Updated 22 March 2022 to reflect the new safety regulations.
Anyone in the motor racing world will tell you that no matter how many great minds work together nothing is ever 100% safe.They can never forecast every kind of incident and all the variables that could take place during a race.
It’s just not possible.
However, we have come a long way over the decades in terms of rider and driver safety so now, while we are treated to many spills and crashes, we rarely see the death of rider or driver (thankfully).
As pointed out by top MotoGP rider Andrea Dovizioso:
‘the bikes and equipment get better with technology but the human body remains the same’.
For example, in the 1970s the top level of Motorcycle racing saw a massive 24 deaths over 10 years. Compared with just 4 during MotoGP in the last decade and only 1 of those deaths was technically during the top level of racing (Marco Simoncelli).
The same can be said for F1 with 12 deaths in the 1970s compared with just 1 in the past 25 years (Jules Bianchi).
In total across all classes and events since its creation, 104 riders have died at a Moto Grand Prix event compared with just 52 drivers who have been fatally injured at an FIA World Championship event or while driving an F1 vehicle at another event.
The most recent being Moto3 rider Jason Dupasquier who was killed in May 2021 after crashing during qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix. He was airlifted to hospital but sadly the 19 year old passed away.
His death sparked many riders to call for more to be done about the safety of Junior riders and perhaps is the reason behind the regulation changes regarding minimum age. (See updated regulations for 2022 below)
So how do FIM, Dorna, F1 management and the like maintain safety in the organised chaos of racing to keep tragedy at bay?
In F1, the vehicle itself offers some protection to the driver so apart from the obvious injuries a lot of the features for F1 relate to the risk of fire in the cabin and since the driver is held securely in their vehicle it poses a very serious risk.
In MotoGP there are different factors to consider. Since the riders don’t have the luxury of a vehicle surrounding them during a crash, it is their body on the line literally – here the biggest risk to the body is being flung into the ground, run over or struck as was the case with Marco Simoncelli at Sepang in 2011.
As well as Simoncelli, Shoya Tomizawa (2010 Moto 2) and Luis Salom (2016 Moto 2) both suffered fatal injuries due to the impact from a bike. In Luis Salom’s case when he released his bike it sadly landed on him following a crash during free practice.
Tomizawa was struck by Scott Redding and Alex de Angelis in an incident during the San Marino Moto2 Race that would almost replay exactly during the following season in Sepang. It seems the issue of being hit by a fellow rider or struck by an out of control machine is now the major risk riders face.
Flying debris is a concern for both sports. The best that can be offered to a rider is protective safety gear rather than the soft fire proof variety seen in F1.
F1 vehicles themselves have a variety of safety features such as the much-debated Halo which came into use in 2018.This is a specifically designed attachment for the vehicle and looks similar to a roll bar or cage and is intended to deflect debris from hitting the driver in the head.
F1 drivers also wear a neck brace to reduce the risk of injury.
The car itself has several airbags and fire reduction systems to ensure the driver has the best chance of walking away from an accident.
In MotoGP, the bike itself can have no additional features to assist the rider in the event of an accident.
Instead, only their leathers can provide any safety features at all. A set of leathers is fitted with metal and plastic sliders (which do scrape the ground on cornering) a protective hump and an airbag, which is compulsory as of 2019 for all riders.
The airbag consists of a vest worn beneath the riders suit. It is designed to protect their ribs, torso and collarbone in the event of a crash. These are fitted with accelerometers and gyroscopes in order to communicate with the electronics approximately 1000 times a second.
This amazing technology means no failure to deploy when needed, no false deployment if you drop your suit etc and no deploying under a certain speed (approx 25km/h).
F1 has increased the amount of electronic advancements (I call them interference personally but each to their own) to assist with driver safety.
This is something MotoGP have steered clear of, preferring to leave the handling of the vehicle to the person operating it.
If safety features alone were responsible, such as technological features on the vehicle, you might expect to see very many more fatalities in MotoGP since there is not the overbearing electronic features and because the rider is exposed to other bikes in a crash but we just don’t.
It’s odd right? As an example there were 1,073 crashes in MotoGP during the 2018 season. Less safety features, yet the MotoGP fatality rate is only very slightly higher than F1 (odd but definitely a very good thing).
Perhaps it is a combination of factors that keeps excitement high? Crashing occurs but fatalities are rare.
In addition to the safety gear and technology are the numerous medical staff and facilities placed track side to assist with everything from daily health issues of the entire travelling paddock through to minor accident injuries.
Where a serious injury occurs the injured party will be airlifted to the closest hospital. It is a condition of hosting such events that airlifting or road transport to a hospital be possible in a reasonably fast time frame.
Even then it is no guarantee other factors won’t impede the efforts of medical staff.
This was one problem following Jules Bianchi’s death in F1 in 2015. Due to the onset of a Typhoon airlifting was impossible and travelling by road was hampered to the point it took over 30 minutes to reach the hospital.
Medical staff at a MotoGP event include several doctors, a nurse and 2 traumatologists.
These medical staff work in conjunction with the Safety Car, the trackside marshalls and other staff involved in race direction.
While many of us see the safety car whizzing around the track at the start of each race or if there is an incident, few are aware it is a fully stocked medical vehicle usually with a nurse or doctor on board.
For the 2022 season we see a new safety car in MotoGP to commemorate a special milestone with BMW celebrating 50 years of racing. The new BMW M2 CS Racing Safety Car will lead a powerful fleet of BMW Ms (BMW’s Motorsport range) throughout the MotoGP season.
It is also interesting to note this is the first time a true race car from BMW has been used in this capacity despite BMW having provided the safety cars for 24 years.
What is the role of the safety car? It is important to note there are 2 vehicles called Omega 1 and Omega 2. The man in charge is Carlos Ezpeleta who drives Omega 1 on Race day and coordinators the medical team among other roles.
These cars are an integral part of the safety procedures when things do go wrong as they provide fast medical assistance including defibrillators, while Omega 1 keeps the other riders at the pace required until it is deemed safe to return to normal racing.
These cars are an integral part of the safety procedures when things do go wrong as they can provide fast medical assistance including defibrillators while Omega 1 keeps the other riders at the pace required until it is deemed safe to return to normal racing.
With regard to F1, this year Mercedes continues to share duties regarding safety cars with Aston Martin for half of the season.
Mercedes will provide the Mercedes AMG GT Black Series as official safety car, with the medical car in use since 2015 being replaced with the GT 63 S 4MATIC+.
As for the weekends when Aston Martin is to provide the vehicles the Aston Martin Vantage will serve as Safety car with the Aston Martin DBX SUV will serve as the medical car.
In both F1 and Motogp the trackside marshalls will radio race direction any incident or issue they see and the necessary staff and vehicles are deployed.
The only real notable difference between the two is F1 requires the use of cranes near the track to assist with removing vehicles from following serious incidents.
This in itself carries an additional area to consider in terms of safety.
Sometimes there is just nothing that could prevent the death of a rider or driver. Other times they walk away and we are left speechless that a human body can withstand such an impact even with safety equipment.
The last time a MotoGP rider died was in October 2011 when Marco Simoncelli sadly passed away following one of the most heart wrenching accidents in MotoGP history.After losing control of his bike on Turn 11 of the Sepang International Circuit it seemed he momentarily regained control but it was not to be and he slid across the track into the path of oncoming riders.
In a terrifying moment Simoncellis’ best friend and mentor, Valentino Rossi, and fellow rider Colin Edwards made horrific contact with Simoncelli as he slid across the track. Rossi reportedly connecting with Simoncellis head and neck, the force of his Ducati ripping Simoncelli’s helmet off, Edwards connected with Simoncelli also crashing himself and suffering a shoulder injury.
It was unbelievable, there lay Simoncelli motionless, two fellow riders lives irrevocably changed.
No matter what the cause of that crash it will likely haunt Rossi and Edwards for life.
If you have watched it then you will know there was nothing Rossi or Edwards could have done, they are on the limit of the 160km per hour corner to attempt to change course would have been disastrous.
You can almost hear both riders’ minds screaming for it to not be so, for any possible escape hatch to magically appear – but it was not to be and we lost a favourite and talented rider.
It has been held firm by all involved in investigating this freak occurrence (Simoncelli’s helmet coming off) that no one was to blame, there was no equipment fault and nothing could have changed the course of that day.
But the helmet strap broke I hear you say, shouldn’t they be capable of high force impact?
The answer to this in short is yes.
Helmets had to meet the safety standards of certain countries (e.g. USA). The standard called for a capability to withstand a strain of 750 kilos to the strap mounts.
Seems a lot, right? It is.
However, when you have 3 bikes and 3 men coming together each one at high speeds, it becomes entirely possible the force in which the helmet strap mount was exposed to far exceeded that 750 kilos. If the helmet had stayed on would he have survived is simply a question we will never know since losing your helmet is a freak occurrence to begin with.
There is also a question about why he did not release his bike like so many do.
It is believed he was trapped under the bike therefore unable to slide away from the other riders coming around the bend. Had he been able to do so it may have ended differently.
F1 has more recently been saddened by the death of one of its elite with driver Jules Bianchi losing his life following a crash on lap 43 of the 2014 Japanese GP in poor weather and low light.Bianchi lost control of his Marussia, left the track and hit a crane lifting another crashed vehicle from the side of the track.
If you have watched the footage you are not alone in thinking it is like an episode of 60 minutes to disaster – or in Bianchi’s case 60 seconds to disaster and it seemed the powers that control F1 agreed and several safety changes were made following this accident.
As one watches the final moments of his life we can clearly see if the crane did not begin its backward trip when it did, Bianchi could have gone clean through to the safety barrier and perhaps survived.
The Bianchi family agree, filing lawsuits against the F1 management of the day and motor racing bodies involved in F1 for the death of their son.
Some changes were made by F1 in the hopes of preventing a similar incident such as ensuring start times always leave plenty of time before dusk, the placement of recovery cranes to limit such impacts again and changes to the way a crash is dealt with in terms of the safety car and procedures for other drivers. (NOTE: Bianchi passed away in July of 2015 having been in a coma since the tragedy)
MotoGP Regulation updates for 2022
As of 2022 there are new regulations regarding the minimum age for riders in MotoGP across all classes.
Licences for riders are issued only when the minimum age has been attained as below:
Moto3: 16 years (18 years in 2023)
Moto2: 16 years (18 years in 2023)
MotoGP: 18 years
There are of course a few exemptions, for example, those riders started in the 2022 Moto3 World Championship at the age of 16 to allow them to continue with the 2023 Moto3 World Championship.
The minimum age is 17 for wild card riders or substitutions in Moto2 and Moto3.
Medical Fitness to Race
There are tougher requirements regarding evidence to class a rider fit to ride or not that must be considered when looking at recovery of certain injuries such as, head injury and concussion, abdominal/thoracic injury and musculoskeletal injuries, (such as fractures requiring surgery, compound or complex fractures).
The CMO, the MotoGP Medical Director and the FIM Medical Officer can request further opinion on the reports and evidence provided to determine if the rider is fit to ride or not.
In order to stay at the top of their game in terms of safety new regulations have been put in place regarding the assessment of riders helmets following an incident on the track.
As of 2022 if a rider attends the medical centre the helmet is to be retained by the medical personnel or CMO for control by the Technical Director or Technical Stewards before being returned to the rider or the team manager.
If there has been a head injury, loss of consciousness or concussion then the helmet will be sent for specialised non-destructive analysis.
Once this process is completed the helmet can be returned to the rider. The manufacturer is also invited to attend the testing and can even refuse the tests.
This kind of testing and monitoring of riders equipment helps to maintain the highest possible level of safety for riders and there is a huge investment by teams and all who are involved in motorsport in order to ensure their sport is as safe as it can possibly be.
It is a very fine balance to ensure everything is not wrapped in cotton wool and so significantly reduce the excitement enjoyed by fans.
Danger and Risk are significant elements as to why we show up every race day to watch our heroes.
It’s an integral part of what the drivers and riders have to triumph over to win a championship.