Many years ago I used to pen Mick Doohan’s columns. In March 1996 the five-times 500cc world champion should’ve won the opening race of that year’s 500 series at Shah Alam, but he was slowed by a front-wheel puncture and struggled home in fifth place.
After the race I tracked him down and we chatted about what had gone wrong. “Shit happens,” was his philosophical assessment of the situation; so those were the opening words of that week’s Mick Doohan column.
The next weekend at Sentul in Indonesia Doohan had a word with me. He wasn’t happy that I’d used a swear word in his column, which was syndicated around the world after each race. “It’s not good for the corporate image of the sport,” he opined.
Nonetheless, shit does happen and that’s exactly what happened on lap two of Sunday’s race.
On the second of 24 laps race-winner Marc Márquez out-braked Andrea Dovizioso into turn ten and beat him to the apex; so Dovizioso adjusted his line to prepare his classic undercut manoeuvre. Meanwhile Jorge Lorenzo tried to out-brake third-placed Maverick Viñales and suddenly found himself running out of room, so he squeezed the front brake a bit harder, which locked the front tyre. Down he went, his fallen bike skittling Dovizioso, then Viñales and finally Valentino Rossi.
There was absolutely no doubt who was at fault.
“I made a good start and recovered a lot of positions,” explained Lorenzo, who was using new ergonomic parts 3D-printed during his visit to HRC the previous week. “I felt very good on the bike, better than I’d felt all weekend and I was recovering a lot in braking. Accelerating out of Turn Nine, Maverick had to close the throttle to avoid hitting Marc, so I took advantage of that to take a slipstream and prepare to overtake, because I felt I had something more and I could recover some more places. But I tried to overtake Maverick in the wrong moment and especially in the wrong place.
“Probably I was excited, because I was feeling good and I felt I could go faster and faster. I didn’t do any crazy braking. I was more or less alongside Maverick and I braked quite normally. The problem was that there were too many of us. In front Dovi was opening his line to prepare the exit of the corner, so I was getting closer and closer to him, so I braked some more to avoid hitting him and the front tyre locked. It was a combination of factors. The biggest thing is that I made three riders who are fighting for the championship crash. I would’ve loved to have crashed alone. I’ve said sorry.”
Lorenzo takes out Viñales, Dovizioso and Rossi Photo: Motorsport Images
Inevitably his three victims saw things differently. Rossi – who has seen so much worse in his 390 Grand Prix races – was the most dispassionate.
“This is racing – sometimes this happens,” said the 40-year-old. “I was behind [Danilo] Petrucci and I overtook him at the wrong moment because I arrived faster into turn ten and unfortunately I couldn’t avoid Jorge’s bike. Jorge came into this race from some bad moments. He chose soft/soft tyres, so he pushed very hard from the beginning.
“Marc won and three of us got zeroes, which is really, really bad. Now he has a big gap and it’s not easy to gain a lot of points on him.”
“But sincerely I don’t know why we use this corner [turn ten]. I fought to use to the longer left that we used to use, which was very good, but for some reason we use this corner which is like supermarket parking! It’s not a racetrack corner and it’s in corners like this that it’s easy for these things happen.”
He’s not wrong. Twenty of the weekend’s 72 crashes happened at turn ten; that’s more than a quarter of the crash total at one of 14 corners. It’s what is called an accident black spot.
Dovizioso, whose title hopes took a massive hit when Lorenzo’s RC213V knocked his GP19 from under him, was understandably less sympathetic than Rossi.
“Jorge gained a lot of places after the start and he really wanted to be in front and he made a big mistake,” said the world number two. “It’s very easy to make a mistake at that corner – it’s first gear and it goes back on itself, so a small mistake can be a big mistake in the end. Jorge wasn’t lucid at that moment. He wanted to overtake Maverick, but he didn’t look where he was braking, because Maverick braked very late and Jorge braked later, so he arrived too fast and he was on the inside. The mistake wasn’t too big but to make that move at that corner on the second lap is a big mistake.
“It’s created a big change in the championship because Marc won and three of us got zeroes, which is really, really bad, because what we wanted this year was to put Marc on the limit, where anybody can make a mistake. Now he has a big gap and it’s not easy to gain a lot of points on him.”
Of course, the lap-two pile-up was nothing unusual in motorcycle racing. Riders have a habit of getting greedy on the brakes, locking the front tyre and skittling a rival or two. The Lorenzo incident was the third such incident at turn ten on Sunday and only made the headlines because it involved four of the world’s fastest motorcycle racers.
The crash was reminiscent of another headline-grabbing accident, when Rossi took out Casey Stoner at Jerez’s first corner during the early stages of the 2011 Spanish GP. Rossi went into that race following a difficult first few outing’s on Ducati’s Desmosedici, just as Lorenzo went into Sunday’s Catalan GP after a challenging first few races on his Repsol RC213V. Like Rossi all those years ago at Jerez, he suddenly found himself close to the front and got too excited.
In fact Sunday’s multiple pile-up reminded me more of the 1981 British GP at Silverstone, when Barry Sheene had got hold of a factory Yamaha 0W54 square four and had a great chance of winning his home race for the first time; which was what the British fan’s favourite wanted more than anything in the world.
His main rivals that day were championship leader Marco Lucchinelli, reigning champion ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Suzuki team-mates Randy Mamola and Graeme Crosby, who had taken pole position. (Although Sheene disputed Croz’s lap time, declaring “Those timekeepers couldn’t time an egg.”)
The race was all set to be an epic – for the fans and for the championship, just like Sunday’s Catalan GP should’ve been.
Viñales was trundling along at very low speed when Quartararo came past like a missile, missing the Spaniard by just a metre or so
Crosby, Roberts, Sheene and Lucchinelli were fighting for the lead. On the third lap Crosby was just ahead as he swept into Stowe corner, and crashed. He took Sheene with him, while Lucchinelli ran wide and into the catch-fencing. Roberts somehow avoided the carnage and regained the racetrack. Really, the American should’ve won the race but he was out-foxed by Dutch privateer Jack Middleburg, riding an over-the-counter Yamaha TZ500. This was the last time a real privateer won a premier-class race. The Stowe pile-up also ended Sheene’s chance of winning the title.
At that time both Sheene and Crosby had columns in the weekly British motorcycle papers, which they used to trade insults over the next few weeks. These days, I suppose, they would’ve had their argument on Twitter.
Of course, in the 1980s no one even thought about penalising Crosby. The season continued, with Lucchinelli taking the world title, his first and last.
After Sunday’s race, Viñales announced that he wanted Race Direction to hit Lorenzo with a harsh penalty. (Although that’s actually the job of the MotoGP stewards.)
“I hope Race Direction are as severe with Jorge as they were with me yesterday,” said Viñales.
That was quite something from a rider who had committed a much worse crime the previous afternoon, for which he was penalised very lightly – just three grid positions.
Viñales’ narrow missPhoto: Dorna/MotoGP
During Saturday’s Q2 session Viñales rode to his first front-row start since April’s Argentine GP, so when he crossed the finish line he started celebrating, riding around slowly in the middle of the track, pulling wheelies and waving to fans. But in fact there had been no chequered flag, so the session was still running and the track was still live, with riders throwing everything into riding their fastest laps for the best-possible grid position.
Exiting turn nine during that lap Viñales was trundling along at very low speed when Fabio Quartararo came past like a missile, on a hot lap, missing the Spaniard by just a metre or so.
MotoGP stewards subsequently penalised Viñales three grid positions for his misdemeanour, which the 24-year-old considered too harsh. “I feel it’s too severe for a rider who’s always polite,” he said.
But the issue at stake here isn’t manners, it’s safety. The cause of the most injurious or deadly crashes is often the speed differential. Viñales was cruising at perhaps 60mph when Quartararo came past at perhaps 120mph. Imagine what would’ve happened if they had collided. This was deeply amateurish behaviour from a very experienced professional rider.
The incident brought back memories of the horrific Marc Márquez/Ratthapark Wilairot accident during practice for the 2011 Phillip Island Moto2 race, when Márquez continued at full speed after the chequered flag and rammed Wilairot, who was cruising back to the pits at significantly reduced speed, quite within his rights. Márquez was demoted to the back of the grid for that crime. The crimes were equal and opposite. The only difference between the 2011 and 2019 incidents is that contact was made at Phillip Island. Wilairot suffered back and knee injuries in the impact, but both him and Márquez were very, very lucky not to be very badly hurt.
Thus Viñales should surely have been demoted several rows, to ensure that he never again does something so amateurish and so dangerous.
Viñales’ penalty was light, considering the potential consequences Photo: Motorsport Images
All three riders were victims of speed differential. TT winner Brown died during the 1983 British GP while cruising back to the pits with a technical problem. He was hit from behind by Swiss rider Peter Huber who rammed Brown while he was racing at full speed. Huber also lost his life.
The race wasn’t even stopped by the ACU officials running the Grand Prix, until Roberts and others pulled into the pits of their own accord, having ridden through the carnage.
Those were dark days when the people in charge of the motorcycle racing considered the riders to be expendable performers. “It’s the Battle of Britain attitude,” said GP privateer Clive Horton at the time. “The pilots will do their job, like the riders – they’ll go out and if you lose one you can always find another.”
Seven years later factory Honda rider Reinhold Roth was battling for the lead in the 1990 Yugoslav 250cc GP. He was fighting in a tightly packed lead group, so his view of the track ahead was largely obscured.
During the late stages of the race the riders ahead of him spotted Australian privateer Darren Miller cruising back to the pits on the racing line and they swerved to avoid him. Roth had no chance to take avoiding action and collided with Miller at high speed. The German was seriously injured and never raced again. He remains hemiplegic and bedbound, still paralysed down one side of his body.
British Superbikes series director Stuart Higgs uses the horrific video footage of these accidents to knock some sense into riders contesting his championship. I think it would be good for Viñales and everyone else in MotoGP to watch the same videos.
Losing the front, crashing and ruining a world-championship battle is one thing. Destroying a life is something very different.