Before beginning this article I need to state my background. I have raced motorcycles for the last 50 years at every level from clubman to international. Although I am now at an age where I should be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, smoking a pipe and strumming a banjo, I am going to race next year.
During my racing career I have ridden aggressively – extremely so on some occasions. I have caused accidents through my riding and have suffered from the misjudgements of my fellow competitors too.
I have been in an ambulance and heard the two paramedics discussing my imminent death and I know more about broken bones and torn muscles than most medical professionals.
So, by any standards, I am not some left of center health and safety fanatic who thinks that motorcycle racing is the preserve of the mentally insane.
Nothing in the world compares with the intensity of racing a motorcycle – which is why I am still active in the sport today.
I am also deeply conscious that racing motorcycles is not a two-wheeled version of a knitting competition. It is an aggressive, dangerous activity and there is no way of making it safe.
Regardless of all these caveats something needs to be done about the current style of riding in all the MotoGP classes because a rider is about to get either killed or extremely badly hurt. All this I accept.
However, things are getting seriously out of hand now. Let’s look at what the current, top riders are saying. Here’s championship leader Marc Marquez following the Phillip Island round where rider to rider contact was epidemic. “Of course there is a limit, but today was normal. It was aggressive and some contact but, in the end, this is racing and if we go down with the limit, it becomes likes Formula One racing. In the end, this is why MotoGP is going up.
“I have marks on my leathers, on my bike, but also I was aggressive, so they were aggressive to me but also I was playing the same cards. This racing was very nice, but of course it was dangerous and I was trying to take care because of the championship – one crash or zero points would be a disaster.”
There is no doubting the incredible courage of these riders – and that is a gross understatement. Still recovering from multiple breaks to his leg, Valentino Rossi returned to the podium at Phillip Island for the first time since Silverstone with a determined second place. He showed not only determination and bravery but a total absence of imagination at the consequences of a fall further damaging his already badly injured limb.
Rossi said: “It’s like this, especially in the last period (of the GP season), the level of aggressiveness and contact during the race is raised a lot, especially when the young riders arrive from Moto2. Also Zarco (who finished fourth) is always very, very aggressive, so you can get angry but it changes nothing.
“This is the game and if you want to play, it is like this. It’s a bit more dangerous, but this is the way and if not, you have to stay at home.
“I was, like everybody, lucky because there were good conditions and you can see for sure the best race of the season. All the people that wake up at seven o’clock in Europe will be happy.”
Rossi, commercially switched on as ever, put his finger right on crux of the issue. MotoGP TV viewing figures, and physical attendance at rounds, is falling. This explains why Race Direction is doing nothing with the current situation. I abhor saying this, but particularly to inexpert viewers, riders crashing is attractive. Big accidents are TV gold – just watch the preview for any motorcycle racing show if you doubt the truth of what I am saying.
This is why Race Direction has allowed a gradual drift to a situation which will lead to tragedy. Keep the show on the road and just hope that everyone gets away with it – or maybe even not.
Modern circuits, and riding gear, allow riders to crash in, relative, safety. If MotoGP were held on 1960s tracks then riders would not be deliberately cannoning into each other. For sure, Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, Jim Redman and the rest of the superstars from the Golden Age of GP racing were tough beyond belief but there was also a respect for each other, brought about because the circuits killed riders regularly. Currently, there is a feeling that you can undertake manic passes and that this is acceptable.
It’s not and what will happen is that a rider will be killed, or extremely seriously injured, by being run over by the bike, or bikes, around him. This has happened before with Marco Simoncelli.
It is highly unlikely that the circuit will cause the fatality but there is no safety in four or five bikes being involved in a single accident with one or more riders stretched out across the track.
When I used to organize major events I stressed and re-stressed to my staff to do every task correctly and cut no corners. You can get away with almost anything right up until the very point where it all goes wrong. Then the fingers are pointed, the accusations and the lawyers’ letters start arriving.
The same thing will happen when there is a big accident in motorcycle GP racing. Multiple fingers will be pointed and when the TV coverage is re-played, and it becomes clear that Race Direction condones reckless riding, questions, big questions, will be asked.
In 2017, it is no longer acceptable to shrug shoulders and say: “Everyone knows the danger…”
Look at how seriously the NFL now takes concussion. Do football players know the dangers of their sport? Clearly they do – but the NFL is acutely aware that it has a duty of care towards the participants.
The same applies to Formula 1 car racing. Marc Marquez is fond of criticizing F1 for the poor spectacle but this sport, with a much higher public profile than MotoGP, dares not have a driver killed. The earth would fall on F1’s head if this happened.
So what is the solution? For sure, it is not to try to ban aggressive riding. MotoGP riders are only just on the sane side of manically determined otherwise they wouldn’t be as good as they are. Ultra competitiveness is central to their genetic make up. Rather, there needs to be a curbing of the last 0.01% of aggression – particularly where a rider is intent on forcing a pass which results in contact.
Initially, there will be a lot of teddies thrown out of GP baby carriages until a set of criteria is established, through precedent, which accepts ultra aggressive riding, and misjudgements, but penalizes those riders who push beyond the boundaries.
There needs to be a real penalty too – not some polite tutting, sighing and head shaking. For a dangerous riding offence, there should be a 60 second penalty – and this will soon concentrate riders’ minds as to what is, and is not, acceptable.
In truth, deciding what is too much is not nearly as difficult as it seems. Everyone knows when someone has overstepped the mark and, of course, there will be screams of innocence from the guilty but penalties will protect the riders individually and severally and, of even more importance, preserve our sport for future generations.