Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - Can racing ever be too safe?

MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.


Can racing ever be too safe?

Here are a few philosophical questions for you. Can motorcycle racing ever be too safe? Or how safe/dangerous should MotoGP be? Should MotoGP return to the Isle of Man TT and damn the consequences, or should Dorna take advantage of the trillions of dollars available from Middle Eastern oil nations keen to establish mind-bogglingly ostentatious racetracks in their kingdoms, with thousands of metres of sandy runoff at every corner?

The only reason I ask is in reaction to a couple of frankly bizarre recent moves to ‘improve’ MotoGP circuit safety. The first was at Catalunya’s Turn 10, the low-speed left-hander at the end of the back straight that claims many victims because it’s downhill, it’s bumpy, it’s made slippery by F1 cars and (possibly most importantly) it’s the last real overtaking opportunity of the lap; i.e. it’s now or never.

At last year’s Catalan GP there were 28 crashes at Turn 10, making it the most crashed-at corner of the year, but zero injuries of any consequence. This year there were 21 falls at the same corner and once again everyone who fell there was fit to race.

Nonetheless, riders were presented with a ‘safer’ alternative Turn 10, as used by F1 cars, to evaluate during June’s post-Catalan GP tests. The prime concern is a lack of run-off in case of a brake failure or collision, because the gravel trap can’t be expanded due to lack of space.

So what’s going on: has some eager health and safety and official wheedled his/her way into Dorna, determined to usher in an era where crashing and the possibility of getting hurt are impossibilities?

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

Comments

Racing on the edge

In my opinion one of the things that makes any form of racing exciting is the known danger that is involved. It is not a matter of wishing harm to come to a racer, it's about the level of intensity that the danger brings to the sport. The problem that exists is that any professional will constantly try to push the limits. Every rider knows that the waterfall is most hazardous in the morning hours, yet the riders were still crashing there. They crash because they need to know where that limit is. Perhaps sometimes those limits can only be found by crashing.

Total votes: 28

Intriguing Question

It’s an interesting question. It’s also something I hear about all the time here in the states. I think safety is just one of those hot button topics so it’s important to have context. Safety is important because it helps protect our selves from mistakes and events out of our control. Things like air bags and seat belts in automobiles save zillions of lives every year. Organizations like the FDA here in the states helps keep our food save.

However there are issues with miss understanding the concepts of safety and thinking it’s possible to completely protect us from injuries through laws and litigation. We are human and the human condition shouldn’t be about sitting in a bubble trying to live as long as possible. Humanity is about experience, passion and excitement. I’m personally inspired by people who engage in their passions even though it can kill them. Free climbing, MotoGP and especially the IOM TT. I think its something like five people for every mile of the TT circuit have died and yet if you ask any of the racers they would rather die them selves then not race.

From a more holistic perspective I think it’s important for people to get hurt wile pushing them selves. Children need to get scrapes and bumps and as a society we need to understand that people die, people get hurt doing what they love and we need to accept the results. My father was killed in a car accident because seat belts weren’t compulsory at the time. Of corse I miss him and of corse I always use a seat belt but at the end of the day that’s life.

I think we need to do our best to help things to be safe but at the same time we shouldn’t go so far as to squash the humanity out of the things that make life worth living. At the end of the day if we don’t get to experience the excitement and passion of humanity but we are safe then I don’t think i would see the point in being alive.

Total votes: 28

Dorna and IFM should have

learned by now that the F1 route of standardizing corners for 2nd and 3rd gears is a suicidal path that angers both fans and pilots/riders and does nothing to improve the spectacle.

Total votes: 25

new safety corners,

the circuit needs to address the bumps issue,the F1 ripple the track,should they
then pay to restore it to its previous level ?

or do motorcycle suspensions need to be improved to cope,
although there are lots of sliding off,no real injuries,leave well alone

Total votes: 21

How safe is safe?

Provided the riders are deciding what is acceptable then we should accept that.

Personally if safety is the topic then I think that the role that electronics are playing needs to be brought under the spotlight. Two examples are; first Simoncelli's fatal crash appeared to be caused by his tyres regaining traction and veering back onto the racing line. Was there an inquest into what role traction control played in this? And if not then why not? Secondly, there have been multiple incidents of track position sensitive electronics malfunctioning. Much as these electronic rider aids are lauded as being safety features, when they malfunction they can cause the rider to completely lose control. These are the type of accidents that can result in serious injury or worse. Take Pedrosa's violent highside after his rear wheel sensor was damaged. It just came out of the blue.

I don't think the TT can be compared to anything and I hope it continues forever.

Total votes: 28

??

Some of spectators gets excited when they see blood, tears and broken bones.... Others want to see racing. I found nothing about injuries in definition of racing.

Total votes: 24

F1 and GP

In my opinion I think the after effects of F1 (rippling of the pavement) add a form of challenge to the GP boys. Part of racing is facing the elements. Having a perfect track seems to take away from those elements.

Total votes: 19

A false dichotomy. There are

A false dichotomy. There are a lot of extremely challenging corners in the world that are not dangerous (lack of runoff, etc.) Give turns One through Three at PI a crack sometime. And there are dangerous places that can be made a lot safer without making them less challenging. The straight at Mugello, for one.

Besides, a steady state third-gear corner on a modern MotoGP machine is well, well into triple-digit speeds. If that's boring, well ...

Total votes: 28

Safety is a relative term.

You only need to compare a plane flight that goes 'as planned' and one where there is a violent storm or emergency landing etc. Probably no less safe, statistically, yet.....
Safe and fast, when it comes to racetrack corners are a bit of an oxymoron. Turn 1 at PI , or many others, are not places anyone comes off a bike due to their speed with anything less than a high dose of adrenaline.
Cojones are often referred to for a reason.
If safety becomes the priority then they should just bring in Shell as a sponsor with their grippy stuff, and start putting speed advisory signs up.
A dangerous corner is where riders cannot usually get up and walk away from an off - turn 11 at Sachsenring is a safe corner, which is why riders explore and exceed the limits with some confidence.

Total votes: 16

But when you go off the track

But when you go off the track at PI's Turn One, you hit - nothing. Increased runoff area on modern tracks is the only - only - reason this sport remains as acceptable as it is to corporate sponsors and supporters. There's a reason that the IOM is off the schedule; factories and teams have found that killing their riders is bad for business.

I have to say that I find this recent attitude shift toward an acceptance of greater risk to the riders disturbing. This website's author opined over the winter that the sport needs to market its danger in order to attract television viewers, then suggested recently that perhaps racing at unsafe tracks is OK if we get better protection on the riders. Now Mat questions whether MotoGP should go back to the Isle and simply take the consequences - something that's easy to suggest when it's not you or your kid on the 260-horsepower machine.

I could not have been a fan of this sport when we started a season knowing, without a doubt, that we would lose one or more of the riders who showed up for the first race. And I suspect that those companies from which professional race teams seek support are thinking much the same way.

Total votes: 20

Nothing is a relative term.

Have you watched any of those accidents? Have you seen Laverty's foot? If you think crossing half an acre of lumpy grass on your ass at 140 mph is nothing, well..... you must have big cojones (tucked in I hope) and strong vertebrae.

BTW - the IOM is not off the factories or teams schedules. Check out BMW, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Ducati, PBM and more. They are there twice a year at least, even not counting the Southern 100. The Ulster GP, North West 200 etc are similar and popular (and not for accidents - people who love the sport).

It's not MGP, but hugely popular, and for good reasons that include and override the danger.

Sponsors, well, you get my drift. None of the big names go there without support and the races have headline sponsors.

I'm not arguing against safety, just pointing out that there are levels of it. It's not black and white, or 'risk'/'no risk' as you suggest.

Total votes: 19

And risk, indeed, is

And risk, indeed, is relative. But there's better and there's worse. I'll take a half-acre of lumpy grass over a solid stone wall or Armco any day, thank you.

Those teams that show up at the rather bizarre sideshow of U.K. road racing are not factory teams. They've got support, you are correct. But those teams are not factory supported in terms of top-level kit, nor do any of the top-level WSBK, MotoGP, or even top-level National riders show up. Check the entry list for this year's TT, and count the number of BSB wins among those entrants. Did any of this year's TT entrants have even one BSB Superbike race win? I didn't see PBM or Shakey there!

I see open road racing as a sort of cultural hangover, a leftover habit perpetuated by those who still economically benefit from it, while the rest of the world has moved on. You can find all kinds of examples of this phenomenon around the world.

It's a spectacle, for sure. So is swamp buggy racing and underground knife fighting. But it's not top-level road racing. The factories sure as hell aren't sending their A-list pilots over there. So far, during the first half of the 2014 roads season, there have been at least four fatalities, or as many racers killed in a few months as there have been in 20 or 21 years of GP racing (depends on whether you want to count sidecars).

Racing exists, primarily, as a means to sell motorcycles. Increasing the risk of injury or death - and then promoting that increased risk - does not sound like a promising pitch to manufacturers and sponsors who sell motorcycles and related goods and services. Returning the IOM to World Championship status would be the end of factory involvement in said championships.

I could be wrong. But I doubt it.

Total votes: 22

Josh brooks, Michael Rutter

... highly successful in bsb and no slouch in TT.

But I largely agree. However the people who race circuits and those who race on roads are probably as different from each other as those who climb with and without ropes. For one group, it's about doing something extremely dangerous but minimizing the risk; for the other, it's about taking much bigger risks.

Total votes: 11

Apples and Pears.

You are just not understanding my point.

I didn't bring in the road racing to the safety issue, you did.

I haven't said stone walls or Armco next to a tight or negligible track run-off are acceptable, you have implied I did. I just pointed out that you were not correct in your statement about the IOM. The same as you are wrong in stating anyone who matters promotes high risk. It's racing, speed, and excitement that gets promoted. When accidents happen, especially the worst ones, it's kept low-key and respectful. To suggest anything else is disingenuous.

Racing is not primarily about selling motorcycles either IMO. The sponsors and statistics show that. It's sport.
The IOM or road racing isn't going to return to the world championship, so why make that point? You cannot prove that point any more than I can prove no one is ever going to get killed at PI or Sachsenring. Sepang was designed to the highest standards thought necessary. The worst accident in a long time didn't involve run-off. Most of the worst accidents (i.e fatal) in the past 10 years at world championship level haven't involved run-off. Are you suggesting that racing, or wet weather racing, therefore must be stopped?

I call all this acceptable risk and adequate safety, but things can and should be improved when practicable to do so. You seem to deal in absolutes only.

Total votes: 18

I've been around long enough

I've been around long enough to know that proposed safety improvements usually are rejected by track owners as they are "not practicable." I know guys who have been thrown out of race tracks for asking that hay bales be placed in front of concrete abutments. It is when a desired customer threatens to go elsewhere that changes get made. So practicable is in the eye of the beholder.

Read my first response again, and Mat's column. In the first paragraph, he asks if MotoGP shouldn't go back to the Isle. And during the off-season, when David and I were having this same discussion, he opined that marketing the danger of the sport was a way of gathering larger audiences. It is that sentiment - that danger to the riders is necessary to the economic health of this sport and to the enjoyment of it by spectators - that concerns me.

Believe me, I get your point. Risk is relative. I like doing my long solo (endurance-type) races because I feel the risk is lower - fewer competitors, less pressure to pass someone immediately, etc. The fact that I race at all is off the charts in terms of risk for many people I know.

And trust me - Honda and Yamaha do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to compete in MotoGP because they like the "sport" of it. As one of the announcers for a BSB race once said, "The answer to 99 questions out of 100 is money."

Total votes: 13

Chalk and cheese?

Understood. Perhaps it's because I didn't see anything in Oxley's proposal other than a daft provocative suggestion that would never happen in a million years. In my view it's neither possible nor credible. My comments are based upon world championship series, not club racing or road racing.

Tracks and operators that meet FIA/Dorna requirements for track condition and facilities for MGP are a long way from standard circuit operations. I'm no expert, but track days and club races operate with a far lower level of facilities that national series, never mind world, and the F1 is a different level again of course. That's probably the exemplar that everyone is aspiring to.

Bales wouldn't be acceptable in a national race in the UK (I cannot remember the last time I saw any) and you don't see them much in places like the IOM or NW200. Air fences and foam bales etc have become de rigeur for any 'hot spots', and they are increasing the stock and coverage year on year.

But MGP is some way above that. Their level of performance would put them at much higher risk than even top road racers. Which is why I think that slowing the bikes down has to be the only way to reduce risks to an 'acceptable' level. It won't make much difference to most fast corners in terms of the challenge, but consequences should be rolled back a meaningful amount.

Total votes: 11

I think you're right, and I

I think you're right, and I hope it was nothing more than a daft provocative suggestion. But look around at the comments on various motorsport sites from people praising the TT, moaning that tracks are "too safe," that marketing danger is a good idea. You start to wonder. A few months back Roadracing World ran a letter to the editor from a reader demanding more open road racing coverage and - I am not making this up - calling the racers who did circuits "pussies."

Yipes.

Total votes: 9

*

*

Total votes: 8

Now I'm with You.

Creeps.
That's the main reason I don't waste my time on other sites where the dialogue is juvenile and aggressive. It is pointless trying to have a sensible discussion and the anonymity seems to bring out the worst in a lot of people. Better to stay away. It's the sort of thing that makes me think censorship is a good idea! (which is another discussion, but David's moderation seems to work well.....)
I have huge respect for road racers, and have some friends who ride at the IOM, but it's a place that, whilst
sat 15m from the inside kerb at Bray Hill etc. or in Kirk Michael is thrilling and awe inspiring, it is also scary if you have any imagination on the 'what if's'. I'm OK with others following their dreams, but it's not for me.
The technique and technology of circuit racers has affected speeds and lap times, but few can achieve a regular top 5 in both. Brookes and Rutter are good examples - the young gun and the old dog are pretty equal when it comes down to it but Rutter is able to get closer on the roads and his bike/team are probably held back by 'resources' on the short circuits.

Total votes: 6

Morbidelli,

May I ask you a question? How old are you roughly?

I ask because I am perplexed that you say you have watched motorcycle racing for a long time but then say that you could not have been a fan of the sport if you'd known someone was likely to die before the start of the season. Yet this was a common occurrence within my lifetime. The only thing that stopped me watching it was it was never on TV.

Not arguing with your point, just intrigued.

Total votes: 10

I'm in my early 50s. Got my

I'm in my early 50s. Got my first bike when I was 20, went to my first roadrace when I was early 30-something (and I got to watch a racer, Larry Schwartzbach, die in front of me at Mid-Ohio at that event). Learned early on that this sport is no joke. Loved it so much that I came back for more - which I was able to do because I found that fortunately, unlike on the roads, Larry's death was a relative rarity in top-level competition.

I think TV - or lack thereof - played a bit of a role. I likely was in my 30s, in the 1990s, before I could see roadracing on the telly on even a semi-regular basis. By then, the TT was long off the GP schedule, street races of all sorts were gone, and body armor (especially back protectors) were standard issue. Riders crashed and got hurt, but usually got up and walked away.

It's funny that you ask - I remember one of the first races I ever saw on TV was Macau, and I wondered why none of the GP riders were racing there. Now I know.

There's a big difference between understanding that you might lose a competitor - that's every race, every season, every series - and the certain knowledge that you are definitely going to lose one or more. If we'd lost four GP and/or WSBK riders (let's throw a wide net) so far this season, I'm pretty sure I'd be reconsidering my choices in watching - especially if it was because races were held on circuits that were below-standard in terms of safety.

Total votes: 9

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