The 2023 MotoGP season has finally begun. It has brought many innovations – a new race mode, Portimão instead of Qatar. The season opening was supposed to herald a new MotoGP era and yet we saw a familiar problem. A problem that has been running through the MotoGP seasons for years. The understandable need for safety of the MotoGP riders is not sufficiently addressed. Above all, the gravel beds were the central issue. When in 2022 Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia returned to his Ducati pit after his practice crash on Friday with a handful of stones that were too big, he was laughed at. Riding in Portimão for three years. MotoGP riders have been criticizing the safety of the high-speed track for three years. The riders raise the issue of safety not only within their teams and to media representatives, but also in a regular meeting with the FIM’s Safety Commission.
Now the question arises: Is there no standard? But there is. Just as the kerbs are precisely defined by the FIM, so are the gravel beds. Here is an excerpt from the FIM Standards for circuits (as of 01.03.2023): “As a standard, the height of the gravel bed should be 25 cm and the diameter of the grains must be between 8 mm and 20 mm. Monograin is strongly recommended. The first 5 m of the gravel bed should be gradually increased until the exact height of the gravel bed is reached. To maintain the effectiveness of the gravel beds, a mixing (sinking) should be performed before each FIM event and debris and stones larger in diameter than specified must be removed.”
This is the defined standard to which every track operator in the MotoGP calendar must adhere. This is the standard that must be controlled by the Safety Commission. Accordingly, the gravel should be about the size of a popcorn, to make it briefly tangible. Now let’s remember the chicken egg sized stones that Pecco Bagnaia brought into his 2022 pit. Let’s remember the accident of Gresini rider Fabio Di Giannantonio in the last pre-season test three weeks ago, also in Portimão. Di Giannantonio crashed in turn 7 and suffered a concussion. For him, the tests were over. His leather suit and helmet were completely destroyed. The fact that nothing more happened was pure luck.
Nevertheless, to take up the cudgels for the Portimão track operator, it should be mentioned that promised improvements to the gravel beds were made before the start of the season. Apparently, the improvements were not made in all places. Turn 10 was the undoing for GasGas rider Pol Espargaro. In free practice Espargaro had a highsider. The fall caused him to slide over the asphalt run-off zone into the gravel trap. The gravel, probably due to its nature, could not sufficiently brake neither rider nor motorcycle. It catapulted both through the air and against the tire pile. The GasGas rider had to be treated on the track for several minutes and suffered a broken jaw, bruised lungs and a fractured vertebra. The impact was extreme and it could well have been worse. When Pol Espargaro will return is not yet certain. It will be a longer break. It was only after his fateful crash that the gravel bed was revised and airfences were put in place. Does something have to happen first for those responsible to do their duty?
Accidents in MotoGP cannot be prevented. But it can be prevented that pilots are seriously injured. The riders are the show. They represent MotoGP. Therefore, they should be listened to and their safety should be the top priority. Addressing issues together with the riders and showing each other the respect of listening should be the lesson from this season opening.
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