For all the discussion of just how dangerous a track Mugello is, when a serious accident happens, it has nothing to do with the track. Jason Dupasquier, Moto3 rider for the PruestelGP team, lost the rear at the end of Q2 for the Moto3 class and crashed. A fairly regular occurrence in Moto3, as riders push the limits of the bike.
Tragically, however, Dupasquier fell directly in front of Tech3 rider Ayumu Sasaki, leaving the Japanese rider nowhere to go. Sasaki's KTM struck Dupasquier, leaving the Swiss rider gravely injured. It took the FIM medical staff half an hour to stabilize Dupasquier sufficiently for him to be flown by medical helicopter to Careggi University Hospital, where he lies in critical condition at the time of writing. Our thoughts are with Dupasquier, his family, friends, and team, and we fervently hope he makes a full recovery.
Dupasquier's crash unmasks the elephant in the room of motorcycle racing. No matter what you do to circuits, no matter how far you push back walls, how much run off you add, it remains a dangerous sport. If one rider falls in front of another, and is hit by the bike, serious injury, or much worse, is almost inevitable.
Of the three riders who have died in my time in the MotoGP paddock, two – Marco Simoncelli and Shoya Tomizawa – were killed when they were hit by a rider who was following them. There was nothing the riders involved could do. And the mistakes Simoncelli and Tomizawa made were minor. But it cost them their lives.
In between the inevitable fatalities – a crash such as that of Luis Salom's or Daijiro Kato's should be regarded as avoidable, caused as they were by hitting barriers which could be (and in the case of Salom, were) moved – we push the dangers to the back of our minds. We carry on like teenagers, thinking we – or rather, they, the brave souls who put their lives on the line for us – are invincible.
Until the cold, hard reality of motorcycle racing slaps us in the face, reminding us that putting humans wrapped only in a few millimeters of kangaroo hide and assorted plastic and foam absorption layers on top of a heavy, hard object capable of traveling the length of a football field in a second is a fundamentally unsafe idea. The energy in any collision is directly proportional to the mass times the square of the velocity differential between the two objects involved. Plug racing motorcycles into that equation and the numbers which emerge are big, too big for safety.
Move on or move away?
And so we are presented with a moral choice. Do we ignore the danger, pretend it won't happen again, and ignore it until reality imposes itself upon our sport again? Do we accept it, and do everything in our power to prevent the evitable, and delay the inevitable? Do we embrace it, as some racing disciplines do, racing around places which can never be made safe, and not even trying to do so? Or do we walk away, unwilling to bear the consequences of watching the sport we love?
I have no answer for you. It is a question I have asked myself after each of the three deaths I have had to report on in MotoGP. And it is a question I still cannot answer to my satisfaction, but it is a question which the Dupasquier crash raises once again. I hope with all my might that Jason Dupasquier makes as full a recovery as possible. But his crash confronts all of us with the truth that is written on the back of every pass issued to every participant, every ticket issued to ever spectator. Motorsports are dangerous. And motorcycle racing especially so, despite Dorna's and the FIM's best efforts.
Two things come to mind about the crash. The first, that the next frontier for safety is in protective gear worn by the riders. We have already seen enormous steps made by the manufacturers of helmets, gloves, leathers, boots. We have back protectors and chest protectors, airbags that once only protected the shoulders, and now protect shoulders, back, ribs, and hips. We have helmets that absorb rotational forces as well as a direct blow. Riders routinely walk away from crashes that would have left them battered and broken in the past.
But we, as a sport and an industry, can do better. Better protective gear can save motorcycle racers from serious injury, and the technologies developed to save the lives of racers will save the lives of ordinary motorcyclists many times over. Back protectors were once confined to racing, now there are few riders who would think of getting on a road bike without one. Airbags are following a similar trajectory: once limited to racers, then an exotic item spotted on sports bike wannabes, now rapidly gaining widespread acceptance and use.
There are limits to what can be done, of course. The energies involved in rider and bike collisions are huge, and impossible to dissipate with just protective gear. But I hope and believe we have not yet reached the limits of what is possible.
Secondly, the choice of the TV director. Cameras lingered on the fallen Dupasquier for a long, long time. In the half an hour during which we waited for the track to be cleared for MotoGP FP4 to start, we saw a lot of shots of medics holding IV drips, of kneeling doctors attending to Dupasquier, of marshals holding screens up to obscure the vision of the nonexistent crowd at Mugello. The only spectators to Dupasquier's condition were the TV cameras. Were the marshals holding up the screens to shield Dupasquier from the view of the cameras?
Was all this TV footage necessary, or was it just prurient rubbernecking? There is a cultural element to this – different national cultures take a different view of showing death and disaster, some show the gory details, others bowdlerize and sanitize the images, yet others draw a prudish veil over the whole affair. But there is also the family and friends of the fallen rider to consider. They have to see the footage of their stricken child, partner, or friend broadcast to the world.
Then there's the riders to consider. For half an hour, the MotoGP riders sat in the pits, booted and suited and ready to let rip for FP4, with a lurid reminder of their human frailty being constantly thrust in their faces. They got to watch the possible consequences of their chosen pursuit play out in front of them, before having to jump on a bike and risk their lives for glory and a handsome paycheck.
Experience and understanding
Riders are remarkable humans, however. That their chosen sport is dangerous is not news to them – they all bear the scars of the many crashes they have endured through the years, and carry an awareness of how lucky they have been in numerous cases. But they are capable of compartmentalizing the danger, pushing it to the back of their minds, and getting on their bikes and riding. Their view of the dangers of racing is complex, nuanced, and full. They know the risks. And they understand them, something few outside of the paddock truly do.
Brad Binder gave some insight into how riders viewed the TV coverage of the aftermath of bad crashes. "You know, it's a horrible feeling," the South African told us. "When you see things like this, and you don't really know what's going on, there's no info. You can see things aren't looking good with all the medics around and no one moving too much. You just look to see if you can see some movement there, or see if the guys put up any news."
But that didn't necessarily mean that seeing replays and close ups of fallen riders was a bad thing, Binder said. "You know, it's really a tough question to be honest, I don't really have an answer for it. I mean, it isn't cool watching, but also at the same time it's really good seeing it when you see something coming right, and you see some movement there or anything like that. That really calms you, or it makes things a little bit more chill." The riders, like everyone else watching, are looking for signs of movement, signs of hope. And without the TV cameras, we would not get to see those signs.
Whatever the TV coverage, riders also have to make a choice. To accept what happened and get on with racing, or to walk away. But they have come this far, so that is a choice they have already made many times over. "It is what it is, and that's about it," is how Brad Binder summed it up.
"It’s always very difficult because you don’t know nothing and the image that we had were not very optimistic because Dupasquier remain on the track," Valentino Rossi said. "After, the helicopter arrived and after the helicopter stopped and doesn’t start. Difficult. In that moment you have two choices. You escape from the box, you take off the leathers, you take the car and you go home. This is one. Or if you need to go on the track, you need to stay concentrated, give the maximum, focus on that and try to forget. If not, it is not only no result but it’s also dangerous."
That wasn't necessarily easy, however. "I find it difficult to get back on the bike and be 100% focused, especially going through those corners when you've seen things like that," Binder said. "But it's one of those things that we all know is there, it's super dangerous and you can always really hurt yourself, but if you think about that, it's not possible to do this job."
The kind of crash Dupasquier had was the one thing all riders know cannot be avoided, Rossi said. "Unfortunately, this is the most dangerous thing in motorcycle races. Because Dupasquier crashes and one or maybe two riders hit him from behind. I hope he can be good, that the condition is not very bad. But the image was very bad with the helicopter, and everything. I hope for Dupasquier."
Close to home
Crashes are often more personal to the riders than outside observers realize. The paddock is a small place, the riders all know each other, they have often shared a track while training somewhere. "I’ve been dirt tracking with him," Jack Miller said of Dupasquier. "He’s a good kid. I really hope he’s OK. You never want to see that happen. It is tough."
Miller was not a fan of the extended coverage of Dupasquier's treatment. "I understand we were waiting a long time. We were live on air. But I don’t think it’s necessary to show a guy getting loaded into the chopper. I think we can focus the cameras somewhere else in the future."
But the Australian was also no stranger to tragedy. "At the end of the day, we’ve seen friends pass away and then have to do the same thing (get back on track). I think it’s something from quite a young age, how to deal with that and just go out and do your job. It’s definitely not nice and brings back home how real our sport is and how it can change real quick. Like I said, I just really, really, really hope that our mate’s good and we can have him back here soon."
It wasn't until quite late in life that I was regularly confronted with death, and the grief and suffering which accompanies it. It is only when horrific accidents like Saturday's crash for Dupasquier happens that you realize just how often riders face these situations through their racing careers, that they are confronted with death and suffering at an early age and more often than most other people. It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to continue, to not walk away.
The show must go on
Once Dupasquier had been evacuated, then the paddock got back to work, and the bellow of engines soon drowned out any lingering sense of dread. Once FP4 was in the books and Q1 started, all eyes were on the track again. Q1 provided a spectacle that made us forget the lingering danger. Tragedy was compartmentalized, pushed to the back of our collective minds.
Protagonist in the drama was – how could it be otherwise? - Marc Márquez. The Spaniard knew he was in Q1, and knew his ticket out was to be find by following someone else. So he and his team scanned the timesheets, identified Maverick Viñales as the fastest of the riders in Q1, and decided to hitch a lift and use the Monster Energy Yamaha rider for a tow.
"We checked the list, the fastest guy was Viñales, so we chose him because he was the fastest guy," Márquez told us afterwards. "If it was another rider we would have chosen another one. And then just I followed him, it was the tactic because it was the only way to improve."
Viñales tried to shake Márquez off, even riding through the pits at one stage, but Márquez stuck to his guns. The Repsol Honda rider knew what he had to do. He had a plan, and was committed to executing it. Márquez planned to use Viñales for a tow to pull him round fast enough to book a spot in Q2. And he executed that plan to perfection.
In the process, he also managed to ruin Viñales' chance of Q2. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was so focused on shaking off Márquez that he lost concentration on his final attempt at a fast lap. After a blistering first two sectors, Viñales lost a couple of tenths and all of his gains in the third sector. As he approached the final corner, he ran wide. To the outside observer, it looked like he had just messed up the corner entry, but Viñales insisted he had pulled up, having seen on his dash that he would not improve his time.
"I just slowed down. I did a very bad sector 3. And I just slowed down," Viñales said. "I was sure I was slower than the previous lap. So I just go out to prepare for another lap."
What Viñales did do well is handle the press. Team boss Maio Meregalli had been fairly furious when interviewed by Simon Crafar after Q1, claiming that Márquez' tactics had been "not fair". But Viñales waved away all questions on the issue, pointing only to his own performance.
"I don’t have any comment on that, honestly," Viñales replied to a question about Márquez' tactics. "We were just not fast enough. That’s it. After FP1 I never had again the feeling. We’ve just gone backward. Didn’t go forward. There are no excuses. We were slow and that’s it."
He rejected the idea that having Márquez behind him had disturbed his attempts at a fast lap. "Not really, not disturbed. I know Marc was behind. But also I know doing a good lap I was able to go to Q2. I just wasn’t fast enough." Márquez had done what he needed to, Viñales said. "He played his cards, played it well, that’s it. Tomorrow is another day."
No choice but to play
Márquez himself was apologetic. "I met Maverick before I entered the press conference, where all the TVs are, and first of all I apologized because I know that it's not completely fair, and what I said was 'you have a reason to be angry'," the Repsol Honda rider told us.
He was also frank about why he had needed a tow. "Today in the morning I felt not so bad, in the afternoon I felt really, really bad. I mean, for some reason about the physical condition with the bike and everything I felt not so good, and then I stop in FP4 before the finish and said to the team, 'I don’t feel the bike, I don’t feel anything, we just need to follow somebody'," Márquez confessed.
The reason for needing a tow was simple: he was not fast enough, and he knew it. "I would like to be in another level and another position to push in front and the others follow me, like many times in the past," Márquez said. "But I'm not like this. I know, because I had that feeling in the past, how Maverick can feel. For that reason, I apologize."
Márquez may have been contrite, but he also made clear that he did what was necessary to progress to Q2, and would do it again if he needed to. "In the end, it's inside the rules," he said. "In the limit, but inside the rules and what I did was try to find the perfect situation to do my 100% and to take the best result possible."
By any means necessary
Was his behavior worthy of a six-time MotoGP champion? That depends on your perspective. On the one hand, if you believe that champions are noble creatures who strive to win in a clean, fair fight, then no, Márquez did not act with honor.
But elite athletes are not driven by honor, or dignity, or any such lofty ideals. Elite athletes want to win, and will do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. Viewed from that perspective, Márquez' behavior is not just worthy of a six-time MotoGP champion, it is the very reason he won those six titles in the first place.
Leeching off Viñales like that may be reprehensible from a sporting perspective, but it was tactically brilliant, and Márquez pulled it off with a ruthless and shameless efficiency. He was doing what he needed to do, and he did it without hesitation.
Where Viñales failed was in contriving countermeasures. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider could have known that Márquez would try to follow him; after all, the Repsol Honda rider had been doing nothing else all weekend, previously having favored Pecco Bagnaia to use as a target. With Bagnaia already in Q2, Márquez had to choose the fastest tow available, and that was always going to be Viñales.
What could Viñales have done? That is hard to say: one of the reasons Márquez had such faith in his strategy was because he knew Viñales had no choice but to push for a lap. Márquez knew he did not have the speed on his own, so he had nothing to lose by looking for a tow. But he also knew that Viñales knew he didn't belong in Q1, and should be able to post a quick enough lap to pass through to Q2. But that meant pushing for a lap when he could. Viñales had to act. All Márquez had to do was react.
Joan Mir has experience of such antics from Márquez. "Well, it's always a funny situation from the outside, but when you are the one being followed by someone, it's not really nice, not a nice feeling," he told us. "What I see from the outside is that Marc loves to play and Maverick hates to play. That's what I see." There wasn't much you can do to counteract moves like this from other riders, though. "In this situation you cannot do anything but your work. So it's difficult but it's like this. It's not a superpole!"
Johann Zarco had a philosophical view of the incident. "We know Marc may be struggling a little bit the last two or three weekends, so he also needs this, but in that moment for sure he pushed Maverick at the limit. I would say in the end he did it well, because he has been qualifying and Maverick not."
The dark side
It wasn't pretty, Zarco said, but it was necessary. "That’s the dark side of our sport. If you are not able to play like this, you are not at this level also. So, we try to be the most clean as possible but sometimes you cannot be so clean and the performance, you need to do it."
Viñales' strategy had been no match for Márquez', Zarco believed. "Maverick almost has been too clean because he was staying in front. He tried to slow down, but Marc was stronger to say no, I stay behind. As I said, the dark side of the situation, but in that moment they were slowing down but not disturbing any other riders. So, I don't think we can give a penalty because it’s like this."
Márquez' strategy was not without risk. "I think in MotoGP it’s sometimes more difficult to wait a long time because the tires are getting cold, so then if you wait too much you can crash the next corner if you start to push. You have to be confident or take a big risk to use this strategy," Zarco said. This is something which Márquez knows from experience: he tried this strategy at Sepang in 2019, trying to follow Fabio Quartararo, but the Frenchman called his bluff, and backed off. When Márquez tried to push to follow Quartararo again, he highsided himself off at Turn 2, a big and painful crash.
Takes one to know one
Zarco was mildly embarrassed to be discussing the strategy used by Márquez, mainly because he had been forced to use it himself. The Frenchman had tucked in behind Jack Miller, who was in turn following Aleix Espargaro, who was using Pecco Bagnaia as a hare. But Zarco used Miller to good effect, crossing the line in third, and pushing the man he had been following down to fifth.
How could you stop a strategy such as Márquez', he was asked? "I don't know because at the moment, today I was in the position of Marc," Zarco replied. "I was following to get the lap time. Not in the morning, but in the afternoon I needed it."
In different conditions, then the only choice you had was to push on and try to break the tow, Zarco explained. "When you feel pretty good, you can stay in front and just think, I can be fast enough. Almost try to follow me. You can sometimes have this confidence. When you get it, it’s pretty good but for sure you don’t want to be helping everyone. So that’s hard."
There were options, however, such as using the early return route which exists at Mugello, which runs from Savelli back to the front straight, cutting out half the track. "In Mugello, there is this shortcut so sometimes you can make kind of, not a joke, but like you think you go in, but you don’t go in," Zarco suggested. "Marc was also strong like this. He was the one that we wanted to catch. Sometimes he went out of the box, jump on the bike, everyone goes, and then he goes again in the box and he already did it. Then everyone was on the track, and he did the lap alone." Márquez did this to Andrea Iannone at Phillip Island back in 2017.
Having confidence in your own speed gave you options, Zarco said. That was the case with Quartararo. "Fabio is always going the last, like many seconds after the others. Like this he’s sure that no one is around and will wait for him," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference.
It was something he hoped to emulate. "Me, I hope this season to have this kind of situation and see what will happen. Sometimes you have to push because there’s a small range, a small door where you can do the lap time if you feel good or not. Even if you feel good, if you don’t take this door, you are gone. So better as Pecco did. Everyone was following him and there’s a moment that he has to do it. He did it and he helped three riders behind him. But at the moment he is strong enough to say, even if you follow me I will be faster. He did it because he is second and we are here."
If Zarco snuck his way onto the front row, both Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia earned their places the hard way. The Frenchman and the Italian have been head and shoulders above the rest, both in qualifying and in free practice. Bagnaia got under Marc Márquez' old lap record on his own, but Quartararo positively destroyed it, beating the record by over a third of a second.
The two youngsters are quick on race pace too. They finished first and second in FP4, just as they did in Q2, and both riders were pretty much the only ones to constantly manage high 1'46s on very old rubber. The only other rider to get close to that kind of pace on used tires was Takaaki Nakagami, but the LCR Honda rider starts the race from fifteenth, and has a mountain to climb.
So the race looks like being a battle of youth, of the speed through the corners of the Yamaha versus the outright speed down the straight of the Ducati. But Quartararo and Bagnaia are looking confident and looking fast. Quartararo can win if he can break away, break the resistance of the Ducati. Bagnaia can triumph if he can stay with the Yamaha through the twisties, and blast his way past along the straight and across the finish line. It should be a battle of two different styles, and two different approaches.
All looks set for a spectacle to remind us of the glory of motorcycle racing. In the meanwhile, I hope that we have no further reminders of the despair that the dangers of the sport can bring. Keep Jason Dupasquier in your thoughts, and his friends and family too.
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