The elder gentleman of GPs on the serious issue of safety in the wake of Daijiro Kato's fatal crash
If there might be one good thing to come out of the mystery crash that killed ex-250 champion Daijiro Kato, then it will be to cut away at any complacency in MotoGP racing.
There can be little doubt that sound attention to GP safety standards has played a major part in this feeling. There may be question marks over the probity of Dorna having taken over employment of former Riders' Rep Franco Uncini, and individual riders may have individual issues to take up with Franco, but overall the series has been resolute in rejecting dangerous circuits, and giving safety a place on the overall agenda.
Statistics bear this out. Kato's crash was the first of such severity for almost 10 years. The last such victim was triple 500 champion Wayne Rainey, consigned to a wheelchair at the end of 1993. The last fatality had been earlier that year: another Japanese rider, Nobuyuki Wakai, in a silly pit-lane collision.
Kato's crash was a chilling and perhaps timely reminder. Not just that Suzuka is a very dangerous circuit, but that motorcycle racing is a very dangerous pastime. And that the new MotoGP bikes - heavier and faster than anything else on the tracks - have made it more so. Nobody knows why Kato tumbled, but it is certain that he arrived at the crash zone five or more mph faster than he would have on a two-stroke.
In fact, Kato's crash was a freak: swerving off at a quite unexpected trajectory at the start of a hard braking zone, from more than 130mph to less than 50. Do the same thing at any number of corners - including Jerez's Turn One and Donington's Redgate, as random examples - and you will have a similar potential for disastrous consequences.
But the fact that Suzuka is dangerous is incontrovertible. This was highlighted by other incidents in what is always rather a scary weekend. Melandri and Barros both fell at speed straight into a barrier at the same corner, with the former really quite badly hurt; and 125 veteran Cecchinello came within inches of hitting trackside armco on the main straight at top speed.
In terms of objective danger (in plain language, the opportunity to hit barriers at high speed) Suzuka is the worst track of the year. And people remember the danger every year, then turn a blind eye and go racing anyway. Suzuka's scariness is just a small facet of a truly great circuit.
There are other tracks that are only slightly less scary. Mugello in Italy is one, Assen another. Once again, they are old tracks, built to sweep across wide areas of countryside at extremely high speed. For the same reason, one must include Phillip Island. Here and in Holland there is plentiful run-off. But accidents at these circuits, the only ones with lap records faster than 105mph, are often injurious simply because of the high speeds.
Sachsenring is a silly car park, not to be seriously considered, although in fact not the slowest track of the year (that is Portugal's Estoril, with a lap record of just 92mph).
Valencia is probably the prime example. Although it has a fairly substantial straight where the 990s topped 190mph last year, the lap record sits at a measly 95.4mph. (To put the speeds in proportion, the 990s topped 200 at Mugello and Phillip Island last year, and this year Capirossi's amazing Ducati nudged 204mph at pre-season tests at Barcelona.)
Trouble with Valencia is ... a GP bike is almost always on the brakes there. Even the 125s accelerate fast enough to minimise the gaps between the many looping corners. A booming big four-stroke covers the tortuous track in a series of short shouting leaps, or with the front wheel buried.
Cling on to the dream of seeing a MotoGP bike flat out as as we might, it cannot be at the expense of safety. While we are entitled to expect our champions to take certain risks, they are entitled in turn to be protected as far as possible against their consequences. We might be coming to a time when limiting maximum speeds of the four-strokes might be seen as part of that task.
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