Injured F1 driver Jules Bianchi was very much on the minds of the MotoGP paddock as the championship assembled for its Japanese round, at Motegi on Thursday.
Bianchi suffered serious head injuries in last Sunday's F1 Grand Prix at Suzuka, the young Frenchman losing control of his Marussia and then striking a tractor being used by marshals to retrieve the Sauber of Adrian Sutil.
“Of course it is difficult when you see a situation like that because, although it is not MotoGP, it is another competitor from the same kind of sport,” said reigning MotoGP champion Marc Marquez. “I was watching the race and nobody knew what had happened at first, but then I saw the video and it was really bad. I hope the best for him and for the Formula One world.
“But like we always say, we realise the limit or the risk when we go out on the track. The important thing is to evaluate what happened - were there any mistakes, who made them and try to improve for the future. But for now all we can do is hope for the best for Jules and his family.”
MotoGP hasn't raced at Suzuka since 2003, when Daijiro Kato lost his life after hitting a trackside barrier on the approach to the final chicane.
Valentino Rossi is one of the few current MotoGP riders to have been at that event. The Italian also knows Bianchi, part of the Ferrari Driver Academy, having taken part in PR events with the Frenchman during his time at Ducati.
“It is a very, very bad feeling because it looks like the situation of Jules is quite desperate,” began the nine time world champion, himself taken to hospital after briefly losing consciousness in an accident last time at Aragon. “I know him, not very well, but we made a race together at Madonna di Campiglio for Ducati and we enjoyed a lot fighting each other with Fiat Pandas. He is a very young guy with a lot of talent.
“Suzuka, first of all, is a dangerous track. In fact we stopped going there in MotoGP after the crash of Kato in 2003. It is a big shame because I think it is one of the best tracks in the world. I love Suzuka but it is dangerous.
“I think that bad luck was a big factor in [the Bianchi accident], but also I think they should have used the Safety Car before they put the [recovery] truck into the run-off area. Jules was very unlucky - also he made a mistake - but I think it was too dangerous to have something [the recovery vehicle] in the run off area.”
Movistar Yamaha team-mate and fellow world champion Jorge Lorenzo echoed those comments.
“It is a very sad and difficult moment for motorsport. I didn't see so well the race but always Suzuka, especially for bikes but also as we can see in Formula One - in some corners and especially in the rain - can be dangerous,” said the Spaniard.
“Especially, as Valentino says, not putting the Safety Car out before the tractor we have seen was a bad idea. So I think they will improve this in the future, but unluckily it is too late to avoid this accident. So everyone hopes Jules gets well again and we're willing him on, with all our support.”
While thankfully avoiding such a serious outcome, MotoGP also has some safety questions of its own to answer after the recent events at Aragon.
Rossi and fellow Italian Andrea Iannone both suffered big accidents after running onto artificial grass, placed on the outside edge of the racetrack. Iannone walked away from his destroyed Ducati while Rossi required hospital scans after suffering a concussion and brief loss of consciousness.
“I'm ok. I 'slept' a little bit in the run-off area, but I was okay already on Sunday,” said Rossi, who also broke a finger. “It was a bad crash but fortunately I was 100% by Monday.”
In Iannone's case the artificial grass was placed on the exit of a corner and therefore more justifiable in terms of stopping riders gaining performance by running over the kerb. However Rossi was thrown overboard after running wide while braking for a corner entry, the strip of slippery artificial grass erasing the safety benefit of a large asphalt run-off area that followed.
“Artificial grass is something we are speaking about a lot in the Safety Commission,” confirmed Marquez. “Especially we are speaking to always remove on the entry to corners, in the braking points. On the exit it is more difficult because I think we need some artificial grass after the kerb, so that you have some limit on the edge of the track. Otherwise, if you have asphalt, you always push more and more [over the kerb].
“But it is true that the entry or midpoint of the corner we would never use [to gain performance]. Only when we run wide or there is a crash. We have seen Bradl's accident last year in Malaysia and now Valentino. I think it is something we can remove and it'll be ok for everybody.”
Rossi also feels that there is an argument to keep the artificial grass in certain circumstances.
“For sure in the last year we've tried to take out some of the artificial grass, but maybe we need to keep it in some places,” he said. “However in other places it is dangerous and especially useless, because you do not need it on the entry to corners.”
Lorenzo meanwhile hopes that the artificial grass can be removed altogether, with a better solution found to stop riders exceeding the limits of the race track.
“On the entry obviously I don't think it is necessary. Also on the exit, for safety reasons, it would be better without,” said the Aragon winner. “It is complicated because you always try to go faster and faster, which means using more and more space [on the edge of the track].
“Without the artificial grass, Race Direction would have more work because more riders would be running off the track, but I'm sure they will find some solutions. For example putting some more height on the kerb so that if you go outside the track you have to lose time to re-enter the track. There are some kind of ideas like that which we can discuss for the future.”
The other pressing MotoGP safety issue is the use of 'flag-to-flag' racing, which means - unlike in the past - grands prix are no longer stopped due to weather changes. Instead, should rain arrive during the race (as at Aragon), riders can choose to pull into the pits and switch to their spare bike, fitted with wet tyres.
But the closer to the end of the race that rain arrives, the greater the incentive for the leaders to try and stay out on slicks.
That is exactly what happened at Aragon, where Marquez and Repsol Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa (pictured above) fell from first and second with just a few laps to go.
“When you look afterwards on the TV I was really stupid to continue on the slick tyres!” admitted Marquez. “But at that time I thought like that. It was completely my decision to stay out, because I thought I was able to finish the race.
“There were only three laps left and the grip was not too bad but in the end when the tyres cooled down it was a disaster. The correct decision was like Jorge did, or Aleix, the guys who changed their bikes. I know that for the future. You always get more experience.”
Flag-to-flag came into effect from 2005 and is used to avoid length scheduling delays caused by stopping and then restarting races due to changes in the weather. It is an imperfect solution, but the best compromise so far found.
“For me it is a system that has some risks,” said Rossi, who at 35 is the oldest as well as most experienced rider in MotoGP. “As happened to Dani and Marc in Aragon, you have to decide [if and when to pit] while on the bike and you can make a mistake. Especially riding a MotoGP bike with slick tyres in the wet is very dangerous.
“It is to fix a problem. The target was to start and not stop the race if it rains. Especially for the television. I think it is the best way to do this [for TV] but there is more risk than stopping the race and restarting in the rain.
“Tomorrow we will have a meeting of the Safety Commission and we will speak with the other riders about it.”