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?
The longer you spend trackside at a given circuit, the more you think you know what that circuit has to offer. The good shots are in this turn in the morning, that turn in the afternoon, and so on. It’s easy to hang on to this belief in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
The fact is that small changes in location or perspective can turn a good image into an amazing one. I see this all the time when shooting at a track such as Catalunya or Phillip Island, where the trackside view of the circuit is not limited by large fences and their gaps. Often a turn looks good from one spot, but if you move a few steps farther along, the perspective changes dramatically.
But the more days you spend shooting at a given circuit, the easier it is to think you have it wired. Laguna Seca is getting to be like that for me. I’ve been attending and photographing races there as an amateur and then a pro for many years. Good friend and fellow photographer Jules Cisek and I were commiserating in July about our shared feeling of being a bit bored with our home track. The weekend before we’d both been at the Sachsenring, he for the first time, I for the second, and that had seemed like blissfully undiscovered country.
MotoGP is show business, and to contribute to the show riders must bring more to their teams than race results. Since 2009, few riders have done more for their teams and sponsors without winning a race than Nicky Hayden has done for Ducati.
For decades the mantra in pro racing has been “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” but Ducati has seen its North American market eclipse sales in Italy for the first time, even as they have not had a GP win since Casey Stoner left. There’s no empirical way to determine how much of this is due to Nicky Hayden riding for Ducati, but common sense says these are related. So Ducati’s decision to let The Kentucky Kid go must have been a difficult one.
After Jorge Lorenzo’s heroic ride at Assen, where he’d broken his left collarbone only two days before, the German GP had many of us asking “how much is too much?” in terms of riding with injuries.
Two weeks after Lorenzo had risked, perhaps not ‘everything’ but certainly ‘a lot,’ to limit his injury’s effect on the championship standings (he finished 5th, one place behind a struggling Dani Pedrosa), the topic came up in Thursday’s Press Conference at the German GP. Cal Crutchlow remarked that Lorenzo’s decision at Assen had raised the bar for all riders facing the question: Should I race with this injury?
Ironically, or perhaps not, Crutchlow himself had raised this bar at Silverstone last season when he slipped past the medical exam process to turn in his own amazing ride through the pack with a broken ankle. He pointed out that now more riders would be using Lorenzo’s Assen ride as a precedent: if he was allowed to ride at Assen, why can’t I?
Lorenzo didn’t like the sound of that, saying other riders should not use him as an example and instead listen to their own bodies to determine if they should sit out or compete while injured.
All weekend I heard different responses to the situation, from respect for athletes who push through pain, to scorn for the willingness to put others at risk by competing at well below 100% fitness.
One paddock insider expressed the opinion that riding a MotoGP bike is difficult enough at full fitness–any physical or mental weakness is a liability that increases the risk of crashing, and thus increases the chances of a crash involving other riders.
The Isle of Man TT is widely acknowledged as the most demanding motorcycle road race on earth for both rider and machine. For a motorsport photographer the 37.75 mile course offers a wealth of opportunities as well as a unique challenge.
The opportunities are obvious: stunning scenery, spectacular jumps and spectators literally within arms-reach of the riders as they blast through towns and villages.
It goes without saying that capturing a sharp image of a 200bhp motorcycle can be tricky even when they are not moving particularly quickly. In my opinion, the difficulty level at the TT is greater due to the sheer speed the bikes are travelling at.
The key to successfully photographing the TT has nothing to do with technical ability or gear, it is, as with most things in life, down to experience – although a bit of location planning and local knowledge doesn’t hurt either.
Now the dust has settled on another TT, a look back over the numerous pages of lap times and race results can only tell us so much. With so many incredible stories to be told it is difficult to choose one for this article.
From the blatantly obvious, such as; Dunlop’s incredible four wins, McGuinness’ new outright lap record or Ian Lougher rounding out his career on the Mountain course, which spanned four decades, tallying nine wins plus an additional nineteen podiums.
To the equally awe-inspiring, like; David Johnson’s impressive return to the island on privateer machinery, Dave Madsen-Mygdal completing his 100th TT race, and the first ever Chinese competitor at the TT, the likeable Cheung Wai-On.
Above all these, one team’s story caught my eye – the Buckeye Current team from the Ohio State University’s College of Engineering, whose Honda CBR1000RR-based electric motorcycle was tackling the Mountain course.
Consisting of a number of students from various science and engineering programs, the team’s RW-2 bike was the sole American entry from an educational institute and was pitting itself against three other teams from similar institutes and six non-collegiate teams from across the globe.
The more time I spend photographing MotoGP, the more fascinating the riders become. In the past few years I’ve come to believe that, while superior physical differences (their reflexes and fine motor skills) are significant, it’s the mental differences that are the most interesting.
I suppose anyone who has ridden a motorcycle even a bit beyond one’s comfort zone can appreciate some part of the physical aspect of riding a racing bike. For most of us, even the speed of racers in local events is impressive compared to our street riding.
By the time we consider Grand Prix riders, their level of performance is so high that I suspect most of us have very little idea how challenging it is to move a motorcycle around a track that deftly.
While the skills with throttle, brakes, and balance are on a level similar to the best athletes in other sports, I think that what really sets motorcycle racers apart is their ability to overcome fear.
After three increasingly impressive performances in the first three solo races at this year’s Isle Of Man TT, the Michael Dunlop we have been watching tackle the Mountain Course this week seems to be signalling a clear message of intent to the rest of the road racing field.
Following in the footsteps of his father Robert and his uncle Joey, who achieved a combined record of 31 wins and 54 podiums at the TT, and an astronomical amount of wins on road circuits across the world, Michael had already won three races on the island before this year’s event.
Despite this already impressive record on the Island, his frustration (and clear intent) was always apparent when it came to the Superbike class, as his two wins in Supersport and one in the Superstock class might have been perceived as “easier” wins by more cynical men than myself.
As Randy de Puniet heads to Japan to test Suzuki’s 2014 MotoGP bike, the possible availability (some won’t be convinced it’s a reality until a pair of Suzuki motorcycles appear on the grid in Qatar next April) of two new factory seats has spawned a Silly Season unto itself.
If that possibility entailed another satellite prototype team, the furor would be considerable, but that it’s a new factory team means reason and rationality are running for their lives.
So once again we have the chance to observe the unique mindset of the top level motorbike racer. To that mindset, at least in this modern era, the factory ride is the Holy Grail of motorcycle racing. It’s easy to see why this has happened.
After the days of the 500cc two-strokes, when a highly-developed formula meant a privateer team could compete with the deep-pocket teams, the four-stroke era has seen costs skyrocket, and factory-deep pockets dominate the win column. It’s for very good reasons that riders feel you have to be on a factory bike to win races. But the thing is, not all factories are equal.
On the Thursday before the Americas GP, I stood at the top of T1 looking down onto the straight from the height of 13 stories. Feeling more than a touch of vertigo, and thinking, that if anything, Hermann Tilke captured the unwritten law that everything in Texas has to be big.
From the massive elevation changes, to the one kilometer back-straight leading to the massive stadium section, to the 77 meter observation tower…the track and the entire facility is breathtaking in its hugeness and character.
Marc Marquez stole several things this past weekend at the Circuit of the Americas. Freddie Spencer lost two records (youngest rider to set pole and youngest rider to win a premie-class GP race), and Cal Crutchlow lost a great deal of attention he deserved for a fantastic performance, in some ways his best since coming to MotoGP.
So many members of the media were focussed on Marquez’s record setting that few of us gave due attention to how remarkable a job Crutchlow was doing on his first visit to this new facility. Marquez, Pedrosa, and Lorenzo were fastest in qualifying, helped by the experience at COTA that was gained during the pre-season test in March — also along for that test were Valentino Rossi and Stefan Bradl.
But, Crutchlow did not make that trip, and thus put in his first laps at Circuit of the Americas on Friday. Those first laps were after a garage fire had dealt Tech 3 the wild cards of drenched equipment that, though thoroughly dried by the hard-working crew, remained of questionable reliability given the soaking they had received Wednesday night.
While Marquez rightly had the majority of our attention, consider the performance of a satellite rider on his first weekend at a new track.