Opinion: When sport goes to court, sport usually loses

This weekend’s MotoGP finale in Valencia promised to be an on-track epic, which would have been a fine way to crown a champion after a great season - but instead, the focus has shifted from the racetrack to the courtroom.

Ever since Valentino Rossi squeezed out Marc Marquez in the Malaysian Grand Prix to the point that Marquez tumbled (regardless of whether there was a headbutt or kick involved), there was always going to be some sanction for the stewards’ ruling of “deliberately causing contact”.

Having taken no in-race action, as we would have likely seen in Formula 1 with a drivethrough penalty, MotoGP applied the letter of its law by handing Rossi three penalty points.

As he already had one to his name, for impeding title rival Jorge Lorenzo in qualifying at Misano, that meant Rossi would have to start the next race – the title-deciding finale – from the back of the grid.

With his points lead trimmed to seven, Rossi appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and this is where the problem, sport-wise, really started.

Court in a trap

By their very nature, courts move slowly. Lawyers need time to prepare cases, judges have to be arranged to hear the proceedings – and yet there was only two weeks between Sepang and Valencia.

Part of Rossi’s appeal was for a ‘stay of execution’ – basically a request that he started the Valencia race from where he qualified, effectively racing under appeal.

But as of Thursday, and I quote…

This request for a stay was filed at CAS on 29 October 2015 by Valentino Rossi together with his appeal to have the FIM Steward’s decision regarding the 3 point penalty annulled or at least reduced. The CAS Arbitrator, appointed by mutual agreement of the parties (Prof. Ulrich Haas/Germany), heard the representatives of Mr Rossi and FIM yesterday at the CAS office in Lausanne in order to rule exclusively on the urgent request for a stay to determine whether or not Valentino Rossi should start from last grid position in Valencia. The CAS Arbitrator found that the conditions to grant the stay were not met, which means that the sanction imposed by FIM will have to be served at the next Grand Prix in Valencia.

So that was that: Rossi will start from the back in Valencia this Sunday. Case closed then? Not quite…

As an FIM statement confirmed: The CAS ruling on the request for a stay of execution does not prejudge the final award on the merits of the case.

What happens next?

With the back-of-grid start confirmed, Rossi will have spent Friday’s sessions concentrating on race setup even more than usual, to maximize his chances for his burn from the stern.

But what happens after that, say if Lorenzo is crowned champion on Sunday? Then the gorilla in the room will beat his chest: there is still an appeal outstanding that will have to be heard.

So while you might think Rossi’s appeal is now irrelevant, think again. The chance remains that the CAS could rule in his favour, and agree that the penalty was unfair. Then what happens?

Rossi’s approach to qualifying will be intriguing. If he qualifies where he normally does, on the front two rows, he will have an argument that the resulting 20-or-so grid positions he’ll drop have cost him the title should Lorenzo win on Sunday and he rides from 26th to, say, fourth.

But if it was to rule in his favour, and annul the penalty post-Valencia, it will be too little, too late – just a formality. Or will it?

Remember, Rossi has not dropped this case, even with his chance of racing under appeal having gone.

I don’t want to pre-empt what might or might not happen. But I have been at an F3 race in Germany where Gary Paffett was erroneously given an in-race drivethrough penalty.

His post-race appeal was subsequently upheld, and the governing body – having reviewed its legal situation – promptly annulled all points scored in that race.

Sound like a possible scenario? And courts love a precedent…

Focus on the positive

It has been a great season, with plenty of thrills and spills along the way. The way Rossi emerged from his relative slump in form to score superb wins, his frequent run-ins with Marquez, Lorenzo’s four-race hot streak of victories, Marquez’s comeback on his year-old frame – it’s been a real treat to follow.

For me, what’s made it such a great season is the lack of injuries suffered by the protagonists (beyond Marquez having his hand run over by his mate on a dirt bike, and Lorenzo’s minibike mishap at a barbeque) that has given each rider a decent shot at race wins every weekend.

Heck, even Dani Pedrosa isn’t being put back together on a weekly basis for once!

It depends on your point of view whether Rossi deserves his back-of-grid penalty or not, but it serves up one final exciting variable going into Sunday’s race.

Rossi says his aim on Sunday is the make “the best race of my career” – and I sincerely hope he does, and that we get another thrilling race.

May the best man win, and all that. But not via a courtroom, please?

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Event Valencia GP
Track Valencia Circuit Ricardo Tormo
Drivers Valentino Rossi
Article type Commentary