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  • Peter MacKay

Safety in Motorsport- The never ending battle to preserve our great sport

“Motorsport can be dangerous”. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend a competitive motor race will be familiar with this statement. Printed on every ticket to warn spectators they are watching at their own risk. Albeit a tiny risk compared to those modern day gladiators who they have queued up to see go toe to toe in the pursuit of glory. After shuffling along in the queue for what seems like an eternity, teased by the sound of highly strung engines filling the air, you finally make it to the gate and pass over your hard earned cash for the ticket to a full day of adrenaline pumping entertainment. That ticket with its hologram shimmering in the Sunday morning sun will be cherished for years but the aforementioned statement displayed on the back, unlikely to be contemplated. However, Sunday mornings aren’t so gleeful for that gallant competitor struggling to keep their breakfast down, crippled by trepidation of what lies in front of them as they prepare to stick their life and career on the line. “Motorsport can be dangerous” is a phrase which will circle round and round their head like James Hinchcliffe at maximum attack on a super speedway.

Motorsport IS dangerous. Always has been. Thanks to the collective efforts of far too many people to mention, motorsport has statistically never been safer but still carries an element of risk. Depending on the motorsport in question, the chances of an accident causing serious injury or worse vary dramatically. A BTCC car being pushed up to and beyond its unfathomable limit around one of the UK’s purpose built circuits surrounded by highly trained marshals carries relatively little risk of serious injury. On the other end of the scale, the valiant amateur competitor who slaves all winter to produce a 600cc, super sport bike for a wet, mass start road race at the beginning of the Irish road racing season? They are taking one of the greatest risks in motor sport.

If you asked a cross section of top level racing drivers what their favourite circuits were, I suspect you would get a very close correlation with the preferred circuits of the fan watching on TV or in the grandstand. Tracks like Mount Panorama at Bathurst, Spa-Francorchamps, Assen in Holland, Phillip Island in Australia, Nurburgring Nordschleife and Laguna Seca are common answers to this question. These aforementioned circuits that flow with the contours of the landscape around them exact a captious yet gratifying test for the world’s best drivers and riders. Marc Marquez, sliding his factory Repsol Honda RC213V prototype around turn 3 at Phillip Island, is a sight to behold. Almost flat out in 5th gear on his 280bhp machine, you are unlikely to see anything more breath taking throughout a Moto GP season.

However, we live in an ever more sanitised and sensitive world. Condemnation of danger and speed is building relentlessly. Most governments and lobbyists around the world appear to subscribe to the view that many human beings do not have an acceptable level of self-preservation. Therefore, they must step in with legislation to save the public from themselves. I despair when you overhear throwaway comments that motorcycle racers are “crazy” and “mad”. Every June, the (insert any British tabloid newspaper here) “Why the Isle of Man TT should be banned” plug and play article is lazily rolled out for its annual outing. Sadly, this uninformed clickbait nonsense will continue for years to come. This vitriol and oppression of our sport will continue whether we like it or not. So what can we do to preserve racing on the hallowed tarmac of circuits so revered by competitors and fans?

In theory, it is simple. We cannot afford even the most momentary ignition cut on the full throttle campaign for safety in motorsport. Safety efforts must cover every possible aspect of the sport. Motorsport governing bodies have a vital duty to preserve and future proof the long term future of the competition that gives fans and drivers so much pleasure. During the last couple of seasons there have been a few examples where, in my opinion, some easily avoidable incidents have slipped through the net. At the 42nd Suzuka 8 hour motorcycle race in July 2019, we were treated to a masterclass of technological prowess of the dominant Japanese manufacturers. Top flight factory superbike riders from Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki butted heads all race long in the searing Suzuka summer heat. Only a tiny mistake with a fuel cap at Yamaha’s final pit stop gave Kawasaki and Jonathan Rea the breathing space to clinch a slender 20 second advantage as the race reached the closing stages. As this battle for outright honours was unfolding, another titanic contest was going on a little further down the field. Every year, the Suzuka 8 hour hosts the championship finale for the FIM Endurance World Championship and awards double points. Despite an early crash from David Checa, brother of WSBK champion Carlos, on the SRC Kawasaki France ZX10-RR, all was not lost. The team still had a slender chance of winning the title. However, with 8 minutes to go, SERT Suzuki’s #2 GSX1000R looked set to clinch yet another EWC title and break the hearts of the guys in green. But then, disaster. Approaching Suzuka’s first fast double right hand corner, the Japanese machine uncharacteristically blew up in spectacular fashion, ripping the crown from SERT Suzuki’s grasp with the finish line in clear sight. French rider Etienne Masson had the honour of taking the bike to the finish, a privilege in endurance racing. Instead, he had to suffer the brutal misfortune of piloting the bike at the time of the dramatic blow up. At this stage of the story it is pertinent to mention two vital pieces of motorcycle racing etiquette. Number 1, if your engine blows, get off the track immediately as you will likely be spreading oil. Number 2, in an endurance race, get the bike back to the pits, at all costs. Masson tried valiantly but failed to adhere to either of these unwritten rules. The experienced Frenchman, given the desperation of the situation, tried everything he could to get the bike back to the pits but to no avail. However, in the process he carried on for approximately 200 metres spreading oil all over the track. In the dark, with drizzle in the air. Even on the Eurosport TV coverage taken from the EWC world feed, it was very clear that oil was on the track and on the racing line. Nearly 5 minutes went by until the inevitable happened, a rider crashed on the oil and a red flag was eventually thrown, 5 minutes too late. The rider in question? Jonathan Rea on the race leading Kawasaki. Arguably the greatest superbike rider ever had crashed with a bike almost fully upright as the tyre slid on the slick surface and went down. Rea tumbled into the barrier and was fortuitous to escape serious injury and flew home to carry on his ongoing quest for a 5th World Superbike title. Incident’s like these cannot happen if we wish to preserve racing on such wonderful tracks like Suzuka. Winning the Suzuka 8 hour is as significant an honour for the Japanese factories as winning a Moto GP world title and therefore is the most important race of the year in motorcycle racing. Basic safety errors like those that occurred at this year’s 8 hour are completely unacceptable at a race of such stature. A track covered in oil on the racing line, in dark and wet conditions should, at the very least, spark an immediate deployment of a safety car. I would never accept any argument for keeping racing under green flag with the track in such a dangerous condition. Under the guidance of the safety car, riders would have been led around the spilt oil while it was cleared and the race would have come to an agreeable and safe conclusion. We will never know the truth but it appears that it is another typical situation in motor sport safety that requires a high profile name to have an incident before significant action is taken. Initially, Yamaha were awarded their 5th win in a row at the 8 hour. However, they suffered the humiliation of celebrating a victory with senior management clothed in commemorative t shirts, only for Kawasaki to be reinstated as winners a few hours later. A judgement call was made for the race to be called back a lap from the point of the red flag and this, rightly, confirmed Kawasaki as the winner of the 8 hour for the first time since 1994. Motorcycle racing is dangerous and exhilarating, especially at Suzuka. Competitors taking part fully accept the risks involved and relish the challenge of racing in such a significant race on such a special race track. However, avoidable incidents like these have to be eradicated. Race organisers cannot be complacent, waiting for an impending high profile disaster to occur before making significant changes to safety procedure are made will not wash anymore.

Any advancements made in the improvement of safety in motorsport should always be applauded. Dr Bob Hubbard and his brother in law, Jim Downing, pioneered a device that has saved countless lives over the last 30 years, the HANS device. Dr Hubbard and Downing were deeply concerned by the number of basilar skull fracture injuries resulting in fatalities in motor sport. Many of which, they believed, were avoidable. Dr Hubbard developed a device that would keep the drivers head and torso restrained together to avoid sharp forward movement of the head and neck in an impact. By 1990, they were ready to take the first iteration of the HANS device to the market. Remarkably, no safety equipment company were interested in producing the devices as they believed there was no market. Undeterred, they founded Hubbard/Downing inc and sold their first device in 1991. No funds were available for any kind of marketing or promotional activity. However, Downing was able to promote the device through his reputation as a factory Mazda driver. Downing would wear the device during races and very soon he was receiving inquiries about what this bizarre looking contraption was. Throughout the 90’s, automotive giants Ford, General Motors and laterally Mercedes commendably provided vital financial support to the development of the device which proved essential. The CART series in the United States suffered one of its darkest periods in late 1999. Leading drivers Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore were both killed in horrible accidents within a 6-week period. Both of these great men had died due to skull fractures. Neither were wearing a HANS device. Following the incidents, CART, with the assistance of the Newman Haas team, quickly developed the car to be able to comfortably fit a driver wearing the HANS device. By the following year, HANS devices were compulsory for all drivers competing in CART. In NASCAR, the USA’s other major motor racing series, uptake for the HANS device was slightly slower. Teams tried their best to educate drivers and provide them with the devices but NASCAR stayed hands off and gave discretion to the drivers. Following 3 more tragic skull fracture deaths in NASCAR in 1999, in 2001 the world of motorsport was shocked to its core. At the Daytona 500, NASCAR legend, “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt died in a violent crash. Following the incident he succumbed to head and neck injuries. Earnhardt wasn’t wearing the HANS device. In the days following, approximately 250 HANS devices were sold. If it could happen to Dale Earnhardt, it could happen to anyone. Losing one of the greatest drivers in American motor racing history undoubtedly accelerated the adoption of HANS technology. The very next year, NASCAR mandated the use of HANS devices for all competitors.

A much more recent and probably more controversial safety measure is the new HALO device, implemented in Formula 1 in 2018. HALOs are designed to protect the driver of an open cockpit, single seater racing car from impact to their head and body. Mounted around the driver’s head in a shape resembling a chicken bone or a boomerang, the HALO is not the most elegant solution. Criticism of the HALO was initially fierce. Journalists wrote that this sanitised the gladiatorial nature of the sport and that fans want to see the drivers working the wheel. I find it appalling that someone could forge such an opinion if they have been present at a race track when a driver has lost their life. Even more so, if the death could have been prevented by the HALO. The pursuit of improving driver safety must be never relent. By the time of the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit, the HALO debate was still droning on. However, as the lights went out and the drivers piled in to the almost traditional melee into turn 1, this debate was about to reach a swift conclusion. Double world champion, Fernando Alonso, was punted from the rear by Nico Hulkenberg who had completely misjudged his braking marker, a typical error at la source on lap 1. Alonso’s car torpedoed towards the Alfa Romeo of young rising star, Charles Leclerc. On impact, the bright orange Mclaren bulldozed over the Alfa and was only deflected by the herculean strength of the HALO. Without the device, the impact to the side of Leclerc’s helmet could have easily had fatal consequences. Unsurprisingly, criticism of the HALO has cooled almost completely ever since that day in the Ardennes forest.

Indy Car, one of the fastest motor sports on earth, must also be commended for their continued crusade towards driver safety, the recent incident at Pocono 2019 aside. I feel the criticism towards this archaic raceway has been extensively justified by much more informed people than I. Americas premier open wheeled category has an impressive commitment to continually implement safety improvements to protect its brave drivers. Curiously, Indy Car have rejected the use of the HALO device on their cars. Not through a stubborn ignorance of driver safety but to instead develop a system that they believe, will be more effective for Indy Car. Consultation has been commissioned at the very highest level to develop a HALO “windshield” alternative. Red Bull Advanced technologies have been chosen to develop the canopy style technology that will be introduced for the 2020 season. For years, the high speed, single seater, oval racing in Indy Car has brought a unique element in motorsport that can’t be replicated elsewhere. The spectacle of Penske ace, Simon Pagenaud dicing wheel to wheel with Ganassi stalwart, Scott Dixon at 230mph on a super-speedway is a joy to behold. However, unless constant, proactive developments in safety are made, this motor racing nirvana will be under threat.

Lifting off the throttle on the remarkable, never ending crusade for safety in motorsport is simply not an option if we wish to preserve motor racing in the same form we know and love today. Bathurst 1000 at Mount Panorama, The Isle of Man TT, The Monaco Grand Prix, The Indianapolis 500 and many more iconic races must be carefully preserved for generations to come. Conservation must be led by safety to protect our sacred sport.

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