Photo: Yamaha Racing
If you wanted further proof that the KTM 1290 Super Duke that was teased last week is a trade show special, and not the production version of the street-hooligan machine, look no further than this spy photo that the Dutch folks at Oliepeil snagged ahead of the EICMA motorcycle show.
With all three world titles settled as we head to Valencia, some find their attention more focussed on the test that follows the season’s final round, rather than on who will win any of the weekend’s three races.
Certainly Rossi’s future reunited with Yamaha and Jorge Lorenzo as teammate is a subject of great interest, as is Marc Marquez on a factory Honda. But also there’s the future of Ducati to ponder, as a returning Nicky Hayden is joined by Andrea Dovizioso, while Ben Spies and Andrea Iannone join up to ride for the factory’s junior team.
Here are four gifted riders with several world championships between them. But as good as they are, none of them is Casey Stoner. And none of them has the financial backing of Valentino Rossi, who was able to ask for major changes to the GP11 and GP12 designs, none of which resulted in a package that would allow Rossi to return to the front of the pack.
This past weekend at Phillip Island was a memorable experience in two distinct but related ways. It was my first visit to this famous track, and I arrived with high expectations, but figured I’d be at least a little disappointed. For all the hyperbole heaped on Phillip Island’s GP course, how could it be that great?
But as I explored the track, which immediately reminded me of one of my favorite courses in the world, Donington Park, I found that once again, TV fails to deliver the full picture. Phillip Island not only has interesting and exciting turns and elevation changes, but is also set in a gorgeous landscape of green and blue.
It has few of the eyesores than usually adorn race tracks. There are no giant wire fences, very little Armco away from the pit lane, few trackside porta-potties or trailers, and from what I saw, no orange cones. Instead there are lush grasses and dense forests of trees, or blue ocean water with sea birds in the air.
Spectators are allowed close and unobstructed views of the track and we photographers are allowed even closer. If a TV stand or food vendor is spoiling your background, you can often move to a different position and make the distration disappear from the shot. When I first arrived I asked in the Media Center for a map of the Red Zones, places around the track they don’t want us to go.
I got a puzzled look and this reply: “Ummm, I don’t think there are any. Just go where you want unless a marshall objects.” There seems to be only one general rule: if you see a row of tires, don’t stand between the those tires and the track. If you can respect that amount of common sense, pretty much anywhere else is available.
So working there was a pleasure and I seemed to be in a land of nearly endless possibilities for images. I can imagine it would take years of shooting there regularly to be confident you’d found most of the really good perspectives.
Even before I met Max Biaggi in 2011, I had the sense that here was someone who takes himself and his racing pretty seriously. From the immaculately trimmed facial hair, to his manner in the pit box, to his long career as a motorcycle racer, if there is anything he takes lightly, it is certainly not racing.
Some riders are approachable, quick to smile, who naturally put others at ease even on race weekends. Biaggi is not among this group. But I didn’t appreciate just how intense he is when he’s at work until, as one of my contributions to benefit Riders for Health, I decided to ask him to sign a print I was donating at last year’s Miller WSBK round.
I had brought a matted print of Biaggi from 2010 with me, and as I approached the track on Saturday morning I considered that it would likely fetch a higher price, and thus a greater donation to Riders for Health, if it bore Max’s signature. So I set about getting that done with no idea how easy or difficult it might be.
First I approached the Aprilia media officer, a pleasant fellow who worked with me, half in Italian and half in English, to come up with a plan to approach his star rider. He suggested we talk to someone in the pit box, someone who knew Max better than he did in his recently acquired role with the team.
We descended into the Aprilia garage and found someone whose exact role I never understood, but who also liked the idea of doing something for Riders for Health. He did not, however, care to be the one to bring it directly to Max. The three of us considered the situation and appealed to one of the senior mechanics, who gave us a sympathetic look and said in gestures instead of words that he wanted no part of the business.
We stood to the side of the box, waiting for inspiration, and I wondered if the plan were doomed. Max spoke to mechanics as if discussing matters of life and death. Team members approached him respectfully, presented their concerns for his comment, and left him alone. In some garages the guys joke and there is music in the business of racing motorbikes. In Max’s garage, it’s more like a war room, its business deadly serious.
As the other motorcycling World Championship, World Superbike has its own amazing stories to tell, stories often very weird relative to what we are used to in MotoGP. When I went to shoot WSBK for the first time, some of my MotoGP buddies told me the same thing: don’t get spoiled, it’s a different world there. Indeed, one MotoGP veteran left Grand Prix to make his new home in WSBK and hired someone else to cover the Aliens on his behalf.
Instead of three riders on the grid fighting among themselves for the victory, WSBK saw six different winners in the first six races of the 2012 season. Instead of three manufacturers (well, two, really) fighting for wins in MotoGP, five stood atop the WSBK podium in those first six races. With one race weekend to go, nine riders have won races. Compared to MotoGP, talk about weird!
Instead of riders over 30-years-old being hounded by lightning-fast 20-somethings, riders seem to bloom around 40, enjoying second or even third winds in their careers. The lower level of technology allows rider experience to count against the raw physical talent of youth. The playing field is more even, the racing is less about having the latest parts that separate the factory teams from the satellite ones.
Tom Sykes is a motorbike racer who could be the next WSBK world champion, and a protagonist in a story remarkably different from the usual MotoGP fare. Sykes is 30.5 points behind Biaggi with one round, two races, and 50 points to go.
It is a tribute to the skill of MotoGP mechanics how easily we can forget that motorbike racing truly is a team sport. Though the rider is the most visible member of the team, the one who captures the hearts of fans and the one whose talents are most likely to inspire us, without top level support from a team, the rider is helpless. On the rare occasion that the team fails their rider, only then are we likely to recognize how good a job they do the rest of the time.
Dani Pedrosa’s nightmare in Misano was a painful example of this. On pole position, 13 points behind Jorge Lorenzo, having finished every race so far this season, and with his best chance ever finally to win a premiere class title, Pedrosa was forced to start from the back of the grid after his team couldn’t free the front tire warmer and had to move his bike from the grid to pit lane. From outside HRC, we don’t know exactly what happened.
Going through images of the 2008 British GP at Donington Park, I got to thinking about what a strange road it has been for Ben Spies. It started when Loris Capirossi was injured and Suzuki needed a rider to wild card at the event. Ben was their hot young AMA Superbike champ, and together with Mat Mladin, accounted for years of utter Suzuki dominance in the class.
I spoke briefly to Ben that Thursday as his #11 was displayed to replace Capirossi’s #65 for the first time. As soft-spoken and affable as ever, Ben didn’t seem over-awed by MotoGP, but just got about his job of not crashing Loris’ motorcycle. He would later go on to win the World Superbike title, and was rookie of the year at Tech 3. Again, all with his typical composure.
Since then we have seen his rising star take a sharp turn to port. He has managed to show signs of his potential, such as his win at Assen last year. But this year in particular he has been a frightful reminder that talent, hard work, and a good machine are not quite enough for success as a motorbike racer. As Ben’s bad luck has refused to come to an end, I’m not the only one in the paddock thinking about it. In Ben, the riders have another walking reminder of the uncertainties they face.
Yes, this is a shameless plug, but every time I visit Scott at his office, I admire this print of Casey Stoner that he has hanging on his wall. I am obviously a bit biased when it comes to Scott’s work, as any Asphalt & Rubber reader probably already knows, but his photos have classed-up more than a few MotoGP-related articles here on A&R. I have stared at my fair share of Scott’s photography, but this photo of Casey has always struck me though. If you had to summarize Stoner’s dominance in the 2011 season, and maybe his career in MotoGP overall, I think it can be done in this single-instance that Scott has captured.
People will always have their opinions about Casey Stoner, and many of his detractors put an asterisk next to his MotoGP Championship victory in 2007. Whether Casey was on the right tires, or Rossi was on the wrong ones, the fact remains that Stoner won a championship on a machine that spoke a language that Capirossi, Bayliss, Checa, Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden, and Rossi could not understand. A polarizing figure, sure, but any person capable of truly appreciating the art of riding a MotoGP machine to the limit will recognize the mastery in Stoner’s 2011 season, and possibly his career as a whole.
Finishing off the podium only once, when Rossi’s “ambition exceeded his talent,” Stoner didn’t just ride a consistent Championship, he rode a dominant one. Dragging elbows at will, spinning the rear-wheel down impossible racing lines, and decimating his competition in turn, it is hard to go from Casey’s masterful 2011 season, to the beginning of 2012 where he stunned the paddock and announced his retirement.
Looking at Scott’s photo of Casey at Catalunya, it is hard to imagine that we will soon be running out of examples of this kind of performance on two-wheels. Thankfully we do have moments like this in the public record, and for a fortunate few, the capturing of Casey at his finest can be held everlasting. I was with Scott at Laguna Seca when Stoner signed these prints earlier this season, and even the reigning-World Champion seemed impressed with Scott’s photo — maybe even a bit reminiscent. I think the lucky few who happen to buy one of these limited edition prints will be equally impressed with them as well. Some words from Scott after the jump.