Facing the fear

In September Motorcycle Grand Prix racing endured its worst week in decades. Two riders died on consecutive weekends at the Indianapolis and San Marino Grands Prix. American Peter Lenz passed away following an accident during an Indy support race; Shoya Tomizawa (above) after a horrific high-speed pile-up in the Misano Moto2 race.

The deaths were the first at a MotoGP event since Daijiro Kato’s fatal crash at Suzuka in 2003. The last time the motorcycling World Championships experienced such a horrible few days was at the 1988 French GP at Paul Ricard, where three riders lost their lives.

Inevitably, the sad passing of Lenz and Tomizawa raised many questions; fundamentally, how can further tragedies be avoided? Both riders died in similar ways – they fell and were hit by other bikes travelling at speed. The sad fact of the sport is that however safe the tracks and however distant the guardrail, in motorcycle racing there will always be other motorcycles. Protective riding gear keeps improving, but there is only so much it can do.

There were other questions too – to the riders who must deal with the realities and carry on, or not. Obviously, MotoGP pros know the risks and are at peace with what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Casey Stoner, a tough young Aussie who always calls a spade a bloody shovel, admits that danger is an attraction.

“It’s bad to say it, but it’s part of what gives you the adrenalin rush,” says the 2007 MotoGP champion. “It’s part of why we love to do it, because it gets your heart racing, it gets your blood pumping. It’s that slight bit of fear that keeps you interested.

“It’s unfortunate when a death happens, but if there was no fear involved there’d be no real want to race and there wouldn’t be the passion you see from riders trying to pursue their dreams. That’s what keeps us all here, to be honest. If you leave doing something you love – what you dreamed about doing your whole life – that can in some ways be a nice way to go; doing something you love rather than something you dislike.”

But how do MotoGP riders deal with the passing of friends or rivals when the time comes to climb aboard their 210mph motorcycles? Do they simply block it out?

“It sounds hard, but yes,” says Dani Pedrosa, not long before he breaks his collarbone at Motegi, thus ending his 2010 title challenge. He mimes the act of removing the memory of Indy and Misano from his mind. “Otherwise it’s a story you cannot end,” he adds, circling his left index finger around his temple, gesturing the process of endlessly contemplating thoughts of his own mortality.

I know what he means. In June 1989 I was contesting my sixth Isle of Man TT. I had just completed early morning practice (4.30am start) and was enjoying a full English in a Douglas cafe when Manx Radio announced that a rival had crashed and died during the session. Phil Hogg was one of five TT riders to lose their lives that year. He was also riding the same type of motorcycle as me – the engine had seized and he had been hurled into a trackside wall.

I quit racing 18 months later, but in reality I’d retired the moment I heard the news that morning. After that, more often than not, whenever I ate breakfast on race days that moment would come back to me and I’d wonder if this might be my last breakfast. I suppose it was my way of telling myself it was time to stop – you can’t go racing when you’re asking yourself questions like that.

I shouldn’t relate these sad events without mentioning that Indy victim Lenz was just 13 years old. He was hit by a 12-year-old. They were both riding Moriwaki MD250s, capable of 125mph. I think that is too much, too soon. For the record, so does seven-time MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi. And yet these children are actively encouraged by the people in charge of our sport to race these motorcycles; and the bosses are the same people who can’t understand why MotoGP doesn’t attract more blue-chip sponsors.