MotoGP is supposed to be dangerous, but…


After decades of improving safety, MotoGP is getting more dangerous, with the number of GP races missed through injury this season tripling over last year alone. So what’s going on and what’s the worst that could happen?

Fabio Quartararo and Miguel Oliveira crash in 2023 MotoGP Catalan GP

This year’s Spanish GP Turn 2 pile-up had former world champion Quartararo (No20) take out Oliveira.

Steve Wobser/Getty Images

Motorcycle racing is supposed to be dangerous and it’s supposed to be risky. That’s what makes it the most rock ’n’ roll sport on Earth.

Facing real danger and taking huge risks are arguably the greatest challenges that motorcycle racers face, which are two things that make bike racing unlike any other mass spectator sport.

But, in fact, risk-taking isn’t what it’s all about. Anyone can take risks. The real buzz is taking risks and getting away with them – riders using their skill, knowledge and bravery to do things that would put most people in the wall. “Twisting the tiger’s tail,” as racing actor Steve McQueen used to call it.

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Therefore the only people you should ever listen to about safety are the riders.

They all accept the danger and the risk, even enjoy them, but the job of those in charge is nonetheless to try to make the racing safer. Certainly not to make it more dangerous.

And when MotoGP riders tell you that MotoGP is getting more dangerous you should listen, because these aren’t little chickens telling tales.

Riders tell us that pack racing makes MotoGP more dangerous, they tell us that downforce aero makes MotoGP more dangerous, they tell us that racing with more pressure in the front tyre makes MotoGP more dangerous and they tell us that the sprint-race format makes MotoGP more dangerous.

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The latest injury statistics prove the riders are telling the truth, which they usually do when discussing the serious business of safety.

And the numbers are deeply disturbing, with a dramatic increase in injuries since the introduction of this year’s sprint-race format.

MotoGP is putting far too many riders in hospital now, which isn’t only bad for the riders, it’s also bad for the championship, because the series is being robbed of its stars and the title battle is becoming a last-man-standing contest.

This year’s crash rate is up 15% on last year’s, which was already up 45% over the previous decade. Even more concerning is how many riders are getting badly hurt and missing GP races as a result.

Turn 1 MotoGP crash at 2023 Catalan Grand Prix

This year’s Turn 1 Catalan GP pile-up was caused by Enea Bastianini (red leathers, on ground) trying to pass too many riders. Johann Zarco (No5) is about to hit the ground

NurPhoto/Getty Images

Already this year, after 12 races, there have been 35 occasions of riders missing GPs through injury — just under three riders per race. That happened 19 times during the whole of 2022, which was roughly the same as 2021 — a rate of around one per race. So the rate has increased three times in one year, a startling number. This is why there hasn’t been a single full grid of full-time riders so far in 2023.

Those missing GP starts this season through injury include some of MotoGP’s biggest stars: Pecco Bagnaia, Enea Bastianini, Marc Márquez, Joan Mir, Miguel Oliveira and Alex Rins.

This is mostly the result of the escalating intensity and closeness of competition. Increasing these elements in Formula 1 may work, but you can’t fit a halo to a MotoGP bike.

Let’s look at why so many riders have been too beaten up to contest Sunday’s feature GP races. Thirteen of the missed appearances come from injuries sustained in sprint races, 12 come from injuries sustained in the highly-charged practice sessions and only eight come from injuries sustained in GP races (including Bastianini and Bagnaia at Catalunya).

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It’s all a bit worrying. And next week MotoGP goes to a non-homologated racetrack: India’s Buddh International Circuit, about which some riders have serious doubts.

The FIM Standards for Road Racing Circuits (SRRC) was established 30 years ago in 1983, so that was the moment when the people in charge began to care about the riders (a bit). And not before time: 16 solo riders had died at grand prix events during the previous decade.

The process that created SRRC had started with the removal of the Isle of Man TT from the MotoGP world championship, following the 1976 event. Other lethal street circuits followed.

The reduction in death rates wasn’t immediate – seven more riders lost their lives at GPs between 1983 and 1989 – because GP track safety was still grim.

However, things were changing. The creation of teams association IRTA in 1986 (by the late Mike Trimby and others) gave the riders real power and finally safety really did improve.

2022 MotoGP crash at 2022 Catalan GP

The Turn 1 pile-up at last year’s Catalan GP was partly triggered by the so-called air-stop problem caused by downforce aero

Joan Cros Garcia/Corbis via Getty Images

Dorna also played its part, agreeing to race only at tracks OK’d by IRTA and the riders. Between 1990 and 2009 only one solo rider lost his life on a MotoGP track – Daijiro Kato at Suzuka in 2003.

That’s one death in 20 years of GP racing, against 38 in the previous 20 years. A miracle! In fact not a miracle but the product of riders fighting for their rights, Dorna and IRTA listening to them and massive investment from the circuits.

Recent years haven’t been so wonderful. In the past 14 years four riders have died on track at GP events, an increase of 400% over the previous 14 seasons.

And all but one of these fatalities happened the same way: riders fell from their machines and were hit by riders following closely behind. This is the danger of pack racing that MotoGP riders talk about.

“The air in the group is super-dirty, so it’s super-dangerous”

(Outside GP racing there have been recent pack-racing fatalities in the European Talent Cup, the Asian Talent Cup, the Supersport 300 world championship, BSB and the Asian Road Racing championship; mostly the result of tech rules written to create close, crowd-pleasing racing.)

There’s also the issue of serious high-speed turbulence caused by the amount of downforce aero worn by current MotoGP bikes. This has been a thing ever since the downforce aero war started in 2016 but the problem is now worse than ever.

“Especially at [the ultra-high speed] Turns 11, 12 and 13 the air in the group is super-dirty, so it’s super-dangerous,” said Pol Espargaró at Misano last weekend.

The situation is even worse during braking, especially from very high speeds, because when riders find themselves in the partial vacuum behind other motorcycles, they lose the air resistance that helps them to stop. And of course the more riders in front the worse the problem becomes.

“When you brake [behind other riders, in the race] at the same point you braked in practice [alone] you go totally straight, because you don’t have the air-stop,” says Jonas Folger, who replaced Espargaró after the Spaniard’s huge crash at the season-opening Portuguese GP.

Pecco Bagnaia carried away on stretcher after 2023 MotoGP Catalan GP crash

Bagnaia after crashing out at Catalunya and on his way to hospital earlier this month

Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images

There have been many scary air-stop moments in MotoGP, usually in the thick of the pack, so we don’t see them on TV, but here’s a few we have seen: Rins riding into the gravel at 185mph (300km/h) at Le Mans last year, while braking behind Bagnaia; Takaaki Nakagami crashing at the start of last year’s Catalan GP when he was in Bagnaia’s vacuum (although the Japanese rider wasn’t entirely blameless for this incident); Márquez barely squeezing through the gap between the two bikes in front of him at Mugello this year, after getting caught in a double-draft vacuum.

And Marco Bezzecchi crashing out at Silverstone after braking in Bagnaia’s vacuum. “I went into the slipstream of Pecco, so instead of slowing down I was accelerating, so I had to brake more but the front was already on the limit and I lost it,” explained MotoGP’s newest star.

At Catalunya two weeks ago it was Misano winner Jorge Martin’s turn. He got into the turbulence caused by Maverick ViñalesAprilia and as a result nearly took out his countryman at Turn 1.

“Behind the Ducatis it’s complicated,” said Martin. “Behind the Aprilia now it’s even worse.”

From the archive

Next, there’s MotoGP’s front tyre-pressure problem, which has the pressure inside MotoGP’s over-stressed front tyre (overloaded by downforce aero) increasing until the tyre becomes “a balloon”. This reduces grip, so riders are locking the front tyre, even when they’re braking from over 200mph (320km/h).

“When you are behind someone, after two or three laps you start to struggle a lot to stop the bike and you risk hitting the guy in front because you can’t stop,” said Bagnaia at Misano. “Also, the wind tunnel [the vacuum] makes you catch the guy in front, so it’s difficult.”

It would be difficult to imagine a better way of creating dangerous situations.

The front-tyre pressure situation also forces riders to take more risks in pre-qualifying, qualifying and at the start of races, because having fresh air in front of you is more important than pretty much anything else in MotoGP right now.

Marc Marquez and Miguel Oliveira crash in 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP

Márquez takes out Oliveira in the 2023 season-opening Portuguese GP

Mirco Lazzari

Even worse, at Misano we were told that Michelin’s plan to introduce its long-awaited new front slick in 2024 — to better cope with the stresses of downforce aero and reduce sensitivity to temperature/pressure changes – has been delayed to 2025.

First corners are another issue. There have been two Turn 1 pile-ups from the last three GP races, which isn’t surprising when there are 22 axe murderers (Cal Crutchlow’s words) attacking Turn 1 at 185mph (300km/h) — at Catalunya — with each bike/rider weighing a quarter of a tonne, with as little as 1.4bar (20psi) in the front tyre, plus the air-stop problem and reduced machine manoeuvrability due to downforce aero.

Maybe riders should brake more sensibly into Turn 1? But they can’t, because if they don’t smash the front brake their front holeshot device won’t disengage.

The people in charge hope for the best. When the worst happens they do something.

The other reason riders can’t afford to be sensible at the start is because overtaking is so difficult now and becomes even more challenging after the first few laps, when front tyre pressure increases, which decreases grip. Thus riders need to take big risks at the first few corners and during the first couple of laps if they want to get anywhere.

And if riders bump into a rival they get penalised, even though what causes many of these collisions is the lack of machine manoeuvrability, because the bikes are glued to the ground by downforce aero.

“They should give one of our bikes to Freddie Spencer [the chief FIM steward who sanctions riders for indiscretions] because the bikes aren’t like they used to be, then see how he copes and maybe he’d understand what we’re dealing with,” one rider told me recently.

Of course, nothing can be done about any of these problems, because the MSMA (the manufacturers association) must agree all rules changes unanimously. And the factories benefitting from their brilliant, pioneering work on aero won’t vote to ban it.

The only way technical rules can be changed without the factories’ consent is for safety reasons. In other words, it will take a huge accident and serious injury or worse before things change.

Sadly, this has always been the way in motorcycle racing. The people in charge cross their fingers and hope for the best. And when the worst happens they do something.

Fabio Quartararo with arm in a sling at MotoGP press conference

Quartararo explains what happened after his Dutch GP crash – luckily he had the summer break to recover, so he didn’t miss any events

John Thys/Getty Images

For example, practice for the Isle of Man TT used to take place on roads open to everyday traffic. Yes, really! Until Archie Birkin died when he crashed while swerving to avoid a delivery van during practice for the 1927 TT. The roads were closed for TT practice from 1928 and have remained so ever since.

MotoGP’s visit to India next week is unprecedented in modern times. All new MotoGP circuits are inspected by FIM safety officers, who demand safety improvements if required. Buddh was built for Formula 1, so some of the retaining walls were too close to the track. The FIM safety officers demanded the removal of several walls and the expansion of runoff areas.

Dorna is obviously keen for the race to go ahead. As are we all, because India is a huge motorcycling nation, with 120m powered two-wheelers on the roads, so it deserves a MotoGP round more than anywhere. But MotoGP events cannot take place on non-homologated circuits, so the circuit will be inspected the day before practice begins.

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Will the circuit be certified fit for purpose, even if not all the required changes have been made? It’s difficult to see anyone failing the venue, when all the riders, several thousand paddock staff and a hundred or so race bikes are already on site.

Some riders are hoping for the best, others aren’t so sure. “Everything there is like it was before,” said Luca Marini last weekend, referring to walls, runoff and so on. “We will see when a rider hits a wall if there are consequences.”

India is also the first of a long sequence of Asian and beyond flyaway GPs. The 2024 season concludes with six GPs over seven weekends on four different continents: Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar and Valencia. This is an itinerary and workload that’s never been attempted in MotoGP.

MotoGP mechanics are the best, but some have already told me they are worried about working while exhausted and jet-lagged during those weeks. For example, changing front wheels in a rush during practice, on motorcycles that exceed 220mph (355km/h). When I explained this situation to a risk-assessment expert a few days ago she freaked out.

Marshals help MotoGP riders after 2023 Catalan GP crash

Carnage at Catalunya earlier this month – fallen bikes and riders everywhere

Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images

It seems that some of those in charge aren’t taking their duty of care seriously enough — people are being pushed too far.

Perhaps I’m just a doom-monger, but I worry there are so many safety issues — caused by tech advances, rule changes and some parts of the motorcycles not keeping up with others – that one day these circumstances will converge, with disastrous consequences.

And I’m not alone. “You’re 100% right,” one factory engineer told me at Misano. “Everyone’s just keeping their fingers crossed,” said another. “The rules need changing,” added another. Of course, none of these engineers have any say in what happens, so they just keep doing their jobs and crossing their fingers.

Some fans (I should call them sofa warriors) tell me I shouldn’t concern myself about this kind of thing, because MotoGP riders know what they’re letting themselves in for, so if they get hurt or worse it’s their own fault. This may sometimes be true, but the problem isn’t that MotoGP is dangerous, the problem is that it’s getting more dangerous, after decades of getting safer.

I do know about taking risks on race bikes. I contested the Isle of Man TT for several years and rode many other scary circuits, like Montjuïc Park in Spain, Macau in China, Bathurst in Australia, Suzuka in Japan, Österreichring (now Red Bull Ring) in Austria and Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. And I enjoyed those scarier circuits, mostly because they were so damn fast. So I raced at those places gladly. Most of the time.

I only went on strike once, at super-fast Spa, God’s own racetrack. During the 1985 24-hour race thick fog blanketed the circuit overnight, reducing visibility to 100 metres and less. It was ridiculously dangerous. Some riders were cruising around, wondering where they were, while others continued at pretty much full-race speed, literally counting between the corners and riding on memory. I still don’t understand how no one died.

Pol Espargaro is put into an ambulance after 2023 MotoGP Portuguese GP crash

Pol Espargaró on his way to hospital after his horrific Portuguese GP crash

Steve Wobser/Getty Images

Finally the organisers put out the safety car, which trundled around, followed by us, the riders. When you race you get hot, but when you ride around at low speed in the middle of a chilly Ardennes night you get cold.

After thirty minutes following the safety car we were freezing and our tyres were stone cold and sliding around, so some of us rode alongside the car, shouting at the driver to red flag the race. When he refused we kicked in the car’s door panels, which had him hurrying into pitlane. The race was stopped, until the fog lifted after dawn.

I feel like today’s MotoGP riders are being made to do things they shouldn’t be made to do. It’s time they stood up for themselves. After all, they’re the people risking life and limb to enrich the people in charge. Maybe they need a new Mike Trimby, in his 1980s revolutionary mode.