Thursday Summary at Jerez: Of Full Paddocks, Named Corners, & Sexuality in MotoGP

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The MotoGP paddock is assembled in all its splendor at Jerez, and it is positively bulging at the seams. Shiny new hospitality units (very shiny, in the case of the Go&Fun Gresini unit) now pack the paddock, the existing units larger and new units added, causing the paddock to loosen its belt and expand into the adjacent car park, sequestering part of the area previously reserved for team and media cars. Under a bright blue Andalusian sky, it really is looking at its most appealing.

The expanded paddock makes you understand why IRTA decided to ban Moto2 and Moto3 riders from having their motorhomes in the paddock, all of them now expelled. The riders themselves are less impressed. “It was nice to have somewhere you could zone out during the day, and relax,” Scott Redding said of the change. Sitting in the hospitality and watching the world go by was very pleasant, but still left him on his guard, he explained. Private quiet time was gone.

And it also removes part of the socialization process which young riders used to undergo, with the Moto2 and Moto3 men wandering around the paddock chatting to team members and other riders, everyone getting to know each other, and catching up on the latest news and gossip.

It was part of what made the paddock feel like a village; a small Italian village, high in the mountains, with an inexplicably male-dominated population.

The Moto2 and Moto3 riders added much to the fun of the place, spending most of their evenings challenging each other to wheelie competitions on mountain bikes and scooters. The paddock loses much with the change, feeling more like a workplace than a community.

Despite the loss of teenage hooligans trying to outdo each other at various two (and one) wheeled contests, there is a real buzz in the paddock. The race is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in a very long time, possibly one of the best races of the season. The reason is simple: this is a track which, though it favors the Yamaha, the Honda can compete as well.

“Every track has places where each bike is strong,” Dani Pedrosa told the Spanish media today, pointing out that the poor weather at the test in March had worked against the Honda, and not given a true picture of how well they thought they could do.

But the Yamahas are favorite, with Jorge Lorenzo’s name being penciled onto the trophy on Sunday. Cal Crutchlow spent an interesting five minutes explaining to the assembled English media exactly why Jorge Lorenzo is so fast. “Every time we get to the same lean angle that he does, we crash,” Crutchlow said. “I crash, Dovi (Andrea Dovizioso) crashed, Rossi crashes. Jorge does it in every corner, on every lap.”

A win for Lorenzo at Jerez would be fitting, as he has a special connection with the circuit. It was the first proper track he ever rode at, back in 1997 when he was 10. It was the track he made his Grand Prix debut on, on his 15th birthday back in 2002. And he will celebrate his 26th birthday on Saturday at the track, where a corner – the final hairpin, scene of many legendary battles – will be named in his honor.

Renaming that hairpin will also remove one of the last traces of tobacco sponsorship from the sport; it is currently named the Ducados hairpin, after the Spanish cigarette brand which sponsored racing throughout the 1980s and 1990s. To this day, there are pictures of Sito Pons riding a Ducados-liveried Derbi to be found in bars all around Jerez. The pictures remain, but the cigarette sponsorship is now gone.

A lot of the interest is in the Ducati garage, where Michele Pirro will be racing the latest version of Ducati’s lab bike. The two factory Ducati men are also intrigued, and are looking forward to riding the bike on Monday at the test. Nicky Hayden expanded further on the differences between Pirro’s ‘lab bike’ and the existing GP13. He had taken a close look during the test in November.

“At that point it was still a bit of a lab bike,” Hayden explained, “so it wasn’t the cleanest bike. But it was very interesting what they did with the adjustable chassis, it was very nice to see and a great concept. That was something Filippo [Preziosi] had shown me drawings of last year, and right away it was something which was pretty impressive.”

The main point of the lab bike was to allow Ducati to rapidly test changes in chassis flexibility, Hayden explained. “Last year was the first time Ducati built an aluminum chassis, and we’re up against manufacturers who’ve been doing it for years,” Hayden said.

“Number-wise, geometry-wise, we knew where we wanted to be, but the one thing we’ve had a hard time doing is finding the right stiffness, flexibility, lateral. There’s more than just one kind of stiffness, you need torsional stiffness for braking, for turning, and with this bike it’s easier to try to dial in the right stiffness without changing a complete chassis every time,” Hayden went on to say.

“The main thing is to try to find the right stiffness without building a new chassis, which you can’t do overnight, and you can’t make the change in 20 minutes in a run, you’ve got to wait two hours and then see, but then the track’s hot or whatever.” The adjustable chassis made it much easier to make comparisons based on differing flexibility.

Hayden himself appeared with his right arm covered in bandages. Between Qatar and Austin, his right wrist had started to swell, though the cause was not entirely clear. He had a lot of tendonitis, he said, as well as a lot of inflammation in his wrist. It was painful, and he had a lack of motion in it. “Sitting here talking to you, it’s OK,” Hayden joked. Riding a MotoGP bike is an entirely different matter.

Now on to something much more sensitive. As a rule, I try to avoid politics, as for the most part, the world of motorcycle racing is only tangentially related to politics, but there is one issue that caught my imagination recently. Last week, NBA center Jason Collins came out as the first openly homosexual athlete in any of America’s four major sports.

He did so very publicly, in Sports Illustrated, the United States’s most important sports publication. It triggered a debate that is long overdue, on the fact that there are so many professional athletes, and yet a statistically improbably low number of openly homosexual or lesbian players in almost any sport.

It is a conversation I have had a number of times with various people in the paddock. Coming from a country in which homosexuality is a non-issue – or at least, in big cities, and outside of certain communities – it seemed to me odd that there were no openly homosexual riders in the Grand Prix paddock.

In fact, there are very few openly homosexual journalists, mechanics, team managers, or whatever in the MotoGP paddock. That goes beyond a statistical anomaly; that reeks of prejudice.

Though I personally believe what people choose to do in their bedrooms (or any other room) is entirely up to them, to be in an environment where no one feels comfortable enough to be open about their sexuality is slightly disturbing.

Clearly, motorcycle racing – or rather, all of motorsports, as F1 journalist Will Buxton wrote much more eloquently than I ever will about homosexuality and the role of women in racing – is a very old-fashioned environment.

Let me correct that: motorcycle racing is a hotbed of misogyny and homophobia. That’s not to say that everyone in the paddock is a misogynist or homophobe, but that the atmosphere in the paddock, the pervasive machismo, is such that openly denigrating women or homosexuals is tolerated.

Even the most open-minded of the friends I have made in the paddock (and there are a lot of wonderful people there, open, honest, and authentic) will often say nothing when ugly attitudes towards women or homosexuals are given a public airing by others. Those airing them are in the minority, but people do not speak out against them. Nor do I, from cowardice, my worst vice.

My fear that the lack of openly gay individuals in the paddock is down to prejudice and homophobia has been fed by a number of incidents. I know personally of at least two individuals who have left the paddock because of the prejudice they felt against them.

It is not a pleasant environment in which to work for those who are openly gay, though it is markedly easier for lesbian women than it is for gay men. That, in itself, is symptomatic of the misogyny in the paddock, feeding male fantasies already stoked up by the plethora of women serving a purely decorative role in racing, regardless of what other qualities they may possess.

With all this in mind, and thinking of Jason Collins’s experience in the US, I asked a question in the press conference at Jerez on Thursday. It was phrased badly (something I know I need to work on), but it was as follows: “This is a question for everyone – it is quite a difficult question. Last week Jason Collins, an NBA player, admitted he was homosexual. Now there have been are no openly homosexual MotoGP riders. I want to hear your thoughts on why that is not the case. Are people afraid of coming out as gay, or are you all just more really interested in women?” The latter comment was meant as a light-hearted jest, trying to break the ice. I am still no good at asking the tough questions.

The full transcript can be found here, but the responses, and the conversation, was illustrative of the problem. The responses of the riders were all entirely supportive, unsurprisingly. These are all young men who grew up in an age when being gay was not ‘a thing’.

To them, it is almost entirely normal – almost, as they all felt the need to clarify their own situation, despite the fact that I did not ask them whether they were homosexual, merely why there were no openly gay riders in the paddock. The best answer was that given by Stefan Bradl, who joked “Maybe if it makes us faster we will think about it…”

The response of the assembled media was not quite so enlightened, given the sniggering and nervous laughter with which both the question and many of the answers were met. This, too, is no surprise, given that the average age of the media representatives is probably twenty years higher than the riders.

Here, the generation gap shows through, and it is here, it must be said, where the prejudice that has chased others out of the paddock emanates.

I was not interested in outing a particular rider, nor am I interested in which of the riders may or may not be gay. The way in which riders are perceived by the fans does interest me, however. There have long been rumors that a number of the riders are gay, as Jorge Lorenzo alluded to in his response. The suggestions of homosexuality are, as far as I know, based almost entirely on a cultural misunderstanding, on a failure to understand the different behaviors and signals found in various cultures.

An obvious example is the use of the rainbow flag. In the US and Northern Europe, the rainbow flag is a symbol claimed by the gay community, and flown proudly outside gay bars and social clubs. It is a symbol behind which the entire gay community – which is in itself incredibly diverse – can assemble to present a single, united face to the world.

In Southern Europe, it is different. In Italy, the rainbow flag is largely used by the peace movement, and other movements on the political left. When you see riders such as Alex de Angelis wearing a rainbow-colored helmet, it has nothing to do with his sexuality, and everything to do with his politics.

Then there are the rumors of riders being gay, usually surrounding riders and their friends and assistants. The example most often cited is, naturally enough, Valentino Rossi, who is widely suspected of being gay throughout the UK and much of North America.

Let us make one thing absolutely clear. Valentino Rossi is not gay. When I discussed this with an Italian journalist recently he was horrified, and he went on to explain to me at some length the culture that exists between Italian male friends. Friendships are tight, and sacred: you never, ever betray a male friend, you stand by his side at all times.

This culture is even stronger in small Italian villages such as Tavullia, where Rossi grew up and still lives today. The group of friends which surround Rossi is one of the reasons he remains so grounded, the jocular atmosphere making it abundantly clear that Rossi is one of them, not someone who stands above them. He may be a multiple world champion, but his still just one of the guys.

Rossi’s friendship with Uccio (the nickname of Alessio Salucci, Rossi’s close friend and assistant) is a bond forged in childhood, and of unbreakable strength. The two men are close, yet the impropriety suspected in the English-speaking world is entirely without any basis.

Rossi himself has had a string of girlfriends, who usually remain carefully out of the media’s prying eyes, while Uccio has a child with his long-time partner, a daughter born late last year. The friendship between the two men is built on the fact that they have grown up together, having known each other since pre-school.

The relationship is not unlike those seen among male friends in Britain. The numbers of men who would rather be down the pub with their friends, instead of at home with their wives and children, is large beyond measure. So it is with Rossi and his friends: a group of men growing up together will stick together and hang out together in later life as well. That has nothing to do with sexuality; it is purely a question of companionship, nothing more.

But enough of riders who are not gay, will there ever be a rider – or team manager, or crew chief – who feels secure enough in the MotoGP paddock to come out as gay? In the current climate, that seems unlikely, given the atmosphere that still pervades motorcycle racing, especially among the generation of men in their late forties and beyond who fill some of the more senior roles in the paddock.

That climate will change, however, and some time – sooner than we think – being homosexual will not even be an issue. The first rider to come out openly will cause a stir, but the second one will probably go almost unnoticed. That is exactly as it should be: it is none of my business, nor any of your business, which rider does what with whom, as long as the activities involve consenting adults.

Before that, however, the homophobia and misogyny in the paddock needs to be dealt with. Steps are being made with the poor attitudes towards women in the paddock, there are an increasing number of women performing serious and important roles. That includes roles which have not been traditionally seen as feminine, including data engineers, mechanics, and of course, now also riders.

Having women feature in prominent roles opens the sport of motorcycle racing up to a wider public; little girls watching racing can now aspire to do more than just hold the umbrella over a rider, while wearing an ill-fitting and unnecessarily skimpy outfit. They can dream of being the cool woman in the team uniform with the headphones and the laptop, giving the bike one last check before the race.

Or the team owner, ensuring that her rider has everything they need before the race starts. Or the rider herself, strapping on her helmet and buckling her gloves, ready to take on the greatest challenge of her life. More girls and women watching means a bigger audience, and more money in the sport.

A similar transformation has taken place in British soccer, which has gone from an underfunded, hostile male atmosphere to a wealthy, successful, family-friendly leisure outing. The same is true for making the sport more friendly towards homosexuals – or I should perhaps say, less openly hostile towards homosexuals.

The pink dollar/euro is much in vogue with restaurants, hotels, and other leisure-related businesses: largely free of children, gay and lesbian couples have more disposable income to spend. That money could be helping to fund motorcycle racing as well, if the sport was perceived as being neutral towards sexuality. The sometimes rabidly macho culture which surrounds motorcycle racing only chases potential audiences away.

This does not require massive changes to the sport. In fact, it requires barely any changes at all. Making the atmosphere at a race a little less raucous, a little less macho, already helps. Providing decent facilities at a racetrack, clean bathrooms, plentiful and healthy food options, spots for children to play, will make a racetrack feel more like a nice day out for everyone, regardless of age, sex, sexuality, or race, and less like a survivalist challenge based around the Mad Max series of movies.

Here at Jerez, where family groups roam both the paddock and the hillsides around the track, there are signs of a better future for motorcycle racing. One where everyone is welcome, and more people spend their money to watch racing.

That might even mean more companies are interested in sponsoring motorcycle racing, and that in turn would mean that more factories could afford to return to the sport. A more open, accepting racing environment is also one with more money to spend on exotic prototypes. And that is good for everyone.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

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