Colorful, controversial, but above all, fast. That was Marco Simoncelli in a nutshell. No tribute to the man here, so many others have done it, and far better than I ever could. I recommend reading Kevin Schwantz' thoughts on Simoncelli over on the excellent Superbikeplanet site, and in Spanish, a touching story by Spanish TV editor and one of the nicest people in the paddock, Ruben Fernandez.
And now Marco Simoncelli is dead, killed in a tragic accident at Sepang, struck from behind by Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi after losing control of his Honda. The crash was all too reminiscent of the crash that proved fatal to Shoya Tomizawa at Misano in September 2010, another incident that left the paddock stunned and lost for words. There, too, a rider lost control of their bike, crashing directly in front of other riders who had neither the time nor the space to avoid hitting him.
So similar are the two incidents that it is worth going back to the Tomizawa crash at Misano and comparing it with Simoncelli's accident at Sepang. Though Tomizawa's death hit the paddock hard, along with many hardcore motorcycle racing fans, it largely went unnoticed among the general public, as Tomizawa was killed in the Moto2 race, a support class and not the main show. Simoncelli was already a global star, racing in the biggest motorcycle racing show on earth, so naturally, his death generated a lot more coverage and raised many more questions. But the responses to Tomizawa's crash may prove instructive for both the mindset of the people involved and the direction that racing should take after Simoncelli's tragic accident.
Perhaps the first question that many are asking is how such an accident could happen, and whether it could have been avoided. The answer to that is simple: it cannot. With bikes racing so closely together at high speed, collisions are inevitable if the leading rider makes a mistake and either crashes or loses control of his machine. As Valentino Rossi said after Tomizawa's crash at Misano in 2010, "At 240 km/h, when a bike crash in front of you there is nothing you can do. They are just in the wrong place at the wrong moment."
And when riders are struck by bikes following behind, rider protection is as good as useless. With 150kg motorcycles travelling at well over 200 km/h, the amount of stored energy released in the impact is so massive that there is no way it can be absorbed and dispersed safely. The current state of material technology cannot deal with the energies released by being struck in the chest, as Tomizawa was, or in the back and neck, as Simoncelli was, by a racing motorcycle traveling at high speed.
What is remarkable is how very rarely serious injury occurs from these crashes. Just over an hour before Simoncelli's fatal accident, Axel Pons fell directly in front of Kenny Noyes during the Moto2 race. It was impossible for Noyes to avoid Pons, and he hit the Spaniard. Pons was knocked unconscious, and taken to the hospital were he was diagnosed with a concussion, and some minor cranial bleeding. But he has recovered well enough to be able to fly back to Spain either today or on Wednesday.
In a strange way, Simoncelli's death underlines just how safe motorcycle racing has become. There is now ample runoff at almost every circuit, with crash barriers either removed or pushed back a long way, obstacles removed and air fence covering ever more of the barriers that do remain around circuits. Along with this, safety equipment such as leathers, back protectors, boots, gloves and helmets have improved by such an extent that when news appears of a rider being "seriously injured" in a crash, it usually means they have broken an arm or a leg. Riders suffering spinal injuries are a rarity, fatalities now very rare indeed. There have been some thirteen deaths on closed circuits over the past twenty years at national and international level. Compare this with one-day eventing, where approximately 37 fatalities were recorded at national and international level during the ten year period between 1997 and 2008; in the same period, just nine motorcycle racers died.
That does not mean that there is no room for improvement in track safety, however. Much has been made of the handling of both Simoncelli and Tomizawa after their respective crashes, especially as both of them were dropped in the gravel while being removed from the track and taken to a nearby ambulance. In neither instance did being dropped make any difference to the outcomes - the injuries to both Tomizawa and Simoncelli were so severe that they were never going to survive them - but they do raise questions about both the level of training of the marshals and medical staff, and whether a fallen rider should be treated where he falls (either on the track or in the gravel) or first transported to an ambulance where they can be given better treatment than at trackside.
There are two schools of thought about attending to fallen riders, which can be summarized as 1: get the rider to medical equipment as soon as possible; and 2: get medical equipment to the rider as soon as possible. The decision that a first responder makes - in this case, always a doctor or paramedic with extensive experience of emergency medicine - is influenced by the seriousness of the situation, and by their judgment of the best option for the injured rider. That may in turn be affected by the medical regulations laid out in the MotoGP rulebook, and so it is worth summarizing those rules.
In the event of a crash, trained medical staff have to reach a fallen rider within 30 seconds. They assess the situation, and make a call to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to inform them of the severity of the rider's injuries. There are four response codes, but only the two most severe (Code 2 and Code 3) may require the intervention of the CMO. In the case of a Code 3 (medical intervention required on track), the CMO can ask the Race Director to allow an ambulance on the track, which the Race Director can then give permission for and arrange. Ambulances at a MotoGP race must be able to reach a fallen rider within 2 minutes.
It is conceivable that because of those 2 minutes, the doctors attending fallen riders are quicker to decide to move the rider to the medical equipment waiting at the medical post (usually at or close to every corner post), rather than wait for an ambulance to arrive on track to attend to the rider. Injuries sufficiently serious to require the equipment at the medical posts or in the ambulances generally need to be treated as fast as possible. The doctor attending at the scene has to make an immediate call on the best course of action: take the rider to the post or bring out an ambulance.
To the untrained observer - something which I freely admit I am - it seems that the best course of action is to wait for the ambulance to attend. The problem is that by then, it may be too late. Especially if they have been hit by another bike, an injured rider may have multiple, life-threatening injuries. They are likely to have both spinal injuries and blunt force trauma, including injured internal organs and internal bleeding. The best thing to do in the case of a spinal injury is to immobilize the rider and move them only with the utmost care; in this case waiting for an ambulance is the best thing to do. But if they also have massive internal bleeding, no pulse and no breathing, then getting them to equipment where they can have breathing passages cleared and heart massage or resuscitation becomes paramount.
This is a process in the medical profession known as triage, which entails prioritizing injuries by their seriousness, and dealing with the most dangerous first. But the energies involved in racing crashes mean that riders often have several injuries which are all life-threatening. A doctor has to make a split-second decision as quickly as possible, and only that doctor ever knows exactly what state the injured rider was when they arrived at the scene.
However, this kind of decision is common for the doctors and paramedics at the race track, all of whom have to have experience of emergency medical care, and used to dealing with seeing seriously injured patients. We have no way of knowing what their thought processes are in a particular decision, but it is likely that the speed at which an ambulance can be present is likely to be a factor. If they judge that 2 minutes is too long to wait for equipment on the track, they will call for riders to be stretchered off the track, where ambulances can reach them much more quickly, having only to use the service roads and not wait for the track to be cleared of bikes before traveling to the scene.
So there may be a case for tightening up this limit. In the BSB series, a decision was taken some time ago to reduce this amount to 90 seconds, this time including the amount of time needed to start delivering the treatment once help has arrived. In practice, this means that an ambulance has to be able to arrive by a stricken rider and start administering treatment within 90 seconds of being called. The difference may not seem much, but those 30 seconds are vital in the case of critical injuries.
What was perhaps more significant in the BSB series was that a number of emergency response drills were put together and the medical staff then practiced carrying them out. In situations such as the one on Sunday, it is not just knowing what to do which is important, but having practiced it several times beforehand.
This, then, is one area where MotoGP may be able to learn from BSB. Dropping riders from a stretcher should never happen, but it may perhaps be put down to a lack of regular practice by the stretcher bearers - usually trained paramedics, and distinguished by a red vest instead of an orange one worn by the ordinary marshals. Several training exercises carrying a weighted stretcher through the gravel may help to prevent such a situation from happening again.
One fact, however, has also been overlooked. The fact that both Tomizawa and Simoncelli were dropped suggest that it is one thing to handle a stretcher, but quite another to handle a stretcher on which a badly injured rider is being carried. Adrenaline may overtake reflexes, and cause stretcher bearers to stumble and fall. There has been a lot of criticism from fans about the handling of the situation, but without having been in that situation yourself, faced with the fear, panic and urgency to try to help as quickly as possible, it is a little unfair to suggest that you would have handled it better.
Certainly, Paolo Simoncelli, Marco's father, who saw the crash happen right in front of him and saw the way his son's body was handled, had no complaints. Speaking to Italian TV he said he knew his son was gone as soon as the accident happened.
There is perhaps a case for at least part of the staff of corner workers to consist of permanent staff employed by Dorna. They could coach and assist the local staff, and run them through the practice drills necessary to ensure the best possible care on track for the riders.
This, and many other questions, will no doubt be discussed at Valencia, when Race Direction will meet with Dorna and the FIM to discuss the handling of the situation. As they did after the death of Shoya Tomizawa, lessons will be learned from what went wrong, in the hope of handling a similar situation better in the future. It would be better if such a situation were never to occur, but best of all is to be prepared for it anyway.
The internet chatter about Simoncelli's handling was not the only speculation. Just a few hours after Simoncelli's death had been announced, rumors started emerging that Valentino Rossi would retire. The rumors appears to have started after Steve Parrish speculated that Rossi could retire in his tribute to Marco Simoncelli. From there, they took on a life of their own, at least until Rossi's manager Davide Brivio woke up to find his Twitter feed ablaze with questions about Rossi's retirement. He, and Rossi's close friend Alessio "Uccio" Salucci immediately issued a denial, and expressed their anger at the rumors. Rossi himself dealt with the situation with his typical humor, facing a crowd of reporters when he landed in Italy, and denying that he ever said anything about retiring. It was probably someone writing that just to sell some newspapers, he quipped.
But to even suggest that a rider might consider retiring after Simoncelli's death is to fail to understand the mind of a motorcycle racer. Racers race, that is what they do, that is what they love, and that is what they would have others do. On the Sunday night at Misano last year, the night after Tomizawa was killed, we reporters asked Nicky Hayden whether he thought it was the right decision to run the MotoGP race, which took place after Tomizawa had been fatally injured in the Moto2 race. "Was it right to do the race? I don't want to get into that, but I've always been taught you race, almost out of respect," Hayden said. "It's tragic, but we are motorcycle racers. In some ways, if it was me, I would want the show to go on, I wouldn't want them to hold up the race on my account".
The riders know and fully understand the risks, accepting them, though believing that the worst will never happen to them. "We know stuff can happen," Hayden said at Misano, "But it's racing and we choose to do it." Speaking to Italian television on Tuesday, Simoncelli's girlfriend explained that his attitude was always that risk was a part of racing. "At every race where someone got injured, he would say 'hey, that's racing, if you don't want to get hurt then you should stay at home.'"
So to suggest that any rider might retire after this, even Valentino Rossi, a close friend to Simoncelli and directly involved in the accident in which his friend was killed, is to completely miss the point. To suggest that the Valencia MotoGP race should be canceled in Marco Simoncelli's honor is to utterly misunderstand what Simoncelli would have wanted. Racers race, and to deprive Marco Simoncelli's friends and rivals of the one thing that he loved passionately enough to risk and give his life for does not honor him, it goes against everything that Simoncelli loved and lived for.
Back in September 2010, Marco Simoncelli raced at Misano, knowing that Shoya Tomizawa had been seriously injured in a crash, learning that Tomizawa had died while he was out racing in MotoGP. Two weeks later, Simoncelli stood in line with the rest of the paddock at Aragon, holding a minute's silence in memory of Tomizawa. And then he climbed aboard his Honda, and he did what he knew Shoya Tomizawa loved, lived for and died doing: he raced.
And so shall I, in my own way. From tomorrow, I will return to writing about the world of racing, the world that Marco Simoncelli loved so passionately despite the risks, the world that I love so passionately despite the risks. I know that before I retire, I will be writing about the death of another young star, a talent taken before his time, before he had realized his potential. I will try to write about it with the passion that Simoncelli showed so spectacularly on track. There is much to write about, not least the painful question of who will take Simoncelli's place at Gresini next year.
Writing about this sport, supporting this sport, promoting this sport, that shall be my tribute to Marco Simoncelli. Keeping his memory alive, and keeping the sport which he loved alive are the best way to honor the wild man of MotoGP. I know that many of you are grieving at his loss, but I invite you to join me in living out the passion which you shared with Marco for motorcycle racing. Marco lives on through his friends, his family, and his fans, and perhaps most of all, Marco lives on in racing. His bike may be missing from the grid, but his spirit races on.
Update - I have updated the number of deaths on this page, as the Wikipedia pages I linked to missed out on four riders who died. I have updated the Wikipedia pages to add their deaths too.