Monthly Archives: May 2021

Mugello – More than six laps and no ten finger calculations

I had almost forgotten what a flag-to-flag race was all about until Le Mans last week. The spectacle of the riders racing into pit lane, not all arriving at the correct pits to change bikes, soon put that right and thoughts turned to Mugello in 2004. The MotoGP™ race that afternoon in the Tuscan hills was the very foundation of the flag-to-flag concept. It was an extraordinary afternoon resulting in the shortest ever premier class race in the 73-year history of Grand Prix racing. Just six laps of the 5.24 km circuit, a 31.47 km distance, brought Valentino Rossi the 25 World Championship points and a hero’s reception to set up his successful Yamaha World Championship bid.

Sitting in the commentary box, it was confusing but, rule wise, very clear. Once the race that had started in the dry was stopped after 17 laps when the rain began to fall the results of the second race would determine the complete results and points scorers. The fact that the second race was only six laps to make up the original 23 lap race distance did not matter. It was rumoured that some television stations went off air thinking the first race was the result. Things had to change, and they did the very next year

The flag-to-flag concept was borne. Riders could change bikes with different tyres if the race started in the dry and then turned wet or in the opposite direction from wet to dry. The first time the white flag was shown to indicate riders could change from slicks to wets came at Estoril in Portugal that year. It was just the second round of the 2005 Championship, but it dried out and no rider elected to come in.

Incredibly the weather stayed dry for over a year until the 2006 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, which at last brought about the first flag to flag race. British rider James Ellison was the first rider ever to change bikes, but the race is probably best remembered by winner Marco Melandri remarkable celebratory wave while sliding through the final corner at around 200 kph.

It was Phillip Island seven years later at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix I had another commentary box moment. The track had been resurfaced and Bridgestone soon realised during practice that their tyres would not last the race distance. Riders were instructed to follow a flag-to-flag process and call in to change bikes with new tyres on laps nine or ten. I was in control ticking off each lap and smiled when the riders started to call in after nine laps. I watched Marc Marquez race through and waited for him to appear in pit lane at the end of lap. I panicked and checked my ten fingers when he raced down the Gardner straight towards the Doohan corner on full throttle. Once again had I messed my maths? Anguish on the Repsol Honda pit wall suggested it was not me. Unbelievably in the age of computers, traction control, fly-by-wall throttles and seamless gearboxes, the old ten fingers method had been ignored. They miscalculated the number of laps and Marc was disqualified.

Never was the problem of working out who had won the race when it turned from dry to wet better illustrated than the totally chaotic British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1978. Some riders came in and changed wheels fitted with wet tyres while other stayed on slicks. It was a complete nightmare for the lap scorers using pen, paper and eyes. Kenny Roberts was declared the winner, but nobody is sure and British privateer Steve Manship, who was declared second, still claims victory.

Even when the rules were put in place to avoid such chaos there were still problems at the 1989 Belgium Grand Prix in Spa Francorchamps. The race was stopped twice, and then run a third time. After much discussion, the third race was deemed against the rules and only half World Championship points were awarded after the first two.

So, no ten-finger calculations or six-lap races at Mugello this weekend and hopefully no rain.

By |2021-05-26T16:20:19+00:00May 26th, 2021|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on Mugello – More than six laps and no ten finger calculations

Paddlers, side saddlers and run and jumpers

There is nowhere better in the World than Le Mans to witness that undiluted explosion of sound and fury at the start of a MotoGP™ race. It just bounces off those towering legendary grandstands that dwarf the start and finish straight. When empty the noise is further amplified from the concrete terraces. Sunday was no exception as Jack Miller headed the growling pack of 300 bhp monsters into the fast right-hander before the Dunlop chicane. It all used to sound so different. Up to 34 years ago all you could hear was the patter of feet on tarmac when the flag dropped even at Le Mans

Thirty-eight years into the 73-year history of Grand Prix racing you had to start the race by pushing your bike to fire it into action ready for the battle that lay ahead.  From 50 to 500cc and even sidecars, it was the only way to join the fight. So many races were lost as a rider pushed, pushed and pushed to start his bike as his rivals disappeared over the horizon and out of sight. It all changed in 1987 when clutch starts were finally ratified starting at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the opening round of the World Championship.

It was a very special event not only for the clutch starts. The first Japanese Grand Prix for 20 years and on a personal note the first time I went to Japan and the first time I ever witnessed a fax machine in action. At the time I forgot those first three memories. A fax machine that saved hours of typing out full results late into a Sunday night and could contain six different classes and sidecar passengers. It was a miracle!

Randy Mamola won that first 500cc race with clutch starts but Randy knew all about and had perfected the art of running and pushing. The Californian had already won ten 500cc Grands Prix before the change. In the 500cc class you either had to be a side saddler or jump on starter. The paddlers were confined to the smaller class

In the 50 and later 80cc classes and especially when the two-strokes took over, riders would propel themselves off the line sat on the bike. They would paddle and paddle with both legs and hope the engine would fire into action when they prayed they had enough speed to drop the clutch. It was a gamble that worked most times although failure meant the rider would have to jump off and push.

The classic method of starting especially in the four-stroke era in the bigger classes was side saddle. Riders would look more like royalty on a leisurely horse ride round their estate sitting side saddle. There was nothing leisurely about what happened when they dropped the clutch and the engine roared. They would cock their leg over the back of the saddle onto the footrests as they disappeared

The riders loved the downhill starts and nowhere better than Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. From the start line it was downhill towards the legendary Eau Rouge corner at the bottom of the hill. Most people made good starts at Spa and none better than seven times World Champion Phil Read. My first trip to Spa was in 1974 and Read made the perfect start on the MV Agusta four-stroke with Giacomo Agostini leading the chasing pack on the two-stroke Yamaha. Spa may have been 14.100 kms long but just over four minutes later we first heard and then saw Read racing through the Ardennes forest to complete his first lap with not a single other rider in sight. Perfect start and race for Read who beat Ago by an incredible 72 seconds to win the race and eventually the World title.

It really was a case of the sound of silence until 1987 with just the patter of feet to signify a Grand Prix had actually started. Clutch starts certainly made life easier for riders. Like all changes it also had its disadvantages. Modern technology catches anybody who moves a centimetre before the lights change. Back in the pushing days a small step before the flag dropped would usually go unnoticed. Afterall, there was plenty of pushing ahead.

By |2021-05-20T08:23:28+00:00May 20th, 2021|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|1 Comment

A long way from home

There is something special about Australian sportsmen and women. Perhaps performing so far from home makes them just that more determined to win and prepared to push to the limit and beyond. Grand Prix motorcycle racing is a prime example of the hardships they have overcome to win World Championships and Grands Prix for their country. It is also probably a reason they celebrate success a fair bit harder than most other nationalities. From that first Australian Grand Prix winner Ken Kavanagh in 1952 to Jack Miller’s win at Jerez last weekend you realise just what it means not only to the rider but the whole country.

Australian riders have always been prepared to follow their dreams and travel across the globe to race against the best in the world. They were not content to just read about or watch at the cinema Grand Prix racing in Europe. Instead, they made enormous sacrifices and, in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice, to find out for themselves just what it was all about.

Imagine making that 22,000km six-week sea journey from Australia to Europe to compete in the very first World Championship event at the 1949 TT races in the Isle of Man. That four-hour crossing from Liverpool to the Isle of Man across the bumpy Irish Sea must have seemed like a doddle for the three Australian riders, Eric McPherson, Harry Hinton and George Morrison, who flew the Australian flag 73 years ago not only at the TT but in that historic first season. Growing up I always thought how romantic it sounded. Far from home, travelling around Europe in a van to race motorcycle at legendary venues but it was a hand to mouth existence, especially for the non-European riders, but they continued to arrive

Hinton’s third place in the 1950 Dutch TT riding the Norton was their first podium finish. Two years later Ken Kavanagh became the first Australian winner with victory in the 350cc race at the Ulster Grand Prix. It took another four years for the first world title with Keith Campbell crowned the 1957 350cc World Champion riding the Italian Moto Guzzi machine. Tom Phillis made history four years later bringing Honda their first Grand Prix win in the 1961 125cc Spanish Grand Prix. He went on to bring Honda their first world title the same year but tragically lost his life at the 1962 TT races.

I remember watching Barry Smith winning the 1968 50cc TT race and a year later sitting spellbound witnessing Kel Carruthers jump the legendary Ballaugh Bridge on the mountain circuit riding the gloriously sounding four cylinder Benelli. Carruthers, who later became the mentor for the likes of Kenny Roberts to dominate European racing, went on to win the 250cc TT and the world title.

Twenty years later I was in the thick of the action when two Australian riders arrived to dominate the 500cc World Championships and change the whole direction of the sport back home. Wayne Gardner lived on fish and chips and slept in the back of his Austin 1800 car when he arrived in England in 1982. Five years later he became the first Australian 500cc World Champion, and the country went completely crazy. He was voted Australian Sportsman of the Year ahead of Wimbledon tennis champion Pat Cash. National television started to broadcast the races live and the magnificent Phillip Island circuit staged the first Australian Grand Prix.

Mick Doohan took over the handlebars in the nineties. I will never forget the Queenslander’s fight back after almost having his leg amputated following his Dutch TT crash in 1992. He returned to somehow compete in the final two Grands Prix of the year but could not prevent Wayne Rainey retaining his title by just four points. A fit Mick and Honda proved an unbeatable combination winning five consecutive 500cc titles between 1994 and 1999 before injury forced one of the sport’s true greats to retire

When I returned full time to the MotoGP™ paddock 21 years ago, I received so much help and encouragement from the aimable Jack Findlay, who was working for IRTA. In 1971, Jack became the first rider to win a 500cc Grand Prix on a two-stroke machine when he won the Ulster Grand Prix for Suzuki.

Garry McCoy and Chris Vermeulen certainly had contrasting styles but continued Australian MotoGP™ success until a young but so very fast Casey Stoner arrived in Europe. His parents sold up everything to bring their talented son to take on the world. They lived in a caravan in the cold, wet and windy north of England but their sacrifices were rewarded. Casey was something special. He brought Ducati their first premier class world title in 2007 and four years later regained the Championship on the factory Honda before retiring with his family to his farm back home.

Jack Miller’s Jerez victory was the 182nd time an Australian rider has stood on the top step of a Grand Prix podium. Three Australian legends have gone on to win the ultimate premier class prize, the 500cc or MotoGP™ World Championship. Jack’s Ducati win at Jerez has set him up to follow in their footsteps and, even more important, honour those pioneers who never made the long journey home.

By |2021-05-12T17:40:57+00:00May 12th, 2021|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|1 Comment

A silent sunrise in Andalucia

As the orange ball of the sun rose majestically, lighting up the sky revealing the hills surrounding the Jerez de la Frontera-Angel Nieto circuit on Sunday, there was an eerie silence. It was 7.32 am on the morning of the Red Bull Grand Prix of Spain and never had the absence of those passionate and dedicated fans of this incredible sport been more poignant.

Who would ever forget arriving at the Jerez circuit in the darkness around 7 am to avoid the traffic problems the 100,000 plus crowd would always create? Slowly and gloriously the sky would start to lighten in the East accompanied by a cacophony of excitement, anticipation and partying in the darkness beyond.

From the media centre balcony, I would peer through the darkness across the paddock, which was already a hive of frenzied activity, to the far end of the circuit and the hillside surrounding the stadium section of this legendary venue overlooking the Angel Nieto and Peluqui right-hand corners.

As the sun slowly rose layer by layer of the hillside that the darkness had hidden was revealed. There were thousands of fans jammed or in some cases hanging onto the hillside and having the time of their lives. Music blared, dancing if you could find the space, banners fluttered, air horns trumpeted, and beer flowed warmed by the sunshine. All roads in Europe led south in the first week of May. This was Jerez, the start of the European MotoGP™ season and like all special days it had to be celebrated in true style. And it was.

If ever a single place typified what MotoGP™ was all about this is surely it. A barren hillside in Andalucia, a clear illustration of just why MotoGP™ is so way ahead of any other World Championship Motorsport series. Those fans on the Jerez hillside just summed up how we all feel about MotoGP™. The passion, excitement, pure joy and patriotism just erupts after a long winter and after watching the start of the season on screens a long way from home in Qatar, Argentina and Austin.

A hillside that was so capable of sucking a Spanish rider to victory and there has been plenty of them. A hillside that was not always the best behaved. Climbing over the barriers in 1996 to celebrate an Alex Criville victory over Mick Doohan when it was announced the battle was over but there was still a lap to go. A few plastic bottles did fly from their massed ranks when the World 500cc Champion Kenny Roberts retired in front of them.

The saddest aspect for those absent fans surely must be the performance being put on by the riders in the opening four rounds in all three classes. It is a remarkable show and both the riders, and the fans deserve each other. Hopefully, the long wait is almost over, and they will return before the end of the season. In the meantime, the riders just keep producing the goods. Last year I attended a football play off final at the legendary Wembley Stadium in London. A crowd of around 250 permitted in a stadium that seats 90,000 made for one of the most surreal sporting events I have ever visited. Hopefully, the end of such experiences is just a few laps away.

There may have been silence on the hillsides and grandstands surrounding Jerez on Sunday but if you had cocked an ear, you may have caught the sound of celebration on the wind thousands of kilometres away at Townville on the Queensland coast of Australia. What a win for Jack Miller in the MotoGP™ race. Spanish or not Jack and those fans would have celebrated together.

Be patient, those days will return. The wait will be worth it, the riders have made sure of that.

By |2021-05-06T08:55:40+00:00May 6th, 2021|Nick's Blog, Uncategorised|Comments Off on A silent sunrise in Andalucia
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