The United States is witnessing something of a renaissance in motorsport. Call it the “Drive to Survive” effect, but Formula 1 isn’t the only series to see a resurgence in TV ratings. Last season was the most watched in IndyCar history.
Ask most of these newly converted racing fans about MotoGP, and that excitement quickly turns to anxiety. Who can blame them? Racers hit 220 miles per hour on the straights, they drag their elbows on the pavement on the turns, and all that separates them from serious injury is little more than a millimeter of kangaroo leather.
“F1 and MotoGP both come from, let’s say, dangerous backgrounds,” Ducati Lenovo rider Jack Miller told ESPN at the San Marino and Rimini Riviera Grand Prix at Misano earlier this month. “At the end of the day, everything we do involves danger, whether it’s driving your car to work in the morning or riding a bike, it doesn’t matter.”
“Most of the time now, as you can see, we can get up, go, the injuries are a lot less than before. Before, it was at least a [big crash] one weekend, and now maybe one per season — maybe.”
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What the sport was, as Miller alluded to and like most racing series more than 30 years ago, was dangerous. In the past 30 years, seven riders in MotoGP and its supporting classes have died from injuries sustained in crashes. In the previous 30 years, 59 have perished – almost a third taking place on the Isle of Man, a circuit on public roads which the world championship last visited in 1976.
For context, in F1 and its feeder series like Formula 2 and Formula 3, three drivers have died from injuries sustained in crashes over the past 30 years.
When Madrid-based Dorna Sports became the sport’s organizer in 1991, it and the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) set out to improve safety. Road and temporary circuits were soon removed from the schedule, run-off areas and gravel traps were installed or enlarged to minimize the chances of a fallen cyclist hitting walls, trees or other obstacles.
Today, Dorna and the FIM use software developed in collaboration with the University of Padua which calculates exactly the amount of clearance space needed, both on asphalt and gravel, to guarantee a minimum safety standard. for each corner of each circuit. Advancements in tire grip, braking performance, and aerodynamics ensure that these bikes continually evolve, grow faster and faster, and ensure that the math is constantly changing and the tracks steadily require more and more power. clearance space.
The vast majority of crashes today end in slippery stops long before encountering anything other than asphalt and gravel. What MotoGP and protective gear suppliers like Alpinestars and Dainese have been working to eradicate over the past decade are bruises and fractures sustained from the impacts of the falls themselves.
Nearly 20 years of research and development, much of which continues to be conducted at MotoGP race weekends with the world’s top riders, has produced leather suits that not only protect against severe cases of rash dermal, but include airbag systems to lessen the blow of most crashes. Early systems primarily protected the collar bones – fractures of which were once a bane of the series, injuries that have now all but been eradicated – but now extend to cover the shoulders, chest and even hips.
At Alpinestars, six accelerometers, three sensors and a gyroscope work in concert to provide real-time data to an algorithm to interpret if a rider’s movement is normal behavior, if they are struggling for control of the bike or if a accident is about to happen.
“Every crash that happens, whether big or small, we upload the data, we feed our algorithm,” said Chris Hillard, head of media and communications at Alpinestars.
Speaking in Misano, an Alpinestars technician plots every moment of a crash from this morning on a graph, noting sensor inputs that illustrate when the rider lost control of the bike, when it was catapulted into the air , when his airbag deployed, when his feet hit the ground, and when the rest of his body collapsed as well. In less than a tenth of a second, the system had recognized that a crash was in progress and had deployed the airbag.
MotoGP’s ultra-slow-motion cameras captured this high-side crash, in which a rider is thrown over the bike, of six-time series champion Marc Marquez at the 2019 Malaysian Grand Prix. The footage below illustrates the speed with which it all happens, with Marquez’s airbag deploying before his left hand has even let go of the bike.
The best extracts of 2019! 📽️
—MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) January 27, 2020
In 2018, the FIM required every rider in MotoGP and its supporting classes to wear such safety technology at 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, the thing is already deployed,” Miller said of the airbags. “It might not be much, but it puts that much (holding his fingers an inch or two) between you and the asphalt or whatever you’re going to land on. It makes a huge difference, it ‘is on.”
Last month, when MotoGP came to the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Suzuki Ecstar team rider and 2020 world champion Joan Mir suffered an almighty shock. The data Dainese downloaded from Mir’s suit was shocking: it spent 1.02 seconds and nearly 64 feet in the air before hitting the ground at 41.9 miles per hour with an 18g impact.
He suffered “fractures and bone fragments” in his right ankle, missing the ensuing race at Misano. Mir attempted to return to the Aragon Grand Prix in Spain last weekend, but abandoned that effort after practice sessions on Friday and Saturday.
—MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) August 21, 2022
“I think that after a highside like the one I suffered in Austria, without [the airbag], for sure it could be a lot worse,” Mir told ESPN. “To be able to walk away from that accident with just the broken ankle is something you can’t imagine in the past. Maybe an accident like this in the past marked the end of your career.”
Despite this progress, much remains to be done. Riders are most vulnerable after falling on the racing line, in the path of those immediately following them, and that’s Dorna’s goal as the evolution of MotoGP safety technology continues: to provide instant warning the pilots of a fallen competitor in front of them.
“I think the biggest challenge we have now, and unfortunately it’s a big challenge, is protecting against traffic, protecting riders when a rider behind them runs over or hits them,” said the sporting director. de la Dorna, Carlos Ezpeleta. ESPN. “It’s a really tough thing to talk about because you’re talking about a bike that can go 60 or 70 miles per hour and hit a rider on the ground.
“But if you think about airbags for leather suits, 20 years ago they would all have said it was impossible.”
As Mir can attest, what seemed impossible in MotoGP 20 years ago is now life-saving technology as mundane as a helmet.