What does the MotoGP paddock do the day after a rider dies? Carry on as normal. Or nearly normal: bikes circulate, riders compete, but conversations are more hushed, the mood muted. The whole paddock is a quieter place, bar the bellowing of racing four stroke engines.
Heartless? That is putting it a little strongly. It is in part a coping mechanism, immersing yourself in your work to avoid dwelling on tragedy, and thinking too much about danger. But it is also a response to the request of Luis Salom's family and team. When Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta asked them what they wanted to do, they said they wanted the race to go ahead.
Their wishes would be respected, but it was not the first choice of everyone in the paddock. Danilo Petrucci told the Italian press he would have preferred to have packed up and gone home, and he was not alone. "Yesterday I was crying together with my brother because [Luis Salom] was really young," Aleix Espargaro told us. "This is a disaster. With Pol we were thinking that the best thing was to not race because actually now I feel empty inside." We all felt empty inside, and still do.
Still two more days to go
What made this situation more complex than after previous fatalities was that the last deaths in Grand Prix racing all came during the race. In 2010, Shoya Tomizawa crashed in the Moto2 race, was rushed to hospital, and was declared dead after the start of the MotoGP race. In 2003, Daijiro Kato was left in a coma after a crash at Suzuka, dying two weeks later. In 2011, Marco Simoncelli was killed during the MotoGP race, and the race was canceled.
Luis Salom was killed during the first day of practice. When a rider dies during a race, there is no time to reflect, no time to think. The race continues, or the race is canceled, then everyone goes home and has time to come to terms with what happened with their loved ones. On Friday, riders retired to their motorhomes or their hotels, as did team members and media, and had time to sit and brood.
The riders still came out to prepare for the race, however, and ride the newly revised layout of the track. The danger was there, but they accept it as part of the sport. "You never think about that," Pol Espargaro said. "Why do people love our sport? Because we go at 350 km/h on the straight. Or we go through the corners at 200 km/h. Some people love our sport because it’s risky and we give to people the adrenaline that they cannot get."
Dealing with death and danger
But how do you deal with that danger, I asked him, how do you deal with the knowledge that you could die? "I understand, but you don’t realize it," Espargaro answered honestly. "I’ve spoken a lot of times like that with my girlfriend. She said, ‘No, don’t say that!’ But it’s like that." Despite knowing the risks, Pol Espargaro would change nothing. "Maybe one day I can crash and get injured or even die. If I die in three years and I restarted my life again I would do the same. It’s our life. For sure Luis would do the same now."
The riders tuck the danger away in a corner of their minds, and don't think about it. How do they ride after such a clear demonstration of the danger? "It’s very easy because the riders can’t think too much about the bad things happen in the track," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "Every time we ride you can’t think about everything can happen, because every lap is not enough for what you did. You have to pass every time your limit." You have to push at the limit ever lap, trying to go faster, ignoring the risks. "You have to be focused on that to be really fast, faster and faster, and every practice try to improve."
Only when a bad incident such as Salom's happened were the riders forced to act, Dovizioso explained. They had tested the F1 layout at Turn 10 in 2014, and rejected the idea of using it. "When we try at that time, some riders say it’s not nice and it is slow," Dovizioso told us. "So until something bad happens, you don’t put the safety on top priority."
So what happened to Luis Salom? Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta and FIM Safety Officer Franco Uncini gave a press conference to explain what had happened, and why the riders had decided to change the track. Salom had lost control of his bike on the exit of Turn 11, had fallen, and his bike had gone straight ahead into the air fence, bounced off it, and Salom had hit the bike as it rebounded. The impact was sufficiently forceful to cause massive internal injuries, and put him into cardiac arrest.
How the crash had happened was a bigger mystery. The point at which Salom crashed was strange, however. The marks left by the Spaniard were on the outside of the turn, well outside of any standard racing line. Salom was pushing hard on his out lap, but there is no real explanation for why he crashed where he did. The strange point at which he crashed is what would prove fatal, Salom's odd line putting him in a direct trajectory with the wall, running straight on across the relatively small sector of asphalt put in to allow F1 cars to brake in time before hitting the wall if they missed the entrance to the F1 chicane.
The combination of air fence and asphalt run off proved to be ill-fated. If Salom had hit the air fence on his own, he would probably have survived. The air fence was put there in response to a crash two years ago by Niccolo Antonelli, and if it hadn't been there, and Salom had hit the wall, the impact would have been very severe. Then again, the bike would have bounced off the wall differently, and probably not hit Salom. Because of the asphalt, Salom and his bike followed the same trajectory. Had there been gravel there, then the differential in friction would have seen Salom and his bike take different paths, and they would have been less likely to collide.
Bone of contention
The issue of whether Turn 12 was known to be dangerous became a bone of contention. During the press conference, Carmelo Ezpeleta denied there had ever been a request from the Safety Commission to put gravel at that point, and Franco Uncini denied the corner had ever been designated as dangerous by the riders.
The riders disagreed. Valentino Rossi said he had brought up that corner several times in the past six years, and specifically after the crash of Antonelli. That led to an uncomfortable moment in the press conference. Paolo Ianeri, journalist for the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, asked Jorge Lorenzo who was lying, Ezpeleta or the riders, and Johann Zarco, also present in the press conference, interjected to accuse the journalist of trying to create a problem, instead of looking for a solution. Was the question inappropriate? It was a valid question to ask, though the timing of the question was poor, and the way it was phrased made it sound more like it was meant to generate controversy than uncover the truth. The job of a journalist is an ugly one sometimes, asking the questions nobody wants to ask at times when nobody wants to speak. But Zarco, personally affected because he knew Salom well, understandably took offense, and reacted in a very human way.
In the end, Marc Márquez handled the question masterfully, saying that neither side was lying, but that the riders in the Safety Commission, Race Direction and the circuit owners had agreed that putting air fence in that corner should be sufficient to make the track safe. Salom's strange crash had proved them all wrong, but it was so unusual that it was hard to predict.
Time to act
Once it had happened, though, something had to be done. The speed at which events moved left Aleix Espargaro feeling bewildered. "The most sad thing is how fast we forget everything," Espargaro said. "Yesterday at 4pm everything happened, and at 6p we were in the track trying to change the track for the next session, so this was even more sad. The world is like this, try to improve the safety in every track. We will try to work harder in the Safety Commission."
The Safety Commission is the formal liaison committee between the riders, Dorna and Race Direction, and meets every Friday at 5:30pm in the Dorna offices in the paddock. Normally, the riders are under strict instructions to treat the Safety Commission like Fight Club – the first rule of the Safety Commission is that nobody is to talk about what happens in the Safety Commission – to allow the riders to speak freely and uninhibited. Pol Espargaro gave a flavor of what goes on in the Safety Commission. "It’s like a bar," he said." We say things like, ‘You are stupid, why did you go there?’ "
Because of the extraordinary events at Barcelona, Bradley Smith explained in depth what had happened there, and how the decisions had been made to alter the track and switch to the Formula One layout, with a hairpin at Turn 10, and Turn 12 replaced by a sharper right hander, then the tight chicane. Ten riders had turned up to the Safety Commission: Pol and Aleix Espargaro, Bradley Smith, Cal Crutchlow, Marc Marquez, Andrea Iannone, Jack Miller, Alvaro Bautista, Andrea Dovizioso, and Tito Rabat.
Inside the Safety Commission
"I was the first one in the room," Smith told us. "Because for me it was important to turn up there, that day of all days, and assume our responsibility. Because our responsibility there is not as a MotoGP rider, but as a safety adviser, as someone like that. So for me, the key thing was that everyone that turned up there assumed their responsibilities. The riders who did not turn up there, I'm a little bit disappointed in, because we all know exactly what time it starts and where it is."
"The first thing we had to address is, do we continue with the weekend? And the first people to ask were Luis Salom's team, and his family. Which was done, so firstly, it's like if we are continuing, what can we do?"
"Initially we wanted to add gravel to Turn 12. Because although the incident that Luis had there wasn't a normal one, it wasn't in the normal racing line trajectory. So looking at that asphalt runoff, it isn't in the normal trajectory of a rider falling. But if we were going to continue, we had to address the situation of the problem that we had there. Which the only way to do that would be to put more gravel on top of that surface, a bit like we do in certain areas of the Sachsenring. You put gravel on top of tarmac, you would have it going up at a degree slope to slow down the speed. Which was the first initial plan."
"Then, having said that, the riders said, well what about the Formula One layout? Because we remember two years ago we tried the layout at the end of the back straight, at Turn 10. And then we discussed using that chicane."
"And that's when the riders went out, as I'm sure people saw. We assessed the situation as best we can. That's why you can see paint on the race track, because we deemed that had we done the normal racing line for Formula One, the trajectory would bring us too close to the wall, so we're bringing the riders straight, and we're coming up with that idea. That was the main focus for us, in that direction."
Turn Ten too?
Bradley Smith also explained why the Safety Commission had decided to change Turn 10, and use the F1 layout there, despite the fact that no incidents had happened there. "I suppose we got to a point where it's like if we're doing it there, and as we had seen on video quite a lot of riders running on at the end of the back straight for Turn 10 and getting to the wall, we decided that if we're going to do it once, let's do everything. That's the only way for us to continue with the weekend, and to allow the event to continue. Basically all the riders agreed that was the only way they would be happy to continue on having seen the incident that happened."
Safety is impossible
This raises the question of exactly how safe a race track can be made, and how much money and effort any racing series should put into it. "At the end of the day, we all line up on the grid knowing that this sport – as I'm sure you can read on your pass – this sport is dangerous. We as individuals know what we are getting ourselves into," Bradley Smith said. "You're never going to have the perfect situation, we shouldn't try and create a perfect situation. We can't fix this sport to be safe and have everyone go home after every weekend. It's just not something that we can do. "
Valentino Rossi said that it was impossible to make race tracks completely safe, as strange accidents can happen. He recalled an incident from 2007, during the IRTA Test in Jerez before the start of the season. "I remember in Jerez some years ago when Roberto Locatelli exit turn ten. The steering stuck on the left and he went into the wall on the left, on a place that is straight." A technical issue with the bike had caused it to veer off, but it was not practicable to take crashes such as that into account, Rossi said. "It’s impossible that you have 100 metres of run off area next to a straight. If not we have to race in the desert. Maybe Qatar is the only place where it is OK. If you remember Marquez tried the start this year and he locked the front, and went left. In that point it’s very difficult to have 100 percent safety. Unfortunately it’s not something that you can fix."
Bradley Smith agreed, and said the role of the Safety Commission was to try to foresee such situations and preempt them where possible, by taking action to prevent serious injury. "As riders, we are trying to think of every possible situation that could happen, hence the reason why the air fence was there in Turn 12. Because in previous years, it hasn't been. So we needed an accident like Antonelli's to show us what can happen. Now, unless you have a simulator which can show you every possible way you can go on a motorcycle, which is basically anywhere, what are you going to do?"
Designing safer tracks with data
What Smith apparently is not aware of is that such a simulator exists. Jarno Zaffelli, of circuit designers Studio Dromo, has a complex piece of simulation software which is capable of modeling exactly such instances. Having visited his offices after Misano last year, and seen what the software can do, I was impressed by its capabilities. Based on data collected in the real world, including tests done with both crash test dummies and real riders in protective gearing, Zaffelli is able to predict both the likelihood of a crash in a particular place, and what trajectory a bike will take after crashing. The system used by Zaffelli is rated highly in both four-wheeled and two-wheeled worlds, and has been certified by DEKRA, the organization charged with evaluating crash test safety for new vehicles for most car manufacturers, and also for the FIA.
Zaffelli used it while redesigning the layout for the Argentina circuit. That track is fast – the second fastest on the calendar, behind Phillip Island – but has a very low number of crashes, and a very low number of injuries. He even used the software to plot the best places to locate ambulance posts, based on the likelihood of crashing.
This kind of expertise is invaluable, and the kind of data-driven approach offers the best path to reducing risk. The alternative is to take the approach used by Hermann Tilke, and create vast areas of run off around the track. That leaves the crowds a long way from the action, making for a disappointing spectator experience, and is not even always effective. It would mean the end of many classic tracks such as Mugello, Jerez, Phillip Island, and Assen, to be replaced with sterile circuits like Qatar. Eighteen rounds of MotoGP at Qatar is an extremely unappealing prospect.
Danger, danger, everywhere
Turn 12, the point where Salom crashed, was not considered particularly dangerous, though Aleix Espargaro had started to notice it more when he took part in a long-distance bicycle race a week ago. "I did ten days ago a bicycle race, and I did a lot of laps and the wall there is very close," Espargaro remarked. Cycling past it many times had given him time to look at the corner, and realize it was not as safe as he had thought it was. "Even if you put gravel, there is not enough room. So I say [the Safety Commission] to go there and when we arrive everybody was agreed, just maybe 20 meters, I don’t know how, but the wall is really close. It’s a third gear, almost 200 km/h corner, very fast corner, so the best thing was to take a very slow corner."
Riding past the corner on a bike meant Espargaro had noticed the corner, but Valentino Rossi told reporters that it was far from unique. Throughout the season, there were a dozen or so corners at tracks around the world with similar problems. "If I think for a little bit there are minimum ten corners," Rossi said. "Like in a lot of other races, we say that we need more run off area. But sometimes this is impossible. In other places it’s not possible. They put extra air fence but they say to us that it’s not possible to have more run off area."
Rossi then proceeded to give examples of such corners. "This is also in Jerez, on the exit from the last corner," he said. "In Motegi, turn four, we say every year we need more run off there. You check all the situation, in Motegi we have one bridge, and you cannot extend the run off area." It was only once a bad accident happened that they were reminded of the dangers. "This is the reality. Unfortunately something very bad happened that reminds us of the risk of our sport. It was another crash and another problem. During the season you have occasions that if something happens on the bike there is not enough space."
Hard to bear
Both Rossi and Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo went on to criticize the changes made, especially at Turn 10, but also at Turn 12. Both Yamahas suffered a lot more from the changes, the tight corners taking away the advantage of the Yamaha on the old layout, which was all fast, sweeping corners.
Rossi was at least honest enough to acknowledge he had missed his chance to have a say. "I don’t understand sincerely why they modify another corner where nothing happen," he told reporters. "This is not very clear and I don’t know why. But on the other hand I wasn’t in the Safety Commission. I take that decision so we will race like this."
Jorge Lorenzo felt that a special meeting of the Safety Commission should have been convened before such drastic changes were made. "After what happened yesterday, the Safety Commission decided to change the corners together with some riders," Lorenzo told the press conference. "I miss a little bit not to be there, as leader of the world championship and champion of last year. But I didn’t receive any communication [about it]. I don’t understand why we weren’t there together all the 24 riders to take such an important decision, to modify it after Friday the track. Disappointed but it’s like this, and with this condition we have to manage, to get the best result possible tomorrow."
No complaining afterwards
The criticism of the track changes by the Movistar Yamaha riders were met with almost universal scorn by the attendees. "They know what time it is," Cal Crutchlow said relatively diplomatically. "They know where it is. Probably the ones that never came are the ones complaining at the end of the day." The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders were far less conciliatory. "Valentino was a guy that didn't turn up at the Safety Commission, hasn't assumed any of his duties, hasn't assumed any of his duties throughout the season, so he can't comment," Bradley Smith said flatly.
Both Smith and Pol Espargaro felt that Rossi and Lorenzo had been derelict in their duties towards other riders in not giving their experience and insight to the Safety Commission. "Why did Valentino since Malaysia has not been going to the Safety Commission to say that?" Pol Espargaro snapped. "We need Valentino. We need him and his experience. We also need Jorge, who is never going."
Espargaro felt that both Rossi and Lorenzo had shown a lack of respect by not attending the Safety Commission, and that Rossi made things worse by saying that there were still so many dangerous corners on the calendar. "This is really stupid and not respectful to the riders that went [to the Safety Commission] yesterday," Espargaro said. "You are saying that there are corners that you know are dangerous but you don’t go to the Safety Commission to say that. If someone crashes at that corner [that you think is dangerous] next year and dies what are you going to do? You’d say ‘F***, I knew this was dangerous.’" It was the duty of all MotoGP riders, who have an automatic seat in the Safety Commission, to be there, and to represent the interests of the Moto2 and Moto3 riders, who are not invited, Espargaro said.
Smith was fiercely critical of Rossi as well. "Yesterday was the day to assume his responsibilities," Smith said. "He hasn't been once this year, so he doesn't have any reason to speak about this decision." Both Smith and Espargaro pinpointed the incident at Sepang as the reason Rossi didn't attend the Safety Commission. "He has not been to the Safety Commission once this year. Not once since Malaysia. So he spat his dummy," Smith said. By not being at the Safety Commission, he had no right to complain. "Why spit your dummy again when you did nothing? You have no leg to stand on!"
Rossi needed to put his own feelings to one side and work for the good of the sport, Smith said. "Whatever problem he has, that he is not going to the Safety Commission any more, then he should swallow his pride and turn up there and do what it is his job to do as a MotoGP rider, to look after safety," Smith told us. "But then he didn't. So don't say, oh, it should be changed. I don't care what he says."
Espargaro put it in even harder words. "What happened in Malaysia?" he asked. "F***, he can’t forget. I had something like that in my past and I understand the situation. It’s something so important and yesterday one guy died. If there was one day that you have to go to the Safety Commission it was yesterday because it’s about respect. I hoped to discuss with all the riders."
Why didn't Valentino Rossi go to the Safety Commission? "I know about the Safety Commission but I don’t go because I was busy," he told the press on Saturday. What he didn't tell them is that he has been busy on 5:30pm on Friday afternoon at every race since the fateful incident in Sepang. Since then, the thought of sitting in the same room with Marc Márquez, whom he blames for conspiring to rob him of the 2015 MotoGP title, has become completely unbearable. In the past, Rossi has had rivals he has disliked intensely, but the antipathy was always more like contempt. Rossi's view of Márquez is more like pure, unadulterated hatred. That is a relationship which has been destroyed completely, and probably for good.
Of course, Rossi wasn't the only rider not present, Jorge Lorenzo was also absent. Lorenzo did not give an excuse for not attending, but he has been absent for much longer than Rossi. Rossi was a stalwart of the Safety Commission until October last year, when he clashed with Marc Márquez. Lorenzo has not attended for several years, after his criticisms of dangerous riding by various people – most notably Marco Simoncelli – went unheeded, and more often than not, were met without outright ridicule.
Why does it matter that Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were not present in the meeting of the Safety Commission? As reigning champion, Jorge Lorenzo's opinion carries a lot of weight. As the most powerful figure in the paddock (with the possible exception of Carmelo Ezpeleta), Valentino Rossi has the power to make things happen. If Bradley Smith tells the Safety Commission he thinks a change needs to be made, then it will be taken into consideration. If Valentino Rossi says a change needs to be made, the change will be made before MotoGP returns to the track a year later. It is not fair, but it is the way of the world.
The changes to the final sector so far have benefited the Hondas, though the Repsol bikes also found a set up change which worked a lot better. Marc Márquez was basically unstoppable, as fast round the new layout as Bradley Smith was round the old layout, despite the fact that the new layout is theoretically two to three seconds faster. The hard braking areas and tight turns work well for the Hondas, and less well for the Yamahas, which are quicker through the kind of fast flowing turns with the track lost in the fourth sector. This is the real root cause of the Movistar Yamaha unrest. But they had their chance. They just chose not to take it.
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