Eight years after Daijiro Kato died riding a Gresini Honda MotoGP motorcycle, Marco Simoncelli met with the same fate on a Gresini Honda MotoGP motorcycle. Both were works spec machines; the difference lay in the cubic capacity. Kato died riding a 990cc Honda while Simoncelli died riding an 800cc Honda. Both suffered head, neck and chest injuries but Kato lived for two weeks in a coma before finally succumbing while Simoncelli died almost instantaneously. After the death of Kato, Suzuka the racing circuit on which he died, did not host motorcycle racing anymore. But Honda in conjunction with other manufacturers felt that in order to slow motorcycles down, they had to bring down the capacity of the engines of the MotoGP class to 800cc from 990cc. It also helped that around the same time Formula1 was bringing down engine capacity to 2400cc from 3000cc and the number of cylinders from ten to eight.
If the intention of the manufacturers, Dorna (the rights holders of MotoGP) and the FIM (the governing body) was to slow the pace of the motorcycles, then they failed right from the word go. In testing it was found that the 800cc motorcycles were much faster around turns and chicanes than the preceding 990cc motorcycles were. Lap times in races started coming down right from the word go and even today the highest speed of a MotoGP motorcycle stands against the Honda RC212V (800cc) ridden by Dani Pedrosa (at 218 MPH) and not against a 990cc machine. Progressively over the years the 800cc motorcycles though disliked by all were going faster than ever and in the wake of increasing speeds and decreasing lap times leaving behind more and more riders with all kinds of injuries. MotoGP fans can scan their memories to see if in the past few years there was one year where some rider or the other had not been injured sufficiently to be out of a few Grands Prix. None will be found.
The afore mentioned Dani Pedrosa has been injured in all of the last three seasons, Valentino Rossi in two, John Hopkins, Loris Capirossi, Hector Barbera, Alvaro Bautista, Randy De Puniet, Cal Crutchlow, Colin Edwards, James Toseland and Ben Spies in at least a few races of at least one season. Almost every rider has crashed and starting grids which were as it is very small have become smaller still with riders injuring themselves severely and requiring surgeries. The grand finale of this history is the death of Marco Simoncelli. We say this history with reference to the 800cc machines which will not race after the one final race this year at Valencia. From next year on it will be thousand cc engines and who knows what that will bring. But to come back to the 800cc machines and Simoncelli’s death. Before progressing further, it should be clarified that work on this article was well on the way before Marco Simoncelli died and now it is being redone keeping this rather ghastly development also in view.
Marco Simoncelli had as many antagonists as he did protagonists. His fans loved him, the mop of hair, the colourful persona and the devil may care attributes all made him attractive to fandom. His detractors however were many. After his crash that saw him take Dani Pedrosa out of a race with a fractured clavicle, Pedrosa’s disreputable manager Alberto Puig called Simoncelli a person with only hair and no brains. Pedrosa even refused the handshake the Simoncelli offered him. While at the beginning of this season, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were engaged in a wordy duel, Jorge Lorenzo started one with Simoncelli calling him a dangerous rider who was a threat to his fellow riders. Even in the days of 250cc racing, Simoncelli had been reprimanded a couple of times for putting dangerous moves, one that remains in mind is that which he did at Jerez on Hector Barbera which saw the latter crashing into the pit wall, mercifully without serious injury.
Simoncelli has been the MotoGP equivalent of the gunslinger of the good old wild West. He believed in the old school idea that racing should show no mercy. Max Biaggi, after he and Luca Cadalora banged fairings and when the latter complained of bad riding, famously said “This is motorcycle racing, not classical music”. Recently Valentino Rossi also called present day racers pussies (his idea of a sissy) and the general tenor is that people are becoming unnecessarily alarmed about things. But apart from Simoncelli’s shock death, the unending list of injuries is necessarily a thing to be alarmed about. And many have been injured not by coming into contact with others but simply by falling of the motorcycle all by themselves. So where is the problem then?
To understand the source of the problem a walk down history is necessary. Prior to MotoGP turning into a four stroke category, in the premier class which was the two stroke 500cc class, there was such a thing as a privateer entry. People rode around on bikes such as the Patton, though invariably last on the grid, it was there for most of 500cc racing’s existence. There were also the Elf branded 500cc motorcycles. There was then Kenny Roberts’ Modenas and later Proton KR3 effort. But once under pressure from Honda when MotoGP became four stroke, the category of a privateer vanished. In effect all teams have become factory teams, while those which are called satellite outfits did not get one or two developments in electronics. So strictly speaking all entries are factory entries and in order to protect their patented technologies, manufacturers have preferred to crush older machines rather than leasing them out or selling them to privateers. It is this development which is most significant if we have to understand the current state of affairs.
Motorcycle factories have shown a contradictory tendency. In the first instance they expressed an intent to slow motorcycles down by bringing down the cubic capacity of the engine but then made every possible attempts to make the 800cc motorcycles go faster and faster. Electronics have played a very big part in this process of speeding bikes up. But we have to explain the cause for the contradiction. As is the case with all intentions, the intention to slow the motorcycles was well meaning, but as is the case with all competition and racing specifically to win one has to be fast and every factory wanted their motorcycles to be the winners. One development that no one can underestimate or understate is that which pertains to Ducati and Casey Stoner emerging as top guns at the beginning of the 800cc era. The combination stunned the Japanese manufacturers and some riders like Valentino Rossi. Ducati and Stoner were unstoppable. Accusations were levelled that the Ducati was more than 800cc or that it was consuming more than the 21 litres of fuel allotted per race. All were proven wrong.
The factories realized that they had been beaten fair and square and pundits claimed that Ducati was benefitting because of its Desmodromic valves and that conventional spring valves were the undoing of the Japanese manufacturers. First Suzuki and then Kawasaki shifted to pneumatic valves from spring valves but Yamaha and Honda, obdurately (and rightly) insisted that the issue was not with valves at all. But the chatter about valves reached such a crescendo and included riders of Yamaha and Honda, so much so that Yamaha and finally Honda shifted to pneumatic valves. But the improvement in performance was not going to come from there. The Japanese as usual went the high tech way and more and more electronics came into the picture. There were engine maps that cut out engine braking that is usually pronounced in four stroke engines, there were settings for traction control and many other such innovations to make the bike go faster.
Now add another variable to this recipe that is already primed for disaster. The controlled tyre from Bridgestone. Bridgestone not wanting to be accused of favouritism created tyres that could well race for twice the length of the actual races. This meant that it usually took a while for the tyres to come into their own and offer proper grip. But the mentality of a racer is never going to be “let me wait for the tyres to warm up properly and provide me with good grip”. It is always going to be “that guy at the front is getting away, let me catch up with him”. And compounding this situation are riders like Casey Stoner who seemed to be able to take off on tyres that do not offer optimum grip. Not all are as talented as Casey Stoner and usually pushing early meant crashing. Marco Simoncelli was the prime example of this. This year he crashed so many times because of trying to do too much on cold tyres. And the end came for the same reason. Unfortunately, this time the motorcycle instead of going away from the track and into the gravel went straight into the path of motorcycles following it.
Even in the days of the evil handling 500cc two strokes did so many riders not get injured so frequently and so many times. The reason for that is that it was the rider who rode by the feel that he had with the bike rather than electronics doing all that for him and cutting him off from the road. The riders then knew where the limits were but now they do not since the feeling from the road is not fully transmitted back to the rider. In the days of the five hundreds there were privateers. They got their engines from Yamaha and put them in chassis made either by ROC or by Harris. There were always back markers to slow down the leaders. It was usual for the Patton to be lapped up to three times in a race. Now with all factory bikes, that does not happen.
For MotoGP to slowdown and to get safer, it is essential that electronics be limited and tyre compounds that degenerate with every passing lap be used. CRTs is the right way to go forward and more of them should be encouraged to break the strangle hold of the factories on the sport. All these can make the sport much safer than it is today and more lives need not be lost and injuries can also be minimized. Hope sense prevails.