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  • Peter MacKay

Why allowing unnecessary risk is unacceptable

In my previous article on safety in motorsport, I stressed how the relentless pursuit and implementation of new safety measures, would be vital to the long term future of motor sport, in the face of increasing sensitivity over health and safety in society. If a new technique or regulation can be introduced to improve safety, then it should be implemented immediately unless very strong evidence suggests that it would not be forward progress. Motorsport has historically been guilty of waiting for a high profile disaster, before an obvious safety measure is applied to prevent reoccurrences of the same tragic incidents.

In grand prix motorcycle racing, keeping competitors completely safe, will always be an impossible task. However, the FIM and Moto GP owners, Dorna, have made commendable progress over the years to reduce the risk to an acceptable level for those taking part in the three grand prix classes. Airbag technology, similar to that used in equestrian competition, has been in development for over a decade in Moto GP and since 2018, has been compulsory to all permanent riders. Curiously, wildcard riders making one off appearances are exempt from use of the technology if they wish, a bizarre concession given these riders are often entered by factory teams so cost of the technology is certainly not an impediment. However, I am unaware of any wildcard rider shunning the technology. The cutting edge technology, honed by teams of trackside engineers at every race, is controlled by a small control unit within the rider’s protective suit. With the entire system weighing only 600 grams, concerns regarding rider comfort and weight gain, have long been put to bed. Following a high speed tumble into the gravel trap, Moto GP riders will usually escape unhurt, thanks to airbag suits. Riders usually only suffer from dented pride, resembling an NFL defensive linesman or Buzz Lightyear, such is the level of protection deployed from their airbag suits in advance of their contact with the tarmac.

For the last 16 years, every Friday evening on a race weekend, most Moto GP riders will attend the safety commission meeting where concerns can be raised over track conditions, riding standards and any other relevant issues regarding safety. Allowing the riders to have a collective voice and power has forced the hand of many circuits to make costly changes to track surfaces, layout of circuits and crash barrier positioning. This method has been highly effective for riders to spot potential hazards on track and act accordingly to reduce the potential of serious injuries to competitors.

Moto GP machines have never been more powerful and can reach speeds of 220mph. We are also enjoying a golden era of close racing in the sport, with the field more closely matched on lap time than ever before. Such close parity of rider quality and performance of different machines, has produced heart stopping action on track with riders battling wheel to wheel throughout every race. But, thanks to the unrelenting pace of developing safety measures, competing in Moto GP has never been safer, despite such close on track action.

Recently, whilst perusing reports from the recent Moto 2 race at Misano, I discovered an article, which, having read a few times now, still leaves me in utter disbelief. The article in question had been written by one of the most experienced journalists in the business, someone who, over the years, will have undoubtedly forged close relationships with riders, only to see some of them killed by negligence and under developed safety measures in the sport at the time. Tarmac run off areas, a clear safety improvement on a grand prix motorcycle circuit, were the subject of criticism for this writer’s weekly column.

In theory, tarmac run off areas have been introduced to replace grass areas on the outside of corners, to protect a rider from crashing if they run wide and exit the limits of the circuit itself. Following wet weather, tarmac often dries long before the grass areas on the edge of the circuits will, thus resulting in an inevitable accident when a rider runs off circuit and onto the grass surface, with similar adhesion levels to a frozen pond. Painted, hard standing run off areas were created to replace grass run offs and hopefully, to avoid this inevitability. This simple improvement in rider safety is so clear and obvious for anyone to see.

From a sporting point of view, tarmac run off areas replacing grass have come under fire. Riders opening the throttle earlier on corner exit and shaving a vital hundredth of a second from their lap time, have craftily been using these extra run off areas on corner exit to liberate extra room to improve their drive down to the next section of the circuit. If a rider is spotted partaking in this circumvention of the rules, their lap will be cancelled in qualifying or practice. During a race, if they are a consistent offender, they may be slapped with a “long lap penalty”, forcing the rider to take the long way round at a specific corner, in order for them to be substantially penalised for their misdemeanour.

To me, it seems very clear how the sporting challenges, brought on by these new tarmac run off areas, can be easily controlled and policed. All whilst maintaining their blatantly obvious safety benefits.

The opinions voiced in the article in question struck me as outdated, stating that “racing is all about taking risks”. Of course, any person prepared to throw their leg over a 250bhp, prototype missile of a motorcycle and clash fairings with a silent assassin like Marc Marquez, will be far more aware than any observer could contemplate, just how much risk they are taking. Racing is not simply just about taking risks. The balancing act between managing risk, taking acceptable risks and crucially, backing off from taking unacceptable risks, requires the superhuman brain capacity that only champions possess.

Reverting to grass run off areas, simply trying to control cheeky competitors looking to sneak an advantage, would be forcing riders to take a now unacceptable risk, given the fact a safer alternative is easily applicable to all grand prix motorcycle racing venues. Any advantage gained by a rider from using tarmac run off area on corner exit to marginally reduce lap time, can easily be neutralised by a fair penalty system, thus allowing the safety benefits to be enjoyed compared to the outdated grass alternative.

Motorcycle racing is the most exhilarating and entertaining form of motor sport but contrary to apparently well informed beliefs, it does not require unnecessary danger to be added to the mix to produce such an encapsulating spectacle.

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