As I watched the World Superbike races last weekend at the Autodromo de Enzo y Dino Ferrari (a.k.a. Imola), I could not help but think of the circuit’s recent past. The place is steeped in motorsports history. Who can forget the images of World Superbike greats like Bayliss and Edwards going like hell in the “Showdown.” While I was not a World Superbike fan at the time, Imola will always have a special place in my heart. I have only seen the circuit through a television screen, but it held the first Formula 1 grand prix I ever watched. I was mesmerized not only by the technology and sexy-fast appearance of the F1 cars, but also by the evident challenge the circuit posed to drivers and teams alike. The circuit’s flowing yet challenging nature drew me to it. In particular, I fell in love with the Piratella corner. It is fast, flowing, technical, and visually stunning all at the same time.
Despite my long-held affection for the place, Imola’s recent reception and impact on the World Superbike community makes me wonder whether World Superbike should continue to race there. Yes, I am aware that Ducati’s factory and headquarters is right down the road from Imola. However, for a company so deeply immersed in a history of competition, Ducati should understand as much as any other OEM the value of safety to their brand. I am not talking here of the death of Ayrton Senna. As the motorsports community recently took pause on the anniversary of his tragic passing, the impact of losing Senna sent tidal waves through the grand prix racing community. Changes were immediately made to the circuit and the series to redress the oversights and failures that led to his unfortunate passing.
However, World Superbike has taken a very different approach to Imola compared to Formula 1’s actions 20 years ago. My reservations about Imola began when Joan Lascorz, a very talented rider riding for the Kawasaki factory team, crashed and was paralyzed in 2012. Reports indicate that Lascorz was coming over the crest into the Piratella when his bike had a violent tank-slapper, crashed, and Lascorz’s back struck an exposed concrete wall. As I watched the race this year, I tried to pay careful attention to that wall, looking to see if the wall had been moved or covered with air fence. While there may have been a tire wall behind a lime-green cover to match the rest of the track’s barriers, it appears that the concrete barrier that took away Lascorz’s ability to walk and race remains firmly in place. Moreover, Steve Martin’s color commentary for the last 3 years makes clear that there is insufficient run-off room at the entrance to the Piratella complex. The same could be said for the Variante Bassa. Despite the low speeds it is designed to create, it provides riders little to no margin for error as they exit the chicane.
In a sport that is presently marked by unavoidable danger (e.g. the Marco Simoncelli accident) and a hooliganistic media image, the sport cannot afford to sacrifice safety in the name of either history or profit. While the aura of racing in venues like Imola and Monza may be attractive, motorcycle road racing’s leaders have the responsibility of protecting and improving the sports’ image and protecting riders from having to choose between going racing and personal safety. For a problem that has had such dire consequences as well as pointed media attention, what does it say when a series continues to host an event in spite of obvious danger? World Superbike is not alone. While I will discuss AMA Pro Racing’s failures of this sort in a separate article, World Superbike needs to understand that the best safety practices are proactive, not reactive. Unless structural changes are made to the facility, World Superbike runs the risk of having to learn the hard way the lessons Imola painfully taught Formula 1 over 20 years ago. I am not writing this because I have a perfect solution. Rather I am merely pointing out the severity of an obvious problem that could have a lasting, painful impact of the sport’s future.