Monthly Archives: June 2022

Three wins in one day at Assen – they earned a summer break

The summer break has arrived. The riders and teams deserve it, but it has not always been the case in the past when fighting for very survival.

Most riders competed in more than one class. The factory riders because they were told to by their employers. The privateers to gain more start money to enable them to have enough diesel and food to struggle to the next venue. Of course, the World Championship was a lot shorter than the 20-plus worldwide venues these days. The riders supplemented their paltry incomes by racing at non-championship and often extremely dangerous venues. These lucrative races were between Grands Prix and often during the summer break.

It was such a very different world and there is no better place than Assen to show just why. Compare the so different life and times of a Grand Prix rider. The Dutch Cathedral is the only circuit on the 2022 calendar that was a venue in that very first World Championship season way back in 1949. As the riders streamed through the legendary and much-changed Strubben corner on Sunday, I wondered just what those bygone heroes would have thought of the super-slick show their modern-day counterparts put on week after week. One thing for certain is they would be surprised and, in some cases, happy at the number of kilometres a modern-day Grand Prix rider puts in over a weekend and especially on race day.

On Sunday, MotoGP™ winner Pecco Bagnaia, riding for the Ducati Lenovo Team, completed twenty-six laps of the 4.542km Assen circuit, a race distance of 118.092km. Also, the Italian only competed in one race on Sunday. It used to be so very different with two great World Champions illustrating just why.

In 1964 Jim Redman won the 125, 250 and 350cc races for Honda at Assen on Saturday, June 27th. Three Grand Prix wins in one day was unheard of even in those days. Mike Hailwood had won three TT races in the Isle of Man in one week, but three in one day was a record-breaker. Two years later in 1966 Hailwood won three Grands Prix on the old Brno circuit in Czechoslovakia and then repeated the dose at Assen a year later.

Like Redman, he won all three Grands Prix on Honda machinery. First, the 250cc race after fighting off the challenge of Bill Ivy on the two-stroke Yamaha. Next up, the 350cc and finally the 20-lap 500cc race and the second showdown of the day with the MV Agusta of Giacomo Agostini. In all, Hailwood had raced in a single day to three wins over 57 laps of the 7.7km Assen circuit. It was a total distance of a staggering 439km, which he completed in a time of three hours, three minutes, 0.07s. I think, and I am sure he would have enjoyed, a beer or two that evening.

At the start of the World Championship races were longer than today, a lot longer. Once again Assen produces the perfect illustration. In 1950 Italian Umberto Masetti won the longest ever race at the legendary venue. Riding the Gilera he won the 18-lap 500cc race around the 16.536km circuit in two hours, 0m, 43.2s. The total distance was 297.6km for a single race win. Masetti went on to win the World Championship in the six-race title chase.

Marc Marquez contemplated the idea of competing in both the Moto2™ and MotoGP™ World Championships. The long Grand Prix schedule and practice and qualifying sessions made the dream impossible. The last rider to win two Grands Prix in one day was Jorge Martinez in 1988. The Spanish World Champion won the 80 and 125cc races at Brno. Three years earlier Freddie Spencer was crowned 250 and 500cc World Champion. In 1985 Freddie turned back the clock in the 12-round Championship to ride in both classes. At Mugello, he stood on the top step of the podium after winning the 500cc race as the 250cc machines were being wheeled to the grid. Second-placed Eddie Lawson turned to him after ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ anthem and said, “rather you than me”. Freddie smiled and won the 250cc race to become the first 250 and 500cc Grand Prix winner since Jarno Saarinen 12 years earlier.

The great thing about MotoGP™ today is that it has been prepared to make changes and embrace those changes to keep the sport so vibrant and popular. We have the greatest respect and admiration for those riders who have graced the famous Assen tarmac for the last 74 years. They laid down and built the very foundations of what we witness today. They certainly deserved a summer break, but rarely took it because to survive they had to race.

By |2022-06-30T13:19:29+00:00June 30th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|0 Comments

Yesterday all my troubles seemed far away watching Ago

Last week, two icons who played such a massive influence in my growing up celebrated their 80th birthdays. Paul McCartney will celebrate at the weekend by headlining Glastonbury Festival, the legendary Cathedral of modern music. I do not think Giacomo Agostini is planning to headline at Assen at the undisputed Cathedral of World Championship Motorcycle racing, but he has every right to.  I never saw McCartney, or The Beatles live but I certainly saw Ago. They are memories that form the very structure of my love for the sport.

The most successful rider in the 74-year history of Grand Prix racing. 15 World titles, 122 Grands Prix wins in just 231 Grands Prix starts. Add the fact that Ago’s looks, and charm, tempted so many beautiful ladies to link his arm – how could I not be impressed. Where do you start for a rider who loved Assen, winning 14 times at the Dutch TT.

Ago and I made our debuts at the TT races in the Isle of Man in 1965. The Italian was a works rider and team-mate to Mike Hailwood in the legendary MV Agusta team. I, a scruffy teenager on a day trip to the Island to watch the 50cc and 500cc World Championship races. Agostini had made his TT debut earlier in the week by finishing third in the 350cc race. I caught my first glimpse of the rider and machine that would dominate Grand Prix racing for the next decade. It was a very short glimpse as he raced down from Kates’s Cottage to where we stood in the pub at Creg Ny Baa. In a red blur and lingering exhaust smoke, he was gone. As we waited for him to return a lap later it was announced he had crashed 16 km out at Sarah’s cottage on the second lap. He was uninjured but his race was over.

Eight years later in 1973, we made a brave decision to miss our annual visit to Isle of Man TT and spread our wings and catch the ferry to Holland and a very different TT. Windmills, so many pushbikes, chips with mayonnaise and Beer at 6 am, were already making my first Grand Prix visit a memorable experience. The icing on the cake was watching Ago win the 350cc race on the MV although Phil Read’s victory in the 500cc race ran it close.

So, Ago was such a massive presence at my first World Championship events, surely it could not get better than that. It did and it did not. My very first assignment as the new reporter at Motorcycle News in 1976 was to travel to Misano for the pre-season international race in which arch enemies and former team-mate Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read were riding on 500cc Suzukis. They lost my luggage at Milan Airport, but I managed to find the legendary Abners Hotel on the Riccione seafront. I was nervous, very nervous but met Scotsman Iain Mackay, the renowned mechanic who later became head of Honda Racing PR, in the lobby. He took pity on me and asked if I would like to join him and his team for dinner that night in the hotel restaurant. I had no idea what team he worked for and gratefully accepted. With no luggage, I arrived at the restaurant in a dirty old t-shirt only to be welcomed with the shake of the hand by the rider in Mac’s team, a certain Giacomo Agostini. I said and ate little that evening. Incredibly the next evening Phil Read invited me to the very same restaurant for dinner and even lent me a couple of t-shirts. I thought what all the fuss about this job, it’s a doddle, but then events started going downhill rapidly.

When sleet fell on the morning of the race Ago refused to ride on safety grounds. The meeting was called off without a wheel being turned. I managed to get hold of Read by telephone who accused Ago of being pathetic. Pathetic Ago, accuses Read, steamed out of the front-page headlines on Wednesday morning. I thought I was in the big time. A week later the race meeting was re-scheduled for the aerodrome at Modena. I arrived cocky and full of myself. The first person I saw was Ago reading the front-page pathetic headlines. Before I could disappear, he signalled me over with the crook of his finger. He was so very angry. Ago enquired whether the opinion of a 15-time World Champion to such accusation might have been how a proper journalist would have approached the story. There were no more invitations to dinner that weekend. I still had so much to learn. Thirty-six years later when I hosted his 70th birthday party at Silverstone he told me he’d forgiven me.

Happy 80th Ago. Paul McCartney will be celebrating his birthday by singing ‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.’ In my case, it was watching the great Giacomo Agostini in action that did just that.

By |2022-06-23T07:16:32+00:00June 23rd, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Yesterday all my troubles seemed far away watching Ago

Winning flowed through Soichiro Honda’s veins

For the first time in over a decade there will be a new rider and manufacturer occupying the top spot of the MotoGP™ podium at the Sachsenring on Sunday. Honda arrive in Germany with little chance of victory at a circuit where they have totally dominated the MotoGP™ race for the last 11 years. Marc Marquez has won the last eight German Grands Prix. Before that Dani Pedrosa won three in a row. Marquez will not be there on Sunday to make it nine, side-lined with injury for the rest of the season. It is tough times for the Japanese factory who have dominated Grand Prix racing for six decades. A staggering 812 wins including 312 in the premier class. This season Honda have just one third MotoGP™ place to their name thanks to Pol Espargaro at the opening round in Qatar. They will return to that top step because they have been here before. The late Soichiro Honda would expect and demand nothing less

Sixty-eight years ago, to the day a certain Soichiro Honda arrived unheralded on the Isle of Man to watch the 125cc TT race. He returned home with the promise he would return one day to take on and beat the world. It was a promise that he never broke. It is that promise that forms the very foundations of Honda racing and it has never been forgotten or forsaken.

Two things shocked him on that first visit to the Isle of Man. The speed and engineering prowess of the European manufacturers, and especially the German NSU 125 and 250cc superbly build bikes that were dominating the World Championships. The second shock was the anti-Japanese feeling of the British people, despite the fact that it was nine years since World War two had ended. He returned home to Japan with a suitcase full of chains, carburettors, and tyres ready to start the journey. It was five years before he returned to the Isle of Man ready to take on the world.

A year later, Honda started competing at the Mount Asama Volcano Race, located in a village at the foot of an active volcano on the island of Honshu in Japan. The track surface round the 18 kms circuit was compressed volcanic ash. Their main competition came from Yamaha and Suzuki. A decade later they were fighting each other for World titles. Mr Honda finally returned to the Isle of Man in 1959. This time no suitcase and notebook but with a team to compete in the World Championship. It was the opening round of the 125cc World Championship, ten laps around the shortened 17.365 kms Clypse TT circuit. Three Japanese riders who had never competed a full race on a tarmac surface and American Bill Hunt who was also the liaison officer for the team. The Team Manager was Kiyoshi Kawashima, who later became President of the Honda Motor Company. Their RC 142 Honda machines featured a bevel-drive DOHC twin with four valve heads. They may have been down on top speed to their Italian and East German counterparts. The riders lacked experience on the track surface, but both typically were reliable and never gave up. The result was the Team Prize including a sixth place for Japanese rider Naomi Taniguchi. Honda had arrived and the World had to take notice.

Two years later the first of those 812 wins came when Australian Tom Phillis won the 1961 125cc Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic circuit in Barcelona. Honda were up and running. At Hockenheim Kanematsu Takahashi became the first Japanese rider to win a Grand Prix with a 250cc victory. Mike Hailwood clinched Honda’s first World title at the penultimate round of the 1961 250cc Championship with victory at Kristianstad in Sweden. It was his first World title and the first Japanese machine to take a World title.

Nowhere more than the Sachsenring illustrates just what a task lies ahead for Honda. Hopefully, their inspirational leader Marquez will return to the fight next season. It is a massive ask for both parties. Both are very capable of meeting the considerable challenge that lies ahead because winning is in the blood of Honda and those promises given by Soichro Honda 68 years ago have never been forgotten. He would expect nothing less.

 

By |2022-06-16T08:17:08+00:00June 16th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Winning flowed through Soichiro Honda’s veins

The Old Grey Cells Still Matter

In the modern world of electronics, carbon discs, wings and seamless gearboxes, it’s so refreshing to discover that it’s still the old grey cells that hold the key to success. As space-age technology continues to evolve, Aleix Espargaro’s plight at Barcelona was a clear indication that the input and effort from the rider and his brain must never be forsaken or underestimated

It may be scant compensation for a sobbing Aleix at Barcelona on Sunday, but he is not the first rider or team to make such a mistake. He is almost certainly not the last either. The sheer disbelief, frustration and anger was felt by everybody for the rider who was brought up within sight and sound of the Barcelona circuit. His hand raised as he crossed what he thought was the finishing line to bring Aprilia second place only to realise there was still a lap to go. He eventually recovered to finish fifth and admitted afterwards he was watching the lap scoring tower and not his pit board.

Thirteen years earlier, a Spanish rider wrecked his chance of the ultimate home victory on the very same Barcelona tarmac. Julian Simon crossed the line in first place with his arm raised to celebrate victory in the 2009 125cc race, but there was still a lap to go. Like Aleix, he admitted afterwards he’d been watching the lap tower and not his pit board. He eventually finished fourth after a photo finish with teammate Sergio Gadea, with the race won by Andrea Iannone. But take heart Aleix because Julian Simon went on to win the World title that year.

In 2014, sixteen riders were chasing victory in a staggering Moto3™ race at Brno. Alex Rins celebrated victory a lap early and eventually finished ninth such was the ferocity of the chasing pack. His misfortune handed Frenchman Alexis Masbou his first Grand Prix win.

Probably the most remembered MotoGP™ premature celebration was at Estoril in 2006. It was a 28-lap race that played such a vital part in the outcome of the World title. Repsol Honda teammates Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden had already collided in this penultimate round of the title chase. In a three-way battle at the front, former World Champion Kenny Roberts Jr celebrated victory a lap too early. The later first Moto2™ World Champion Toni Elias grabbed his one and only premier class win with Valentino Rossi second and Roberts third. Those vital 20 points for Rossi gave him an eight-point lead over Hayden going into the final round at Valencia but the title went to the American.

It would be wrong to always blame the riders for a bit of brain fade in the heat of the moment. Would you believe it but even commentators have been known to get it wrong? At Jerez in 1996, it is alleged the circuit commentator announced the end of a titanic battle between local hero Alex Criville and World Champion Mick Doohan a lap early. The home fans streamed onto the track to celebrate while Criville and Doohan had to dodge them as they fought a last lap battle. Criville crashed on the final corner and Doohan won the race.

So, commentators and riders have not always got it right but sometimes even the teams get it wrong. Repsol Honda got it very wrong at Phillip Island in 2013. Marc Marquez was closing in on his first MotoGP™ title in his debut season. The circuit had been resurfaced and Bridgestone knew their tyres would not last the race distance and so a flag-to-flag race with a compulsory pit stop was planned. Riders were instructed to change tyres on laps nine or ten. Maths had never been my strong point, but I marked down each lap as the riders raced down the magnificent Gardner main straight. When Marquez raced past at the end of lap ten, I thought I must have run out of fingers and miscalculated but for once it was not me. The Repsol Honda team had not run out of fingers and unbelievably had missed a lap. Marquez was black-flagged, handing 25 precious points to Jorge Lorenzo. But, once again, take heart Aleix, Marquez still was crowned World Champion at the end of the season.

Thank goodness we are still only human.

By |2022-06-08T21:22:07+00:00June 8th, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on The Old Grey Cells Still Matter

Where will it end – 400 kph?

OK it may not win races, but we are totally fascinated by ultimate top speed. Mugello, the Temple of Speed, was the place to witness the spectacle at its absolute best. Sometimes and especially if watching on the screen it is so easy to forget just how fast a modern MotoGP™ motorcycle is travelling. If you have any doubts stand on the crest of the rise on the 1.1 kms Mugello start and finish straight and focus on the approaching blur. If you blink you miss it. If you try and turn your head to follow it, you have no chance. Front wheel lifting on the crest they have disappeared in a blink before braking so hard for the San Donato corner at the bottom of the hill their brake discs reach a temperature of 770’c

On Sunday Jorge Martin, riding the Prima Pramac Racing Ducati, was timed at 363.6 kph over the rise before braking for the 95 kph frightening first turn. It is the fastest speed ever recorded in the 74-year history of Grand Prix racing. To reach the corner safely riders’ brake for around 5.9s in a distance of 317 metres. Even Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One Mercedes could not match that top speed over the crest last year. In the first F1 Grand Prix at Mugello he was timed at 322.1 kph although of course braking was a lot shorter and speed through San Donato a lot quicker on four wheels.

Ironically, it was two crashes at Mugello that vividly brought home to me just how fast the riders are going. Miraculously both riders escaped serious injury. Shinya Nakano’s 2004 crash when a rear tyre blew on his Kawasaki came moments after I had been spectating on the Mugello crest where the crash started. He hit the tarmac at around 305 kph. Nine years later I was commentating when Marc Marquez fell from the Repsol Honda at the same spot. Crashes at that speed are frightening to witness but the fact that both Nakano and Marquez were able to race that weekend illustrates just what enormous improvements have been made in riders’ equipment, track safety and instant medical intervention.

This weekend the venue for that very first World Championship event in 1949 returns after a two-year absence. The legendary 60.721kms Mountain circuit in the Isle of Man staged the first premier class race. Harold Daniell brought Norton victory in his only Grand Prix victory. His single cylinder four-stroke machine had a top speed approaching 200 kph. The fastest lap of the seven-lap race was 144.383 kph set by Bob Foster riding the Moto Guzzi. Four years ago, Peter Hickman lapped the circuit at an average speed of 217.98 kph on a machine that was capable of around 340 kph top speed.

One feat has remained in the record books for the last 45 years. In 1977 Barry Sheene riding the works 500 cc Suzuki lapped the old 14.120 kms Spa Francorchamps circuit at 220.721 kph. It is still the fastest ever lap recorded and he also established the faster ever race average of 217.370 kph. The length of the legendary Belgium venue was reduced soon after on safety grounds. Today even the shorter Spa circuit is not deemed safe enough for MotoGP™. It makes you wonder just how fast that top speed would be and the difference in the lap times after over four decades.

I remember the excitement in the media centre and paddock at Hockenheim at the German Grand Prix in 1993 when the first ever top speed of over 200 mph (322 kph) was ratified. It came in the final qualifying session when Japanese rider Shinichi Itoh riding the fuel injected NSR Rothmans Honda went through the speed trap at the 6.792 kms circuit. We all thought that was getting near the limit. Twenty-nine years have passed. Martin was an incredible 40 kph faster on Sunday.

This week the MotoGP World Championship arrives in Barcelona where top speeds are close to Mugello proportions on the start and finish straight. Where will the speed limit end?

By |2022-06-02T16:24:21+00:00June 2nd, 2022|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Where will it end – 400 kph?