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Race Director explains decision to race without helicopter

Published: 13 October 2015

Race Direction came under a lot of scrutiny on Sunday in Japan with their decision to allow the race to be held without the availability of a medical air ambulance. Coming just 24 hours after Alex de Angelis suffered a serious crash that required the San Marino rider to be airlifted to hospital the risks of racing without the helicopter were magnified.

On Sunday Race Director Mike Webb sat down with MCN to explain the decision making process for electing to opt for road transport to hospital in case of a serious incident. The New Zealander stressed that at no point were regulations changed to allow the race to be completed without the availability of the chopper and that at all times the safety of riders was of paramount concern.

MCN: The morning warmup sessions were delayed because of a lack of visibility for the air ambulance. What changed in the situation to allow the races to take place without the availability of the helicopter?

Mike Webb: We sent out a press release but when I read it again I think that the decision could have been explained better. The medical code that we work under allows us, and we use in lots of circuits, to what we have as the standard is a helicopter evacuation. And in various circumstances we can run without the helicopter, if the road access is sufficient.

In most of the places we race the road access is so close, so good that it’s not even an issue. A helicopter is a nice thing to have but we don’t have to have it available. However if we don't have one the chief medical officer and the medical director have to tell me it’s okay before we go ahead. So in Motegi we needed that clarification because of the distance to the hospital.

In past years, even up to 2013 was the last time, we basically canceled days of activity because of the helicopter issue. The standard of the ambulance is available here, the standard of the medical centre, the standard of the equipment that they had on site, and all of that in addition to the distance by road was too much of an obstacle. So in the past we didn't run without a helicopter here however since then they have vastly improved the medical center here with the equipment they’ve got, the people they’ve got. The ambulances have got the full equipment now that we require to do the highest level of ambulance which we didn’t have before.

So that has made it very much more… it’s quite a viable option to go by road. Our situation is we still much prefer to have the helicopter available, so we’re quite happy to delay, delay, delay until we have to. When it gets to the point where not many more delays, we’ve run out of options, and the weather doesn’t look like it’s going to change, that we start looking at the other options.

The other options are always there. We always know it’s plan B but we use them as a last resort. And what really clinches it this time is together with the equipment being much, much upgraded here at the circuit, the ambulance has been much, much upgraded. What we got was the cooperation of the local police to ensure a minimum time journey from here to the hospital, whereas in the past it could be easily well over an hour.

Where is the local hospital?

It’s the Dokkyo University Research Hospital. The closest hospital in Mito in not up to the standards we require. That hospital  very close, but it’s not up to the standard. So the approved hospital without the assistance of the local position is over an hour journey, whereas they were able to guarantee it would certainly be less than 50 minutes. That together with the fact that the ambulances, sufficient ambulances of the right quality are available, the road option is actually viable. Both the medical director and the chief medical officer are together with our doctors who are with us all the time, all agree. They were quite happy with that. We didn’t have to put them into that situation to sign that off unless we absolutely had to. We’d much prefer a helicopter, but they all said, it’s quite viable to run the race without it.

The timing of the decision, coming so close to the race start times, made things look as though the TV tail was wagging the dog.

It was very unfortunate the timing of it and actually just from a PR point of view we'd gone and shot ourselves in foot there. It should have been much, much earlier, first thing in the morning or even the day before saying, look, looking back to 2013 we do have this other option available. We use it as a last resort but it is a viable option. We should have that earlier and it looked horrible the way it was done. The CEO and the President of the FIM are here and that’s their medical code we work under. There was no question of changing the rules.

Does the final say still come down to you in these issues?

No, I’m race director so for everything on track, techncial, sporting and time tables, all of that’s me. But on something like medical the CMO, the local medical officer, is the absolute end, together with our medical director. If they both agree, that’s it. On the medical I don’t have any say.

So the only call on race day for you was to reduce the races to two thirds distance and change start times?

Yes, when the medical side made their decision and said that they were happy with the road option, it wasn't their preferred option but we got to the point where that’s the only option available, we then decided if we could go ahead and race. We waited as long as we can. We can shorten the races. We can delay them, and we can still have a program. And they were all happy with that.

I have to say really strongly that it was all done within the current regulations we work under with the FIM and they were here. There was never a question of them saying, we’ll change the regulations, or we’ll make an exception. It was no, it has to be done kind of rules. Which is in the medical code it says number one option is helicopter with the approval of the medical officer and the medical director. You can run without a helicopter if you want. It comes down to a medical decision and they were in the end happy they’d sworn that off. Our preferred option of a helicopter was exhausted but they said we can still race.

On the basis of what happened to Alex de Angelis as well though over the weekend the risks of running without the helicopter were clearly going to cause a lot of reaction with the public.

Yes, we should have made an announcement much earlier, maybe even on Saturday when we saw the forecast, that said “even without the helicopter we can race because the road options are now available because of the upgrades made to facilities, hospitals and the local police guaranteeing us a maximum journey time of 50 minutes to the hospital.” We should have made it very clear and then if we can’t have the helicopter because of visibility we’ll delay the sessions as much as we can.

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