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The inch that cost a mile | COLUMNS | GASSIT GARAGE

The mental picture of Freddie Spencer standing in aloof silence with his arms folded, facing up to an irately gesticulating Cal Crutchlow, will linger long in the mind. That at least was how Crutchlow described what happened after the Argentine GP, and it is easy to imagine.

Crutchlow is one of those people who does irate pretty comprehensively. And Freddie is well-practiced at being impassive. It’s the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, all over again.

In the unlikely event that you haven’t seen the widely circulated video of Crutchlow supposedly jumping the start, for which he was hit with the standard ride-through penalty, then let me explain.

The winner of the race the year before was poised on his factory LCR Honda, eyes on the lights, clutch to the bar, revs on the limiter. A split second before the start, his bike moves forward. Less than an inch, the front wheel just about touching the start of the white line marking his grid slot.

His explanation made perfect sense. Rather than anticipating the moment, rather than trying to gain any unfair advantage, he was simply moving from the balls of his feet onto his toes.

Half a second later, he was off, a strong start, putting him sixth into the first corner from eighth on the grid. So far so good. Then, on the third lap, his dashboard display comes up with the dreaded message. “Jump start. Ride through.”

His entirely reasonable hopes of a possible podium ended right there, and the fuse to his always impressive temper was lit. By the time he got upstairs after charging through from last to 13th, at the back of the points, he was incandescent.

Most particularly so because it was Spencer who was in charge of the punishment crew. When the riders had asked for the chairman of the stewards position to be filled by somebody with a personal understanding of racing, there could hardly have been a better candidate. Or so it seemed.

Analysis of Crutchlow’s lap times showed he lost more than 26 seconds taking the ride-through; take that interval away from his race time and he would have come second, in between Marquez and Rossi. He certainly has a point.

But do Spencer and his gang of stewards also have a point? They can stand on the letter of the law. But surely the purpose for the appointment of so senior a figure as the formerly Fast Freddie is to introduce a level of discretion, and a measure of proportion.

Is it right that a tiny inadvertent infringement should attract such a severe penalty? On the same afternoon, in Moto2, Brad Binder was finally punished for one aggressive move too many. He’d been riding like that, stealing inside lines and pushing people wide, since Friday. In the race, he left Red Bull KTM paint on the bikes of Luca Marini and Marcel Schrotter, punting the latter almost off the track.

Citing “multiple infractions,” Binder was dropped one place, from fifth to sixth.

Crutchlow’s move not only gave no advantage, nor did it (in the official wording) “cause danger to another rider.” But he was dropped 11 places.

Spencer is a legendary and always a fair rider. This is his first year in his new role. Maybe he’s trying to make an early impression, as a hanging judge.

The outcome however suggests that, inadvertently or not, he is perpetuating the long-held riders’ view that punishments are meted out in a highly erratic and even whimsical fashion, and are frequently grossly unfair.

Spencer’s riding record and gentlemanly demeanour deserve better than such condemnation. Let’s hope he and his cohorts manage to avoid it from here on in.

And that any rider who equally inadvertently steals half-an-inch from his rivals at the start line gets a concomitant punishment … of half-an-inch.

By Michael Scott

Crutchlow, Argentine MotoGP 2019