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Paul Lindsay: It's a tough time, but the show must go on

By Paul Lindsay

Published 19/05/2016

Cut short: Crowds at the NW200 head home early after the event was ended early
Cut short: Crowds at the NW200 head home early after the event was ended early

When things go wrong in life, it's human nature to look around and point the finger of blame in every other direction, when in reality the foundation of the problem is usually at our own feet.

Sadly for the sport of road racing, when the unthinkable happens - as was the case last Saturday at the Vauxhall International North West 200, where 20-year-old Malachi Mitchell-Thomas lost his life following a crash in a Supertwins race - the finger of blame comes from the outside, usually unsubstantiated, and for no other reason than to voice personal opinion.

We can defend or we can criticise. But there's no getting away from the fact that motorsport - on two wheels or four - is dangerous. It cannot be made totally risk-free - those within the respective motorsporting disciplines can only endeavour to make their events as safe as possible for competitors.

Did that happen at last week's North West 200? I would have to say yes.

Everyone has an opinion. But what we must base any debate on is fact. Some have said that Mitchell-Thomas was possibly 'too young' to be competing at the North West at 20 years of age. I totally disagree.

I would be the first person to use the old adage, 'if you are good enough, you are old enough'. Again that must be based on fact, and the fact is that the youngster finished an impressive fourth in last Saturday's Supersport race.

Not only that, but he was a seasoned campaigner for such a young man, having competed on the Isle of Man TT Circuit and the Southern 100 for the past two years, which in real terms offer a more significant risk factor than the NW200 - such is the challenging nature of both circuits.

Last year, he won the Senior Manx Grand Prix and set a new lap record for the class in the process (122.221mph) around the toughest and most demanding 38 miles of road racing tarmac in the world.

The record he set en route to that Senior MGP win last year had stood for a decade. The then 19-year-old joined an elite band to lap the TT circuit at over 120mph on a 600cc machine, also setting a new Junior MGP record at 120.565mph.

He also raced against legendary MotoGP star Valentino Rossi on a Supermoto machine and competed in the cut and thrust Superstock 600cc class within the British Championship.

Does that sound like a young man not capable of handling a road racing motorcycle?

The other notable debate on limiting newcomers at the North West 200 to lower capacity machinery is also nonsensical, as his crash happened on a 650cc Supertwin machine with under 100bhp compared to the Superbike machinery with more than double that.

And we must also remember that he crashed on virtually the same piece of tarmac and same type of machinery as Dungannon's Ryan Farquhar (Ireland's most experienced and successful performer) had done, less than 48 hours earlier.

In recent years the event has taken on board constructive criticism and implemented much-needed change to improve the slickness of the event, and on the safety side they could never be criticised for negligence or complacency.

The Motor Cycle Union of Ulster Centre Medical Team boasts some of the best medical personnel in the business. And you can add to that ongoing track improvements, an army of marshals and helpers and over 500 safety bales and a glut of state-of-the-art air fences.

Not forgetting, of course, the all-new and much-publicised Air Ambulance, which was successfully deployed on more than one occasion at this year's event.

The anti-road racing brigade will run out of steam, just as they always do, but looking at the event under the microscope, is there anything that could be changed?

Personally, and I have said this for years, I would like to see Event Director Mervyn Whyte (left) observe all things racing from a central location with a well-equipped incident team around him.

It's impossible to remain emotionally unattached when you have to attend an incident like the one involving young Malachi. There's always a duty of care to your competitors, but with 50,000 people lining the circuit and a six-figure sponsorship in place, there's also a duty to the paying public and your commercial commitments.

I think the most fitting tribute to Malachi would have been to finish the rest of last Saturday's race programme, which was cut short after the seriousness of the situation became clear.

It's an observation - certainly not a criticism - that if we within the sport accept the fact that tragedies can happen, then we must act accordingly and professionally when they do.

Belfast Telegraph

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