisers and the FIM, comes out of last weekend smelling of roses. Let’s just hope that some lessons are learned and that situations like this never repeat themselves. It’s a fact that he WorldSBK series struggles for wider support and recognition. This has been a good year for competition and next year looks to be a real cracker but events like this do not help the cause. Now I know I am a bit fatigued but I am sure a pig just flew past my office window.

See you in Qatar.

By Graeme Brown @geebeeimages

Photos by GeeBee Images

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