It was inevitable that there would be a lot of talk at Austin of the events of a few days earlier, at Jerez. The death of Dean Berta Viñales in the first (and only) WorldSSP300 race at the Spanish track had once again raised the question of safety in motorcycle racing. Especially the safety in the support classes, where the technical rules had been set up to achieve as much parity as possible, creating very large groups on the race track. And especially in classes populated by sometimes very young riders.
How ironic, then, that some of such talk took place in the pre-event press conference in Austin, where a group of riders in the FIM MiniGP North America series were present. Kensei Matsudaira, age 10, Jesse Shedden, age 12, Jayden Fernandez, age 13, Kayla Yaakov, age 14, and Travis Horn, age 13, all got to sit and listen as the MotoGP riders were asked questions about how to prevent young kids from being killed in motorcycle races.
The FIM MiniGP series is one of the steps Dorna is putting in place in its Road to MotoGP initiative, aimed at stimulating racing talent at a regional and national level, before moving up on the path to World Championship level racing.
In many ways, MiniGP is the kind of series which will actually encourage racing while minimizing the risks involved: only races held on karting tracks which meet a minimum safety standard will qualify for the label of MiniGP. The participants – youngsters age 10 to 14 – will race on Ohvale GP-0 160 machines, 15hp 160cc four-stroke minibikes, capable of a maximum speed of just under 100 km/h. Grids will be limited to 15 riders per series. Karting tracks, small grids, and low speeds should minimize the chance of severe or fatal injury.
It was unfortunate, however, that Dorna had chosen this race to focus on the FIM MiniGP North America series. Not that they had the timing in their hands: Austin is the only US round of MotoGP, and therefore the natural place to present the FIM MiniGP series. It was bad luck that Dean Berta Viñales had been killed at Jerez the week before. But such inconvenience pales in comparison to what had happened to the 15-year-old Spaniard and his entire family, of course.
A lot of riders got asked their opinions on what needed to be done, and given the large number of riders who are parents, they were also asked whether they would let their children race motorcycles. "For sure I will say I will give him first a football before a motorbike," the newest addition to parenthood, Alex Rins told us. "I'm saying this now in Austin, but I'm sure when he's able to stand I will give him an electric bike or something like this," the Spaniard added.
Aleix Espargaro has been a father for a couple of years, but he was a little more adamant about letting his children, a little boy Max and little girl Mia, race. He had expressed this in an interview previously. "The question was what do you want for your kids for the future, do you want them to race? I said no I don’t want, but I don’t want also that they do another sport with risk," the Aprilia rider responded. "So as a father I will try to protect them as much as I can and motorcycling is a very high risk sport. So hopefully they will play tennis."
The riders emphasized the fact that the were well aware of the dangers they face. It was something impressed upon them at every opportunity throughout their racing careers, but something they accepted and chose to continue regardless.
Jack Miller spoke openly of his experience of danger racing as a child. "Growing up, it was something you associated with it. At the end of the day, before every time we went racing in Australia as a kid, from 7 years old, the first thing they say to you when they do the rider briefing is 'Motorcycle racing is dangerous, your equipment may be damaged or destroyed, you may be killed or very badly injured'. That's the first thing they lead off with. So you know it's always around."
That experience was very personal indeed on occasion, Miller explained. "I've lost quite a few friends to the sport. Some at a very young age. And for sure it is difficult to process it sometimes."
That didn't change the nature of the sport, however. "At the end of the day, the sport is the sport, it's hard, it's brutal," the Australian told us. That was part of the attraction. "One of the beauties of the sport is that it is so raw, and it's dangerous. At the end of the day, it's a dangerous sport, and those things can happen."
Balancing fear and passion
Miller tried to give a sense of the balancing act riders have to face. They all felt the tragedy when a young rider dies, and knew how it impacted those around them. "For sure, there's no easy way around it," the Ducati rider told us. "At the end of the day, these tragic things, it's terrible what happened, beyond terrible, it's atrocious what's happened this year with so many young lives being lost. Looking the other day at Dean, 2006. That's not long ago. The poor kid didn't get to live a full life, and that's terrible."
It wasn't just the friends and family of the rider killed, Miller pointed out. "For sure, I know one of the young Australians that we know that's living up in Andorra was involved in the accident, and I know he's pretty torn up about it, Harry Khouri is his name. And it affects these young kids for sure."
Yet Miller also emphasized that racing was a choice, and that even young racers accepted the risk involved. "But unless we're going to stop young kids from racing, which I don't think is the right way to go about it, because at the end of the day that's what they love. They know that these risks are there and that can happen. You don't want to even think about it, but there's not much you can do, unfortunately, except make conditions better, try to make the racing safer."
No easy answers
Miguel Oliveira backed up Jack Miller's perspective, adding that solutions were hard and complicated. "I have no answers," the Portuguese rider told us. "I have many questions to try to understand why these things happen. At the end of the day we are riding in a dangerous sport. It’s necessary for everyone involved to know that. At what cost does the pursuit of a dream have? I don’t think it’s worth a life. Everyone stepping onto a track must be aware of how dangerous it is and how are your surroundings and whether it’s really worth the risk."
Finding a fix was not easy, Oliveira emphasized. "Then it’s up to the rules, formats, many debates, but the bottom line is, rider, age, maturity needs to be addressed when 14, 15, 19 year old kids step onto a bike."
Identifying the factors contributing to the recent spate of deaths was difficult, but important. Pol Espargaro echoed the thoughts his Repsol Honda teammate Marc Marquez had expressed in the press conference, that the explosion in the number of categories in which youngsters could race was at the root of the problem.
Too many clases
"First of all it's super difficult, it's not that easy or simple," Espargaro warned. "But secondly it's happening more than some years ago just because there are more young kids racing. I remember when I started racing it was just the Spanish championship and then the MotoGP world championship. There were not a lot of categories of young guys racing. Now more and more there are a lot of categories of young guys racing, this also increases the probability that things can happen."
Parity of equipment was also a factor, Espargaro affirmed. "The third for me is that the talent of these young guys is amazing and they reach the level of these small bikes with these small engines very quick. So the problem is that all these kids arrive to the level of the bikes so fast and the difference between them is so small. So the difference that a slipstream can make is so important because the difference is so small between them that they need to be very close."
The four strokes currently being raced did not punish mistakes, and that kept the field together, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "In 125 I remember the bikes were quite aggressive and strong and for example, a guy with no rhythm in the race could not follow a guy who was half a second faster, because he would highside. So this was due to the difficulty of the bike and the power of the bike so maybe this would be also a solution."
Pol's brother, Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro, saw things from a similar perspective. "The biggest problem is the tendency where we are going. This is what makes me worried because we have a lot of close racing in the small classes, the bikes are not powerful in the small classes and the stability is very high. So it's not difficult to be fast with these type of bikes and it's very difficult to make the difference. We can see for example in Moto3. For me Pedro Acosta is much more talented than the other riders but he can never go away in the races. This is a clear example."
Slow, heavy bikes, all bunched up, were where the problems lay, agreed Jack Miller. "These classes now, we've had this discussion in Moto3. But even in Supersport, those bikes aren't very fast and there's so many of them, and those bikes aren't light, by any stretch of the imagination. I don't know off the top of my head, I just know what the street bike weighs," - for context, a Kawasaki Ninja 400, the road bike used as the basis for the WorldSSP300 machine, weighs 168kg wet. "A Moto3 is ten times lighter than than." The combined minimum weight of rider and bike is 152kg, while the combined minimum weight for WorldSSP300 machines varies between 202 and 210kg.
That weight contributed to the danger, Miller argued. "For sure it's a lot of weight and there's so many of them on the grid that when something unfortunately does go wrong the chance of something bad happening for sure is doubled or tripled, because there's so many boys there."
A large pack of equal machinery made for spectacular racing, Miller averred. "The racing's fantastic, and I think the classes are fantastic. It's so good to have a feeder class like that, like the World Supersport 300 to help these young kids that may or may not have a chance to come through that way."
That came with risks, however. "But there has to be I think a big step taken in looking at the safety, at the way these races go," Miller emphasized. "This can't continue on, this year's been especially bad. But this can't continue on. We can't have three young kids in the space of not even nine months losing their lives. It's atrocious. And I think I speak on behalf of everybody when I say I'm getting sick and tired of going to these minutes of silence for kids that were so, so young. It's just so bad. That can't continue on, for sure. It can't, no way. Something needs to be done."
A notebook full of ideas
What is the something that needs to be done? Aleix Espargaro had been taking notes on the subject, and intended to present it to the powers that be to discuss. "I have a lot of ideas," the Aprilia rider told us. "Actually during the last days I had a document where I wrote many ideas that came into my mind and I want to discuss with Dorna because I'm sure they are also working hard on this. It's not going to be easy but I have a lot to discuss with them."
Espargaro reeled off some of the ideas he had to make racing safer. "I don't know if this is the right moment but the age is obviously one of the things. And then you can do a lot of different things to avoid the contact especially. In the free practices you can separate the riders more, during the races electronically you can do a lot of things that we are not doing right now because the technology now is very good. It wasn't in the past. So you can use this technology to try to maybe stop the bikes when an accident happens."
That was just the beginning, Espargaro insisted. "There are a lot of things we can do. Especially for example we are using airbags, in the junior world championship they are not, so I don’t like this at all. So I have a big list and hopefully I can help them a little bit."
Venue, not age
Although age played a role, it was part of a complex interplay of factors, the Aprilia rider explained. "It's not just about being 16 in the world championship, because 16 is maybe not that bad, yes we can go 17. But the problem is you can go to race in a big track like Barcelona with a Moto4, which is almost Moto3, at 12 years old I think. This for me is worse. So we have to see the other championships."
It would be better for such younger kids to race on karting tracks for longer, Espargaro insisted. "Minimotos on go-kart tracks is good. So maybe they can stay more time on the kart tracks where the speed is a lot lower and when the two riders can have an accident together and nothing happens. They can postpone the arrival to a big track for one or two years, for example."
Previously, minimotos had been more popular, but the rise of Moto4, a class featuring 150cc four-stroke singles with full-sized 17-inch wheels racing on full-sized tracks had displaced the smaller bikes. "It looks like in the past the popularity of minimotos was very high and now everybody wants to race Moto4," Espargaro pointed out. "We are doing many classes, Supersport 300, everybody on big tracks. Maybe this is a solution also, to race more on small tracks like karting because I think there the kids can learn the same or even more."
In good hands?
This, it is worth pointing out, is the direction Dorna and the FIM have taken with MiniGP, as explained above. That was one reason why Miguel Oliveira had confidence in the bodies running motorcycle racing to come up with a long-term way of addressing the problem and minimizing the risks for competitors. "In bikes we are so exposed it makes it difficult for the FIM, for Dorna, to give youngsters the opportunity to start. And to start as many as we can. At the same time, it’s difficult to control the surroundings to how things are made. I have a lot of trust in the FIM, in Dorna. They are 2 very capable entities. It’s in their best interests to look after their riders and the image the sport projects to society. We are in good hands. I have trust in that."
Oliveira is correct to point out that it is in the interests of Dorna and the FIM to make racing safer. If they just sit back and wring their hands but do nothing when a young rider dies, the chances of external authorities such as governments intervening is increased. That threatens Dorna's very lucrative contract to organize and run MotoGP and WorldSBK, as well as the many feeder series around the world they run. And the FIM is funded to a very large extent by the fee which Dorna pays for the rights to organize and promote the various world championships. The goose which lays the golden egg needs to be protected.
Back to the Circuit of the Americas. After two years away, riders were interested to see how the track had developed, and fearful of the bumps which may have appeared in their absence. Jack Miller had taken a cursory look on Wednesday, while he was at the track doing some filming for Red Bull, with fellow Australian and AMA MX champion Jett Lawrence, and was not impressed by what he saw.
"At some points the asphalt definitely looks bad," Miller said. "There's massive cracks in the first sector, I saw there's some resurfacing being done, some machining done, I think on the back straight, on the corner after the back straight. I saw that had been machined. I saw that there was some new asphalt been laid down."
The track moving and subsiding was a well-known phenomena, the Australian explained. "It's constantly been the issue here, I think, from the beginning since we came here. Like the first year was fantastic and then it had already made a drastic change the second time we came back. From my understanding of speaking to people, it's to do with the clay that the track is laid on. This area is full of clay and it moves quite a bit with the rain that comes here. So I think it's a more deep underlying problem. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I'm sure it'll be bumpy. It always is."
The new Honda
Finally, at the Misano test, we had seen the brand new Honda RC213V, and the radical change that was. Thursday at Austin was the first time we got a chance to ask the Repsol Honda riders about the new bike.
Marc Marquez admitted it was a totally different package. "As you saw in Misano we tried the 2022 prototype and it was a big difference, one of the biggest differences since I joined Honda," the Spaniard said. "They are working very hard and it was very interesting. We improved our weak points. Of course, when you improve the weak points arrives another problem."
Both Marquez and Pol Espargaro had started off quickly on the 2022 prototype. "We already understand a bit and the comments between me and Pol were very similar," Marquez said. "Both of us were fast with the new bike, so the first contact was nice but we need to keep working in other circuits with less grip because the Misano circuit; the grip was unbelievable, so it was easy to be fast."
HRC had been chasing rear grip, with some success, but that had come at a price, Marquez said. "Of course we are looking for a faster bike, smoother, more grip, more turning, but it’s true that our weak point this year is the a bit the rear grip, it’s where we focus more, and definitely we improve. But then we lose a bit the turning. But we understand that with a different concept of bike we can gain in many areas, but we can lose also in one of our strongest points now, that is the corner entry."
A good start
Proving that there is more than one way to go fast around a race track on a motorcycle, Marquez told the press conference that the lap time had been the same on the new bike as on the old. This was in itself encouraging. "The laptime in the end was very similar, but it’s important when you receive new parts that from the start you’re already on the same pace that on the old one, without touching anything." What they needed to do next was to ride the bike at a track with much less grip, because the grip at Misano had been so good that it was easy to be deceived by the state of the bike.
Pol Espargaro did not want to point to a single factor in the improvement of the 2022 prototype. "I think that the biggest difference at the test was not the engine for us. The engine was a good step up but mainly the step we did was in the full bike. All the components," the Spaniard insisted. "The bike is really different, as you can see in the pictures, it's so different everywhere. Like aerodynamics. The engine is different for sure but also how the bike is made, the weight, the height, everything different. it makes the bike so different."
Despite there being lots of grip at the Misano test, the result of a weekend of racing followed by two days of testing, Espargaro still felt improvements had been made."Okay Misano is a place where the grip is quite good, so we were having different problems because too much rear grip. But I think we understand the problems we have," the Repsol Honda rider said.
"The most important is that we know what's going on. And to improve the problem first you need to know the situation you are having. Seems like we know what we are doing and Honda brought something that improved quite a lot the rear grip, then we faced other problems. But as it's a new bike it's normal, natural. But yeah, the bike was better."
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