Is the safety of sports people being compromised in the pursuit of success?

Our third guest blog article comes from one of the students from our University and concerns the safety of motorsport, specifically in Indycar and Moto GP. Are speeds to high to be safe? Do speeds need to be high in order to maintain a vibrant fan base? It would be great if you could contribute by adding a comment, enjoy the article.

In recent weeks two serious accidents in motor sport have resulted in the tragic death of two very talented individuals. These two events have put into perspective how important success is in sport. The two incidents bring competitor safety to the forefront and question whether safety is given paramount importance or whether it is being overlooked in the pursuit of ever increasing speed, glory and money.

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Since the death of Dan Wheldon in the USA’s Indycar series, many drivers have gone on record saying that they did not believe that the track was safe enough to hold the event. In particular, they claim the circuit was too small for the number of cars. Despite these concerns the race went ahead. The implications for cancelling the race would have meant huge losses of revenue and publicity for the sport but surely this would have been a sensible decision considering what was at stake? Indycar has no run off areas around the track and has only recently seen the enforced SAFER soft wall system around the tracks. Cars can travel at 220 mph (98 m/s) in the corners meaning very limited time to react if an incident occurs on the track ahead. Assuming the limit of human reaction time is 0.11 s:

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the car will travel at least 11 m before the driver’s foot begins to press the brake pedal. The second death of Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli occurred a week later when hit by fellow riders after dismounting his bike. Although both events were accidents, questions need to be asked whether they were preventable.

Motor sports always carry risks of serious injury and possibly death; vehicle speeds are increasing with improvements in technology, does a speed limit need to be imposed for the safety of drivers? In the Indy car race, Wheldon was not involved in the original collision but was caught up in the aftermath. His car lifted and ended up flying into a barrier. The aerodynamics of the car are excellent when grounded. However, if the front of the car lifts, air passing under the vehicle can result in it taking off from the track; is this considered fully by the designers of the vehicle? With regards to Simoncelli’s accident no-one can be blamed for running over him. However, falling off the bike is a common occurrence in motor bike racing and so should this be taken into account when allowing maximum speeds to increase? The Sepang track has passed all regulations for safety so its integrity is not in question. The area that needs addressing is the general speeds that the bikes can reach. The average speed at Sepang the previous year was 162 Kph and typical bike and rider masses are 135 kg and 65 kg, respectively. According to the equation below the kinetic energy of the bike will increase considerably with speed as shown in figure 2. The kinetic energy associated with high speeds can be catastrophic in the event of a crash.

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Equation

Figure 2 Relationship between kinetic energy and speed for bike and rider with a combined mass of 200 kg

The Governing body for MotoGP the FIM is constantly trying to regulate engine sizes and maximum speeds but as recently as 2009 the record for the fastest recorded speed was 217 mph. The law in 2012 is changing again, allowing for 1000 cc engines, which could see this record broken again, reducing the time available to react and increasing impact velocity.

All of the above questions are speculative and the integrity of the teams is not being questioned but I believe motor sport does need to look at safety in more detail after these two serious incidents. After the MotoGP event the stewards decided to cancel the race, a decision that was criticised by many fans whom had paid their money to go and watch. The mentality of these fans shows disregard for the deceased and the fellow riders with whom Simoncelli was friends. The fans need to see faster and more exciting racing is ultimately leading to improvements in these sports but the safety has to be questioned.

A speed cap on the bikes / cars could be a way of overcoming the issue as it could be regulated to speeds where injuries may not be as severe. In motor sport accidents will always happen, these accidents do not have to be fatal.

Dominic Rogers is a final year student on the BSc (hons) Sports Technology course at Sheffield Hallam University. He completed a placement with Canterbury over the summer and plans to continue working on the research. design and development of sports equipment on completion of his degree.

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