Motor racing is dangerous. Writing those four words, it seems completely intuitive — we all know that risk is a part of the sport. Still, we lose sight of that fact because, thankfully, regardless of the type or style of racing, things have become incredibly safe. There will always be outliers like Pikes Peak, The Isle of Man and Dakar where conditions dictate that catastrophes, sadly, are to be expected. But racing on an internationally sanctioned track is different. There are hundreds of driver crashes and rider-offs every season, all over the world, where everyone involved walks away waving to the crowd. It’s a testament to the strides made in track design, marshall services, personal protective gear and vehicle composition. And yet, every so often we are reminded of just how much is at stake.
It started on Friday, July 17, 2015, when news that Jules Bianchi, a 25-year-old French Formula 1 driver with a very promising future, succumbed to injuries suffered at last fall’s Japanese Grand Prix. It was the pinnacle sport’s first casualty since Ayrton Senna’s tragic passing in 1994. I had just landed in Monterey, California — in town to watch the World Superbike race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca — when I read the tragic headline. It was staggering news. I remember watching the race and being stunned when Bianchi’s Marussia collided with a forklift that had been used to remove the Sauber of Adrian Sutil from an off a few laps previously. The feed didn’t pick up the crash immediately. The torrential downpour from Typhoon Phanfone unleashing over top of Suzuka meant there was action all over the track. It took a lap or two before the incident was even reported by the announcers. The replay was horrendous.
At Laguna, hushed talk of Bianchi’s death was on everyone’s lips. The pool of motorsport ripples quickly when tragedy strikes. In a conversation with track CEO Gill Campbell, she spoke to the massive changes made to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 1988. To meet changing FIA and FIM safety homologation requirements, run-off areas were extended, gravel was added and a high-speed straight that once began at the turn 2 exit was contracted into turns 3, 4 and 5 to slow things down. Further changes continue to take place to prepare for motorcycle racing. Specifically, the gravel areas on the outside of curves are “fluffed” to help stop errant bike and rider travel. Twenty-five doctors and up to 50 paramedics — all with specialized knowledge of motorcycle racing — are on staff for the race weekend because, as Gill puts it, “the only thing between a rider and god is asphalt.”
“It’s a combination of balls and stupidity,” Sykes joked. “Forget about the Corkscrew, it’s easy. Turn 1 is the most courageous turn by far. Both wheels leave the tarmac. It’s a blind corner we take at 165 mph.”
And yet, best intentions and stringent preparation can still go awry. Two riders, 35-year-old Bernat Martinez and 27-year-old Daniel Rivas Fernandez, were killed on the first lap of the MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 race. The accident happened in turn one. Twenty-eight riders, tightly packed, just given the green flag and jostling for position sped through the dogleg left. Contact was made and riders went down. Four would receive treatment at the track, but Rivas and Martinez would not make it. I had already departed the track when the accident happened, but during a sit-down with 2013 World Champion Tom Sykes, the previous day, he described the difficulties associated with turn one. “Its a combination of balls and stupidity,” Sykes joked. “Forget about the Corkscrew, it’s easy. Turn 1 is the most courageous turn by far. Both wheels leave the tarmac. Its a blind corner we take at 165 mph.” Sykes went on, “It’s hard to describe the feeling. You need to balance the movement of your tires with throttle position, all by using your body.” And this, while trying to defend a racing line, mount an attack and avoid contact (at full speed, in a 46-degree lean, with little to no contact with the asphalt below).
How tragedies like this don’t happen more often is a testament to the conditioning and abilities of today’s modern riders as much as it is the advances in modern track design, preparation and technological ingenuity integrated into protective gear. But the fact that they still do means there’s work yet to be done. As the incidents add up (Justin Wilson’s fatal crash happened two months after Martinez and Fernandez), so does the need for considered action.