Trackside Tuesday: Great Expectations

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After Jorge Lorenzo’s heroic ride at Assen, where he’d broken his left collarbone only two days before, the German GP had many of us asking “how much is too much?” in terms of riding with injuries.

Two weeks after Lorenzo had risked, perhaps not ‘everything’ but certainly ‘a lot,’ to limit his injury’s effect on the championship standings (he finished 5th, one place behind a struggling Dani Pedrosa), the topic came up in Thursday’s Press Conference at the German GP. Cal Crutchlow remarked that Lorenzo’s decision at Assen had raised the bar for all riders facing the question: Should I race with this injury?

Ironically, or perhaps not, Crutchlow himself had raised this bar at Silverstone last season when he slipped past the medical exam process to turn in his own amazing ride through the pack with a broken ankle. He pointed out that now more riders would be using Lorenzo’s Assen ride as a precedent: if he was allowed to ride at Assen, why can’t I?

Lorenzo didn’t like the sound of that, saying other riders should not use him as an example and instead listen to their own bodies to determine if they should sit out or compete while injured.

All weekend I heard different responses to the situation, from respect for athletes who push through pain, to scorn for the willingness to put others at risk by competing at well below 100% fitness.

One paddock insider expressed the opinion that riding a MotoGP bike is difficult enough at full fitness–any physical or mental weakness is a liability that increases the risk of crashing, and thus increases the chances of a crash involving other riders.

The risk to other riders is one side of the issue that doesn’t seem to get much discussion in the paddock.

We admire the riders when they show us their toughness, but when, after Pedrosa’s huge highside Saturday morning, the championship leader reported dizziness and vision problems, more and more whispers of he’s unfit to race moved through the paddock.

And Unfit to Race isn’t a decision the medical staff makes solely to protect the injured rider. It is also intended to protect those with whom that rider shares the track.

Consider the amount of criticism Casey Stoner received in 2009 for skipping three races when he just wasn’t feeling well. Changing his diet allowed him to return to fitness and winning, but declaring himself unfit to race, when he was not merely unable to do his best but also a danger to other riders, received more scorn than praise.

Saturday night I saw Dani Pedrosa come into the Honda hospitality after a long afternoon of medical tests. Though his collarbone fracture had not been detected on site, it was discovered at the hospital where he had undergone MRI and CT scans.

He was clearly in discomfort, as he moved cautiously to a seat in the corner of the hospitality, but my own expectation was that that he would be on the grid the next day.

This was, after all, a golden opportunity to take points away from Lorenzo, who had left the track for another surgery in Barcelona. Until earlier that day, Pedrosa had enjoyed a rare thing indeed: a season without a major injury.

Yet here he was, another collarbone broken, but this time perhaps not badly enough to keep him off the grid, especially after Lorenzo’s performance at Assen. After all, if Lorenzo was willing to take the risk to claim another world title, what would it say about Pedrosa’s character if he didn’t do the same thing?

When I heard that Pedrosa was not going to race, I was relieved and impressed with what must have been a very difficult decision. I suspect he could have decided not to report that he was dizzy, and to say his vision was fine, and thus put his fellow riders at risk by entering a race when he was unfit to ride.

My respect for Pedrosa has only increased after this weekend, because of how he did the right thing rather than give in to expectations. Ironically, or perhaps not, he did just what in Thursday’s press conference Lorenzo has said other riders should do.

Expectations, both internal (in the riders’ minds) and external (in the minds of the riders’ peers, friends, media and fans), make sensible answers to the question Do I race with this injury? difficult, indeed.

When you add to those expectations the complication of a world championship fight, and the status and fiscal benefits that go along with winning a title, sensible decisions are even harder to come by.

Though we love motorcycle racing and are inspired when riders like Crutchlow and Lorenzo (among others) battle through pain and difficulty to succeed, we also regret the injuries of Wayne Rainey and Joan Lascorz (among others), and we mourn the loss of Marco SImoncelli and Shoya Tomizawa (again, among others).

I think we’d all prefer to see our heroes in the paddock the way we often see Giacomo Agostini, enjoying their later years in at least fairly good shape.

While the names mentioned above accepted the risks of motorcycle racing, and fortunately were not injured or killed due to incidents with other riders who were unfit to race, I bring them up as examples of why we should do everything we can to make our beloved sport as safe as possible.

We make changes to circuits to improve safety, but we expect riders to compete when they are injured, at the expense of their safety and that of the riders, who share small sections of tarmac at high speeds.

Thanks to Dani’s not riding while dizzy and with impaired vision, the list of riders not in the hospital because he caused an accident includes Rossi, Marquez, Hayden, and every other rider. My hat’s off to Dani and the medical team that helped him stay off the grid on Sunday.

Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blogTwitter, & Facebook.

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Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved