Time to put the brakes on?

27 October 2011

The deaths of MotoGP racer Marco Simoncelli and British IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in the space of just a few days have served as a chastening reminder of how dangerous motor- sport remains despite the advances of the modern age.

While motor racing is something that is, by nature, a sport where the tiniest change can cross the thin line between life and death, some may question whether MotoGP and Indy- Car should be seeking to implement new regulations.

Given that our society already appears overrun with health and safety administration, perhaps some will take the view that motorsport remains one way in which people can still experience the ultimate thrill they crave by pushing themselves to exhilarating limits. The drivers are fully aware of the dangers of their profession and so perhaps these disasters are just sad reality checks that this is simply a dreadfully risky sport.

However, although it may be true that to impose too many restrictions on such an activity would devalue its purpose, it is disrespectful to the de- ceased not to consider the matter in more depth. In particular, it is hard not to wonder if the commercialisation of such sports is being favoured over the interests of the stars’ safety.

Wheldon was killed while racing at a track in Las Vegas that was hosting its first race for eleven years. Despite the event taking place on a 1.5 mile circuit there were 34 cars racing at the time, a crowded track compared to the Indianopolis 500 which takes place on a 2.5 mile circuit and involves 33 cars.

When vehicles race at close to 225mph with just inches between them it is little wonder that the most minute of errors can have catastrophic effects. Many may debate the wisdom of heightening the risks further by cramming so many cars into such a deadly environment.

Wheldon was killed in a fifteen car pile-up: fifteen cars in a single accident. Surely a sport that is dependent on drivers trying to stay in the slipstream of cars as they tear around a sloping arena is thrilling enough without the need to overfill the field? Cynical minds may suggest that the increase in number of competitors was a measure taken by the authorities to boost ratings in a sport that has seen a steady fall in attendance over the last decade. In particular, IndyCar has had to react with a clenched jaw while a continuous stream of drivers turn to the more lucrative lights of NASCAR.

Wheldon was competing in the event because he had been promised a multimillion dollar bonus if he could pull off the most unlikely of results by winning the race from last place on the grid. Randy Bernard, the IndyCar chief executive, who reportedly knows little about racing, must have been rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of such a spectacle. It is understandable that Bernard has received due criticism for his poor handling of Wheldon’s death.

The relationship between commercialism and sport is a pet hate of many fans but in motor racing the issues seem accentuated. In the case of IndyCar, the completely unnecessary death of a driver highlights once more that commercial greed can blind common sense.

So are the same concerns apparent in MotoGP? In the case of Simmoncelli, he had been competing all season and wasn’t just racing because of a potential big pay cheque. It was an awful accident that caused him to lose his helmet and suffer the subsequent fatal injuries.

It’s worth noting that track authorities were looking to restart the race before it became apparent how serious the situation was. This goes to demonstrate that those in charge will always want to push on with a race, even if a rider has been injured.

From the perspective of the fans who have paid money to see the competition, perhaps this attitude is understandable. However, from the view of the drivers who would then have to continue with the race in the knowledge that a fellow competitor has been injured, the mental pressure must be incredible.

MotoGP is relatively safe and it would be unfair to criticise the officials over the terrible but freak death of Marco Simmoncelli. But since another motor star has perished in the space of seven days, investigations will undoubtedly be under- taken as to how to improve the safety of what will always be a dangerous sport.

In Formula One, there have been muted suggestions of using technology from jet engines which would further improve the safety advancements made over the last few years. Indeed, given that there has not been a fatality in this branch of motor racing since Senna’s death, it is the longest time in the history of the sport that there have been no losses.

On the other hand, ideas have been floated that races should endure a period of artificial rain to make them more interesting to watch. Such an action may well improve the spectacle, but surely forcing drivers to hurtle round a soaking track, having to cope with the backsplash from tyres reducing their visibility, while constantly in danger of losing control in tricky handling conditions will only increase the probability of further accidents.

The events of the past weeks underline that motor sports will al- ways be a precarious battle between life and death. All involved are aware of the risk and know that it is something that can never be eradicated. Yet in the case of Wheldon in particular it is important to give at least some thought to the commercial powers behind this lucrative profession. We can only hope that the desperation for more exciting, more profitable races does not result in any more tragedies.

Ollie Guest, Deputy Sports Editor

Photo Credit: Kaz Galtier