The events of the previous MotoGP race at Aragon look set to have a major impact on tracks around the world in the near future. The crashes by Valentino Rossi and Andrea Iannone, both of whom lost control of their bikes when they hit the still wet astroturf which lines the outside of the outer kerbs, caused the subject to be raised in the MotoGP Safety Commission at Motegi. There, the Safety Commission decided to ask the circuits hosting MotoGP races to remove all of the astroturf from the run off areas around the track. Dorna Managing Director Javier Alonso told the MotoGP.com website that they would start talks with circuits to get them to remove the astroturf as soon as possible, starting with the most dangerous parts of the tracks.
The decision is a complete reversal of the earlier policy devised by the Safety Commission, the closed and private forum in which MotoGP riders can discuss safety issues and other concerns with the FIM and Dorna. As a result of a previous request, tracks had started putting in astroturf on the run off areas. That was in response to changes made primarily for car racing, where gravel traps on the outside of corners have been replaced with hard standing, such as asphalted areas. The astroturf was put in place to prevent riders using the run off as extra race track, allowing them to take corners faster.
The crashes at Aragon were just the latest in a long list of incidents involving the astroturf, and demonstrating its downside. The material becomes exceptionally slick and slippery when it gets wet, making it extremely dangerous and unpredictable when you touch it. Even in the dry it can be dangerous: Stefan Bradl got caught while sliding over the astroturf, and fractured his leg in the ensuing tumble. A case can be made that it was the astroturf which was responsible for Shoya Tomizawa's fatal accident at Misano, when he slid and fell back on the track, in front of other riders.
Those incidents meant that the subject of artificial grass in the run off area has been a recurring theme in the Safety Commission. The events at Aragon appear to have been the final straw, and the astroturf will now be removed again.
The question is, of course, what to replace it with? Most likely, the astroturf will simply be replaced by asphalt, once again opening the door for riders to use the extra run off as part of the track. That is already happening a lot with the kerbstones, riders using those as an extension of the track surface. More track space (either legal or illegal) will corner faster, requiring either more space or more airfence in the case of a crash. The faster riders crash, after all, the further they travel. And riders tend to slide much further over asphalt than they do over gravel.
If astroturf or gravel are not to be used to prevent exceeding the track limits, that will leave Race Direction with a lot more work. The current punishment for exceeding the track limits is to drop a place, even if no advantage is gained. That can lead to strange and sometimes dangerous situations, such as happened to Jonas Folger at Misano. The German missed Turn 1, as so many riders to at the track, and was penalized for cutting the track and forced to drop a place. The problem was, Folger was over five seconds ahead of a group battling for 8th, and he had to wait around for them to catch him, then try to rejoin amidst a pack of riders fighting for position. The situation was technically correct, but entirely unsound from a safety perspective. If Race Direction are to spend more time punishing infractions for exceeding the track limit, they will have to spend both a lot more time and effort monitoring riders' positions, and enforcing the penalties correctly and safely.
The Safety Commission also discussed the procedures around flag-to-flag races, though no satisfactory conclusion was reached, Javier Alonso told MotoGP.com. Flag-to-flag races are the best way of allowing a race to be run to completion, and keep it within its allotted time slot on TV. The alternative is to red flag a race once it starts to rain, and then restart a new, shortened race to run to completion. That, too, has its dangers, as the shortened races invite riders to take much more risk, and can be very confusing for TV viewers if they are run on the basis of aggregate times. Having race officials decide on when riders should come in to swap bikes and tires is also undesirable, as the riders have a better idea of the grip all around the track, not just in certain sections. The flag-to-flag procedure is to be reviewed, and any proposals to be discussed at further meetings.