The casual MotoGP fan may not realize just how much Grand Prix motorcycle racing means to the British. Similar to the long tradition of success for American riders, British motorbike history includes some great champions and an important legacy of cultural contributions to top level racing.
It has been a while since the British had a premier class champ, but just as America dominated for over a decade with Roberts, Spencer, Rainey, Lawson, and Schwantz, the British once ruled the two-wheeled world with such legendary names as Sheene, Read, Surtees, Duke, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Hailwood.
So the British Grand Prix is simply a weightier affair than a MotoGP race in a country without decades of tradition haunting the grandstands and paddock. This is especially true when there are British riders contending for victory in their home race.
Perhaps Cal Crutchlow wasn’t a favorite for victory, but many in the paddock feel that if any current rider is going to join Ben Spies as the only other non-alien to win a dry race, it will be Crutchlow, and if that is to happen, where better than at Silverstone?
Magic does happen, and magic often happens for the local rider, inspired by the crowd’s support to achieve beyond his habits. But just as being in one’s home race can inspire to greatness, it can also mount such pressure that delivering even a standard performance is a challenge.
Whether it is trying too hard in front of the home fans, or distractions from the greater demands of publicity and media responsibilities which are common at home races, or just rotten luck that for some reason had to happen at home, the home-field advantage can seem something like a curse rather than a blessing.
Each time I come to the British GP, I get the feeling that no group of riders has a more daunting challenge when it comes to performing for the home fans than do the British riders. I don’t suppose there is an empirical way to determine if I’m right — it’s just a feeling I first noticed at Donington in 2008, and have had every year since.
The crowd at the British GP is into it in a very nationalistic way. Sure, you see Spanish flags at the Spanish rounds, Italian flags at the Italian rounds, and so on. But for my part, I don’t feel the same level of nationalism anywhere outside of England.
It seems to me that the British fans want a British champ in a way only those who once ruled a sport, but long, long ago, can do. And if I can feel this as an American, I can’t only imagine what the British riders must feel in the same environment.
Since Cal Crutchlow is one of the MotoGP riders I know best, I’m always hoping for him to do well, and particularly at his home race. But he had another difficult British GP, with several crashes followed by a disappointing race. However, his disappointments came after an amazing performance by Scott Redding.
Leading up to Silverstone, Redding had many searching their memories for the last time a British rider of any G.P. class came to his home race while leading in championship points. Redding had commented that his first concern was the Moto2 title, and he’d put points above a victory if it came to that.
Still, among the native punters expectations were high for Redding’s success. Rival Takaaki Nakagami beat Redding for pole by four hundredths of a second, but clearly Redding’s pace was there if he could just avoid succumbing to the pressures of a home race.
When he’d won the 125cc race in 2008 at the tender age of fifteen, he was hardly a favorite as he’d not been on the podium in his first seven GP races, so expectations weren’t particularly high for a good result.
But even at fifteen, he’d shown he was a rider who could handle the pressure of the home race, and he stood on the top step alongside another fifteen year old, some Spanish kid named Marc Marquez who’d finished in third place.
When the Moto2 race began on Sunday, Redding grabbed the lead and thrilled the local crowd by battling with Thomas Luthi and Nakagami down to the final laps. Brave enough to don a UK-themed livery for the occasion (just ask James Toseland how this can backfire), Redding led much of the race until surrendering first place to a Japanese rival who was hungry for his first GP win.
Instead of sitting in second and accepting the 20 points, however, Redding fought back and claimed the victory, leaving Nakagami deflated in parc fermé after coming so close to that maiden victory.
So for the British fans it was a weekend of elation and heartbreak, but mainly, I think, of the former. Hearing God Save the Queen over the loudspeakers during the Moto2 podium ceremony was a lovely accompaniment to the memories of past British champions.
And as if helping to write my conclusion for me, after the race, Redding dedicated his victory to one of his heroes: Barry Sheene.
Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blog, Twitter, & Facebook.
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Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved