MotoGP safety revolution keeps riders from disaster

The United States is witnessing a renaissance in motorsports. Call it the “Drive for Survival” effect, but Formula 1 isn’t the only series to see a resurgence in TV numbers. Last season was the most watched in IndyCar history.

But ask most of these newly converted racing fans about MotoGP and that enthusiasm quickly turns to anxiety. Who can blame them? Riders reach speeds of 220 miles per hour on straights, drag their elbows across the pavement when cornering, and are barely more than a millimeter of kangaroo skin away from serious injury.

“F1 and MotoGP both come from, shall we say, dangerous backgrounds,” Ducati Lenovo rider Jack Miller told ESPN at the San Marino and Rimini Riviera Grand Prix in Misano earlier this month. “At the end of the day, everything we do, whether it’s driving to work in the morning or cycling, whatever it is, is at risk.”

“Now, as you can see, most of the time we can stand up, walk away, there are far fewer injuries than before. It used to be at least one [big crash] weekend and now maybe one season – maybe.”

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What the sport used to be, as Miller implied and like most racing series 30+ years ago, was dangerous. In the last 30 years, seven riders in MotoGP and its support classes have died from injuries sustained in crashes. In the 30 years before that, there were 59 fatalities – almost a third of them on the Isle of Man, a circuit on public roads last visited by the World Cup in 1976.

In context, F1 and its feeder series such as Formula 2 and Formula 3 have had three drivers die from injuries sustained in accidents in the last 30 years.

When Madrid-based Dorna Sports became the organizer of the sport in 1991, it and the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) set out to improve safety. Street and temporary circuits were soon removed from the calendar, drainage areas and gravel traps were installed or enlarged to minimize the chance of a fallen rider hitting walls, trees or other obstacles.

Today, Dorna and the FIM use software developed in collaboration with the University of Padua, which calculates exactly how much drainage space is needed on both asphalt and gravel to ensure a minimum safety standard in every corner of every race track. Advances in tire grip, braking performance and aerodynamics ensure that these bikes are constantly evolving, growing faster and faster and ensure that the calculus is constantly changing and tracks are regularly demanding more and more clearance.

Now, most accidents end with riders skidding to a stop before hitting asphalt and gravel. What MotoGP and protective gear suppliers such as Alpinestars and Dainese have been trying to eradicate over the past decade are bruises and broken bones from falls.

Nearly 20 years of research and development, much of which continues at MotoGP race weekends with the world’s best riders, has resulted in leather suits that not only protect against severe road bumps, but also include airbag systems that cushion most people’s impacts. crashes. Early systems primarily protected the collarbones – broken bones were once the bane of the series, injuries that have now all but been eradicated – but now they extend to cover the shoulders, chest and even hips.

In Alpinestars, six accelerometers, three sensors and a gyroscope work together to provide real-time data for an algorithm that explains whether a rider’s movement is normal behavior, whether they are wrestling for control of the bike, or whether a crash is due to accident.

“Every crash that happens, no matter how big or small, we download the data and feed it to our algorithm,” said Alpinestars media and communications manager Chris Hillard.

Speaking in Misano, an Alpinestars technician graphs every moment of the crash since that morning, noting sensor inputs that indicate when the rider lost control of the bike, when he catapulted into the air, when the airbag deployed, when his legs. touched the ground and when the rest of the body also fell down. In less than a tenth of a second, the system detected a crash and deployed the airbag.

MotoGP super-slow-motion cameras captured six-time series champion Marc Marquez’s high-profile crash at the 2019 Malaysian Grand Prix in which the rider is pushed over his bike. The footage below illustrates how quickly it all happens as Marquez’s airbag inflates before his left hand has even left the wheel.

In 2018, the FIM required all riders in MotoGP and its support classes to wear such safety equipment in every practice, qualifying and race session.

“You don’t think about it until it’s too late, and by the time you’re flying through the air, it’s already deployed,” Miller said of the airbags. “It might not be a lot, but it puts so much (keeping your fingers an inch or two apart) between you and the asphalt or whatever you’re landing on. It definitely makes a huge difference.”

Last month when MotoGP visited the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Team Suzuki Ecstar rider and 2020 World Champion Joan Mir withstood an almighty climb. The data that Dainese downloaded from the Miri suit was shocking: it spent 1.02 seconds and almost 64 feet in the air before hitting the ground at 41.9 mph with an impact of 18g.

He suffered “fractures and splinters” in his right ankle, missing the following race at Misano. Mir tried to make a comeback at the Aragon Grand Prix in Spain last weekend, but abandoned it after Friday and Saturday practice.

“I think after a climb like I suffered in Austria, the weather [the airbag], it definitely could be a lot worse,” Mir told ESPN. “To get out of that crash with just a broken ankle is something you can’t imagine in the past. Maybe an accident like this was the end of your career in the past.”

Despite such progress, much remains to be done. Riders are most vulnerable after crashing on the racing line, being in the path of those immediately behind them, and this is Dorna’s focus as MotoGP safety technology continues to evolve: riders are instantly warned of a fallen competitor in front.

“I think the biggest challenge we have now, and unfortunately it’s a big challenge, is protecting the traffic, protecting the riders when the rider behind hits them or crashes into them,” Dorna Sporting Director Carlos Ezpeleta said. ESPN. “It’s really difficult to deal with because you’re talking about a bike that could be going 60 or 70 miles an hour hitting the rider on the ground.

“But if you think about airbags in leather suits, 20 years ago they would have all said it was impossible.”

As Mir confirms, what seemed impossible in MotoGP 20 years ago is now life-saving technology as common as a helmet.