Monthly Archives: May 2022

That long lonely walk

In such a weekend of celebration and pure adrenalin, it was a picture of total dejection that remains in my memory from Le Mans. With Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing) racing towards such an impressive third Grand Prix win of the season and the record 110,000 crowd willing Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) to steal a podium finish from Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) the television pictures switched to a deserted pit lane exit.

It was an amazing emotional long shot. The difference between success and failure summed up in such a cruel and stark way. While his nearest rivals were fighting for glory just metres away on Le Mans tarmac, a lone figure walked towards pit lane, head bowed and helmet still on. For a moment there was not another person in sight, and only the roar of four-stroke engines and partisan French voices made you realise you were at a racetrack. The red-leathered figure looked so small and forlorn in the long shot. Pecco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) did not need reminding, did not need an arm around his shoulder to tell him that not only had he crashed out while fighting with Bastianini but had severely dented any chance he had of World Championship glory. It was such a poignant moment.

While Bagnaia grieved, Le Mans simply rocked and rolled the day and night away. A record crowd for the French Grand Prix. No worry about the competitor’s underwear and jewellery that has been the concern of other motorsports this week. No worry about how many A-listers you can cram on the grid. Can-can dancers performing on the front row, rock concerts at night and a MotoGP™ World Champion to welcome home was more than enough

What a fantastic job promoter Claude Michy has done at Le Mans. This was Steve McQueen, 24-hour car racing terrain and often we did not feel very welcome from the four-wheel orientated brigade. Slowly but surely the crowds have grown, spurred on by the World Championship success of the likes of Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Quartararo. An enormous effort has been made to provide entertainment after the racing and it’s paid off.

It seems a long time ago, 40 years, I was sitting in Barry Sheene’s motorhome in the Nogaro paddock surrounded by the Grand Prix stars of the day. They had asked me to draft a letter that they all signed stating they refused to ride at the 3.12km track. They were unhappy about the safety of the track and the facilities at the circuit near Bordeaux and they did not ride. The French Grand Prix went ahead but without the Championship contenders. Others had to ride despite the dangers. They needed to raise enough cash just to make it to the next round at Jarama in Spain.

We loved going to the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France with the sunshine and sea. It hosted the French Grand Prix, together with Le Mans, apart from 1992 when Magny Cours staged its one and only Grand Prix race. I remember my first visit to the legendary Le Mans circuit in 1983. It was a freezing cold Easter weekend. The traffic on the Paris Perifericue ring road was horrendous. There were no hotel rooms and so I slept in the back of the Champion Spark Plugs van and celebrated a rare British victory when Alan Carter was victorious in the 250cc race. It was also a weekend that reminded us all that despite so many safety improvements there was still much to be done. Swiss rider Michel Frutschi, who a year earlier had won the boycotted 500cc Grand Prix at Nogaro was killed in the 500cc race. Earlier, Japanese rider Iwao Ishikawa lost his life in a practice crash. There was still a long way to go

Le Mans became the sole home of the French Grand Prix 22 years ago. Even then, and certainly earlier at Nogaro, Paul Ricard and Magny Cours, we would never have envisaged the scenes on Sunday. France is now right up there with the likes of Spain and Italy as a MotoGP™ giant.

Next stop for Pecco Bagnaia and Ducati is their home Grand Prix at Mugello. The memory of that lonely Le Mans walk will be a distant one if he can win in front of that passionate home crowd. It would also make the Championship, which is only at one-third distance, even more interesting.

By |2022-05-19T07:35:49+00:00May 19th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|0 Comments

Local hero – crazier than crazy

Le Mans is always a crazy place but this weekend it is going to be even crazier. Returning home to race for the first time after conquering the World is the stuff of legends. On Sunday MotoGP World Champion Fabio Quartararo sets foot on the hallowed tarmac at the home of French Motorsport to race on home soil for first time since becoming the only Frenchman to win the premier class World Championship. It will be such a special moment for the French Yamaha rider and those fervent French fans who are never afraid to express their emotions and drink plenty of beer. If possible, the support and celebrations could reach another level if this year’s Championship leader wins the race. It has been done by other returning heroes. For some it took just a few weeks. For others it took years, while for some it never happened.

Three weeks after bringing Ducati their first premier class title in 2007 at the home of Honda, Motegi in Japan, Casey Stoner returned home to a hero’s welcome at Phillip Island. I think the adulation he received from the whole sports’ mad country even surprised cool Casey, but he produced the goods on a race track he loved. Not only did he comfortably win the race from team-mate Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi but went on to win at Phillip Island for the next five years before retiring

They love their sporting heroes in Australia, and one brought the country to a complete halt. In 1987 Wayne Gardner became the first Australian to win the premier class World title. Australia went Grand Prix mad. Every race was shown live on terrestrial television the Phillip Island circuit, more famous for its penguins, was totally renovated to stage the very first Australian Grand Prix in 1989. Gardner, who been voted Australian Sportsman of the Year in 1987 ahead of Wimbledon tennis champion Pat Cash, had lost his title to Eddie Lawson in 1988. He arrived at the second round of the 1989 Championship in poor shape after almost losing a vital part of his anatomy in a fearsome slide and collision with the fuel tank while finishing fourth at Suzuka in Japan. Australia held its breath and Gardner did not let them down. Just 0.47s separated winner Gardner, Wayne Rainey and Christian Sarron after 30 laps of pure theatre that had the whole nation on hold. First over the barriers opposite pit lane onto the track to celebrate was my sister-in-law, a senior nursing sister at a Perth hospital. She was followed by thousands of others as Australia went crazy. Getting off the Island by the bridge or ferry was impossible that night. The 100 kms trip to Melbourne the next morning took hours with the roads adorned with flags and banners. Front page headlines in every newspaper and television and radio news programmes.

Five times World Champion Mick Doohan returned home for the first race of the 1995 season at Eastern Creek on the outskirts of Sydney after winning his first title the previous year. He celebrated with a comfortable victory over fellow Australian Darryl Beattie.

Jorge Lorenzo only had to wait four weeks after clinching his first MotoGP title at Sepang in 2010. At the final round he celebrated his title with victory over Stoner and Rossi in Valencia. Marc Marquez won at Jerez in 2014 and Valentino Rossi at Mugello in 2002 on their first home appearances as premier class World Champions. Wayne Rainey returned to win at Laguna Seca in 1990 after winning his first World title the previous year.

Not every Local Hero story had a happy ending. Barry Sheene was a national icon in Britain after winning the 1976/77 500cc World titles and fighting back from serious injuries with a cigarette in his mouth, a girl on his arm and a word for everybody. In 1977 the British round of the World Championship switched from the TT circuit in the Isle of Man that had staged the first ever World Championship race in 1949, to Silverstone on the mainland for the first time. Sheene had already retained his World title at Imatra. He was desperate to become the first ever winner of the British Grand and the nation was behind him. Sheene was side-lined with mechanical problems but was on the pit wall hanging out that famous ‘Gas it W…..’ to his great friend Steve Parrish who was leading with a few laps remaining. Spots of rain began to fall. Parrish crashed, followed by second placed John Williams and American Pat Hennen grabbed his second Grand Prix win. A British rider still has never won the Premier class race at his home Grand Prix.

Fabio, prepare yourself for the weekend of all weekends!

 

By |2022-05-12T08:18:56+00:00May 12th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Local hero – crazier than crazy

Jerez made me realise I still have a long way to go

Oh dear, just when I thought I was getting over it along came Jerez. Grand Prix and TT winner Mick Grant once told me he did not go near a racetrack for six years after he retired from racing.  Last year I went to Silverstone which was my first visit to a MotoGP™ race in four years after I’d left the commentary box for the last time. I honestly thought I was, at last, starting to get over the MotoGP™ experience. I smiled when I thought of Mick’s six years in the wilderness. But I was wrong. Jerez on Sunday is to blame

Who could not love the place? Packed hillsides, bright sunshine, an atmosphere like a football match and then of course there is the racing. For 36 years fans throughout Europe have been flocking south to Andalusia at the start of May. It is an annual pilgrimage to an area, not just a circuit, that breathes the very soul of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. I could feel and smell it as I turned up the volume on the remote control on Sunday and I wanted to be there.

I remember that very first Grand Prix at Jerez in 1987. Flying to Gibraltar and landing in a gale. Driving through the Andalusian hills and past lakes to arrive at a city that was famous for its sherry. Wayne Gardner won that first 500cc race from Eddie Lawson with British riders Ron Haslam third and Niall Mackenzie fourth, respectively. Who will forget the celebrations in 1995 when Alberto Puig became the first Spanish rider to win a 500cc Grand Prix on home soil. A year later the chaos when the crowd invaded the track on the last lap thinking the race was over to celebrate an Alex Criville win. World Champion Mick Doohan somehow missed the invaders and won the race with Criville crashing on the last bend. Doohan’s practice crash in 1999 that brought the five-times World Champion’s career to an end. On a personal level Bradley Smith’s first 125cc Grand Prix win in 2009. Then of course there have been the confrontations.

Valentino Rossi and Sete Gibernau, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) at the dreaded Turn 13, now re-named the Lorenzo corner after the five-time Jerez winner. Who can forget Casey Stoner questioning nine times Jerez winner Valentino Rossi’s talent after a collision at Turn one 11 years ago?

I worked at a couple of Formula One car Grand Prix at the circuit, but the crowds were small, and the atmosphere was flat. This is motorcycle racing country and everything that goes with it. Proper fish and chips at El Puerto Santa Maria, the street racing in Jerez, fans pouring out of the clubs as we were driving to the circuit in the morning. Even those massive traffic queues of the nineties now make me smile although not at the time. That wonderful first cold beer sitting outside the Don Pepe restaurant after a hard day in the office/paddock.

Sunday’s MotoGP™ winner Pecco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) said it had been a beautiful day at Jerez on Sunday. He was absolutely right. It made me realise I still have a long way to go. Mick Grant was right.

 

By |2022-05-04T19:09:01+00:00May 4th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Jerez made me realise I still have a long way to go