The weather was not always perfect and Mark Marquez may have clinched that MotoGP World title five rounds from the finish in Thailand but still the fans voted on their feet. To be precise an average of 150,691 pairs of feet propelled those fans to each grand prix this season. A staggering average attendance for the three days which makes up a grand prix weekend. Over two million eight hundred thousand race fans travelled to the 19 grand prix this season and next year with Finland making a welcome return to the 20 race calendar there are going to be more.
When I returned to full time grand prix motorcycle racing after a six year defection to Formula One 19 years ago there was concern about just how people were attending or in some cases not attending certain circuits. You could almost count the number of spectators on one hand in many of those vast empty Sepang grandstands in Malaysia. Just 18,500 fans made it over the three days for the 2000 British Grand Prix at Donington Park .Jeremy McWilliams who finished third behind Valentino Rossi and World Champion Kenny Roberts in the 500cc race, the Doctor’s first premier class victory, nicknamed Great Britain as Superbike Island and he was right.
Roll on 18 incredible years of four strokes, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Marc Marquez plus so much more and it’s a very different story. This year Sepang. which has dropped its Formula race because of poor attendances, attracted over 170,000 spectators cheering on their home based Petronas Yamaha SRT team. This year it was a case of counting the empty seats on one hand. Last year the British Grand Prix at Silverstone has to be cancelled on race day because of heavy rain which the new track surface could not handle. This year nearly 115,000 returned to this classic re-surfaced venue to witness a classic Marquez/Alex Rins fight to the flag. Even more will return next year.
Three circuits attracted over 200,000 spectators this season. The massive crowds packed two classic venues at the Sachsenring in Germany and Le Mans in France. Innovative marketing and spectator events such as concerts, stunt riding and rider appearances has doubled the Le Mans attendance over the last decade with double World titles for Johann Zarco playing their part.
There was no home – based World Champions or even race winner to cheer on in Thailand but still the Chang International Circuit at Buriram attracted the largest crowd of the season for the second year running. A staggering 226,655 fans travelled to the track in East Thailand. MotoGP has a massive new following in Asia and with Indonesia poised to join the Championship in the next couple of years those crowds are just going to get bigger and bigger.
Of course increased attendances are not the only indication of just how successful the MotoGP World Championship has been over the last couple of decades but surely 2,863,119 fans can’t be wrong.
When I was growing up with totally unrealistic dreams of actually racing a motorcycle I eagerly devoured every word in a book on just how to do it by my hero nine times World Champion Mike Hailwood. The book suggested you should be able to place an imaginary sixpenny piece on every corner round the TT mountain course in the Isle of Man. Then for every lap of the six lap race, a mere 364 kms, you should be able to ride over every one of those sixpences to ensure smooth consistent lines. Hailwood could do it but very few others could. Without a shadow of a doubt Jorge Lorenzo would have hit that imaginary sixpence or euro in his case, on every single bend. In this era of tough aggressive encounters Lorenzo was almost a throwback who reminded me so much of the legendary Hailwood. Of course he could mix it and had to win those five World titles. Even the King of Spain had to step in to calm the explosive feud between him and Dani Pedrosa as they fought for the 250 cc title. Then when he joined the MotoGP elite and everything that goes with it. Lorenzo also had to deal with team-mate Valentino Rossi on and off the track.
I vaguely remember having to add the name of a teenager from Mallorca by the name of Jorge Lorenzo to the entry list on the Saturday of the 2002 125 cc race at the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez. It was the day of his 15th birthday and he was too young to ride in the first two practice sessions on Friday. A year later he won his first grand prix in Rio but I’d already got to know Jorge. He was more nervous about having to speak English at press conferences than he was about riding grand prix motor cycles. We would meet up ten minutes before the conference and he would practice his answers in English to my questions. It was good training and soon no practice was required because he was such a frequent participant in the pole setters and race winner’s press conferences on route to those two 250 cc World titles.
He arrived in MotoGP with a bang. Pole positions, some mighty big crashes, especially that high side in China and that first win in Estoril were the stand out moments of that 2008 season. World titles on the Yamaha followed in 2010, 2012 and 2015 which was almost forgotten in the furore of the Marquez/Rossi war. Like Rossi he made the move to Ducati and struggled in the same way to adjust in that first year but then glimpses of that immaculate smooth style returned with three grand prix wins for the Italian factory.
In the end the pain of so many injuries finally took their toll this year. Lorenzo knew more than most that you paid a price for winning 68 grands prix and five World titles. Who would ever forget that weekend at the 2013 Dutch TT in Assen. Lorenzo crashed and broke his collarbone in the wet second practice session. He was flown to Barcelona to have a titanium plate fitted with ten screws to repair the broken bone. He returned two days later to ride the Yamaha into fifth place after 26 laps of excruciating pain. Winning World titles and grands prix was never easy.
To some people Lorenzo played second fiddle to first Valentino Rossi and then Marc Marquez but on his day and especially if he got away at the front, Jorge Lorenzo was quite simply unbeatable. Mike Hailwood would have approved.
It was a difficult Sunday for the French in Japan. While France was knocked out of the Rugby World Cup by Wales the mighty impressive Fabio Quartararo clinched the MotoGP™ Rookie of the Year title in Motegi but for the fourth Grand Prix in succession could not beat the rampant Marc Marquez to secure that first premier class victory. Surely that first win will come as rich reward for the 20-year-old during the final three races of the year. He should take heart that others have had to wait longer before the floodgates opened while some who started with a bang never went on the win the ultimate prize.
Mick Doohan had to wait until the penultimate round of the 1990 Championship to secure that first win at the Hungaroring on the outskirts of Budapest in his second season in the 500cc class. The Australian went on to win 53 more on route to five World titles. What a contrast to Max Biaggi who arrived in the 500cc class with a bang at Suzuka in 1998. The Italian had dominated the 250cc Championship for the previous four years and what a premier class debut he made at the opening round of the Championship. Max won comfortably on the Honda to send a shiver down the spine of his rivals to become the first rider in 25 years to win a premier class race on his debut. It was quite a day with Biaggi the first European winner of a Premier class race in Japan but he never went onto win the World title. He won 12 more Grands Prix but in the final reckoning always had to play second fiddle to his bitter rival Valentino Rossi.
Even The Doctor didn’t strike first time out and it after a trip to hospital in nearby Nottingham following a practice crash he won for the first time at the ninth round of the 2000 Championship at Donington Park. The rest is history with 88 victories to follow that brought the Italian seven World titles and a legendary status. I’m sure it’s no great surprise to learn that Marc Marquez won at Austin in 2013 in just his second premier class race and went on to win the title at the first attempt.
I remember two maiden premier class wins by two riders who went onto win the ultimate prize. Twenty five of us travelled to Assen in 1975 to support Barry Sheene just four months after his horrendous Daytona crash that made him more famous than any World titles back home in Britain. I’m still convinced our vocal beer-fuelled support for Barry as he crossed the line on equal time as legend Giacomo Agostini convinced the timekeepers to award the race to the British rider who went on to win 18 more and two World titles
Seven years later I ran down the track with notebook in hand towards the legendary Eau Rouge corner at Spa in Belgian determined to be the first journalist to speak to Freddie Spencer after his maiden Grand Prix win. As I breathlessly arrived Freddie was trying to turn the three-cylinder Honda with no steering lock round at the bottom of the hill to get back to pit lane and the celebrations. Unfortunately, after averaging 157.873 kph to win the 20 lap race an exhausted Freddie fell off at around 5 kph and the exclusive interview had to wait. Freddie went on to win 19 more premier class Grands Prix, two 500cc titles and is still the only rider to win 500 and 250cc titles in the same season just three years later.
So take heart Fabio, that first win will come. At least you get another chance at Phillip Island on Sunday while the French rugby team will have to wait four long years.
I always thought by the time we arrived at Misano we were on the last lap of the season, but beware – many a race, or in most cases the World Championship, has been decided on that last lap. Sure, the Marquez brothers seem well on their way to an incredible MotoGP™/Moto2™ double but despite the nights drawing in and autumn approaching fast, there is still an awful long way to go before that prize-giving in Valencia on November 17.
To be precise there are still seven Grands Prix left starting on the Adriatic coast of Italy on Sunday. That’s well over one-third of the season remaining. Seven races in just nine weeks of frantic action and frenzied travel. One hundred and seventy-five points up for grabs in that period of time when MotoGP seems to fill every inch of your brain and every hour of your day. It’s tough; it’s tiring but so incredibly exciting and rewarding. Travelling with a group of like-minded souls across the globe and by the time you reach Valencia one part of you is glad the travelling is over while the other part just craves for one more adrenalin rush before Christmas arrives. Then the process starts all over again.
The real crunch period for the riders and the teams are those three races in two weeks starting at Motegi in Japan, then just popping down to Phillip Island in Australia before starting back home via Sepang in Malaysia. Seventy-five points that have so often decided the outcome of the Championship even before that final round in Valencia. Three races staged on three so different race tracks. Three races held in often totally contrasting weather conditions. There can be fog in Motegi, rain and wind at Phillip Island and then searing heat and torrential rain in Sepang while adjusting to just travelling to and then around three such contrasting countries and lifestyles.
My other memory of Misano is after weeks of speculation at last finding out the provisional calendar for the next season and then working out the best time to tell your loved ones back home especially with the massive end of season trip about to start. When I started covering Grand Prix racing in 1980 there were ten races on the calendar although it dropped to eight with Venezuela cancelled because of financial problems and Austria snowbound. Next year there is double that number scheduled in an amazing calendar that crisscrosses the globe in almost nine months of racing and travel.
As round 13 approaches this weekend I’m sure Marc and Alex Marquez and Lorenzo Dalla Porta know that so much can change so quickly in the next nine weeks. I hope that everybody planning to embark on next year’s adventure have already shown the 2020 calendar or perhaps at least given a hint to their loved ones about their plans for next year. Don’t leave it until Valencia.
There has been plenty of midnight sun, ice racing, vodka sampling, saunas in the forests by the lake, smorgasbord, Mika Kallio and even the end of the Abba era but there has been no grand prix motorcycle racing for nearly three decades but this could change in the future.
The long awaited and much anticipated return of MotoGP to Scandinavia took a giant step forward with the first test at the brand new KymiRing circuit in Finland.
It’s 29 long years since the last Swedish Grand Prix was held at the Anderstorp circuit. You have to go back another eight years to the last grand prix to be staged in Finland in 1982 at the legendary Imatra circuit.
Two more contrasting circuits both on and off the track would be hard to imagine. Anderstorp the flat aerodrome track south of Gothenburg which you entered through an industrial estate. Imatra the road circuit snaking through the forest next to the lake and the outskirts of the town just a couple of kilometres from the Russian border.
Anderstorp where it was difficult to buy alcohol and where a gang of Hells Angels had set up camp in the nearby forest. Imatra where buying alcohol and especially vodka was never a problem and where the partying in the midnight sun was a legendary part of the weekend.
Anderstorp where many a Championship was won and lost because the Swedish Grand Prix was always near the end of the season. Freddie Spencer and Kenny Roberts had a mighty coming together on the last lap in the penultimate round in 1983. Freddie surprised Kenny with his aggression to take a famous victory to set up his first World 500cc title. Two years later Freddie clinched the 500cc part of his historical double. I celebrated Barry Sheene’s last grand prix win with his great friend Marco Lucchinelli clinching the 1981 World title and Wayne Rainey blew away his Championship chances in 1989 when he crashed chasing Eddie Lawson’s Honda.
Imatra was so different and so dangerous. I will never forget my first visit in 1980 with the smell from the massive wood pulp factory a constant reminder of how close was the Russian border, the midnight sun, the long nights of partying and those white leathers of Dutchman Wil Hartog flashing between the trees at over 200 kph on route to his last grand prix win. Barry Sheene took me down to the infamous corner where the riders raced over the railway lines. Barry, who a year earlier had burnt down the appalling paddock lavatories, told me the only surprise about the track was that they actually stopped the trains running on race day. The 500cc machines stopped a year later and in 1982 grand prix racing tragically came to an end following the fatal accident of my great friend World Sidecar Champion Jock Taylor.
The new era of grand prix racing starts in Scandinavia at the KymiRing next year. Welcome back but beware of that midnight sun and vodka.
A 425.047km race around the most demanding circuit in the world was how it all began. Seventy long years ago on the morning of June 13th 1949 Grand Prix motorcycle racing began its incredible journey on an island in the middle of the choppy Irish Sea situated between the rugged coastlines of Ireland and England. One year earlier than its four-wheel counterparts, the first ever World Championship race was staged on the legendary mountain circuit in the Isle of Man. This was no 45-minute fight for every corner and inch of tarmac that is the blueprint for modern day MotoGP™ racing but a seven-lap marathon round the 60.721km TT Mountain circuit for 350cc machines.
Freddie Frith became the first ever Grand Prix winner riding the British built Velocette, with a lap record on his last lap of 135.50kph. All 75 finishers in the race were riding British built machinery but there was also a poignant reminder that riders chasing their dream could pay the ultimate price when Ben Drinkwater was killed when he crashed on the fourth lap.
Four days later bespectacled Harold Daniell won the first ever premier class 500cc race riding the Norton to success in another seven laps of the Mountain circuit. He averaged an incredible 139.887kph for the race, which took him over three hours to complete. A few years earlier Daniell was refused entry into the armed forces because of poor eye sight. Irishman Manliff Barrington won the first 250cc Grand Prix riding the Italian Moto Guzzi after another seven-lap marathon encounter. Three weeks later the 125cc class made its debut round the 7.280km circuit at Berne in Switzerland where Italian Nello Pagani brought Mondial an historic victory.
Seventy years on there are 19 Grands Prix visiting 15 countries in five continents with riders from 19 countries competing for the ultimate prize in the three classes Moto3™, Moto2™ and MotoGP™. In 1949 there were six Grands Prix all in Europe and, apart from Monza in Italy, all on circuits that were public roads for the rest of the year. The six circuits picked to stage these pioneering races were the Isle of Man, Berne in Switzerland, Assen in Holland, Spa -Francorchamps in Belgium, Clady in Northern Ireland and Monza in Italy. There were four solo classes 125, 250, 350 and 500cc and of course the magnificent sidecars. The 500cc class was staged at every round, but the 350cc at five, the 250cc at four and the 125s at just three.
Motorcycle racing pioneered the World Championships in 1949 and continues to lead the way 70 years later. Never afraid to incorporate changes and welcome new countries, it’s still way ahead of the others.
Happy Birthday Grand Prix motorcycle racing – long may it continue!
Football and MotoGP™ just don’t mix if you are English. At least this weekend while the paddock in Mugello settles down to watch the Champions League final on Saturday night there will be an English winner but may I assure you that’s a pretty rare occurrence while I was on the road.
The meeting room in the IRTA truck or the Alpine Stars Hospitality unit have been the venue for many an English football fans misery over the last two decades. Empty pizza boxes and cans of beer scattered on the IRTA meeting room table interspersed with language I’m certainly not proud of as England crashed to another defeat in a major tournament once again. Jeremy Appleton at Alpine Stars inviting us to dinner after yet another bitter exit from a tournament although hopefully the language was a little more measured this time round.
Having somebody whisper in my ear during the Saturday afternoon qualifying press conference at Donington Park that Wayne Rooney had been sent off against Portugal in the quarter-final of the 2006 World Cup. Setting my alarm to go off at 2am on the morning of the MotoGP™ race in Barcelona five years ago to watch the end of England’s World Cup clash with Italy in Brazil. Turning on the television to see a dejected England goalkeeper Joe Hart walking off the pitch was enough to realise the score. At least I got some more sleep on race day. It was the Italians celebrating the next day led by Valentino Rossi who then finished second in the 25 lap race after a fantastic battle with Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo.
Driving up and down the Barcelona paddock on a Sunday evening in Matt Roberts’ car with large Union Jack fluttering out of the window before an England France European Championship game in 2004. The Union Jack was nowhere in sight when we drove out two hours later after France scored two goals in injury time to win by two goals to one.
I have had a few rare moments of relief with my local team Oxford United although it’s often been the same bumpy ride as England. Three years ago I had a text message telling me the ‘yellows’ had been promoted after beating local rivals Wycombe Wanderers. The trouble was it was in the middle of the Qualifying press conference and I was just of asking Jorge Lorenzo about his pole position in Le Mans and so it was celebrations all round.
Who will ever forget that incredible pre-event football match six years ago when the combined Moto2™ and 3 teams took on the mighty MotoGP™ team. Nothing that out of the ordinary apart from the venue – the home of Barcelona FC the Nou Camp. The riders plying their skills on one of the most hallowed pieces of turf on the planet. They even played the Barcelona anthem when the teams came up those famous steps onto the pitch although I did get told off by the groundsman for stepping onto the grass.
MotoGP™ and football are alike in so many ways and at least this weekend half the English fans in the Mugello paddock will be happy on Saturday night. That’s half more than usual but don’t mention that to any Liverpool or Spurs supporters.
Sixty long years ago Soichiro Honda arrived on the Isle of Man with his team to compete in the 125cc race at the TT races. Although they returned home with the Team Prize little did anybody who witnessed their World Championship debut around the Clypse course envisages the scenes in the Le Mans pit lane on Sunday.
As Marc Marquez celebrated his 47th premier class win with typical exuberance and Team Manager Alberto Puig equally typically calmly checked the state of tyres on the race-winning RC213V, Honda celebrated another giant milestone in their racing history – their 300th premier class victory.
Two–stroke 500’s, 800 and 990cc four-strokes have brought the Japanese factory unrivalled success again, the very best in the World although it has not always been easy. After so much success in the smaller classes, they entered the 500cc class in 1966 to take on the might of MV Agusta and a certain Giacomo Agostini with the weighty combination of World Champions Jim Redman and Mike Hailwood. Redman won the opening two rounds at Hockenheim and Assen but his challenge that had started so brightly ended when he was injured. The following year Hailwood and Agostini ended on equal points but the title went to the Italian
Honda then withdrew from Grand Prix motor cycle racing to concentrate their considerable technical innovation and finances into Formula One car racing. They returned briefly to challenge the two–strokes with the amazing but uncompetitive NR500 four-stroke with those oval pistons. They realised they had to build a competitive two-stroke 500 to challenge the might of Suzuki and Yamaha and their return to the fray in 1982 was spearheaded by a young American Freddie Spencer on the three-cylinder 500. What a choice it turned out to be with Spencer bringing Honda their first premier class title in 1983 and then re-writing the history books two years later with a 250/500cc double Championship – a feat that has never been repeated. Mick Doohan brought them five successive titles in the nineties and Valentino Rossi took over his mantle winning the last two-stroke 500cc Championships and then heralded the return of the four-stroke era in 2002 and 2003 with a Championship win before defecting to Yamaha. Casey Stoner and Rossi were the thorns in Honda’s side in the new 800 cc class but Stoner signed from Ducati to bring Honda their first 800 cc title in 2011. Then Marquez arrived and the rest is history with the Spaniard capturing five World titles and 47 Grands Prix wins. There are still more titles and Grands Prix victories to come.
Sixty years ago Soichiro Honda arrived in the Isle of Man with a four-rider team to compete in the 176 km 125cc race to fulfil a dream. Three of the Japanese riders had never competed in a race only on tarmac but they returned home with the Team Prize. Little did anybody in the Isle of Man on that June day realise this was just the start.
In the last couple of Grands Prix there has been a couple of very worthy corner and section naming ceremonies to honour the careers of Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa. Hayden Hill in Austin and the Pedrosa Corner at Jerez are the perfect way to remember just what Nicky and Dani have achieved and their contribution to Grands Prix racing.
There are plenty of other sections and corners named after riders and my favourite is the Stoner corner at Phillip Island. No corner sums up the career of the double World Champion better. High on the cliffs above the windswept Bass Straight with the waves crashing into the rocks below as the Australian with smoke pouring off the rear tyre of the Honda and especially the Ducati round that so fast left-hander. Just close your eyes and you are back there.
There are many corners that I’m sure riders don’t want to remember and certainly would not to be named after them. I’m certain Dani was delighted with the Jerez naming but would not have selected the Parabolica Interior at Estoril where he brought down team-mate Hayden to almost wreck his World title chances in 2006. Andrea Iannone might not be that keen of a plaque being erected on the final corner at Misano after throwing a couple of punches at Pol Espargaro after both ended up in the gravel on the final lap of a 125cc race. I’m sure Alex Barros would rather forget turn one at the Sachsenring after the chance of the very last two-stroke win in the MotoGP™ class disappeared when he clattered into fellow two-stroke campaigner Olivier Jacque to bring them both down with the four-strokes nowhere in sight in 2002.
There was no chance of a naming ceremony for Alex Criville after he brought down local hero Mick Doohan at the last bend of the Australian Grand Prix at Eastern Creek with the chequered flag in sight in 1996. Perhaps Loris Capirossi would have approved of a plaque because it handed him his first premier class victory. Tetsuya Harada would certainly not have suggested a Capirossi naming ceremony in Argentina two years later with perhaps the most controversial and talked about last bend crash in Buenos Aires that finally decided the outcome of the 250cc World Championship after much discussion.
If you have the honour of a corner being named after you it’s important that it does not come back to bite you on the bottom as Jorge Lorenzo found out at Jerez in 2013. Just three days after having the infamous turn 13 that leads into the start and finish straight named after him to honour his world titles, he fell out with his now team-mate Marc Marquez after a ‘coming together’ at his very own corner in a fight for second place.
I wonder if the organisers of the next Grand Prix at Le Mans were preparing a naming ceremony in honour of 20-year-old Frenchman Fabio Quartararo after he became the youngest ever MotoGP™ pole setter at Jerez on Saturday. He looked well on course for a podium finish a day later before being sidelined with mechanical problems. The inscription on the plaque had been delayed but it’s certain to come.