Motorcycle racing’s steps to a safer future after its latest tragedy
The motorsport world is mourning the loss of Dean Berta Vinales after he died in a multi-rider crash during a World Supersport 300 race at Jerez last weekend. As the third teenager to be killed across the smaller bike classes this year alone, calls for immediate safety change have become clear to break the cycle of tragedy.
It is strange how quickly the phrase ‘they died doing what they loved’ loses its comfort. Death is an inescapable risk in motorsport. It is a spectre that doesn’t loom as large mercifully as it once used to, as advancements in safety continue to make motorsport a much safer place. But it remains omnipresent.
During the opening race of the World Superport 300 Championship – a support series on the ladder to World Superbikes – 15-year-old Dean Berta Vinales, cousin of MotoGP rider Maverick Vinales, tragically died following a multi-rider incident.
In July, Spanish rider Hugo Millan was killed in an accident during a European Talent Cup race on the CEV Junior World Championship bill at Aragon. He was just 14. In June, 19-year-old Moto3 rider Jason Dupasquier lost his life after sustaining fatal injuries in a horrifying qualifying crash at Mugello.
The motorcycle racing community has been left heartbroken in 2021. But these accidents are sadly becoming far too common.
In 2019, 20-year-old Asia Talent Cup rider Afridza Munandar was killed in a race on the MotoGP support bill at Sepang, while during a 2018 CEV Moto3 race 14-year-old Andreas Perez lost his life in an incident.
Following Millan’s accident, the narrative began to change surrounding how we should let young riders go racing. And after last weekend’s tragedy at Jerez, the calls for action have only intensified.
Racing is dangerous. It is a fact no one is denying, nor does anyone not accept it. But the motorcycle racing community as a whole must also accept that a line has to be drawn when it is children who have accounted for two of the three deaths in international competition in 2021.
Immediately after the Vinales incident, the very nature of junior competition at international level was called into question. The minimum age limit to enter into World Supersport 300 is 15. In the Junior Moto3 World Championship, it’s 14, and at world championship grand prix Moto3 level it is 16. The bikes they are racing are 140mph machines and grid numbers are huge – at Jerez, 42 riders in WSS300 were competing.
“For me this class is the most dangerous class ever, I don’t like it, I don’t watch it and I’m scared when I watch it,” former MotoGP rider Loris Baz said of WSS300, a class based on small A2 machinery. “Those bikes are too heavy and [don’t] have enough power, so you cannot make the difference.
“I tell you what’s different: the racing’s so close. Everything is so level that it doesn’t allow any break. It makes great racing but when you’ve got 15-year-old kids and you’ve got 40 of them within the same bike within a second of each other, anything can happen at absolutely any point” Scott Redding
“I think it’s less dangerous to ride a 600cc [Superport bike] at 13 than racing a 300 at 30. If you cannot make the difference in the riding, you have a big group and you have to fight.”
Baz – who was a European champion at just 15 – makes an important point regarding the limitations of the machinery in Supersport 300, and it’s something that ultimately extends into Moto3. Regularly these types of races feature massive packs battling for position, at times 20 or so bikes designated in the lead group. Slipstreaming is a vital part of going fast on these bikes due to their lack of power and fairly rigid regulations which make the machinery pretty even.
“The problem is we’re having more and more fatalities with more and more safety,” Ducati WorldSBK rider Scott Redding noted. “So, you’ve got to think ‘what is different from 10, 15 years ago?’ And I tell you what’s different: the racing’s so close. Everything is so level that it doesn’t allow any break.
“Sometimes it’s bad in Superbikes, and then in every class where they’re changing rpm, it makes great racing. But when you’ve got 15-year-old kids and you’ve got 40 of them within the same bike, within a second of each other, anything can happen at absolutely any point.”
Romano Fenati, Max Racing Team race start
Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images
Redding is well versed when it comes to the dangers of close quarters racing. In 2010, he was involved in the Moto2 incident at Misano which claimed the life of Shoya Tomizawa – something he candidly said last weekend is “scarring”.
When a rider crashes in front of another, it’s the one incident in motorcycle racing that simply cannot be avoided. No matter how advanced safety is, equipment – which is at its very highest standard – can only withstand so much in a high-speed impact. This was sadly the case in all of the incidents mentioned earlier.
But it’s an almost endemic issue in Moto3-type categories, largely because it’s much harder for a large group of riders to react in time to an incident they likely can’t see while they sit behind another bike in the slipstream.
But the very nature of the class, where slipstream is key to a lap time, heightens the issue. In the Moto3 World Championship, Race Direction has had to clamp down hard on riders touring in qualifying to look for a tow. So often riders trip over themselves and only end up with time enough for one flying lap, raising the stakes even more. The Dupasquier incident happened while he, along with a group of other riders, were pushing in the closing stages of qualifying on their final laps.
Many argue junior categories should be given more powerful machinery, so that the onus is put back more on individual riding style to make lap time. It’s not often in Supersport 600, or in Moto2, or even at MotoGP/Superbike level, where you get groups of upwards of 10 riders battling for position. And the reality is, fatal accidents in bigger classes of international competition are far rarer, and that’s despite the competitive landscape in the likes of WorldSBK and MotoGP changing quite substantially in recent years.
There is a problem looming on the horizon, though. Valentino Rossi has touched on this in recent years, the MotoGP legend feeling that the nature of competition in Moto3 is leading to much more aggressive – and thus dangerous – racing as those riders work their way through the classes. It’s the kind of riding that cannot be tolerated at MotoGP/WorldSBK level.
How does that change? Reducing grid sizes at junior levels is a call many have been making in the wake of these incidents. Much stricter rules of engagement and harsher penalties to dissuade bad behaviour are suggestions that have also been thrown about.
Dorna Sports declined to comment on the debates being held in recent days when asked by Motorsport.com, but a working group within the organisation has been set up over the past few weeks encompassing all of its championships to discuss all options to improve safety. Included in those discussions will likely be the idea of increasing minimum age limits for series.
It’s a fact of modern motorsport that the competitors are getting younger and younger, and are starting in international championships much earlier than in decades gone by. The fact that two under-16s have died this year racing has led to a very negative mainstream response, because these are the stories the everyday news outlets run. The reality is, there is no defence of the situation either.
Redding believes the recent fatal accidents have “got nothing to do with age”, and maybe he’s right. But 15 is no age to be losing your life racing, because Dean Berta Vinales never got to truly experience his
In the UK, you’re not legally allowed to drive on the road until you’re 17. The minimum drinking age in 18 and you can’t live on your own until 18 either. These restrictions are in place to try and protect non-adults. So, how would increasing the age restrictions in racing be any different?
The world seems to think a rider’s talent is tied to their age. We’ve been blown away this year by the arrival of Pedro Acosta as a rookie into Moto3 at the age of just 16. He’ll be making his debut in MotoGP with KTM by the time he’s barely 20 after signing a three-year deal through to 2024.
But it’s not Acosta’s age that makes him talented. Mick Doohan never made his grand prix debut until he was 24. He won five MotoGP titles on the bounce from 1994 to 1998, and arguably would have won more had his career not been shortened by injury in a crash in 1999.
Redding believes the recent fatal accidents have “got nothing to do with age”, and maybe he’s right. But 15 is no age to be losing your life racing, because Dean Berta Vinales never got to truly experience his. Maybe racing was what he loved, but the world is brand new and undiscovered when you’re 15.
These accidents are likely only to be stopped through fundamental changes to the nature of junior world championship racing, such as to the actual machinery and in reducing grid sizes. But putting an extra safeguard in place in the form of a slightly increased age limit – perhaps even just to 17 – wouldn’t exactly be a bad thing.
The Vinales incident led to an outburst on social media from World Supersport racer Michel Fabrizio, who announced he would be quitting racing as a protest. He highlighted the dangers in the junior classes, but also felt what other riders had done on track in the past – specifically picking on Marc Marquez – had a hand in these fatalities.
This was a frankly unfair accusation. The behaviour on-track now cannot be attributed to how other riders themselves have raced in the past. Certainly, these moments change the rules of engagement. But that’s what rule makers are supposed to account for every season, and that’s why new regulations are conjured with each passing year.
Redding also raised a point which is pertinent. In the instances of serious or fatal accidents, the common response tends to follow a similar pattern.
“It’s hard for the sport and people say ‘ah, you know what can happen’, but that’s bullshit,” Redding argued. “We don’t think about that. If you thought every time you went out you had a chance of dying, you wouldn’t go out.”
This dismissive outlook of death in motorsport is fed by this toxically masculine way of thinking of racers as ‘gladiators’. This was part of the argument against Formula 1 introducing the halo safety device back in 2018. On many occasions since, that device has saved a driver’s life. Motorsport should be dangerous because that’s what makes it unique. But it’s not a blood sport, and those competing are human beings. No one who races goes into it wanting to die. To think it’s an inevitability they should accept is simply callous.
WorldSBK came in for some flack last Sunday when it announced it would be going ahead with its race schedule for the day. Vinales’ family had given its blessing for the show to carry on, while all classes had separate meetings with WorldSBK boss Gregorio Lavilla to discuss the matter. It was just Lavilla and the riders present.
Dorna, to its credit, handled the situation delicately, and is taking a more proactive approach going forward to the situation it tragically found itself in again this year last weekend. Pleasingly, discussions are also being held about how the series can better protect its riders’ mental health.
After last weekend, it’s clear things cannot carry on as they are, because there is no more justification for it. But the foundations of progress are very much beginning to be laid out…
Dean Berta Vinales, Vinales Racing Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images