Motorsport: A double-edged sword

24 October 2011

Written by: Jonathon Wilkinson

Motorsport is somewhat of a double-edged sword.

We know it to be exciting, exhilarating and the pinnacle of the world’s automotive technology. However, the past two weeks have shown that while advances have been made in safety and technology, motosports can still be extremely dangerous.

The loss of MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli in a sickening crash last night, no later than 7 days after Dan Wheldon suffered fatal injuries during an IZOD IndyCar Series race in Las Vegas, serves as a terrible reminder of the dangerous nature of motosports.

While Australia’s Casey Stoner claimed the world championship at Phillip Island on the 16th of October, it will forever be known as the day in which Wheldon, a fun-loving, exuberant 33 year-old Englishman’s life was taken.

A week later, the death of Simoncelli overshadowed the Rugby World Cup final, which took place on the same night. While New Zealand were triumphant over the French, the tragedy during the Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix was, at least on Twitter, a bigger talking point.

As was the case with the death of Wheldon, whether they followed motorsport or not, people seemed to have an opinion and most importantly, a great degree of empathy.

The motorsport community has been rocked by these tragic events. Tributes came from around the globe at the weekend’s Gold Coast 600, a V8 Supercar event in which Wheldon was scheduled to partner Holden’s James Courtney. The prize for the best International driver, taken out by Sebastien Bourdais, was renamed the Dan Wheldon trophy in his honour.

As the event is based around the concept of the best available international drivers pairing our (mostly) homegrown heroes, six of the IndyCar drivers were scheduled to make the trip.

While IndyCar drivers Ryan Briscoe, Brazilian Helio Castroneves and Wheldon’s team mate Alex Tagliani still managed to make the trip to Australia, devastated IndyCar stalwart Tony Kanaan tweeted ‘Sorry to all my Australian fans but due to the circumstances I’ve decided not to do the Surfers V8 race.’

Kanaan was a pallbearer at Wheldon’s funeral on Saturday, along with IndyCar series champ Dario Franchitti and Kiwi-cum-Australian Scott Dixon.

Australian Will Power also didn’t make the trip to race at the Gold Coast, however his decision was due to the injuries he sustained in the crash.

The week’s second tragic incident happened during the second lap of the Malaysian round of the MotoGP championship, the penultimate race of the season.

Simoncelli lost control of his bike, and was trying to wrestle it back within his grasp. He was then struck by Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, subsequently passing away in the Sepang Circuit’s emergency room due to his injuries.

Simoncelli was a young, exuberant rider who was still making his way in the sport. His trademark afro and standoffish attitude were his defining features off the track, but he was a pure racer on it.

His battles with Andrea Dovisioso had been a talking point all year, with the two Italians fighting it out not only for race finishes, but quite often to be the best placed Italian. Simoncelli had finished second at last Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, his second podium finish of the year.

After winning the 2008 250cc World Championship, the same way Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa had done before they made the move to the top flight, experts and fans alike knew he had potential. Last month he signed a contract extension with his San Carlo Gresini Honda team for 2012. But at age 24, he was cruelly taken, denying him the opportunity to fulfill his potential.

The stories of Wheldon and Simoncelli’s deaths came down to a desire to compete.

Wheldon was driving in a promotion where, by starting last in a field of 34 and making it to the checkered flag first, he would share five million dollars with a randomly selected fan.

Simoncelli was chasing his dream to become the best motorcycle rider in the world. His youthful energy came through both in his behaviour off the track, and on it. Like any true competitor,  Simoncelli was pushing himself and his bike to the limit when he crashed.

Both of these men died doing what they loved. No matter how many advances in technology, or how much time and money gets put into driver safety, no matter what category of motorsport it is, racing will always be dangerous. And that’s where the double-edged sword that is motorsport, cuts the deepest.

 Joel Peterson is a first-year student in the Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) at La Trobe University. Follow him on Twitter@joelbpeterson.