Safety fears plunge MotoGP into existential crisis

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Moto3 rider Izan Guevara of Spain and GASGAS Aspar Team rides during the free practice session of the MotoGP Monster Energy British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on August 05, 2022 in Northampton, England - Steve Wobser/Getty Images
Moto3 rider Izan Guevara of Spain and GASGAS Aspar Team rides during the free practice session of the MotoGP Monster Energy British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit on August 05, 2022 in Northampton, England - Steve Wobser/Getty Images

For Scott Ogden, an 18-year-old rising star of MotoGP, the answer is simple: if you are good enough and fast enough then you are old enough.

But not everyone agrees. MotoGP and its Moto3 entry classes, with its blend of teenage angst, lightweight bikes and aggressive riding tactics, is a sport grappling with an existential crisis over who should be allowed to ride, brought into focus by the deaths of two youngsters last year, including a 15-year-old at world championship level in WorldSBK. In a rapid response, new rules are due to come in next season raising the minimum age to 18, a direct response to the tragedies.

Yet Ogden, who is jostling for space in Moto3 at the British GP at Silverstone this weekend and for the first home Grand Prix of his rookie season and is better placed than anybody to comment on the issue, is adamant that it was not age that caused the tragedies, and that the risks are a fact of life for top riders.

'We all know the risks when we get on the bike'

“What happened last year was sad but it is one of those things,” he says. “It’s not the age, it’s the actions of the riders and they will do it at 25 or at 16.”

MotoGP safety has improved enormously in the last five years, thanks to developments in rider protection - mandatory airbags and more dynamic helmet standards - but fatalities still stalk the sport.

It is stark, then, to hear Ogden talk of the risks riders are willing to take doing the job they love - even if it results in their death.

“Last year was a bad one for the sport but I don’t think it should be all ‘bad press’ because those guys loved what they were doing,” he adds.

Algarve International Circuit, Portim‹o, Portugal on 24 April 2022 #19 Scott Ogden, British, Vision Track, during the Moto3 race, Grande Premio Tissot de Portugal - Every Second Media / Alamy Stock Photo
Algarve International Circuit, Portim‹o, Portugal on 24 April 2022 #19 Scott Ogden, British, Vision Track, during the Moto3 race, Grande Premio Tissot de Portugal - Every Second Media / Alamy Stock Photo

“We all know the risks when we get on the bike. These things… they are rare… but they can happen. It’s sad at the time but you have to move forward and as a rider you cannot afford to think about it otherwise you will lose that 1 per cent to push for results.”

Ogden’s Moto3 class, in particular, is one of three races on a Grand Prix weekend that routinely has spectators either watching on the edge of their seat or nervously through their fingers.

Moto3 is a buzzing hive of youthful exuberance, desperation, risk-taking and no shortage of skills and courage. The 250cc bikes supplied by brands such as KTM, Gasgas, Honda and Husqvarna are purposely regulated to offer minimal performance differential; the riders create results through their tyre preservation, bravery and race tactics. Typical scenes involve last lap squabbles of large groups split by slithers of a second. Moto3 has been responsible for the closest finales of all-time. At Mugello, Italy in 2017 the top 21 finishers were split by less than 3.5 seconds.

The category has become more controversial recently. Repeated sanctions for exceeding track limits and ‘unsafe’ riding as racers linger on track in search of a slipstream ‘tow’ for the ideal qualification lap have obscured results and achievements.

The antics have swung discussion towards the hazards of adolescents let loose and closely bunched on super-light 150mph machinery. The concern rose substantially after the death of Jason Dupasquier, 19, last May in Italy as the Swiss fell and was hit, and also of Spaniard Dean Berta Vinales - the 15-year-old cousin of current MotoGP rider Maverick Vinales - while contesting WorldSSP300: World Superbike’s feeder class.

“We’re racing, and you have to stop people overtaking you,” Ogden outlines. “But it also gets to a point where it is dangerous, and you know accidents happen.

“Everyone wants to prove themselves in Moto3. I won’t do it [excessive tactics]…but if someone else does then - it is what it is - and I won’t complain about it.”

'Riders now don't have any fear... they will do anything to win'

Ogden has raised many eyebrows with his unexpected competitiveness on the new British VisionTrack Racing Team and has been trying to juggle the demands of the contest while knowing what the potential price might entail. The ‘all-costs’ mentality of some of his eager peers hike the stakes but being in the thick of it means Ogden, as an exciting prospect, must rationalise his part.

“Watching it from outside you’d think ‘these guys are crazy’ but as a rider it feels kinda slow,” the Yorkshireman says. “Changing line and touching other riders means that you don’t really think about the consequences and that’s the problem with smaller [cylinder] classes like the 300s. Riders now don’t have any fear. They will do anything to win. They don’t feel the consequences. You only feel the speed when you crash. I have to say though, it’s exhilarating and fun but at the same time it doesn’t look as bad as it does on TV.”

Scott Ogden (19) of Great Britain and VisionTrack Racing Team during qualifying of Grande Premio Tissot de Portugal at Autodromo do Algarve on April 23, 2022 in Lagoa, Algarve, Portugal - Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Scott Ogden (19) of Great Britain and VisionTrack Racing Team during qualifying of Grande Premio Tissot de Portugal at Autodromo do Algarve on April 23, 2022 in Lagoa, Algarve, Portugal - Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The FIM and MotoGP’s promoter, Dorna Sports, responded to the tragedy seen in 2021 and the spotlight thrown on the age (and conduct) of the participants in Grand Prix by raising the minimum requirement from 16 to 18 for 2023 and to 14 for the ‘Road to MotoGP’ schemes such as the British Talent Cup, JuniorGP and the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup.

Moto3 will fixate motorsport fans for better or for worse but there is little doubting the utter commitment of the racers. “There are points where it is quite scary, when a rider nearly knocks you off going down the straight, but it’s normally not that bad,” Ogden tells us, matter-of-factly.

“On the bike I’m totally aware of everything that’s happening, and that’s quite funny because away from the track I’m one of the clumsiest people,” he smiles. “On the bike you cannot be like that. Again, it’s tough to explain but if you grow up riding, almost on a daily basis, then it becomes so natural.”

Ogden knows his first home Grand Prix will be blurry milestone. VisionTrack’s Hondas, under the stewardship of former GP runner and now nuanced BT Sport presenter Michael Laverty, have become a mainstay in a division that offers some of the most entertaining but anxious action of any MotoGP fixture but John McPhee, Josh Whatley, Sam Lowes, Jake Dixon and wildcard BSB rider Rory Skinner are other local hopes in both Moto3 and Moto2 that will be roaming Silverstone’s limits.

Danny Kent was the last UK rider to win at Silverstone in 2015. That feat is too much to ask of Ogden even if the Moto3 tombola of fate might roll his way. “It’s one track where I hope everything goes to plan. A podium there…wow,” he says.

“It will be hectic because everyone will be hyped about the new team but I’ve ridden decently there in the past and a lot of the new guys in Moto3 won’t know the track that well. It will be a nice moment for all of us. As a young British guy, you need to keep working and progressing. I want a lot more.”

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