Reforming a Tradition of Death, MotoGP and the Quest for “Safety” on the Race Course

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Byron Allen Black
Byron Allen Black, A retired motorcycle road racer with World Championship points, seen here racing at Sentul International Circuit, 2002.

IO – The history of motor racing is replete with slaughter. The earliest competitive events, held in France, saw so many spectator and competitor fatalities that there was a strong movement to ban the fledgling sport. 

For years the English Parliament banned motor racing throughout Great Britain, as too dangerous to the public; at that time there were no dedicated “closed-circuit” race courses. Thus, racing events were held on the Isle of Man, a large island midway between England and Ireland; motor racing continues there today, having celebrated its centennial a few years back. 

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) Races are also recognized as the most dangerous in the world, as they are held on a narrow, bumpy 60km road course, with super-bike racers running up to 300 km/h as they whiz between oak trees, buildings and stone walls. The year that the writer of this article competed on the Isle of Man four competitors were killed, and a number of others seriously injured. No big surprise – in spite of calls to ban the event it continues until today, as an anomaly. 

In recent years motor racing has grown tremendously in popularity, undoubtedly the result of global live television transmission. Formula 1 and MotoGP are followed enthusiastically in Indonesia, as major corporate sponsors pour in millions to see their brands advertised on racing machines and drivers suits / riders’ leathers. Indonesia is, after all, the number two market in the world for Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. 

Motor racing has evolved along with technology, and so have the race courses. Today’s events are precisely organized to ft TV schedules, in a format not unlike football or other contact sports. What has also changed dramatically is the level of safety enjoyed by riders / drivers, course marshals and a spectating public. This is in large part the result of two powerful influences: organized competitor influence and corporate sponsorship. 

In the 1960s, just as motor racing began to become a “mass market” phenomenon, competitors literally took their lives in their hands. Multiple F-1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart muses on the perils facing his fellow competitors in a YouTube video, where he states that the chances of an F-1 driver being killed on a race course were one-in-three. This clearly could not continue. Spectators were also endangered, most horribly evident at the 1955 Lemans 24-hour event, when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes went out of control and into a crowd at the Circuit de la Sarthe, killing him along with 83 spectators, with 180 more suffering injuries. Footage of the disintegrating engine and body of the car, tumbling in fames through the crowded stands was so shocking that Mercedes-Benz retired from motor racing until 1987. 

Organizers and circuit owners naturally resisted calls for improved safety, as that would entail considerable costs, and motor racing, unlike tennis or football, has never been a major money-spinner. World Champion Giacomo Agostini, riding a multi-cylinder machine for MV Agusta, refused to race further on the Isle of Man, after a close compatriot was killed there, and the event was soon dropped from the World Championship race schedule. 

The change which has had the greatest positive effect on rider / driver safety has been the move to design racing circuits which allow speed but do not have the exciting if lethal highspeed turns of the “classic” courses. This has proved quite a successful trend for German race course designer Hermann Tilke, whose course designs dominate MotoGP and Formula-1 race schedules around the world today. Large “run-off” areas mean that a machine which loses control in a turn can dig into a gravel trap and slow; “air fence” inflatable boundaries also cushion impact. 

The race course at Sentul International Circuit, up until recently the only circuit available for domestic and foreign competitors, is relatively safe but too short for major worldclass events. It is also traditionally ensnarled in politics, which has dissuaded foreign race organizers from dealing with it. For many years there has been talk of building a new race course in this gigantic country, or adapting a Singapore-style “road course” on public streets, most recently at Karawaci. This came to nothing. 

Now, investors looking to exploit the tourist trade and the fame of Bali have built Mandalika Circuit on Lombok, one island over, in the expectation that “The Island of the Gods” can spur interest in visiting Lombok, still recovering from a series of shattering earthquakes. 

The late Tourism, Post & Telecommunications Minister Joop Ave once joked “I was at a meeting of travel agents, and one asked me where I was from. I told him ‘Indonesia’ and he looked puzzled as said ‘Oh that’s in Bali, isn’t it?’” 

Pertamina Mandalika International Street Circuit is described on a website: “’We are very conscious that when we announced this project there was a reasonable amount of skepticism about the concept of a street circuit,’ Mark Hughes of MRK1 Consulting said during a presentation of the project. ‘We have to make very clear that the track has been designed and built to the appropriate FIM safety standards for MotoGP.’ 

“The design of the circuit, featuring a 4.32-kilometre layout with 17 corners, was approved by FIM Safety Officer Franco Uncini and while largely a ground-up design, has been influenced by some of the tourist resort’s existing masterplan. 

“’The master plan for the resort was actually finished before we got involved. And then between Roadgrip, MRK1 and ITDC we’ve tweaked that track design,’ Hughes said. 

“’We knew we couldn’t go in and entirely change it, there had already been too much invested in that, and with the support of Dorna and also the FIM we then made some small changes to accommodate the safety requirements for a Grade A license.’ 

“A large percentage of the infrastructure used for the circuit is removable, to allow it turn back into a road network for the resort for the rest of the year. The pit building which will double up as a conference and exhibition centre so it will have use outside of the race events. Other temporary facilities will include some of the grandstands, which in total will seat 50,000, though double that are expected to attend, so high is the local interest in bike racing.” 

The safety of the course layout, being the central topic of this article, is in accord with other Hermann Tilke “point-and-shoot” course designs, such as those for Catalunya, Shanghai, Sepang, Bahrain and Valencia, among others. Fast sections end in tight turns, making for close racing, as in a go-kart event, or model slot-car race. 

Rider skill and bravery, evident in terrifying fast “classic” circuits like Francorchamps / Spa, Suzuka, Nürburgring and Brands Hatch, is less important than machine setup; crashes are generally inconsequential: while they make look spectacular, rider injuries are rare and fatalities practically unknown. The death of Italian star Marco Simoncelli at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit in the 2011 MotoGP event was shocking to riders and spectators: he was hit and run over by Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, dying instantly on one of the newest and safest MotoGP courses. 

Today it is the telly, and the big-money sponsors, who call the shots in top-level motor racing. Thus, the couch potatoes can sit drinking their beers and eating Cheetos as they watch the events from around the world on their flatscreens, reasonably sure that their favorite riders or star drivers will finish the event in one piece, and not mangled or dead. 

Old-timers, like this writer (and rider), are nostalgic for the days when the stakes were much higher. In olden times, spectators arriving at an English race circuit would pass through a portal, walking under an ominous greeting, in large type, warning that “MOTOR RACING IS DANGEROUS”. 

That era is gone. It’s as though the riders and drivers think they are going to live forever.