x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE motorsport officials out to drive safety message home

Last month's tragic deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli are an untimely reminder that safety must always be at the forefront.

A crash between Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes GP and Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi at the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year was quickly dealt with by the marshals.
A crash between Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes GP and Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi at the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year was quickly dealt with by the marshals.

Warning! Motorsport can be dangerous. Despite the organisers taking all reasonable precautions unavoidable accidents can happen. In respect of this you are present at your own risk.

Those are the words that appear on motorsport tickets and promotional material across the world, but sometimes it takes tragedy to reinforce their gravity.

Safety in the sport has come sharply into focus following two fatal accidents on the track in the space of seven days last month.

Dan Wheldon, an experienced English racing driver, was killed after being part of a 15-car crash at an IndyCar Series race in Las Vegas. Seven days later, Marco Simoncelli, the Italian motorcyclist, died at the MotoGP Malaysian Grand Prix when he lost control of his machine and slid across the track and wasstruck by the bikes of Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards.

As the UAE prepares for its biggest motorsport event of the year on Sunday, the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina, safety is a central theme.

There has not been a death in F1 since May 1994 when Ayrton Senna, the three-time world champion, died of head injuries after crashing during the San Marino Grand Prix.

"The numbers prove accidents have reduced immensely," Mohammed ben Sulayem, the President of the Automobile and Touring club UAE, and the FIA vice president for sport, said. "There are less accidents and when there are accidents, the chances of it being fatal are less."

Still, Richard Cregan, the Yas track's chief executive, is taking nothing for granted. He says the officials at Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management are continually monitoring the facility's safety levels, marshals and medical facilities.

"I think you can never be happy with your safety standards," he said.

"I think you will always have to strive to improve. Our track is one of the most safety conscious in the world. We have achieved a level of safety which is required by the FIA, but we strive to attain more and we work very closely with the FIA.

"But I think every so often, these accidents … do remind us that motorsport is dangerous and no matter what safety precautions you are taking, these things can happen."

Yas Marina meets all the safety standards demanded by the FIA, motorsport's ruling body, which were robustly implemented by Max Mosley, the former FIA president.

"He was like a big sledgehammer when it came to safety," ben Sulayem said. "He would not tolerate it. He would not tolerate any compromises on safety and if they [officials and race organisers] did not do something, they would be fired. I can see how safe this sport has become in the last 10 years."

In the two Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, there has been one accident of note; Vitantonio Liuzzi colliding with Michael Schumacher's spun Mercedes last year.

The feeling is shared at Dubai Autodrome, which hosted the Dubai Motorsport Festival last weekend.

The venue had to deal with two tragedies of its own last year. Christophe Hissette died following an accident in a GulfSport Radical Cup qualifying session in April 2010 in which his car caught fire, while Pascal Grosjean died from injuries sustained from being struck by another bike during the slowing down lap after a UAE Superbike Championship race in November 2010.

"There is always a risk [of an accident]. It is about trying to minimise that risk," Richard Birch, the track and venue manager at the Autodrome, said. Ben Sulayem concurs. "You can minimise it, but you cannot stop it," he said.

Birch added: "What you have to remember is that an accident is usually caused by one of three things: the driver, the vehicle or the circuit. So you have got to address those three.

"We are pretty confident that the circuit is well manned and covered. So we just try to improve in the driver briefings and the driver behaviour of the circuit."

The importance of educating drivers is supported by Guy Sheffield, the general manager at Al Ain Raceway, which is hosting the karting Rotax Max Grand Finals this month.

Every driver, be they young or old, a novice or experienced, is given a track briefing and safety guide. The competitors are left under no illusions about the potential danger.

"Motorsport ultimately is dangerous and everyone, be they an eight-year-old cadet or a Formula One driver, all know there is a risk going into what they are going to do," Sheffield said. "Safety is our top priority. It is really important that we make it safe for people."

Ben Sulayem claims the National Rallying Championship has not been held for two years because "we don't have cars that meet regulations".

"[Safety] is one of the reasons for my problems with local drivers and championship," he said. "They don't see it. I plead with them, beg them to follow the safety rules, but they don't listen ... If you don't know what's good for your life, I don't want to responsible for it."

Ben Sulayem, who competed in 61 rally events, is well aware of the dangers of motorsport. In the 2001 Rally Lebanon he suffered first-degree burns to his face and neck after an accident. He also broke his neck.

"I don't want anybody to go through what I went through," he said. "I have seen it, I have lived it and I know it is easy to prevent it."

The deaths of Wheldon and Simoncelli have served as an unwelcome reminder of the pitfalls of motorsport but they do not seem to have dulled enthusiasm for racing in the UAE. More than 80 people took to the Autodrome track over the weekend.

Mahmoud Tannir, who leads the UAE Superbike Championship series this season, said he was aware of the risks, but chose to race because it was something he loved to do.

"I love the feeling you get from riding on the track," the Lebanese rider said. "It is the adrenalin. It is a passion that every rider has,"

"It [safety] is something that you definitely think about when you are off the track as when you are on the track you need to think these safety features are very much covered.

"For us the Autodrome has done its best to make the facility as safe as possible."

Mohammed Al Dhaheri, who is representing the UAE in the karting Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals at Al Ain, says he tries to block thoughts of danger.

"Whenever I am in a car, the only thing I really focus on is how to be first and how to have a very fast lap," he said. "So everything else goes away."

Ben Sulayem feels the issues of safety should never go away.

"There are two things: safety and restrictions on the power. You cannot have a 25 or 30-year-old car with 600 horsepower. It's not safe. That kind of power will break the car and cause accidents.

"The drivers and riders have to follow the regulations. I am sorry, I don't want to be a part of a tragedy. I know they don't like what I do when it comes to safety, but I will not compromise on safety."

gcaygill@thenational.ae

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rizvi