Monthly Archives: July 2020

Time to mature like a fine French wine

They tell me that you must let fine French wine mature for a few years to enjoy drinking it at its very best. We have waited five years for 21-year-old Fabio Quartararo to mature and like the taste of wine, it has been worth the patience.

Back in 2014 at Le Mans the success-starved French media told me they had discovered the next Valentino Rossi. Their long wait and search for not only a French premier class Grand Prix winner but first ever French premier class World Champion had ended. They had found their man to fly the tricolour in the toughest sporting arena of them all. I understood just how they felt. It had been 33 years since Barry Sheene had brought Britain premier class Grand Prix success and at least it was only 15 years previously that Regis Laconi stood on the top step of the podium in Valencia

Fabio Quartararo had just turned 15 years old at Le Mans, and I was suitably mighty impressed. He won the FIM Junior World Championship race on route to his second successive World title. Not so impressive was my attempts to speak French to him in the resulting press conference. Typically, his English had improved a great deal more than my feeble French by the time he arrived in Qatar ten months later for his much-heralded Moto3™ World Championship debut. He was still 15 years old and the World was at his feet.

What a race under the floodlights to start your Grand Prix career. The teenager finished seventh but under eight tenths of a second behind race winner fellow Frenchman Alexis Masbou. Two weeks later he finished second behind World Champion elect Danny Kent in Austin. When he grabbed pole in the opening two European races at Jerez at Le Mans all the hype surrounding the next Rossi or Marquez seemed justified. The only question was when that first Grand Prix victory would come. It just never did in the Moto3™ class

All that promise and optimism started to drain away in a cloud of injury and uncompetitive machinery. There were still glimpses of brilliance but after two years the ever-growing Fabio joined the Moto2™ World Championship in 2017 riding for the Sito Pons team. I remember Sito, a double World Champion and one of the most experienced team bosses in the game telling me that the French teenager had a fantastic talent and was an amazing prospect.

Sadly, it did not work out for either of them and they parted company at the end of the season. It turned out to be the turning point in a career that had promised the earth but was going nowhere. Riding the Speed Up machine suddenly that old sparkle and confidence returned culminating in that long-awaited first Grand Prix win at Barcelona which included pole position and fastest lap. He followed up with a second in Assen and eventually finished tenth in the Championship.

Despite the change of direction in his career I certainly, and I think many others were surprised, when the new Petronas Yamaha SRT team signed Fabio to join former Moto2™ World Champion Franco Morbidelli for their MotoGP™ debut. They knew exactly what they were doing. What a debut in the premier class last year. Seven podium finishes, Rookie of the Year and fifth in the World Championship. The only thing that was missing was that first premier class Grand Prix win. We did not have to wait long for that magic moment when the 2020 season finally got underway in Jerez last week. Then he did it again a week in the stifling Jerez heat.

Like that fine French wine, the wait for it to mature was well worth it and there is still so much more to come. I will raise a glass with those French journalists who six years ago told me what to expect. It just took a little bit longer than we envisaged.

By |2020-07-30T09:01:27+00:00July 30th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on Time to mature like a fine French wine

No Turkey or Auld Lang Syne for Fabio

No time for rest and little for reflection at Jerez. Just five days after that breathless, energy-sapping opening encounter of the season it’s back to work for aching bodies and high revving power units on the same piece of tarmac. It was a day of history making on Sunday, especially surrounding a mighty impressive 21-year-old Frenchman

For the first time in the 72-year history of Grand Prix racing, there will be back-to-back Grands Prix at the same circuit in the same season. There have only been back-to-back races at the same circuit on one other occasion and then the riders had time for Christmas dinner and New Year’s Eve celebrations before returning to the saddle for the second time.

The 500cc race at the legendary Montjüic Park circuit in Barcelona was the last round of the 1954 season. Dickie Dale won the 53-lap race for MV Augusta and was probably happy for the near seven months rest before returning for the opening round of the 1955 season at the 3.79km parkland circuit. His race time was an incredible one hour 51.55 minutes. Dale returned in May the following year where the race of similar distance was won by Reg Armstrong on the Gilera.

Since then there have been back-to-back Grands Prix in the same country but not at the same circuit. In 1988, Australian Kevin Magee secured his only Grand Prix victory at Jarama and seven days later Eddie Lawson was victorious at the Portuguese Grand Prix in Jerez. Valentino Rossi won the final race of the 2004 season in Valencia and then took the chequered flag at the opening round of the 2005 season in Jerez. Marco Melandri won the final round again at Valencia that year with Loris Capirossi victorious at the opening round of 2006 in Jerez. On two occasions there have been back-to-back Grands Prix in America. In 2012, Casey Stoner won in Laguna Seca and Dani Pedrosa at Indianapolis. A year later Marc Marquez won them both en route to that first MotoGP™ World title.

In 1966, the TT races were postponed because of a Seamans strike that prevented anybody from getting to the Isle of Man. The re-scheduled TT was held two weeks after the Ulster Grand Prix and Mike Hailwood won them both for Honda with Giacomo Agostini second on both occasions.

The only other time I have encountered back-to-back Grands Prix in the same country just a week apart was back on my Formula One adventures. In 1995, it was the Pacific Grand Prix at the isolated Aida Mimasaka circuit followed by the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka seven days later. I spent the gap between races making an emotional trip to Hiroshima and watching Sumo wrestling with Eddie Irvine and his team.

I don’t think Fabio Quartararo will have time for any such journeys as he strives to continue to re-write the history books at Jerez. On Sunday he was just the fourth French rider to win a premier class race, the first French premier class winner since 1999, the first satellite Yamaha rider to win a MotoGP™ race and the eighth youngest premier class winner. Next Sunday he returns to the scene of that first triumph with the prospect of becoming the first rider to win back-to-back Grands Prix at the same circuit and just the second youngest rider to win back-to-back premier class races.

For the second week in succession, it promises to be another breathless encounter with those history books ready and waiting.

By |2020-07-23T11:13:20+00:00July 23rd, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on No Turkey or Auld Lang Syne for Fabio

No brainer – MotoGP™ is back

It really is a no brainer – queue outside the Supermarket in the rain with face mask at the ready on Sunday morning. Listen to your own voice yet again commentating on another great old grand prix or watch live MotoGP™. At last the weekend returns to some sort of summer normality.

Like other sports that have returned from lockdown MotoGP™ will be different in everything but actually what happens where it really matters on the track. There will be no crowd, little ceremony and celebration but this should do little or nothing to spoil the show. Some television commentators will work from their home bases which is really no different to how they have always watched and commentated from the television screen

Football seemed flat at first without genuine crowd noise or even with the ‘canned’ crowd reaction, which reminded me of that added laugher we got in eighties television comedy shows. After a couple weeks we got used to it and MotoGP™ has still got the most important audio attachment of them all. Nobody back in the studio pushing the recorded audio button at the appropriate or in some cases wrong moment, just open the microphone and let that glorious-sounding symphony of sound and passion fill the room. Those high revving four-stroke engines, the gear changes up and down, the scrapping knees and elbows on the tarmac and even the grinding of a footrest and fairing when a mistake is not forgiven will return at Jerez.

Of course, it will be surreal as the sun rises early on Sunday morning over the usually jam-packed party-loving hillside overlooking Angel Nieto and Peluqui corners and to discover an empty desert of sand, grass and total silence. The air horns, the flags and sheer explosion of passion and excitement when the gladiators arrive in the arena to do battle will be sorely missed but when those lights change at the start it will be like we’ve never been away for six lonely months.

Television commentators back home will find very little difference apart from missing some of those certain superb paddock breakfasts before starting work. With the wonderful exception of Phillip Island, you are totally reliant of what you see on the screens. All the information you require comes from the live picture and timing screens although it was not always like that. Back in 1996 BBC Radio asked me to go to the studio at the imposing Broadcasting House in Central London to commentate live on the 500cc Czech Republic Grand in Brno. It was the day of the London Marathon and they needed some commentary to fill the gaps as the runners took on 45.195 kms of pure hell. Just one screen with live pictures from the magnificent Brno circuit. All was going well with Mick Doohan leading and his Repsol Honda team-mate Alex Criville hanging onto his back wheel like the proverbial limpet. I knew and certainly Mick knew that Alex would wait until that chicane at the top of hill leading onto the finishing straight on the very last lap to make his move. He did just that. They crossed the line side by side and I had no idea or timing screen to tell me who had won. I took the punt on Alex and his celebrations and Mick’s disgust confirmed I was right, but it was a total guess.

No such problems from Jerez on Sunday. The infamous turn 13 now named after Jorge Lorenzo has probably produced more controversial last bend, last lap finishes than any other slab of tarmac in the World. Hopefully, it will be those timing screens once again that help us discover the winners on Sunday.

Bring it on we have missed you so much and no finer place in the World than Jerez to herald the return.

 

By |2020-07-16T15:43:33+00:00July 16th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on No brainer – MotoGP™ is back

Superbike Island

20 years ago, Jeremy McWilliams called Britain Superbike Island – and he was not far wrong. The sparsely populated spectator bank overlooking Craner Curves and Old Hairpin corners at Donington Park said it all. Two decades before Coronavirus arrived this was not a case of social distancing, but more there was just not many people – 18,500 to be precise – interested in watching the British Grand Prix.

The Barry Sheene type adulation from the seventies had long transferred to a certain Carl Fogarty in the World Superbike Championship. Sell-out crowds packed Brands Hatch to support their hero on route to four World titles while MotoGP™ struggled to attract a crowd a quarter of the size to Donington, but that 2000 Cinzano British Grand Prix was the turning point

Twenty years ago, on Thursday this week a knight in shining armour rode to the rescue at Donington and we have never looked back. Dressed in yellow and white leathers, sporting an ear ring, wearing a flamboyant helmet and riding number 46, a four-cylinder 500cc two-stroke steed – a 21-year-old Italian sponsored by a brewing giant turned the sport on its head with his very first victory in the premier class.

88 premier class wins, four more at Donington and seven World titles followed, and Valentino Rossi was the new hero for British fans. Ironically, his father Graziano was a great friend of Barry Sheene and it was his son that took over Sheene’s iconic status.

On a typically damp British summer afternoon Rossi, riding the NSR Honda, fought off the considerable challenge of World Champion elect Kenny Roberts and McWilliams in the 30-lap race. He celebrated in style on the podium although British fans had already had a taste of his antics. Three years earlier he dressed up as the infamous local outlaw Robin Hood, hat and all after winning the 125cc race on route to the World title. Rossi won one more Grand Prix in 2000 at Rio. Then the floodgates opened wide in 2001.

The fans in Britain typified the change as Rossi rampaged across the globe on and off the track. On the track he won five successive premier class titles, mastering the switch to four-strokes and bringing Yamaha their first premier class title for 12 years. Off the track he put the sport where it had never been before. Social media just could not get enough, his face was on both front and back pages of newspapers throughout the world and the young Italian was soon a sporting icon.

Rossi may have been the new hero, but Jeremy McWilliams also played his part including the Superbike Island remark. He finished third in that 2000 British Grand Prix riding the Aprilia twin less than a second behind Rossi. A year later he won the 250cc race in Assen to become the first British solo class winner for 15 years. Typically, both Rossi and McWilliams are still racing today.

There may not have been so many people at Donington 20 years ago, but those loyal fans who made the effort were rewarded by witnessing history in the making. They are still telling their children and grandchildren they were there.

 

By |2020-07-08T19:30:25+00:00July 8th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on Superbike Island

AND THAT WAS THAT

March 7th seemed like a normal Saturday on the road with Oxford United. Meet in the car Park at Ardley United for yet another journey up north, with a little bit of West this time. The usual friendly banter about my age from my colleague was perhaps a little bit more relevant with the news that morning 70-year olds may be banned from future games with a certain virus on route from China. I gave as good as I got. 

My usual pre-match meal of a McDonalds crispy hot chicken wrap tasted the same as ever. Nathan Cooper never fails to find the coffee and Jerome Sale was as usual rightfully concerned I was going to kick out one of the wires as I sat next to him in the crammed commentary position at the Montgomery Waters Meadow Stadium, the home of Shrewsbury Town.

An important game for United chasing their fifth successive win to push hard for at least a League One play off place at the end of the season. Whatever the result there would be no need to panic because there would still be nine games to go. Three points would be great but plenty of time left but great to keep the momentum going if possible was the consensus. That was certainly the feeling when United went two nil down. Shrewsbury then had a man sent off; Marcus Browne pulled one back for United right on the stroke of half time. Dan Agyei equalised early in the second half, but it looked like United would have to settle for a point until the 88th minute. I am telling listeners ‘What a free kick, what a header, what a goal and what a celebration. Marcus Browne with the free kick, Josh Ruffels with the header and goal and United fans behind the goal celebrating the late winner. A great moment that lifted United up into third place in the League One table but do not forget still nine games to go.

We packed up at 6pm in great spirits. I remember because it was the first time since October the previous year that it was still light as we made our way across the big car park. I planned the programme notes for the home game next Saturday against Milton Keynes because it was my turn to compile the BBC Radio Oxford page.

And that was that. One hundred and eighteen days, two and a half hours since the final whistle in Shropshire, United “kick a ball in anger” for the very first time on Friday evening. Not just any old league fixture but one of the most important games of the millennium for Oxford United and their fans – the first leg of the League One play-off semi-finals down on the South coast against Portsmouth.

Nobody knew what lay ahead as we drove home to Oxford on that March evening. Without that Josh Ruffels header United would not have reached the play offs. If I had known that at the time, I would have screamed so much louder into the microphone and we would have stopped for a pint or two on the way home. Still plenty of time for both in the next couple of weeks.

By |2020-07-01T09:57:11+00:00July 1st, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on AND THAT WAS THAT