Last weekend, Bernat Martinez and Daniel Rivas Fernandez lost their lives at MotoAmerica’s Superbike/Superstock 1000 race. The incident occurred at the start of the race in a situation that is any rider’s worst nightmare – Fernandez’s bike either stalled or lost power after the green light and he was a sitting duck while riders at full acceleration rode past. Unfortunately, Fernandez was hit and in the ensuing chaos, both he and Martinez received what would ended up being life ending injuries. It was not the first time an incident like this happened and it won’t be the last, unless standing starts are done away with.
Such events aren’t isolated to motorcycle racing by any means. There have been numerous such incidents in Formula 1 over the years including one that resulted in the death of Riccardo Paletti at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1982 due to another car stalling on the grid. Back in 2011 there was a spectacular though thankfully not fatal incident due to a car failing at the start in a V8 Supercar race in Perth, Australia.
The difference between modern race cars and motorcycles when it comes to these incidents today is that fatalities in four wheeled racing are almost unheard of. Race cars are surrounded by carbon fibre and steel with safety cells and roll cages. A car can virtually be destroyed and the safety cell with the driver inside will remain intact – at worst the driver may receive concussion, bruises and whiplash.
In motorcycle racing, there is no protective bubble. Incidents like this are the equivalent to someone walking out onto a freeway and getting hit by a car at speed – you cannot survive that and yet it’s something that’s deemed an acceptable risk in motorcycle racing. The starting grid at Laguna Seca from end to end is approximately 150 metres (500 feet) in length. That’s more than enough distance for a literbike to easily reach speeds that prevent a rider from reacting to an unsighted and stricken competitor on the grid.
It should be kept in mind that the incident last weekend wasn’t at an amateur event. MotoAmerica is the premier motorcycle series in the USA and is a feeder category to the World Superbike Championship – the event that this particular race was supporting. These were professional racers – the danger to amateurs with less experience and less skill is even greater.
Purists will no doubt argue that introducing rolling starts is just further sanitation of motorcycle racing. I would argue that unlike every other high risk sport, motorcycle racing hasn’t been sanitised at all over the years. Helmet technology has improved marginally over the decades and only a few riders at MotoGP and WSBK level have access to (or can afford) airbag technology. Literbikes can reach speeds in excess of 300 kph on many tracks. MotoGP riders hit 342 kph at Indianapolis – that’s comparable to what F1 cars reach at Monza. Motorcycle racing remains one of, if not the most dangerous form of motorsport in existence.
Le mans style starts were once common place but are now almost never used and this was done for safety reasons. While doing away with standing starts does take a type of skill away from racing, it’s an incredibly minor facet of a race and it merely puts more emphasis on qualifying.
The deaths of Bernat Martinez and Daniel Rivas Fernandez was a tragedy and unless rolling starts are introduced it won’t be the last.