Opinion: On Motorcycle Racing, Danger, & Death

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“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 that 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 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 asphalt be 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.

Photo: © 2016 Cormac Ryan-Meenan / CormacGP – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

David Emmett

One of MotoGP's most respected journalists, David Emmett is the proprietor of the esteemed MotoMatters. We are very grateful to republish David's work here on A&R...though dread the day we ever again get in a car with him.