Note: I never intended for this article to get quite so long. Please bear with me even though it looks like I’ve gone off on a tangent!
So, TT 2016 is done and dusted and my goodness has it been eventful. The weather has generally been kind, the racing close (I know, it’s technically a time trial), records have tumbled and even a little controversy to boot. Unfortunately, once again the event has been somewhat overshadowed by the unfortunate deaths of four competitors: Dwight Beare in Sidecar Race 1, Paul Shoesmith during Saturday evening practice, Ian Bell in Sidecar Race 2 and Andrew Soar in the Senior TT.
Each and every one of these is a tragedy, but the reality is that death is no stranger to the Snaefell mountain course, to give the 37.73 mile circuit its full name. The somewhat depressing fact is that you actually need to look more carefully to find the meetings at which a competitor did not lose their life; the last TT with no body count was 2012 and before that, 2008. Taking all of the events known to have used the circuit into account, over 250 competitors have lost their lives on the course since 1911. Bear in mind that this does not include the race officials, marshalls and spectators that have also lost their lives, nor the inevitable horrendous crashes at every race meeting that cause injury but no fatalities. In short, the TT course and riding around it at high speed is a phenomenally dangerous undertaking and this makes it a ridiculously easy target for the sensationalist media and the anti-motorcycle lobby.
Don’t mistake the above as some sort of attack on the event; I am simply reporting the facts. Health and safety precautions in sports are of such paramount importance and the professionalism of participants so great that, even in these risk-averse times, extreme sports are now deemed to be well-enough managed to become mainstream corporate events. Pretty much anything for which Red Bull are the headline sponsor would serve as a case in point. We now appear to live in a world where BASE jumpers like Jeb Corliss can get it terribly wrong and live to tell the tale, or indeed events like the Valparaíso Cerro Abajo take place. If you haven’t already clicked on those two links, both are well worth a few minutes of your life to be amazed and terrified in equal measure. It is unsurprising that this attitude has also spread to motorsport and, maybe, warped perspectives regarding safety.
Short circuit racetrack safety is today generally of such a high standard that a death in motorsport is, comparatively, an extremely rare occurrence. Formula One is the poster child for this safety record. Once a sport in which rarely a season would pass without one or more fatalities, it truly cleaned up its act and the figures speak for themselves: In over 30 years only three drivers have died at, or as a result of, Formula One race meetings. The most recent of those was the death of Jules Bianchi in 2014. However, I feel that this was unrelated to any safety features on his car or the track but entirely down to very poor procedures and the decision to have several tons of loader working in a gravel trap during racing. The unfortunate reality is that human error, or more cycnically, the very human capacity for taking shortcuts in safe practice can undermine any amount of inherent physical safety precautions – and not just in sports. The travesty of Jules Bianchi aside and despite some incredible crashes (honourable mention to Robert Kubica’s spectacular crash at the Canadian GP in 2007 ), you have to go back 22 years to the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix race meeting at Imola and the double deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna to find deaths in F1 wholly attributable to inherent track safety and vehicle design.
It’s somewhat different for motorcycle racing for one obvious reason: A motorcyclist is exposed and does not have the benefit of crumple zones and carbon fibre survival cells. Nonetheless, technology marches on and we do now have such things as leathers with crash detection and airbags. Track furniture design has also changed to improve safety by improving protection from unyielding surfaces and capturing bikes that leave the track rather than allowing them to ricochet back into harm’s way. The most notable improvement surely has to be the increasing popularity of tarmac aprons on corners with sufficient room, allowing any rider that runs wide to stay shiny side up. Not only does this keep riders safe but more often than not allows them to rejoin a race and continue competing. The vulnerability of bikes and the inescapable nature of how they crash when things go wrong still poses the greatest, most unavoidable risk in that the rider will end up tumbling and sliding in a crash and at risk of colliding with their own stricken motorcycle or another competitor. Earlier this month Moto 2 rider Luis Salom was sadly killed in practice at the Circuit de Catalunya in just the circumstance I have described; he left the track at high speed and collided with his own bike. Going back further, Marco Simoncelli was killed in a shocking crash at the Malaysian GP in Sepang when he lost control of his bike and lowsided on a corner. In a freak circumstance that no amount of track safety could have prevented, his bike somehow regained grip and catapulted him directly into a collision with Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi. Marco’s helmet was forcibly removed by the collision and, as anyone who had the misfortune to be watching live will have undoubtedly realised, he was quite clearly killed instantly.
My point? Modern motorsport may be extremely sanitised and presented as safe and unexceptional, but it is still an extreme sport. Racing vehicles, even human-powered ones,but particularly motorcycles, is inherently dangerous no matter how unremarkable it can seem. This leads me to one of the key differences between short-circuit and real road racing. No doubt the greatest taboo, the most humongous unspoken lie borne inevitably from superstition and the financial interests of race organisers: When it can be fudged, nobody ever officially dies at a racing circuit. Even when it is plain to see, the sad fact is that some race organisers will do their utmost to cloud the fact that somebody lost their life on the track and dysthanasia is now a common occurrence to help perpetuate this myth. This might sound like an outrageous claim, but bear with me.
From the examples I gave above, Marco Simoncelli was struck in the back and the head by two motorbikes with enough force to throw him around and tear the helmet from his head. He had CPR administered continually and unsuccessfully for 45 minutes by medical staff yet he did not officially die until almost an hour later, by which time he was well away from the tarmac. Ayrton Senna is an even greater example of dysthanasia. In his crash he received three significant head injuries, each of which in isolation would almost certainly have proven fatal. Once removed from the track his life was artifically extended despite there being no prospect of survival; he was declared dead over 4 hours after the crash. In the eyes of Italian Law and indeed in the reported opinion of several medical staff who treated Senna, he suffered cerebral death at 2:17pm, the point at which he struck the wall at Tamburello and not the 6.40pm of his “official” time of death. At the same race meeting and in the qualifying session less than 24 hours previously the death of Roland Ratzenberger was similarly obfuscated until his body was safely removed from the track. Subsequent autopsy reports indicated that Ratzenberger’s injuries were such that death would have been instant in the collision. The significance of this being, under Italian legislation at the time, had he been declared dead within the confines of the circuit the whole San Marino GP race meeting would have to be cancelled and the organisers stood to lose millions. Read in to that what you will, but consider also that a man regarded as one of F1’s greatest drivers might otherwise still be alive.
Yet it is accepted that people die on course at the Isle of Man TT and Manx GP, and indeed at other road racing venues. Maybe the very reason is that these events take place on public roads and there is no racetrack to get a tainted reputation, but I believe that it primarily comes down to a difference in mindset between the racers and the organisers. Since 1976 everyone who competes at the Isle of Man does so entirely voluntarily, regardless of whether they are a professional racer in a top team or a self-funded amateur with little or no sponsorship. Each and every one of them goes into the event with a full understanding of the risks and nobody goes in unprepared. New entrants are given guided laps of the course and every rider will no doubt have have studied the course in minute detail in their own time. It is not like any other race and each hurdle the riders pass is a preparatory step, either physically or psychologically. The Nurburgring is probably the only other course that comes close to evoking the obsession and passion required to compete there successfully. The other thing that makes it, if not unique then at least very uncommon, is that it is an event that truly rewards experience. Motor racing generally has seen the age of competitors plummet in the last few decades as a sport that rewards both great reflexes and an ability to throw caution to the wind, making bold moves at the limits of a vehicle’s capabilities. The TT is hugely different in that it rewards experience, a considered approach and incremental improvements but severely punishes a lack of caution. Although younger rising stars like Michael Dunlop straddle these camps, compare the likes of Joey Dunlop and John McGuinness to Marc Marquez or Jorge Lorenzo and the age gap speaks volumes.
Most importantly, everyone who competes at the Isle of Man TT does so because they love it and in turn the fans love watching them. It is an event of passion, not recognition. Nobody will make their fortune by winning a TT, nor really receive any great fame or recognition outside of motorcycling circles. Those who finish a race get an award just for doing so, regardless of how they place, in recognition of their skill, their bravery and also the reliability of their motorbikes. It is still an honest event in that the competitors and the spectators fully realise and accept the danger faced. Whenever somebody does lose their life competing at the Isle of Man, immediate family and friends nearly always say some variant of “He died doing what he loved and would want the races to continue”. This would sound extremely cliché in most circumstances, but not for the fact that it is undoubtedly true. The danger and challenge of real road racing is what gives the event its honesty and makes it still seem fresh and exciting to viewers and appealing to entrants.
So what am I getting at?
If we’re being honest with ourselves as viewers, a great many motor sports are now only truly exciting when drivers or riders are locked in a red mist and fighting for position, or more often than not, when things go wrong. Nobody wants to see racers get hurt but the dynamic nature of the sport needs to be preserved or viewers will get bored. We’re now in the ironic position with motor racing that a dangerous and exciting sport now frequently appears to be anything but. I’m not for one moment suggesting that the pursuit of safety should be curtailed but somehow the perception of danger needs to be maintained while still doing everything possible to minimise risks.
The greatest triumph of TT 2016 isn’t Dunlop’s multiple breaking of the lap record or Hutchy’s dominant form, but must surely be James Cowton’s crash in the Superstock TT. He misjudged a turn near the 11th milestone and hit a wall at high speed. A combination of the Recticel crash barrier and the timely reactions of fellow racer Horst Saiger prevented what could have been an awful accident. That such a crash can happen and Cowton walk away with only bruises is testament to the efforts that are being made to reduce risks at the TT. There is no way that the Snaefell course can ever be made “completely safe”, as if such a thing were possible at any motor race, but the organisers are making efforts year on year to work towards that goal. And for that I applaud them because it is very easy to shout about the risks, injuries and the deaths and demand the event be banned or cancelled. It is about time that they received some acknowledgement for the efforts that are made and the positive results.