There has been a lot of death this year in motorcycle racing. At Mugello, Jason Dupasquier crashed and was hit by another rider during qualifying for the Moto3 race, and died in the early hours of the following morning. At Aragon, during the European Talent Cup race held at a round of the FIM CEV championship, Hugo Millán crashed during the race and was hit by another bike, dying as a result of his injuries. And yesterday, during the WorldSSP300 race at Jerez, Dean Berta Viñales crashed at Turn 2 and was hit by another rider, dying in hospital a few hours later. Dupasquier was 19, Millán was 14, Viñales 15.
The deaths – three teenagers in the space of less than four months – led to a great deal of introspection in the racing world, and concerns over what should be done to prevent this from happening again. A lot of people had a lot of ideas, but the thing that strikes me about these deaths is that, as good as some ideas might be, there are no easy answers.
Motorcycle racing is dangerous. This is a truism, but it is not often we get a reminder of just how dangerous it is. Sometimes, reality likes to rub our noses in it.
The one thing that all three fatalities have in common is that the riders who crashed were hit by bikes that were following them. Though an enormous amount of work has been done to make circuits safer, this is the one type of accident for which there are no simple solutions. A motorcycle traveling at speed contains an enormous amount of energy, more than a human body can absorb and survive.
This is true even at relatively low speeds. Dean Berta Viñales crashed on the exit of Turn 2 at Jerez, one of the slowest corners on the circuit. According to data from Brembo published before the weekend, WorldSBK riders brake to 65 km/h for Turn 2, meaning that Berta was hit by another bike probably traveling at less than 80 km/h.
The best hope of improving a fallen rider's chances of survival is better protective gear, to absorb and dissipate as much as the energy as possible. Such technology is not available now, and may never be available. And there's the risk of energy being returned to the bike hitting the fallen rider, and the effect it would have on that bike and rider combination.
There is also the shape of a motorcycle to contend with: like stiletto heels, motorcycles are sharp and pointy, concentrating energy into a small surface area on impact. And behind the fragile fairing there are a lot of sharp edges, dashboards, dataloggers, small hard metallic objects which again concentrate force on impact, reducing the chances of survival for a rider hit by another bike.
If the impacts can't be mitigated successfully, could the chance of impact be reduced? The current set of rules, especially in the junior and development classes, are designed to level the field and give talent a chance to shine over outright superiority of equipment. The downside of this is that it means that races produce large bunches of riders all riding together. If one rider makes a mistake and crashes, there are more riders around them, increasing their chances of being hit.
It is not just that the rules have created close racing. The changes in technology and in athlete preparation have changed too. Firstly, even young riders spend a lot more time training and practicing, which reduces the differences due to sheer natural talent. This is not unique to racing: across all forms of sport, young athletes train better, and receive better training and guidance, helping them get more out of their potential.
The bikes have changed too. Manufacturers have switched from two strokes to four strokes, meaning the bikes at all levels are easier to ride. More importantly, they are easier to manage in the case of a mistake, and so it is easier for riders to keep a tow, and stick in the group. When bikes were peaky two strokes, if you let the engine drop out of its power band, you were lost. A four stroke has a nice wide spread of torque, meaning you can lose ground, but the engine will always provide you with some drive.
The four strokes produce closer racing, however, and that is more spectacular and exciting for fans. The organizers benefit from having a great product to sell to broadcasters, fans benefit from the thrill of not knowing who is going to win until the very last moment.
It is true that large groups in a race are more dangerous, but there is more to it than just racing in groups. Jason Dupasquier died in qualifying, struck from behind by a rider following some way behind. He was not part of a large group.
But it is undoubtedly so that the larger the group, the more chance there is of something going wrong if a rider crashes. Spreading the race out into smaller groups may not prevent such accidents from happening, but it might help reduce the chance of it significantly.
The recent races in Moto3 have been a case in point. Austria, Silverstone, and Misano all saw the field pulled apart, as one rider, or a small group, managed to pile on the pressure and prevent slower riders from just hanging in the slipstream and sticking together in a group. There have been crashes in these races, but fewer have been heart-in-mouth moments where you hope that a fallen rider will not be hit by another bike.
Large grids also increase the chance of large groups forming. Grids in the WorldSSP300 class contain 42 riders. The Moto3 class has 30 riders. After Hugo Millán's death, European Talent Cup grids were reduce to 30 riders.
Should grid sizes be reduced? That is not so simple to do. Do you exclude more riders from entering, especially at the junior levels? Or do you split grids into separate races? If you do split them, how do you ensure that they are fairly split, and that the results between the two races are comparable? How do you draw up an equitable and realistic championship table, when many of the riders will not have raced against each other?
There are no easy and simple answers to this – if there were, they would have already been implemented, as dead motorcycle racers are not in the interests of the promoters, being very bad publicity. Each answer raises more questions, creates new dangers and risks.
Finally, should 14-year-old kids be racing Moto3 machines or their equivalent, motorcycles capable of 200+ km/h? As I pointed out before, Dean Berta Viñales was killed at one of the slowest parts of the track, so speed is not always a relevant factor.
That doesn't mean that allowing young kids to race high-speed machines at full-sized race tracks is a good idea, however. Kids in the grip of puberty are still having their brains formed, and do not have a full appreciation of the risks involved. But that is also a generalization: some kids are smarter, more mature, more aware than others. Some do understand, some don't.
It is undoubtedly true that the only time that motorcycle racing hits the mainstream press in a lot of countries is when fatal accidents happen, especially to young riders. Motorcycle racing is a niche sport in a large part of the world, and so the only interest from most media outlets is in the salacious aspects, the crashes, the deaths, the drugs, the tax dodges.
And racing deaths fit into a preexisting trope that motorcycles are dangerous, so crashes get reported to reinforce that. Kids and adults die riding horses, in high school football, in rugby, in cricket, in athletics, water polo, cycling, and more. Deaths in motorcycle racing fit the narrative, and so get reported. And we, as motorcycle racing fans, notice it more, because it matters to us. I haven't read about deaths in equestrianism, mainly because I have never read anything about equestrianism.
Should kids be riding motorcycles at a young age? The problem is that people tend to take up sports when they are very young. And the increasing professionalization of sport means the younger an athlete starts, the better their chances of success later on. What age is appropriate for riders to start racing? Should kids only ride MX bikes? What age should they be allowed to start riding on track? When should they be allowed to switch from minibikes to full-sized machines?
There is more outcry when a youngster dies, and it makes more headlines. But that is also seen as black and white, where there should be far more shades of gray. A 14-year-old kid dying is a tragedy. Is it more or less tragic than a 15-year-old? Or a 16-year-old? Or a 19-year-old? Will the death of a 15-year-old get more or less bad publicity than the death of a 16-year-old?
The number of deaths in motorcycle racing this year raises a lot of questions. Difficult, awkward questions about the nature of motorcycle racing, and its current trajectory. To pretend that there are any easy answers to these questions is a mistake. The issues are complex, and need to be treated as such.
That does not mean these questions should not be addressed. Everyone involved in the sport has a duty to try to make it as safe as possible. That includes the fans, who have to understand that close racing comes with a higher associated risk of death. Do they want to accept that? Do the riders want to accept that? Does the sport want to accept that.
Should I not try to answer some of the questions I have raised here? I don't pretend to have the solution, or even any good ideas. Is the current format of racing likely to increase the chances of a fatal collision? Probably. Perhaps making the bikes harder to ride will spread the field out, but how much difference will it make?
Are grid sizes too large? I suspect they are, but I have no answer to what size the grid should be. Is 24 too small or too large? How does reducing grid sizes from 40 to 30 impact the chances of a fatal collision? Or from 30 to 24?
Should youngsters be allowed to race on track? For me, this is the hardest question to answer. Age and inexperience are a factor, but any line you draw is arbitrary. Then again, the same can be said for the age of consent for sex, for drinking alcohol, for smoking, for riding a motorcycle, driving a car.
I don't think raising the minimum age for Moto3 to 18 would negatively impact the world championship, but what about the feeder classes for Moto3? Should the minimum age for the FIM CEV Junior World Championship also be raised to 18? And what about the Red Bull Rookies?
Any decision taken on age limits has knock-on consequences all the way down the chain of the sport. Age limits in Moto3 can't be seen as separate for the minimum age for minimoto races, the minimum age for riders to leave the dirt for the asphalt.
Motorcycle racing is dangerous. That is the inescapable truth which we face. The fact that it is dangerous raises some hard and ugly questions, to which there are no easy answers. I wish there were.
What the sport of motorcycle racing needs to do is to continue work on making the sport as safe as possible. That will involve hard moral choices about who should be allowed to compete, on what terms, and at what venues. And about what level of danger, what level of fatalities, is acceptable.