The ongoing safety tech revolution in MotoGP is putting more space between riders and catastrophe.
Motorsports are experiencing somewhat of a revival in the United States. Call it the "Drive to Survive" effect, but television audiences aren't just returning to Formula One. The most people have ever watched an IndyCar season last year.
However, when most of these recently converted race fans are asked about MotoGP, their enthusiasm immediately turns to worry. Who is to blame for them? Fewer than a millimeter of kangaroo leather keeps riders from suffering severe injuries as they hit 220 miles per hour on the straights and drag their elbows over the pavement in the turns.
At the San Marino and Rimini Riviera Grand Prix in Misano earlier this month, Ducati Lenovo rider Jack Miller told ESPN that "F1 and MotoGP both come from, let's say, dangerous histories." "At the end of the day, there is risk in anything we do, whether it's cycling or driving your car to work in the morning."
"As you can see, most of the time now, we can get up and leave with far less damage than in the past. There used to be at least one spectacular accident every weekend, but now there may only be one every season."
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According to Miller, the sport used to be risky, just as other racing series from more than 30 years ago. Seven riders in the MotoGP and its supporting classes have perished in crashes-related injuries during the past 30 years. In the 30 years prior, 59 people died, with almost a third occurring in the Isle of Man, a public road course that the world championship last visited in 1976.
For background, three drivers have passed away from injuries they sustained in crashes in Formula One and its feeder series, like Formula Two and Formula Three, over the past 30 years.
When the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) and Madrid-based Dorna Sports took over as the sport's organizers in 1991, their goal was to increase safety. In order to reduce the likelihood that a falling rider would hit walls, trees, or other obstructions, run-off areas and gravel traps were quickly added to or expanded, and temporary and street circuits were promptly taken off the schedule.
Today, to guarantee a minimum level of safety for every corner of every racetrack, Dorna and the FIM utilize software created in collaboration with the University of Padova that determines precisely how much run-off area is required, both in asphalt and gravel. However, because these motorcycles are continuously evolving and getting faster, the calculus is always changing and tracks are constantly needing additional run-off space. This is due to improvements in tire grip, braking performance, and aerodynamics.
The great majority bike collisions now result in riders stopping well before hitting anything other than tarmac or gravel. The bruising and broken bones sustained in the impacts of the falls itself are what MotoGP and protective equipment manufacturers like Alpinestars and Dainese have worked to eliminate over the past ten years.
Leather suits that not only protect from severe cases of road rash, but also include airbag systems to soften the blow of the majority of crashes, have been the result of nearly 20 years of research and development, much of which continues to be conducted on MotoGP race weekends with the world's best riders. Early systems mainly guarded the collarbones, whose fractures were once a common injury but have now almost entirely disappeared. However, modern systems now cover the shoulders, chest, and even the hips.
Six accelerometers, three sensors, and a gyroscope are combined at Alpinestars to offer real-time data that an algorithm may use to determine whether a rider is acting normally, struggling to maintain control of the bike, or ready to crash.
No matter how big or little the crash, Alpinestars media and communications manager Chris Hillard said, "We download the data, we're feeding our algorithm."
An Alpinestars technician at Misano describes how he plots every second of a crash from that morning on a graph, noting sensor inputs that show when the rider lost control of the bike, when he was propelled into the air, when his airbag deployed, when his feet touched the ground, and when the rest of his body also came tumbling down. The airbag was deployed by the system in less than a tenth of a second after it determined that an accident was taking place.
At the 2019 Malaysian Grand Prix, six-time series champion Marc Marquez was involved in this highside crash, in which a rider is propelled over the top of the motorcycle. The video below, which features the deployment of Marquez's airbag, demonstrates how swiftly everything happens.