2017 in Review: A Year of Farewells in Motorcycle Racing

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2017 has been a strange year in motorcycle racing. We have had one of the best ever seasons of racing in MotoGP, with close finishes and a surprise title challenger.

We have seen one of the best ever WorldSBK riders stamp his authority on the series, though that has also seen the championship suffer partly as a result.

We have seen young talent come through in the support classes, and older talent recognized and appreciated. There has been much to celebrate.

But there has also been much to mourn. 2017 saw two of the most iconic names in motorcycle racing lose their lives, ironically, both in traffic accidents and not on motorcycles.

Nicky Hayden was killed while out training on his bicycle, hit by a car as he crossed a road at a treacherous crossroads. Angel Nieto suffered head injuries when he was hit by a car while out riding a quad bike on Ibiza.

Nicky Hayden – Great Rider, Great Human

Though Nicky Hayden is not a candidate for the greatest rider of all time from a results perspective, his impact on the sport is undeniable.

He may only have had three Grand Prix victories to his name, but the way the American won the 2006 MotoGP championship etched him indelibly into the memories of racing fans for all time.

The emotional highs and lows of that season, the dedication and consistency he put into it made him a popular champion, despite beating Valentino Rossi, something Rossi’s fans tend to regard as unforgivable.

More than his results, though, Hayden was a true ambassador for the sport, not just as an athlete, but also as a person. His work ethic was second to none.

He knew he was not the most talented rider on the grid, but he also knew that he was good enough that he could compensate with hard work and dedication. At tests, he was always first to leave the pits when the track opened, and the last to leave it when the track closed.

He showed the same dedication to his physical training and preparation. When Hayden came to MotoGP in 2003, he was a cheery, round-faced young man.

As the years passed, he worked harder at his fitness, lost weight every season, sometimes almost to the point of worrying gauntness.

When chronic arthritis in his right wrist threatened to prematurely end his career, he took a big risk on surgery to have the bones removed, and went on to be as competitive aboard the Honda CBR1000RR WorldSBK machine as the bike would allow him.

The way he treated his fans, his sponsors, and the media was the true mark of Hayden as a man. Always polite, always open, always ready to sign autographs for fans or answer the questions of journalists, no matter how uncomfortable those questions might be.

He always gave we journalists what we wanted, making sure we had the quip or one liner we were looking for, even after dismal results, when other riders would have refused to speak to us.

Speaking personally, I learned a lot about what motorcycle racing really means just from talking to and watching Nicky Hayden. He may not be the greatest racer of all time, but there is no doubt he is one of the most influential and iconic.

Angél Nieto – The Man Who Shaped the Sport

Angél Nieto, on the other hand, could lay claim to be both. When Nieto retired from racing, he had 90 GP victories and 13 – or rather, 12+1, as the supremely superstitious Spaniard preferred it – titles to his name.

In terms of championships, second only to Giacomo Agostini, in terms of wins, third to Ago and Valentino Rossi. Nieto was truly a rider who moved the sport forward, marked a paradigm shift.

Just how important Nieto was to the sport was severely underrated outside of Spain, probably because he never competed in the premier class. The outside world – especially the English-speaking part of it – overlooked the 62 125cc wins and 27 wins in the 50cc class.

That meant that they also missed just how central Nieto was to the growth of the sport in Spain, and to changing the way it was run and how it developed.

Nieto raced the smaller capacity classes because he grew up in a time when Spain still labored under the dictatorship of General Franco. Franco’s Spain was an isolated place, his nationalist government bent on excluding foreign influence.

This meant that Spain raised major trade barriers to foreign motorcycle manufacturers to protect the Spanish producers. Those companies specialized in smaller bikes, which meant that Spanish riders almost inevitably ended up racing in the smaller capacity classes. Classes that Nieto came to dominate.

Nieto used his success to influence the direction of the sport. Nieto was friends with Franco, and then became good friends with King Juan Carlos when he was returned to the Spanish throne.

Nieto used those friendships to promote the sport, to get political support for motorcycle racing and circuits, and played an instrumental role in backing Dorna, laying the groundwork for the sport as it is today.

He also inspired a generation of racers who came after him: Jorge “Aspar” Martinez, Sito Pons, Alberto Puig, Alex Crivillé – Spain’s first premier class champion – and then the floodgates were open, producing Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Maverick Viñales, and more.

The Voices of MotoGP

MotoGP also lost two of the iconic voices of the sport in 2017, though thankfully only to retirement. After 37 years in the sport, MotoGP.com commentator Nick Harris called it a day, retiring to spend more time at home.

BT Sport commentator Julian Ryder also took a step back, retiring from MotoGP commentary to focus on racing closer to home.

Both Harris and Ryder have spent a long time in racing, and leave an enormous legacy in how the sport is perceived and covered. Their retirements are also perhaps a small sign of the increased stress of travel and broadcasting in MotoGP now.

For most fans, Nick Harris was the affable voice of MotoGP, the friendly leader of MotoGP press conferences and the passionate voice in the commentary box.

Outside of the commentary box, he was as affable and friendly as his on-air persona would lead to you expect. My first meeting with Nick came at Jerez, at the first test I attended in 2009.

“You’re Nick Harris!” I blurted out when I walked into an office where I was expecting to find someone else. Instead of responding to the stupidity of my remark – Nick Harris was well aware of the fact that he was indeed Nick Harris – he gracefully bade me welcome and asked how he could help.

Yet there was more to Nick Harris than that. He lived through some of the most important periods in motorcycle racing, first as a journalist – including for UK publication MCN – later as a broadcaster.

From time to time, Nick would regale us with tales of times past, such as the time he flew to Belgium to meet Kenny Roberts, who was trying to set up a rival series to Grand Prix racing over complaints about the way the FIM refused to support riders over safety and against the abuse common among race promoters.

Harris’ tales, and those of Dr. Martin Raines, MotoGP statistician extraordinaire, can be found on his website.

Ryder, Noted

Julian Ryder was the voice of motorcycle racing for me, when I returned to following the sport closely again in the 1990s. It was Julian Ryder’s voice that I heard while watching World Superbikes in the 1990s, and then Grand Prix racing at the turn of the century.

Ryder’s calm and thoughtful commentary, laced with a sharp wit, provided the perfect counterbalance to his more excitable co-commentators such as Toby Moody or Keith Huewen.

Ryder’s short summaries on the Superbikeplanet.com website were also a marvel of brevity, succinctly encapsulating the key details at the end of each day in MotoGP. I learned a great deal about both the sport and how to be a journalist from reading and speaking to Julian Ryder.

Julian Ryder’s retirement from the MotoGP paddock is also symptomatic of the stress of the modern series. The move to 19 race-weekends in 2018 – and perhaps 20 in years to come – make an already busy schedule even tougher.

This is starting to lead to something of a changing of the guard in the media, as journalists who have good reasons not to spend half the year away decide to skip races or retire from the sport.

This is partly allowing younger, fresher faces into motorcycle racing, but more races also mean it costs more to cover the sport, making it more difficult for new blood to enter MotoGP.

The Gray Area

It is not only the older journalists who are leaving MotoGP. MotoGP.com’s pit lane reporter Dylan Gray is also leaving Dorna. For Gray, however, it is not the schedule but his personal life which is the reason for the change. Gray will be moving to the US, to pursue new opportunities there.

Dylan Gray’s departure is a huge loss to the MotoGP.com feed. Gray was intelligent, perceptive, and eloquent.

He could explain complex issues in simple-to-understand terms, in part because his technical background meant he was one of the few journalists who actually understood what was going on, and what the various changes to bikes actually meant.

The journalists in the media center listened closely to the official MotoGP.com feed, greedily stealing any tidbits Dylan found as he roved up and down pit lane, and passing them off as their own.

Dylan Gray will be greatly missed, and he leaves big shoes to fill. Fortunately for Dorna, former 500cc race winner Simon Crafar will be stepping into them.

Crafar is intelligent and thoughtful, and as Motovudu, his outstanding books and website on riding demonstrate, capable of breaking down complex ideas into simple components, and explaining them.

Managers Moving On

There were movements among prominent MotoGP managers as well as the media. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto was forced to retire due to the policy of Japanese factories making their senior executives step down once they reach the age of 60.

It happened before to Masao Furusawa at Yamaha, but unlike Furusawa, who stayed in Japan and now runs a consulting firm, Nakamoto could not stay away. Nakamoto is now working for Dorna as a special advisor to their talent programs.

As the man who signed both Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez – and who understood how to exploit Dani Pedrosa’s feedback to produce a competitive MotoGP bike again – his eye for talent is not in doubt.

Nakamoto was not the only person to leave Honda. Team principal Livio Suppo also decided to call it a day. Suppo was an integral part of luring Stoner to Honda, and signing Márquez, working alongside Nakamoto.

Suppo, too, has a long history of spotting talent and pushing projects in the right direction. He helped bring Marco Melandri into 125s, he was instrumental in the success of Ducati’s MotoGP project, and he was a key player in Honda’s success in MotoGP since 2010.

Unlike Nakamoto, Suppo is retiring, focusing his attention on a project to build electric-powered mountain bikes. How long Suppo will stay retired remains to be seen, of course.

Gone, But Not Quite Forgotten

2017 was also the year that we finally said farewell to the Circuit of Wales project. The scheme seemed magnificent: a well-designed circuit in spectacular scenery in a deprived part of the United Kingdom.

It was an ambitious project, and that was also its downfall: the Circuit of Wales was supposed to encompass a race track, an adventure park, and a center of engineering excellence including manufacturing facilities and workshops, education, and more.

From the scale of the scheme, it was also obvious that it would require major financial investment. And from the response of private investors, it was clear that there were doubts over the long-term viability of the scheme.

Investors were only interested if government was willing to underwrite the scheme financially, effectively privatizing the gains and leaving the risks to be picked up by the public purse.

The Welsh government was skeptical of the economic benefits promised by the Heads of the Valley Development Company, the firm behind the Circuit of Wales. Without the backing of the Welsh government, the project collapsed.

Though its demise has not been announced officially, it is only a matter of time.

A Black Mark?

The failure of the Circuit of Wales project raises the question of whether Dorna should have signed a deal to host the British Grand Prix in the first place. On the one hand, it doesn’t reflect well on the Spanish firm of the Circuit of Wales is seen as an unmitigated failure.

On the other, Dorna has lost nothing by signing the deal: without the contract for the British MotoGP race, the project would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Despite the financial difficulties of the Circuit of Wales, the British Grand Prix went ahead every year, and Dorna were paid – rather well, so it is said – every year the race was held.

The future of the British race was never in doubt, as both Silverstone and Donington were keen to host MotoGP, with Silverstone emerging as the future winner.

Yet perhaps there is some reputational damage for Dorna after the failure of the project. The Circuit of Wales may not be going ahead, but £9 million of Welsh taxpayers’ money has already been spent, with Dorna benefiting from that.

The money spent to host the British Grand Prix was spent in the Silverstone area, not in the economically deprived Ebbw Vale region, which needs the financial support much more than the relatively wealthy Northamptonshire.

This is also the second circuit project to collapse after Dorna had signed a deal with them. The Balatonring in Hungary failed when the Spanish construction firm pulled out in the middle of the financial crisis in 2009.

Now, the Circuit of Wales has failed, after failing to secure the financial support needed to get the circuit built. To steal a turn of phrase from Oscar Wilde, lose one circuit may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.

A New Year

We may have lost much in 2017, but we move forward into 2018 with the sport in rude health and with a great deal of optimism. There is much to look forward to: MotoGP should be as close as ever, with Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia catching up with Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati, and the grid positively awash with talent.

Moto2 sees fresh young blood join experienced riders chasing a title, and Moto3 is opened up with the departure of dominant forces such as Joan Mir and Romano Fenati. New rules in WorldSBK should make the battles for the podium a little closer, though beating Jonathan Rea seems as impossible as ever.

This has perforce been just a brief summary of those we have lost in 2017, and those who have moved on, and I hope the reader will forgive me for overlooking so many who deserved more attention. But with that, we bid a fond farewell to 2017, and a warm welcome to 2018.

Photo: © 2010 Daniel Lo / Corner Speed Photo – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.