What about grassroots motorsport?

Mark has written to ask:

Very insightful on how things were not that long ago and now today. I race at club level in UK Motorsport. What’s your view on the level of medical given at the bottom of the Motorsport ladder?

If we’re talking about the UK, you can sleep easy – one of the strong points of “lower level” racing over in your neck of the woods is the quality of circuit coverage. There are a lot of reasons for this.

Obviously the most important is how much you guys love your racing. Circuits everywhere, constant track days – people love racing a lot, and that means that there are people who love helping make racing happen. It takes a small army of people to set up and run even the smallest race weekend, and by and large, they all do it because they love it.

That love for the sport isn’t enough though. Nope, on top of that you need to be committed to excellence. And that’s what makes you guys so strong . . . even at the grassroots level. The standards, guidelines, training and certification of almost everyone with “critical” roles to play is typically British. And leads to typically British excellence.

Go ahead and ask trackside personnel the same question you asked me. You’ll be surprised to hear them tell you how bad things are. And you know what? That’s a GOOD sign. Because objectively you guys do a fantastic job at the grassroots. There’s no money, no glory, and it sure ain’t sexy. But still, EVERYBODY wants to do it better. No one is complacent.

The UK’s love of motorsport and organisational qualities made your rescue services great. That constant desire to do it better is what KEEPS them great.

Silverstone was a blast (2)

What about the folks in the front seat, the folks doing what I did?

The first thing to say is that there is a fundamental difference in how the medical service is organised in MotoGP, as compared to F1. With F1, the governing body, the guys who write the rules, also supply the people to liaise, coordinate and if need be work with the local team providing medical cover. The COMMERCIAL rights holder, has NOTHING to do with things.

In MotoGP, the FIM writes the regulations, and presumably has mechanisms to verify compliance. But the people at the circuit, sitting in the medical cars, work for Dorna, the commercial rights holder.  Now I’ve not thought through the implications and complications of this (not sure it’s better or worse than the set-up in F1, just different), so I’ll simply point out the difference.

In the “old days”, that is up until shockingly recently, medical care for this championship was supervised by “Dr. Costa” and his Clinica Mobile. Usually described as a legend and a demi-god by non-medical people, he was certainly his own greatest admirer. If I had lawyers, and I don’t, they’d be waving their arms madly to prevent me from writing exactly what I think of the Clinica Mobile. So I won’t. Not even to say that – what’s that? – I can’t even say THAT? Ok forget it. You all get the message, right. Wink wink? Wink wink!

The death of Simoncelli was the catalyst for Dorna to bring in a group of people who were tasked with bringing medical cover and response from the Renaissance to the 21st century.

The team is 100% Spanish, which is normal given that Dorna is too. They’re a small, friendly and highly motivated group of doctors and paramedics. They’re on a very steep learning curve, given what would appear to be total neglect over years (either that or total, severely misplaced, faith in many of the local teams!) of medical and rescue training and standards at many of the circuits visited top-flight motorcycle racing.

Interestingly, from what I can see, they’ve been “parachuted” into this environment without having followed the “usual” path we all follow. That is, junior doc/nurse/paramedic paired with an experienced person for a season or so, then years of accumulating experience and knowledge about race procedures, the clinical epidemiology of the injuries seen, etc. Then being the senior person mentoring the junior. Then deputy chief, etc etc.

This is important.

Not having that shared background “in the trenches” has a number of consequences that will make their jobs a bit harder.

Credibility: it’s hard to realise just how important this is. The shared database of shivers and full bladders, snoozes and cold sweats, of radio failures and aborted starts is almost REQUIRED before most motorsport rescue people will take your comments on board.

Real-world experience: what’s an Incident Officer? What’s the blue flag mean? Knowing that leaning on or over the Armco is dangerous. At an accident scene, knowing (and loving) that edge of chaos and the need to improvise every time.

And most important? Passion. If these folks are passionate about the sport, and about doing everything they can to make the care offered to the riders as good as it can possibly be, they’ll succeed. If they approach this as a job, they’re going to struggle. That’s because for US, the one word on all our lists of why we do this is passion.

If they’ll have me again, I’d love to work at another MotoGP race. I just won’t make it a habit!

Silverstone was a blast! (1)

Being at Silverstone this weekend, after 21 months O.O.O. (out-of-overalls), brought home to me just how true it is that I came forthe racing, but I stayed for the people. I had a blast. Here, again in a totally random fashion, my thoughts and feelings about working at my first MotoGP race.

I rediscovered that draw-dropping wonder at watching these lunatics riders on those stunning little jewels of machines. Yes, F1 holds me in thrall, but over the years I’d lost much of that very young boyish feeling of . . . Almost not believing I’m seeing what I’m seeing. In fact, I spent the weekend saying “awesome” constantly. Our standby position allowed us to watch them apexing and accelerating out of Copse. It is a seriously thrilling sight.

The open-face helmet. When I worked with Sid, we donned helmets for race laps only. After Sid retired, all the car-borne personnel agreed that we should always be lidded.

First of all, I assume that any of you who know anything about me realise that I’m pretty serious about head injury and its prevention/mitigation. Our requirements were relatively simple, and after due consideration we opted for high quality open faced helmets. In the case of the medical car crew, we felt that the most likely mechanisms of head injury ON SCENE would be falls and flying debris. (That’s why in most pictures of me ready for work I’m wearing ballistic eyewear also). It was clear that both to maintain protection as well as to foster the most professional image possible, we would not remove our lids while working. This essentially eliminated full face helmets from consideration.

Remember, we’re in a huge road-ready Merc that’s been reinforced just where you’d want it to be. We’ve got 6-point harnesses in front and we’re on a circuit that is purpose built to make sure that decelerations are as gentle as possible. Yes, of COURSE we’re travelling a bit . . . swiftly . . . but Alan and I felt utterly protected with our helmets on.

The local team providing medical cover for the Silverstone leg of the MotoGP championship is the team that covers the British Superbike championship. These guys are spectacularly devoted, utterly professional, and really are a model of efficiency, good humor and passion. They take their JOBS, not themselves, seriously.

They didn’t assume I knew nothing about doctoring for bikes, but nor did they assume I knew everything. So I learned TONS. How can that not be fun?

Interestingly, and this came as a huge surprise, there’s almost no intersection between the medical/rescue people doing cars and those doing bikes. My non-random sampling indicates that a large proportion of them are actualy bikers. But the passion, the commitment, and the willingness to tolerate hours of boredom/discomfort/heat/cold/wet/mosquitos etc, is the same as everybody out on a corner or in an intervention car, whether it’s bikes, cars, boats, airplanes or trucks out there.

Hey this is getting long. I’ll finish up tomorrow, and talk a bit about the people sitting in the front seats of the medical cars.

 

Back at Silverstone

For the past longer-than-I-can-remember, I’ve been coming to Silverstone every February to join the faculty of a three day trauma course we teach at the Medical Center. The instructors are a fabulous group, with massive cumulative motorsport medicine experience. Ian Roberts, the current F1 Rescue Coordinator is there every year, as is the Chief Medical Officer of the British Superbike series.

This past February, perhaps more as a dare, Heike (the Superbike CMO) asked if I’d come up for MotoGP at the end of August.

So here I am.

My thoughts so far?

In no certain order, and with scant attention to the importance or lack thereof of any of this drivel, here goes:

  • I’m sure it’s a total coincidence but I’m riding in Chase 1. The previously mentioned (Twitter) M550d. The power comes on so linearly that one can be fooled. It’s very quiet and quite comfortable. Not as agile as the Merc, but BMW has not yet tried. It needs to shed a hundred or so kg. Or better, 200.  A no drama mama.
  • The medical folks are a totally charming group. They really seem to be committed to getting it right, and have not been there long. Closer relations between these guys and some of the FIA medical people would benefit everyone, and help these guys move up their learning curve even faster.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spend getting to, shitting around at, and queueing to leave, circuits all over the world for the past 17 years.
  • I am staggered by the amount of time I have spent sitting in medical cars over the past 24 years. I am actively avoiding thinking about the opportunity costs of this passion.
  • I had a fantastic day, learning about bikes, talking to the team in the car, and soaking up being at a circuit again.

For info, I did NOT go to the race at Spa. It’s massively nice of Mr. E. to have approved a pass for me, but stuff kept coming up that totally prevented me from actually  getting there.  Interestingly (for me at least), this was accompanied by none of the angst, drama, or panic that one would think normal under these conditions (my home GP, first race in a year, first Belgian GP not attended in 24 years, etc).

I think this means nothing more and nothing less than that “it” is officially out of my system. Yes, here I am at Silverstone, but besides this being a 6 month old commitment, it’s FUN, and it’s my choice.

I love this racing thing. I’ll certainly work at events in the future. But right now I’m working on some super exciting possibilities for the near future, and besides keeping me busy, it feels like starting to prepare for a journey, and I’ve always loved that feeling…

I just wanted you all to know . . .

I’ve surprised myself with how affected I’ve been by Robin Williams’ death. After thinking about it since yesterday, I’ve finally realised why.

I cannot bear the thought that people can be so sad, and see the world coloured so darkly, that they feel there is no one who can help. Or that their sadness and darkness is too much of a burden for others, and needs to be ended. That others would be better if they weren’t around any more. 

I cannot bear the thought that someone reading my blog might feel this way. 

So I want you to know – no matter how alone you think you are, no matter how much of a burden you think you are, and no matter how incontrovertibly correct you think you are, it’s not that way.

If you feel alone, or if you can’t lean on people around you, for whatever reason, please let me know. Send a comment – I won’t publish it, but I’ll get in touch. Please.

I’m no shrink, and I’m not even particularly good at running my own life. But I’m (allegedly) a fellow human being, and this is what we humans do. We help each other. We’ve been doing it since the savannah thousands of years ago, and it’s what makes us what we are. Send me one word – just one – or type me half a novel, it’s fine with me – and you won’t be alone. Just one other person who actually cares. And for whom it’s NOT a burden. Please.

Nobody should die thinking there’s no way out.

What is wrong with this picture?

I’m going to venture out of my usual terrain, and allow myself to talk about the sport of Formula 1 in general. This is brought on by a tweet this morning by the CEA, the (fabulous) crew of fire marshals at Monza (and Imola). The tweet shows the start of restoration on the tarmac at Parabolica. It jarred me to realise that even Monza has raised the spectre of no longer being able to host the Italian Grand Prix.

This summer has been oddly and uncomfortably full of ruminations and reflections as to what’s wrong with F1. Commissions have been formed . . . and disbanded. Those asking the question itself are accused of negativity. And meanwhile, a spine tingling championship is underway, with team orders given and followed, team orders given and disobeyed, and drivers battling as much with their minds as with their cars. And the cars – brand new, beautiful machines with power trains that are stunning in their sophistication. Is there anything REALLY wrong at all?

Let’s imagine something, to help me illustrate my answer to that question.

I’ve just built a bottling factory. Modern, efficient, state-of-the-art. And you, well you have a soft drink you need bottled. A very popular soft drink indeed. People all over the world want to drink it. And you want to use MY factory to bottle it!

When the time comes to do the deal, you tell me “there’s just one thing Gary. Our business model is a bit . . . unconventional. You see, normally I’d pay to use your factory. But since my beverage is SO popular, YOU’RE gonna have to pay ME for the privilege of hosting my drink”.

I guess you see the concerned look on my face. My factory cost money to build. It costs money to maintain. Everybody ELSE rents my factory when they want to use it. I seek reassurances.

“Don’t worry a bit, Gary, you can run guided tours and have people pay to see your factory working. And you can serve them lunch!”

I guess you see what I’m getting at. I’ll have to charge $100 for a tour, and get 100,000 people over the weekend. No way that’s gonna happen. A guaranteed loss. Every time. Damn.

Right now, as we all know, for $15 million or so, a circuit can buy the privilege of hosting an F1 race. And all it has to do to recoup that is to sell tickets and hotdogs. A lot of VERY expensive tickets and hotdogs. Not one cent of the TV revenues generated by that race, and not 1 metre of signage around the circuit can be used to generate revenue for the circuit itself.

It’s not FOM who makes F1 tickets astronomically expensive. It’s the circuits. Do the math. You need to make up several million dollars with three days of tickets, food, and beer. No wonder it’s only races with government support that avoid the year to year threat of bankruptcy.

So here we are with the backbone of the season, with virtually every European F1 circuit, either under severe financial threat . . . or gone. Spa, Monza, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Nurburgring, etc. This is insane.

Why do these circuits not do what any normal owners of crucial and rare resources would do? Form a cartel.

Why do the owner/operators of the “classic” circuits of the season not band together to put an end to the bizarro world of F1 circuit use. You want to use our infrastructure? It will cost you this much, plus a percent of global TV revenues (averaged over a season, to avoid late season races, with their bigger box offices, earning more just by their place in the calendar), plus some portion of the signage at our circuit.

Sure Bernie will bluster. He’ll threaten to go elsewhere. And to some extent he will go elsewhere- he’s been “going elsewhere” for years now. But remember a few things:

  • F1 homologated circuits are not a dime a dozen. They are rare birds indeed, and the lag time from project to race is YEARS.
  • Google earth is littered with abandoned Tilke-domes, each having cost $200-400 million. Think Istanbul, Korea, India. (What will archeologists in 500 years think these things were?) Only governments awash in petro- (or narco!) dollars will keep building these white elephants, and even that will ultimately peter out. Even the most corrupt autocrats have better ways to waste $400 million!
  • Even if FOM moves strategically away from Europe, it’s wrong to think that the circuits will be losing a prestigious money-making event (countries might be, clubs might be, fans might be . . .); in FACT, they’ll be (temporarily, see below) losing their biggest headache of the year. As a taxpayer here in Belgium, the question of who exactly is going to foot the known and expected loss from the upcoming Belgian GP is a perennial favourite, of which I’m growing quite sick.
  • FOM cannot, by the nature of the series, reduce the number of European/North American/South American races well below half (or slightly more) of the season. How many corners on ANY new-ish circuit do you remember? Is there an Eau Rouge? A 130R? A Becketts-Maggotts complex? A Tabac? This is not a diatribe about circuits, but dammit, they really ARE intimately involved in what we love about the sport. People will not get up early, or stay up late, to watch a race if this is not felt viscerally to be a EUROPEAN series. They’ll watch the evening news, and see the best overtakings and the results . . . and there go your TV revenues Mr. E. Sooner or later, European races will have to comprise close to the bulk of the season, with a smattering of exoticism added, because it’s F1.

Enormous advantages would accrue from a system like this. Not least would be a significant lowering of ticket prices, and an opening of the sport to a wider audience AT THE CIRCUIT. And as you all know, once you’ve seen this sport live, you’re hooked forever!

A different system for distributing revenues from the sport would vastly increase the “health” of the infrastructure supporting it. The team principles, until now staggering by how completely they ignore the long term interests of the sport that gave them all yachts and Gulfstreams, and FOM itself, would have to make do with slightly less. But the pillars of our sport would survive and flourish, and government support for what many view as a frivolous pastime would largely become unnecessary.

Rant over.