From the Blog

The cycles of cycles

John Surtees. Isle of Man 1960. Photo courtesy of MCN

You cannot get into any discussion of MotoGp these days without someone whining about how the Spanish are dominating racing. I will be the first to admit that domination of any sport by one person, one team or even a nation does tend to stultify the sport in which they are competing but, as always, it is the responsibility of those being beaten to lift their game and bring the domination to a close. However, in this particular instance, the complaints have a great deal more to do with the riders who are being BEATEN than they have to do with the riders who are doing the beating and I will expand on this later. Firstly, let me lay the historical foundation.

Championship grand prix racing in road racing started very soon after the war (1948). The road racing scene had been huge before the war with technical innovation and rider skills being at an extremely high level. War feeds innovation but, in the case of motorcycle road racing this didn’t quite happen. In a war-devastated Europe, the post-war grand prix bikes were often less sophisticated than those that had raced pre-Hitler. However, local, mainly European road racing benefitted greatly from the prestige of becoming a world championship. Since then riders from all over the world have flocked to (mainly) Europe to contest increasingly important championships.

What the present batch of Spanish-haters fail completely fail to grasp is that racing has always been dominated (sometimes for extended periods) by one particular nation’s riders. A quick look back at the stats will show this quite clearly. The first decade of racing (and we are mainly looking at the premier class here) was dominated by the British with Geoff Duke and John Surtees sharing the bulk of the championships. The English Nortons and the Italian Gileras were streets ahead.

The 60’s looked like more of the same with Mike Hailwood dominating the first half of the decade and Italy’s Giacomo Agostini the second half. Agostini’s dominance lasted for the first half of the 70’s as well until the British riders hit back with Read and Sheene. Incidentally, if you want a demonstration of REAL monopoly of the podium you need only look at the Agostini era. While he usually won the 500cc race, Ago also usually won the 350 race on the same day so he got TWO shots on the podium every Sunday!

The British era was short, though, as the Americans arrived in the late 70’s. With a couple of “blips” the Yanks ruled the roost with Roberts, Spencer, Lawson, Rainey and Schwantz grinding everyone down till the mid-90’s. The American invasion sort of ran out of steam about the time of the Australian invasion in the form of Mick Doohan who, famously, won 5 titles in a row, (incidentally, the same people who I hear whining about the Spanish do not seem to have had any problem with Mighty Mick’s 5-fer back then). Mick dominated until the close of the decade and retired just in time to see the Italians getting their turn with Rossi for the first half of the “Noughties”. Rossi completely ruled the “Noughties” with only Hayden and Stoner breaking his domination (once each)

Then and ONLY then, started the Spanish run. With only one “blip” (Stoner in 2011) every MotoGp title since 2009 has been won by a Spanish rider. So students of the sport understand that there are cycles and that success and indeed, domination, does come in cycles.

Unfortunately, many (perhaps most) of those who bemoan the present domination of GP racing by riders from the Iberian Peninsula do not have the necessary over-view of the sport to see this. Just as anyone would have wondered how come nobody else except an American rider was winning the title if they were dropped (unprepared) into the 80’s, for example, the present era seems to be wall-to-wall Spanish.

There are a couple of mitigating factors here. The first is the availability of extensive coverage of the races themselves. For a very reasonable fee a person can now see every session and every race live, uninterrupted and free of ads. This is an unprecedented saturation. With 24 riders in MotoGp and more in the each of the lower classes we have the opportunity to learn more about and see more of every rider. So it is easier to see just how dominant Spanish riders have become, right across the classes.

Secondly, the Spanish, to their great credit, have fostered the development of their young riders, grooming them for grand prix success from a very early age. Other nations and national controlling bodies have caught on to this and have put similar programmes in place in their own jurisdictions but success must be grown, it does not come overnight and the various national programmes in place in other countries are going to take time to bear fruit (the agricultural analogy is very apt).

But, as I noted at the start of the article, the Spanish-haters have another motive than just their own rampant jingoism. They don’t so much hate the Spanish riders because they are winning but because they are stopping THEIR favourite, Valentino Rossi FROM winning. You see the truly dedicated Rossi fan truly believes that the sport exists FOR him and would become extinct WITHOUT him. No other rider has a troop of fans who travel from round to round and who sit in the stands and boo other riders. The level of hatred of all except their favourite rider is extraordinary (and disgraceful).

Now I have made my position very clear on this subject before. When Rossi arrived he was the breath of fresh air that the sport needed after a somewhat dour period. He was young, extraordinarily talented, brave and cheeky. He was FUN. But, along with the clowning was a deadly purpose, to be the best and he never allowed the two to mix. Rossi’s post-race celebrations became legendary and his brand of self-deprecating humour endeared him to the fans (who can forget the famous “donkey” helmet?) Rossi, it seemed for a long time, walked on water. But, as always, pretenders arose, riders who were lifting their game to try and end the Rossi domination.

Jorge Lorenzo arrived in 2008 and the battle lines were drawn. Rossi, the flamboyant against Lorenzo the dour and unsmiling Spartan. It was a promoter’s dream. For two years Rossi laughed him off but time was on Lorenzo’s side and he lifted the title in 2010. And it was in 2010 that Rossi suffered his horror accident, the first big one of his long career. His comeback is legendary and he has always maintained that there were no long-term effects from it. But I am not convinced. Rossi’s recovery was swift but I couldn’t help thinking at the time that the accident and the regime that he went through to recover harmed his psyche even though it healed his body. Photos from after 2010 show his face as haggard and drawn, a situation that continues to this day. The accident seemed to age him prematurely and the bright, chirpy Rossi of pre-2010 has not returned. These days a quick pan of the camera through his pit shows a worried brow and a sullen face. Even his customary wave to the camera doesn’t seem as convincing as it used to be.

It is significant to note that, while Rossi continues to win races (well, at least up until recently) he hasn’t won the title since 2009, 9 years ago. And, as he ages and the stress of not doing so starts to mount, the chances of him doing so are becoming more and more remote. It is often remarked that it is amazing that a man nearly 40 can still mix it with the youngsters, and that is true to a certain extent. It’s not really that amazing, however. His years and years of experience at the top level and his vast storehouse of memories of how to deal with the myriad of changing circumstances that racing throws up means that he is vastly better equipped to function at the top level than any other rider even at 40 years old. What WOULD be amazing would be if he now started to FAIL to perform. He said himself the other day that he is amazed that he has been 2nd in this year’s championship for this long this season. Again, this could be taken two ways. One is that he has done so by drawing on those years of experience despite a recalcitrant bike and two is that it has taken almost half a season for the Ducatis to find their stride. The fact that the two Ducati riders are squabbling over the placings also means that they are constantly sharking points from each other and that has benefitted Rossi also. In the remaining 6 races the Ducatis will continue to be strong while, it seems, the Yamahas will continue to struggle so he may yet finish lower in the title chase than the 3rd that he presently occupies.

So we are now deep into an era of Spanish domination and, courtesy of that junior development programme I mentioned before, it looks set to continue with Moto3 being stacked with some hugely talented and unsmiling Spaniards. Rossi himself saw the writing on the wall years ago and his riding academy is now producing a host of Italian stars who will strive to redress the nationality balance. Let’s hope it is successful because domination by any rider, team or nation can be deadly dull for the fans and it is the fans, after all, who pay the bills.

You may not like hearing the Spanish national anthem all the time but, until the other nations get off their collective backsides and do something about developing junior talent, you’re going to be hearing it a  lot more. Such is the cyclical nature of our sport.