VAL GARDENA, Italy — When overall World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal and downhill world champion Erik Guay speed down the tricky Saslong course this weekend, they will be collecting data for a groundbreaking air bag system that could have a big impact on skiing safety.
The World Cup circuit has been plagued by a series of life-threatening injuries in recent seasons, prompting the International Ski Federation to team with Italian manufacturer Dainese to adapt an air bag system that has been used in motorcycle racing since 2009.
FIS is allowing Dainese to outfit 10 athletes that it sponsors this week with special chips lodged in their back protectors that will record speed, angular rotation, acceleration and other information.
"We're just starting to collect data at this point," said Alessandro Bellatti, the Dainese engineer coordinating the project. "It's a more difficult project than the one for MotoGP, but we're fairly confident we can come up with something for most of the serious crashes."
In motorcycle racing, the air bag inflates when the body leaves the bike with a forward rotation, whereas in skiing the exact moment when a racer loses complete control is more difficult to ascertain.
Finding the exact algorithm to determine that point of no return is a major challenge, but Dainese is confident it can come up with a working product for the 2013-14 season — in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"The problem is that whereas in MotoGP we can gather data from 1,000 laps from 10 drivers in a single weekend, with skiing we only get 40 runs to work with," Bellatti said as he watched racers charge down the hill.
Dainese will continue its research at most of the downhill races this season.
"Alessandro is a smart guy," Svindal said. "He's got some crazy algorithms going on in his computer, so he definitely knows what he's doing. But it's fairly complicated.
"In a motorbike it was probably easier to rule out what is not possible. Like if the body is in this position it's over," Svindal added, turning his head nearly upside down. "I think for us, looking at some of the still photos around with gnarly positions, it could be a tough challenge."
Other athletes wearing the chips include super-G world champion Christof Innerhofer of Italy, Jan Hudec of Canada and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway.
The chips are turned on by connecting two wires coming out of the back protectors.
"It looks like two shoelaces sticking out of the back, and they come around front and you connect them, a light goes off, tuck it back in and away you go," Guay said.
If only avoiding crashes were so easy.
In 2008, American downhiller Scott Macartney suffered brain injuries and was kept in an induced coma after losing control and smashing his head on the final jump of the treacherous Streif course in Kitzbuehel, Austria. The next year, Daniel Albrecht of Switzerland suffered life-threatening brain and lung injuries after a crash in the exact same spot.
Hans Grugger is still working his way back from yet another horrific crash in Kitzbuehel in downhill training last season, while Austrian teammate Matthias Lanzinger had his left lower leg amputated three years ago after crashing in Kvitfjell, Norway.
And those are only the worst crashes. Each season, numerous racers suffer mild concussions and the list of torn knees is seemingly endless.
Three-time overall World Cup winner Lindsey Vonn had to pull out midway through last season's world championships after injuring her head slightly in training and American downhiller Marco Sullivan missed the second half of last season after a similar fall.
Sullivan and other racers would like to see the development of safer helmets.
"You see, we're all wearing these super-aerodynamic tiny helmets, but that's been the real catastrophic injuries the past few years, kind of one every year," said Sullivan, a 10-year veteran of the World Cup circuit.
"It's downhill skiing and there's going to be crashes, so if you can protect your melon a little better that's big," Sullivan added. "It would obviously take thicker helmets, and I think all the athletes would conform to that because if everyone is wearing them you're not losing out on the aerodynamics."
FIS men's World Cup race director Gunter Hujara noted that there are new approval standards for downhill and super-G helmets this season, and added that former World Cup standout Pernilla Wiberg is heading a FIS working group involving scientists at universities in Oslo, Stockholm and Innsbruck, Austria, to develop new helmet standards.
"They will analyze most of the falls we've had in the past to find the new specification, maybe, for future helmets," he said. "We are very busy."
Svindal had a gruesome crash in 2007 in Beaver Creek, Colo., and believes an air bag system might have prevented some of the injuries to his face, ribs and back. Although he wonders if it will do enough.
"When you see those crashes, like Grugger in Kitzbuehel, when you land and hook an edge like that at 120 kph (75 mph), it's a matter of a hundredth of a second until the head is hitting the snow, so will (an air bag) have time to (inflate)?" Svindal asked.
"With a car, the engine and hood can compress before an air bag goes out, so you delay (the) process until impact hits you," Svindal added. "But with a helmet this thick, there's no time. ... But if anyone can do it, they can. So it's cool that they're willing to invest in it."
In the MotoGP system, the air bag inflates under a racer's suit and becomes visible slightly at the neck and shoulders. It remains inflated for 10 seconds and then deflates, for falls in which a rider is able to get back onto his bike and continue racing.
Even in MotoGP, however, the air bags are no guarantee against serious injury.
Italian rider Marco Simoncelli was wearing the Dainese system when he died following a crash at the Malaysian MotoGP race in October.Comment on this story
Simoncelli died of chest, head and neck injuries after he lost control of his Honda and swerved across the track, straight into the path of American rider Colin Edwards and Italian rival Valentino Rossi.
According to Bellatti, Simoncelli's air bag system inflated when he hit the ground, but it was useless when he was hit by the other bikes.
"It works if you're rolling or falling, but when you get hit by another motorcycle it doesn't protect you," Bellatti said.
Still, as Svindal said, "That's no excuse for not trying. If you try you're going to fail, but if you don't try you're going to fail anyway."