Editor's Blog: On Motorcycle Racing, Danger, and Death

"MOTORSPORTS CAN BE DANGEROUS" it says on the back of my media pass, the hard card I wear around my neck and which gives me access to the paddock and the media center. It says the same thing everywhere around the circuit: on rider passes, on the back of tickets, on signs which hang on fences around the circuit.

You see it so much that it becomes a cliché, and like all clichés it quickly loses its meaning. Until reality intervenes, and reminds us that behind every cliché lies a deep truth.

Friday brought a stark reminder. During the afternoon session of free practice for the Moto2 class, Luis Salom exited Turn 11 and got on the gas towards Turn 12. Just before the turn, traveling at around 170 km/h, the rider caress the front brake to help the bike turn through the fast right hander of Turn 12, an engineer told me. At that point, Salom lost control of his bike, fell off, and he and his bike headed towards the air fence which protects the wall there. They slid across a patch of tarmac put in to help the cars if they run straight on at that corner, and Salom's bike hit the air fence and wall, careened off the wall and into Salom, fatally injuring him.

Salom received treatment in the corner, and was then taken to a local hospital where doctors did all they could to save his life. Sadly, they could not. Luis Salom died at 4:55pm on 3rd June 2016, at the age of 24.

Motorsports can be dangerous. In fact, motorsports can be fatal, though we are lucky enough to live in times where such fatalities are rare, at least in short circuit racing. The last fatality at world championship event was Andrea Antonelli, who died in 2013 during the World Supersport race at Moscow Raceway. Before that, it was Marco Simoncelli, who was killed in the opening laps of the MotoGP race at Sepang in 2011. A year before that, Shoya Tomizawa died at Misano, during the Moto2 race.

Luis Salom's death is another reminder that motorcycle racers risk far more than they care to think about. After Salom's accident, a shiver of fear ran through the paddock. We all knew that what had happened was bad, yet we all kept our fingers crossed and indulged in the hundreds of individual rituals, religious or otherwise, with which we hoped to influence fate to look kindly on the fallen rider.

We had started the normal round of rider debriefs, but the mood quickly changed in those debriefs when the seriousness of the situation became apparent. Questions were shorter, answers simpler, more to the point. Worried looks went between riders, team staff and journalists.

When Dorna announced there would be a press conference, our hearts sank. Our hopes, wishes, prayers had been in vain. We knew Luis Salom was dead. A few moments later, a press release confirmed our fears. The press conference was not a press conference, it merely consisted of MotoGP's medical director reading out the official statement confirming Salom had died. We were told no questions would be allowed. At first, I was indignant. I quickly realized that there was no point. I neither knew what to ask, nor could anyone at the press conference know much more about the situation. It was too early.

A pall descended upon the paddock. One regular described the atmosphere as "eerie". It is a particularly apt description. The paddock is unnaturally quiet. Normally, after on track action has ceased, the paddock is filled with sound. Music blares from speakers, as parties are held in hospitality units to celebrate some spurious achievement or other. There is a general hubbub, as the adrenaline of the day finds release through activity, through chatter. Conversations are struck up, people stand around gossiping, greetings and insults are shouted in the vast lanes between the paddock.

On Friday, there were none of these things. Groups of people stood around talking quietly, eyes lowered, the presence of others acknowledged with a nod or a hand gesture, rather than a shout. A sense of sadness prevailed throughout, yet there were few tears, few public expressions of grief.

This is the truth which Luis Salom's death exposes, and it is a memory I carry from being in Misano when Shoya Tomizawa was killed. Death stalks the paddock, always, and we all pretend it is not there. Riders believe it will not happen to them, and take risks without thinking about the danger they expose themselves to. Journalists spend millions of words glorifying the danger while playing down the risks of serious injury.

Teams work to make bikes which will go as fast as possible, and work as perfectly as possible. Race Direction, the marshals, the medical staff at the circuit, the staff of the Clinica Mobile all work to make the track and the practice as safe as possible, and minimize risks where they can. Track designers, helmet manufacturers and protective equipment producers all work to find new ways of improving safety, looking for ingenious ways of reducing damage should a rider crash.

We all know that riders can be seriously hurt when they crash. We all know they can risk fatal injury, though thankfully, such fatal injuries are increasingly rare. But though everyone works to make things safer, it is still all relative. The risk is not reduced to zero. It cannot be reduced to zero. And so we try not to think about it, and work harder to find ways of reducing risks still further, and hope that we can stay lucky for a while.

Things have improved immeasurably. If you open the FIM MotoGP Results Guide to any season during the 1950s and 1960s, in any class, there is a list of notes after each season. Died following an accident in practice, one note reads. Killed in an accident during the race, reads another. They do not include every fatality, as they only refer to riders who scored points during the season, and appear in the official results. Once upon a time, there were deaths at almost every event, and funerals every week.

Riders, journalists and teams dealt with it then in much the same way as they deal with it now. They didn't think about it too much. Because if they did, they would have to stop, and find another way of making a living, and another passion to pursue.

This is the dichotomy at the heart of motorcycle racing. Ask a rider what draws them to the sport, and they will tell you it is the thrill and the danger, the feeling of riding the razor edge of risk to go as fast as possible. Yet those same riders all head to the Dorna compound on Friday for the meeting of the Safety Commission, and complain about the dangers at each track. It is the danger which draws them in, and yet it is that same danger which they fear. It is that spectacle of danger which draws the fans in, yet when danger materializes, it leaves the fans shocked and grieving.

Why did the crash happen? At the moment, there is too much uncertainty, too much is unclear. It would be easy for me to point the finger of blame at the track surface, at the track layout, at where the wall is, at the hard standing at that point of the track. But that would be premature. The facts are not all known, the situation is being investigated. I have not spoken to everyone involved, we have not seen the data. In short, we cannot be certain what happened, and how much each part of the tragic sequence of events contributed to Luis Salom's death. In time, we may know a little more, be able to form a better picture of what went wrong. But not yet.

We can review what we do know, however.

The track is incredibly slippery, the track not having been resurfaced for many years. Riders in every class complained how bad the surface was even before Salom's crash happened.

The outside of the corner at Turn 12 has hard standing, an asphalt surface all the way to the air fence. It is just a very narrow section, meant to allow cars to brake before they hit a wall. It is at a point where riders do not usually fall. (The most notable exception was Niccolo Antonelli in 2014, but even he crashed a little later and ended up sliding through the gravel before hitting the wall). Gravel would have done more to slow both Salom and his bike, but crashes were not expected to happen there.

The bike layout – all of it, from Turn 10 through to Turn 12 in the FIM-approved layout – is fast and flowing, with high corner speeds and rounded corners. The FIA-approved F1 layout has a much sharper hairpin at Turn 10, and adds a lot of corners to slow the cars down, including a sharper right -hand corner where Turn 12 is, and a chicane before the final corner.

The riders will be using that layout for the rest of the weekend. Several MotoGP riders tested the layout in 2014 at the post-race test, but only Marc Márquez said he liked it. Everyone who tried it said it was safer, but they all hated it, as it took the flow out of the track. They rejected the idea of using it, and stuck to the bike layout on which Salom was killed.

Hindsight is 20/20. If the Safety Commission had demanded that the track had been resurfaced, perhaps it would have had more grip. If the FIM Safety Officer had judged that a crash was possible at the exact point at which Salom crashed (or used a model to calculate the chances of a crash there), they could have demanded the hard standing was replaced by gravel.

The circuit owners could potentially have decided that the wall was too close there, and dug out the earthmoving equipment to move the wall back, and create more run off. The FIM Safety Officer could have decided the bike layout was simply too dangerous, and forced MotoGP to adopt the F1 layout.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. But they didn't, and a rider is dead. Does that mean they are to blame? It is way, way too early to be apportioning blame.

The reality is also that Luis Salom himself knew that motorsports can be dangerous. That is in part what drew him to the sport. It was a risk he probably tried not to think about, and something he probably never expected he would have to face. Luck was not with Salom, however.

Tomorrow, we will put all this to the back of our minds, and carry on with the business of motorcycle racing. Everyone – riders, teams, journalists, fans – will be rather more acutely aware of the danger involved, but after a while, we will get caught up in the thrill of it all, in the excitement of qualifying, then the thrill of the race. We will stop thinking about Luis Salom's tragic accident, and start thinking about who will win the Catalonia Grand Prix, and how that will affect the 2016 championship.

That is probably exactly what Luis Salom would have wanted. His family have given their blessing on continuing with the Grand Prix weekend as before, albeit with minor changes. On Sunday, as we bathe in the glory of on-track battle, of young men and women risking life and limb to see who can ride a motorcycle the fastest over a set distance, we will forget the tragedy, and enjoy the spectacle. This is how we honor our dead: when we see a race, we see the memory of the riders we have lost. They live on in our hearts and in our thoughts.

Total votes: 159
Total votes: 107

Back to top

Comments

To you David for this great piece, and offer my condolences to Luis Salom's Family and Friends and all of those in the paddock and the world of Motorcycle racing.

 

Total votes: 98

We spectators love the danger and the spectacle, we don't like the death. We don't want a santised, bland, safe sport, yet we also don't want the life changing injuries and death that can result from an accident.

I don't want to hear that Salom lost his life doing what he loved, for nothing can justify a life being cut short. Part of living is dying, but surely not this young, with dreams left unfullfilled and goals not achieved. RIP Luis Salom.

Total votes: 81

Still miss the shit out of Shoya. That one hit really hard while I was still racing and made seriously consider stopping at the time. In the end I soldiered on and put it out of my mind. Thats the only way you can enjoy this sport. Same for Surfing. You can become shark lunch at any moment yet I still get in the water every chance I get. Thats life. As Cliché as it is to say, he went doing what he loved, not everyone is that lucky if you can find a glimmer of luck there, its not much. The fact that everyone else is ready to roll on shows you what mental strength bike racers have. They may seem crazy but its a very calculated kind of crazy. 

Total votes: 88

Thanks David. This was a little bit cathartic and I needed to read the thoughts arranged in this manner.

Total votes: 73

It looks to me that he hit that wall unusually hard, as if there was little braking on his corner entry. In 2010 my son hit a wall that ended his season. It was at Loudon, which is a NASCAR track with a road course added onto it. He made a third row start and jammed up near the front on the outside near the NASCAR wall getting ready for T1, which is well inside the NASCAR fence. He apparently was bumped into the wall on the strait just before the braking zone for T1 and went down immediatley as if his brake lever was jammed closed on impact. With no braking the bike sailed into the airfence at over 100mph and bounced like a  billiard ball violently into the air maybe 20 feet. The rider hit the wall hard too but the airfence did its job even though he was bounced pretty hard too. But he missed the bike. The video of Salom is poor, but it looked to me like he hit that wall too hard for a normal entry into that turn. Was there a mechanical or something?

Total votes: 83

Well written at a difficult time David, appreciated that one. RIP Luis. :(

Total votes: 66

Luis Salom always seemed like the kind of racer that was enjoying the moment.  When he won, he was joyful and you felt happy for him.  He was a bright spot in the paddock, I'm sure.   I was very saddened when I heard the news and I came here, expecting a bit of wisdom on the matter from you David, and I found it.  Thanks for that.  And also my condolences to Luis' friends and family.   It's difficult to support someone you love and care for in this sport, and you don't reach the levels of success that Salom experienced without a family that's dedicated to your wild dream.   My thoughts are with them and with everyone that loves motorsport. 

Total votes: 67

And it is at times such as this, that those who jump on to forums etc. with furious denunciation and hatred for some riders or expressions of desolation, rage  and deeply-felt personal loss about their favoutite rider having a bit of bad luck,  might well take a reality check.

This is supposed to be a sport, a contest of ability and technical achievement.  But it rides - always - on the back of the men and women who take to the track.  Every single time they throw their leg over the machine and leave the pit box, there is the real possibility that they may never return.

What they do on the track is provide a thrilling spectacle for those of us who watch.  We - the spectators - invest no more than our delight, hopes etc. on the outcome of their efforts.  They basically invest their entire future. We simply do not have the right to disprespect that.

Many years ago, someone put a heart rate monitor onto one of the top F1 drivers for an entire race - I cannot remember who right now.  In the last few seconds prior to the start, his heart rate was over 140 bpm; as soon as racing started, it dropped to about 110 and remained around so for the entire race.   The medical analysis was, that it was fear - not conscious fear, but subconscious knowledge of the risk immediately facing one -  before the start that produced the high heart rate; once the racing started, concentration on the task at hand took over.

RIP Luis Salom, and thank you for having added to our enjoyment of moto racing for as long as you did.  Without you and every rider who contributes/contributed to the spectacle of racing, it would not be what it is.  When Joey Dunlop died, 50,000 people joined in his funeral parade to celebrate what he had meant to us - the spectators.  Yet I am sure that Joey, if anyone had asked, would have stated that EVERY racer is equal in his or her committment to the sport - which is, when it comes down to the equation, total.

I would like to hope that, even in their grief and loss, Luis Salom's family and friends will know that because he raced, he contributed to our appreciation of and enjoyment in the sport. Another candle that burned brightly in the wind.

Total votes: 84

Ride in peace, Luis. You will be missed. 

Total votes: 67

I saw the security cam footage and it didn't look like his bike slowed down much before it touched the air fence.

By the looks of the turn 12 bend, on a moto2/600cc bike would he have been in 4th gear? I'm guessing that would have been a +180km/h turn? I can't find any specific info on it. If anyone has something more specific please share.

RIP Luis...

Total votes: 68

Thanks David for a well written article that puts into words what I would not be able too. Condolences to the family and indeed to all in the MotoGP family.

RIP Luis.

 

 

Total votes: 65

The ultimate example of this is the IoM TT. To say that circuits must be safe enought to allow crashes that riders can walk away from will either neutralise or, more likely, remove many circuits from use and , effectively, kill the sport.

Yesterdays news sent a chill through me. But, as Spies and David say above, people do it knowing the risks and believing the retrurns warrant the investment.  You have to ackowledge that you can lose much, or everything. It is part of the reason for doing it. It is the riders who swing their legs over the bikes and twist the throttle or pull on the brake levers. When I am on circuits (and most of them cannot pass a FIA safety inspection for world championships) I ride according to the perceived risk and my skill level. Anyone who is a racer of any type is usually faster than me. I enjoy it, but I'm not prepared to take the risk required to be fastest. I'm just not that competitive.

We all know people who are, whether in motorsport, other sports, or business. Winning is what counts. The whole MGP paddock is there for that reason. I respect and thank them for the excitement and pleasure they bring me. It may be that this sport as we know it will, one day, be regulated out of existence. I hope not. The IoM TT elicits many similar emotions, and I know many will say it isn't justifiable. I disagree, and I hope that individuals are allowed to decide if they enter these races and if the events survive.

Could I stand in front of Salom's family today and say this? Probably not. But perhaps they, like Sic's family, understand the why's and but's and feel similar to the way I do. Every serious accident is a personal tragedy. Every death is worse. But....

It is difficult to rationalise such events. All we can do, I believe, is make the circuits as safe as is affordably possible; listen to the riders safety committee; ackowledge the inspectors observations; and then decide if racing is permissible. And when accidents occur, try to understand them and improve safety. I hope those corners come back into use. I also hope that investment in some safety features can enable that and protect riders in future. The fact that Salom was killed by his bike should bring the focus on to how a bike can be restrained or absorbed by the barrier in such locations - but would a 'reasonable' and diligent safety assessment have placed such a barrier at that location?

The sadness will pass; I just hope that the lessons are learnt. F1 and MGP should be pooling resources on this and ensuring that one safety measure does not increase risk for another branch of the sport. That is not an acceptable trade-off.

Total votes: 70

First, for Luis Salom. RIP. Second, to David for this piece of top shelf writing. It makes me glad to be a site supporter.

Total votes: 71

And saying he died doing what he loved seems to trivialize the tragedy to some degree....But like those IoM Racers, I think the overwhelming majority of the people we all watch race would have been there on the track racing, with zero fans,zero cameras. Put a bike under them, a place to race and someone to race with and it is on. Nothng else needed. They are racers. And sometimes, racers die. Fortunately, much,much less often than in past days. We must never stop trying to prevent these deaths via safety measures. But we must never give in to the idea that the racing must stop. Racers race. The TT is coming up. May they all remain safe, but most of all, may all the racers get to race, for it is when racing that they live the most,even as they die doing so....

Total votes: 69

Does anyone know offhand the amount of energy the air fence is intended to dissipate?

In the video of the crash, you can see there is a significant amount of energy left in the bike as it deflects, equal and opposite, from its incoming path. 

Sadly, Salom's trajectory was identical to the bike. And this is obviously a flaw of air fence tech, if you are unlucky to meet an object ricocheting off the fence, you are facing much higher energy in the bodily collision. 

But I guess had the bike simply stuck to the fence on impact,  the consequence might still might have been just as heartbreaking due to the trajectory.

I'm sure the investigation will result in several, obvious in hindsight, changes that need be made. Namely, removing a low coefficient of sliding friction path from corner entry, through the runoff, all the way to the wall.  

Total votes: 78

Mr. Emmett, I must respectfully disagree with one of your tenets: I don't think racers race because of the danger, but despite it. There's a difference. Daredevils and fools do things because they're dangerous. Serious sportsmen and sportswomen do things--sometimes dangerous things--because they want to push the boundaries of human existence.

Total votes: 64

Good points musashiwasajedi 

This may cause the reactionists to call for a revision of the airfence, but the truth is that the airfence concept is the best we have so far, there will always instances when Murphy's Law goes on full effect, and things nobody can control, like the fact that Luis happen to follow the same trajectory of his bike,if anything,I totally agree with the perception that a gravel trap would have made a lot more sense in a place where such little space was available.That was my very first reaction when I watched the video.

 

Total votes: 65