What keeps MotoGP riders from disaster? A revolution in safety tech

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The U.S. is witnessing something of a renaissance in motorsport. Call it the “Drive to Survive” effect, but Formula One isn’t the only series seeing a resurgence in television audiences. Last season was the most watched in IndyCar history.

Ask most of these newly converted race fans about MotoGP, though, and that enthusiasm quickly pivots to anxiety. Who can blame them? Riders reach 220 miles per hour down the straights, they drag their elbows over the pavement in the corners, and all that separates them from grievous 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, there’s danger involved in anything we do, whether it be driving your car to work in the morning or cycling, whatever.”

“The majority of the time now, as you can see, we can get up, walk away, the injuries are a lot less than what they used to be. It used to be at least one [big crash] a weekend, and now maybe one a season — maybe.”

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What the sport used to be, as Miller alluded to and like most any racing series 30-plus years ago, was dangerous. In the past 30 years, seven riders in MotoGP and its support classes died as a result of injuries suffered in crashes. In the 30 years before that, 59 perished — nearly a third taking place at the Isle of Man, a circuit situated on public roads that the world championship last visited in 1976.

For context, in F1 and its feeder series like Formula Two and Formula Three, three drivers have died of injuries suffered in crashes in the past 30 years.

When Madrid-based Dorna Sports became organizer of the sport in 1991, it and the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) set out to improve safety. Street and temporary circuits were soon removed from the calendar, run-off areas and gravel traps were installed or enlarged to minimize the chances of a fallen rider hitting walls, trees or other obstacles.

Today, Dorna and the FIM use software developed in conjunction with the University of Padova that calculates exactly how much run-off room is needed, both in asphalt and gravel, to ensure a minimum safety standard for every corner of every racetrack. Advancements in tire grip, braking performance and aerodynamics ensure that these motorcycles are continually evolving, though, growing faster and faster, and ensuring that the calculus is constantly changing and tracks regularly requiring more and more run-off room.

Now, the vast majority of accidents end with riders sliding to a halt well before encountering anything other than asphalt and gravel. What MotoGP and suppliers of protective equipment like Alpinestars and Dainese have endeavored to eradicate in the past decade are the bruises and broken bones suffered in the impacts of the falls themselves.

Nearly 20 years of research and development, much of which continues to be conducted on MotoGP race weekends with the world’s best riders, has yielded leather suits that not only protect from severe cases of road rash, but include airbag systems to soften the blow of most crashes. Early systems primarily protected collarbones — fractures of which were once a scourge of the series, injuries that have now all but been eradicated — but now extend to coverage of shoulders, chest and even hips.

At Alpinestars, six accelerometers, three sensors and a gyroscope work in concert to provide real-time data for an algorithm to interpret whether a rider’s movement is normal behavior, whether they’re wrestling for control of the bike, or whether a crash is about to happen.

“Every crash that happens, no matter how big or small, we download the data, we’re feeding our algorithm,” said Alpinestars media and communications manager Chris Hillard.

Speaking at Misano, an Alpinestars technician charts every moment of a crash from that morning on a graph, noting sensor inputs that illustrate when the rider lost control of the bike, when he was catapulted into the air, when his airbag deployed, when his feet touched the ground, and when the rest of his body came crashing down, too. In less than a tenth of a second, the system had recognized that a crash was in progress and deployed the airbag.

MotoGP’s ultra-slow-motion cameras captured this highside crash, in which a rider is launched over the top of the bike, from six-time series champion Marc Marquez at the 2019 Malaysian Grand Prix. The footage below illustrates how quickly this all happens, with Marquez’s airbag deploying before his left hand has even let go of the bike.

In 2018, the FIM mandated that every rider in MotoGP and its support classes wear such safety tech in every practice, qualifying and race session.

“You don’t think about it until it’s too late, and then as you’re flying through the air, the thing’s deployed already,” Miller said of the airbags. “It may not be much, but it puts that much (holding his fingers an inch or two apart) in between yourself and asphalt or whatever you’re going to land on. It makes a massive difference, for sure.”

Last month, when MotoGP visited the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Team Suzuki Ecstar rider and 2020 world champion Joan Mir endured an almighty highside. The data Dainese downloaded from Mir’s suit was shocking: he spent 1.02 seconds and nearly 64 feet in the air before hitting the ground at 41.9 miles per hour with an impact of 18 g’s.

He suffered “fractures and bone fragments” in his right ankle, missing the ensuing race in Misano. Mir attempted to return at the Aragon Grand Prix in Spain last weekend, but abandoned that effort after Friday and Saturday’s practice sessions.

“I think that after a highside like I suffered in Austria, without [the airbag], for sure it could be a lot worse,” Mir told ESPN. “To be able to go away from that crash with just the fracture on the ankle is something that you can’t imagine in the past. Maybe a crash like this one, in the past, was the end of your career.”

Despite such advancements, there is still much to do. Riders are at their most vulnerable after falling on the racing line, in the path of those immediately behind them, and this is Dorna’s focus as the evolution of safety tech in MotoGP continues: instantaneous warning riders of a fallen competitor ahead.

“I think that the biggest challenge that we have now, and unfortunately it’s a big challenge, is in terms of protection against traffic, protection for riders when a rider behind runs over them or hits them,” Dorna chief sporting officer Carlos Ezpeleta said to ESPN. “It’s something really difficult to tackle because you’re talking about a bike that might be traveling at 60 or 70 miles per hour hitting a rider on the ground.

“But then if you think about airbags for the leather suits, 20 years ago they would’ve all said it was impossible.”

As Mir can attest, what seemed impossible in MotoGP 20 years ago is now life-saving tech that’s as commonplace as a helmet.

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