Is MotoGP’s tail wagging the dog?

by Mat Oxley on 27th August 2018

Should the riders have raced on Sunday? Do they have too much say in their own safety?

MotoGP has always existed on a knife edge, which is why we love it. And despite safer tracks, better riding gear and everything else, the riders exist on that knife edge more now than in many a year, because getting them and their 220mph motorcycles around a racetrack with no major injuries or fatalities is quite a feat, even on a sunny day. This miracle occurs almost every race, which fools some people into thinking that MotoGP can’t be that dangerous. But believe me, Race Direction leaves the track most Sunday evenings with a huge sigh of relief: we got away with it again!

However, sometimes things do go wrong.

Sunday’s British Grand Prix was a disaster for everyone, especially for the fans who had made the pilgrimage and spent the day soaking and shivering, hoping to see some action at one of the championship’s fastest, scariest racetracks.

Everyone went home disappointed: the fans, the riders and the teams. Some fans went home feeling angry that they were kept waiting so long, for nothing. And they have every right to feel hard done by. But, at the end of the day, all that really matters is that no one died.

This is important to remember, because riders still do die in MotoGP, currently at the rate of one every three seasons.

Some riders, even The Maniac himself thinks it’s all getting a bit too much

No one died at Silverstone, but Tito Rabat remains in hospital in Coventry, nursing a broken right femur, tibia and fibula, after he came off worst in Saturday afternoon’s pile-up at Stowe corner. The Spaniard’s shattered leg was bleeding so badly that medics assumed he had severed a femoral artery – a very quick and easy way to die.

Rabat wasn’t injured when he aquaplaned on a small lake of standing rainwater and fell at the end of Hangar Straight, he was injured when another fallen machine smashed into him while he lay stranded in the gravel trap. Shoya Tomizawa died at Misano in 2010 when he was hit by a rival’s bike. And a similar fate befell Marco Simoncelli at Sepang in 2011. It is impossible to fully protect a rider once he’s on the ground, with machines moving at speed all around him.

Alex Rins was the first to crash at Stowe near the end of FP4, bravely jumping off at high speed when he felt his Suzuki GSX-RR aquaplane.

“I felt the water, cut the throttle at 290 [180mph], tried to brake, but the front was aquaplaning and locked,” he said. “I saw the wall coming at me fast, so I jumped off the bike. Then I was waving, trying to tell Tito that [Franco] Morbidelli’s bike was coming. He turned and saw the bike, but couldn’t move in time and he flew 10 metres.”

At a guess, Morbidelli’s bike was travelling at close to 100mph when it hit Rabat, who was incredibly lucky that the bike broke his leg and not his head.

Stowe was a scary mess: three riders on the ground and several more losing control and hurtling through the gravel trap, lucky to stay onboard. It could have been much worse. From that moment the Grand Prix was in jeopardy.

On Sunday, riders, teams and Race Direction waited hours for the weather to clear, but it never quite happened. Shortly before 4pm the riders had a final safety commission meeting and, because there was a possibility of yet more rain, the majority decided it was too risky to race, so at the event was abandoned.

This would not have happened in the old days.

In the old days the promoters would’ve told the riders to race and the event would have gone ahead, no matter what.

This happened on numerous occasions during the 1970s and 1980s, when the riders fought a running battle with the promoters and the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) to decrease the number of deaths and injuries.

The FIM and promoters were shockingly callous at that time. When Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini died together during the 1973 Italian Grand Prix at Monza the race wasn’t even stopped.

“It was just bloody carnage,” remembers Chas Mortimer, one of many riders caught in the deadly pile-up. “I was about the only person able to walk away from it. Everyone else was stretchered away. I remember running over to see Jarno – virtually all his head had gone – it was bloody horrendous. Actually, I killed Pasolini. There’s a picture of me coming out of the flames with Pasolini lying right across the road and I ran straight into him. It was like what happened when Marco Simoncelli was killed.”

The race only ended when the survivors got sick of weaving through the mess of burning, tangled machinery and returned to the pits.

Two weeks later, Monza staged a national meeting. Dr Claudio Costa – creator of MotoGP’s famous Clinica Mobile – begged the organisers to place an ambulance at Curve Grande, where Saarinen and Pasolini had lost their lives. His request was refused and three more riders died.

Four years later Swiss rider Hans Stadelmann was killed in a similar mass pile-up during the 250cc Austrian GP at the Salzburgring. Again, the promoters saw no need to stop the race, at least until eight laps after the accident, which also left Johnny Cecotto, Dieter Braun and Patrick Fernandez seriously injured. All the other big stars of the day – Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini and the others – refused to start the 500cc Grand Prix around the terrifying (but beautiful) Armco-lined circuit. Incredibly, the FIM gave Sheene an official warning for his insolence. Meanwhile the organisers rushed around the paddock, offering twice the normal start money to anyone who would race.

This set the pattern for years to come. When the stars went on strike, trying to force safety improvements, the skint privateers went out and raced, taking the rare opportunity to earn enough cash to put food in their bellies and diesel in their vans. Continental Circus stalwart Jack Findlay, who rode his first Grand Prix in 1958 and his last in 1978, won the race and ate better than usual over the next few weeks.


More from Mat Oxley


In 1982 the same kind of thing happened at the French Grand Prix at Nogaro. I was at that event, helping out British privateer Chris Guy. As Sheene, Kenny Roberts and others left the paddock on Sunday morning I wandered down to the circuit gate to see what was happening. The French fans had seen Sheene driving off in his Roll-Royce so they knew about the strike and they weren’t going to pay top dollar to see a bunch of motley privateers riding around. So they trampled down the perimeter fence and poured into the circuit to watch Michel Frutschi win the 500 race. A year later Frutschi was dead.

In 1989 it happened again at Misano. The track was so treacherous in the rain that all the top riders – Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner and so on – pulled into the pits after the first few laps when it started raining. The race was restarted in heavy rain and won by local hero Pier Francesco Chili, ahead of British privateer Simon Buckmaster. Throughout the race, Lawson, Schwantz and their fellow strikers stood in the pits shouting insults at the so-called scabs who had broken their strike.

After the race Chili, whose Italian team had told him he must ride, sobbed on the podium, because he knew he had failed his fellow riders.

All these battles were hard won, fought by riders who had had enough of risking their lives when they thought the risks were too great. All of them, at one time or another, were called wimps or prima donnas by those who felt that it’s a motorcycle racer’s job to risk his or her life, come what may. Promoters and fans complained that the tail was wagging the dog, which was the exact same complaint of some fans at Silverstone on Sunday.

Today’s riders owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who many years ago fought a sometimes vicious, sometimes hopeless battle with the powers that be. In 1982 the riders helped their cause by hiring former racer Mike Trimby – now in charge of teams’ association IRTA – to fight for their rights.

“By the time I arrived there was more runoff, but this was before gravel beds, so they had catch fencing, which the car guys wanted to slow the cars down,” says Trimby. “The problem was that the fencing was held up by wooden posts – Frutschi was killed by one of those posts at Le Mans in 1983. It was like planting trees around the racetracks! We had loads of arguments with circuits. We ended up removing a lot of catch fencing ourselves.

“What we wanted was something that would gradually collapse to slow riders after they’d crashed, which meant good old haybales. I remember at Mugello in 1983, the circuit people took out the fencing, then told us: right, your haybales are on that tractor over there, so go and put them out, which we did – us and the riders.

“Once IRTA was launched in 1986 we had a formal voice. The other turning point was 1992 when Dorna came in. The deal with them was that we didn’t have to race anywhere we didn’t want to race. Now, when someone designs a new circuit, they incorporate what we want for bikes. The situation can never be perfect but it’s about as close as it can get.”

“I lost it in a straight line in sixth gear when I shut the throttle, I never even hit the brake,” said Cal Crutchlow

Therefore MotoGP surely can’t be that dangerous, because primary safety and secondary safety have evolved to such a level? This is true, but now there are new dangers to consider.

First, the speed. The best MotoGP bikes can surpass 220mph. If you crash at that speed, you are in the lap of the gods. When Marc Márquez went down at 209mph at Mugello in 2013 he fell off the right side of the bike and escaped serious injury. If he had fallen off the other side, where a concrete wall stood, who knows what might have happened.

Second, the racing is much closer than ever, handlebar to handlebar at 200mph, thanks to the current technical rules.

For all these reasons, some riders, even The Maniac himself thinks it’s all getting a bit too much. “For sure it’s more dangerous now,” says Andrea Iannone.

If that downpour hadn’t hit Silverstone on Saturday, Rabat and the others wouldn’t have crashed. The race would have happened, ignorant of what lay ahead. The rain wasn’t the problem.

The problem was the standing water at the end of Hangar and at other parts of the track, which had been formed by a botched multi-million-pound resurfacing job that doesn’t allow rain to drain through the asphalt.

Bemsee [British Motorcycle Racing Club] club racers and Formula Ford drivers who had used Silverstone in the rain in the months before the MotoGP round also complained of standing water and aquaplaning.

Aquaplaning is probably the most dangerous that can happen to you on a motorcycle: the tyres ride atop the water and lose contact with the racetrack. It’s worse than riding on sheet ice, so unless you’re superhuman and very lucky, you will crash.

“I lost it in a straight line in sixth gear when I shut the throttle, I never even hit the brake,” said Cal Crutchlow, who was one of the riders who ran off the track at Stowe during FP4. “Nobody will finish the race if it rains a lot tomorrow. The problem is you’re doing 300 ks in the rain. The surface was like a mirror, there was that much surface water.”

Surface water wasn’t the only nightmare at the fastest part of the track. The asphalt had been polished glass smooth by the titanium skid pans of F1 cars, which raced at Silverstone last month, and also by endurance cars, which had raced the week before the MotoGP round. Recent work to reduce the bumps in the new surface only added to the problem – workers used grinders to remove the high spots in the asphalt, which also drastically reduced grip.

The important thing is that the promoters didn’t allow a handful of riders to race to try and divide and conquer the grid, as was the way in the old days. If the top riders consider the track too dangerous, then the promoters should consider it too dangerous.

What would’ve happened if the race had gone ahead in the rain? If the riders had got through the sighting and warm-up laps, there would’ve been mass destruction at Stowe, as 24 riders fought for position on a skidpan in a fog of spray. And most likely we’d be mourning much more than Rabat’s broken leg.

By my calculations, Luis Salom was the hundredth Grand Prix rider to die, when he ran out of runoff at Catalunya two years ago. It would be wonderful if Salom will go down in history as the last GP rider to lose his life. But he won’t.

More on this and other matters in MotoGP Mutterings, coming soon.

 

 

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