Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Is This The Best British Superbike Season, Ever?

Well, that's a pretty bold question, and what factors really define 'best ever'? Either way, do read on...

The MCE Insurance British Superbike Championship is arguably in its richest vein of form for a number of years. Ten different race winners and all five manufacturers taking not only podiums but also, more importantly, race wins across the season along with some of the closest racing and tightest finishes in any series. The public outcry on social media for fast, young talent is also showing well as Kent boys Jake Dixon and Bradley Ray along with Cadwell Park lap-record holder Lee Jackson show that the talent is definitely out there. The results also show that the BSB Regulations, however difficult to implement for each of those race-winning manufacturers, are working. But make no mistake, it's been a tough road for the majority of those teams. Like Coldplay sang, nobody said it was easy...
Photo: BSB Website/Double Red

Every team has had its difficult times this season, some more than others as keen followers of the sport have witnessed. With two brand new motorcycles joining the fray in 2017, in the Honda Fireblade and the Suzuki GSX-R 1000, it's been down to Honda Racing and Bennett's Suzuki to hone these much-lauded machines to BSB own unique style.

The bulk of the initial development of these racing motorcycles is done invariably with the manufacturer's own native electronics; ECUs that are loaded with rider aids, sensors and all sorts of goodies designed to encourage the bike to behave as well as making the undoubted power work in the best way possible. Take those ECUs away and replace them with control MoTec units and it opens up a whole new world of hurdles to clear. The Panigale has had problems; the BMW had problems, as did the Yamaha so race bike development is nothing new in BSB, it's down to how soon and how well teams can overcome those electronic hurdles and using the Pirelli control tyres, not Bridgestone, Michelin or Dunlop or whatever rubber the manufacturers preferred. It ALL makes a difference.

We all remember 2011. That incredible battle between Tommy Hill and John Hopkins and the unified, excitable tones of Jack Burnicle and James Whitham on commentary, "HILL...BY SIX THOUSANDTHS OF A SECOND!!" (no, I didn't look that up and yes, it still gives me goosebumps!). It was, for me, the pinnacle season of BSB to which all other seasons will be measured. We've come close since, when Alex Lowes and Samsung Honda took the title by just 7 points in 2013 but more recent years have promised so much and, for various reasons, not quite delivered. I have a feeling that this year will be different...

Photo: BSB Website/Double Red
This season's run-in to the final round has been nothing short of fascinating. Not since that 2013 season when James Ellison arrived at Brands Hatch 42 points adrift of Byrne and Lowes have we had three riders in with a realistic chance of taking the coveted crown . Sure, the points gap has been closer in both 2014 and 2016, but there hasn't been a third rider with more than just a mathematical chance of taking the title in either of those years. This year Haslam leads Brookes and Byrne by just 32 and 33 points respectively, and with 75 points up for grabs in Kent, it really is all to play for.

Byrne and his Be Wiser Ducati took the double at Brands Hatch back in July. Leon Haslam was third and fifth while Brookes took fifth in race one but a rare DNF in race two dented his consistency, consoled only with a new lap record around what is often referred to as "Shakey's Back Yard". There is no doubt that Byrne will be going to Brands with the express purpose of winning all three races, that's clear a no-brainer, he has to, as will Haslam and Brookes! Haslam has only finished ahead of Byrne once in 7 races around the full GP circuit, by less than 0.1 seconds in race two last October in mixed conditions, so he's got his work cut out to keep that points gap. Anvil Hire TAG Yamaha man Brookes won't give up either as the July round showed, he had the pace to run with the leaders and it's also a track he's had some strong results on.
Photo: BSB Website/Double Red

Don't get me wrong, it's not ALL about those three. Yes, in terms of the championship it pretty much is (sorry, Jake Dixon), but for the races it's anything but cut and dried. If the weather stays dry (there are fingers crossed across the land for that!) it's hard to see past Byrne on recent form around Brands Hatch. That said, his results since the summer round have shown that there are clearly still some issues plaguing the Ducati Panigale with no wins registered since his back to back doubles in July. Byrne's form is currently the weakest of the three, picking up 92 points since the last visit to Brands Hatch, while Brookes has out-scored Haslam and his JG Speedfit Kawasaki 141 to 136 over the same period.

Added in to the podium mix, I expect a battling RAF & Reserves Kawasaki man Jake Dixon to want to regain the form he showed mid-season, it's also his home round along with Buildbase Suzuki's Brad Ray, so he'll have added reasons to perform. Smith's BMW man Peter Hickman will be looking to finish his already successful season on a high as will McAMS Yamaha's James Ellison, who makes no secret of his love for the longer GP circuit. Honda Racing's Dan Linfoot and Jason O'Halloran, Moto Rapido's John Hopkins and maybe even Sylvain Guintoli, subject to the trees and armco not being too close, and his ever-developing Bennett's Suzuki are all podium contenders and will all want their say in finishing the season on a strong performance. It's only then that, all of a sudden, it becomes even less of a certainty as to who'll take the flag in all three races and ultimately the biggest prize in domestic racing.

Bring on the finale!

Friday, 30 September 2016

Four Years Since The Last One!

23rd November 2012 was the last time I posted on this blog, dear reader (hi, mum!). I don't even know if people actually even do this anymore? Who knows... I enjoyed it previously and I've missed it, so lets see if I can get it started again and if anyone cares to read it.

Times have changed over the last four years, although not if you're Valentino Rossi or Shane Byrne who, both being much closer to 40 years old than either would like, are still riding at the top of their game. We've had a British Grand Prix World Champion with Danny Kent in Moto3, despite trying his best NOT to win it as the season drew to a breathtaking close at Valencia last year; we've had Sam Lowes win the World Supersport crown and both Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes taking the World Superbike spoils then more recently all topped off with the first British winner of a MotoGP race for 35 years as the inimitable Cal Crutchlow took victory in Brno. Decent success among the British ranks, I'm sure you'll agree.
British MotoGP Post-race Press Conference

We've also seen the ugly side of the sport in the clusterfuck that was Sepang 2015 and the ridiculous fallout that still rumbles on almost a full 12 months later between the riders and also sections of fans. We've seen the emergence of the phenomenal talent that is Marc Marquez, who's debut was covered in the very last post before the prolonged hiatus came and is now on the verge of a third MotoGP World title as the circus moves to the flyaway rounds in a couple of weeks time. Speaking of talent, not only have we seen the emergence of Marquez but also on a similar trajectory is Maverick Vinales, a talent worthy of MotoGP and one that may well take the battle to Marquez in 2017. Just Maverick to take the battle on? Well, no. Not quite, obviously.

Rossi will be another year older, Pedrosa I suspect still wont be heavy enough to make the Michelin tyres work consistently for him and Lorenzo is making the hop to Ducati for 2017, that change may well take time to adapt to and I'd suggest possibly more time than Maverick Vinales will require to get comfortable on the Yamaha M1 he'll ride for the first time in the post-season Valencia test as he moves from Suzuki. True, the spec electronics should have also improved for 2017 (it really needs to, especially on anti-wheelie with the outlawing of Winglets!) as, slightly less hopefully, will the Michelin tyres. Those black and round things have been more than a big contribution to the number of different race winners we've had this season and racing is all the better for it because, as good as it is watching the same same rider win week in and weeeeeeee...... sorry, almost nodded off at the very thought..., it really has been a fantastic MotoGP season so far and one that may well still hold the odd twist and turn before we reach Valencia in November.

Closer to home, the British Championship appears to have changed the least in that time. It still provides the thrill and excitement the fans crave and the Showdown still remains, as I suspect it always will, in the name of Sports Entertainment. I did wonder if the Showdown had run it's course as BSB made the playing field somewhat level with stringent Tech Regs introduced but the dominant form of Shane Byrne and his, according to some, 'it isn't in the spirit of the rules' factory-supported Ducati Panigale, this season would have almost made a cakewalk of a championship had it not been for the close attention of the returning Leon Haslam aboard a GBmoto Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R.
Proud times in 2014 with Jordan Weaving

As for the best of the rest, Honda have made an incredible effort again this year with Linfoot and O'Halloran while Ellison has been at the sharp end for the majority of the season along with Bridewell and the talented Luke Mossey but none offering the pace and consistency enough to challenge the two title favourites for wins week in, week out. Crucially, Byrne leads Haslam 4 to 1 in the podium head to heads they've had when finishing 1st and 2nd, and that could be a
critical factor as the season heads to it's crescendo at Brands Hatch in mid-October. For the record, Byrne won both races there in early August, with Leon second each time. But before that, however, there's Assen...

On a personal level it's been a quite incredible four years. From here to PaddockChatter to interviewing racing Legends, World Champions and British Champions for MotoPod to witnessing two domestic Championship campaigns first hand to making some of the finest friends, it's been incredible at times. Incredible that nobody actually sussed me out as merely winging it, at least! It all stemmed from this humble blog, the encouragement of Jared Earle and Ian Wheeler and not being a dick on Twitter. Where next? Who knows. Is there a 'next'? Again, who knows. Back to basics for now and then we'll just have to wait and see however it won't be four years until the next post here, that's for sure.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013! Testing Times Ahead...

Soon comes around doesn't it? The 2012 season has drawn to a close, all the bikes are off to Shows around the world, riders are all on holiday or rallying or whatever they choose to do and Alex Briggs has hung his pass on the back of the door with the other 19 he's collected... THAT'S when I know it's all over...It was a season that, in places, lacked excitement and few meaningful on-track battles at the front, with Brno and Silverstone the notable exceptions in a difficult season.

Things at Valencia for the final GP could've been so different in the MotoGP class and really they should have been but for two episodes of misfortune, Jorge at Assen and Dani at Misano which in turn would maybe have lead to a different podium at Phillip Island at the penultimate round, where win or bust for Pedrosa was the order of the day.

It was Lorenzos early season form that helped him secure the title, every season is a marathon not a sprint but in 2012 it was Yamaha who got the head start in to that marathon while HRC were still tying their laces. Yamaha were hurting from losing their crown to Casey Stoner at the end of 2011 and came out swinging, Honda had made errors with the new bike that both riders were critical of, although I guess one of the riders was just moaning for no reason... However the Yamaha looked to be on rails and the  metronomic rhythm and blistering pace of Lorenzo was no match for his biggest rivals and the season looked to be a foregone conclusion as far in to the championship as Silverstone.

But Honda fixed the RCV213V a little and the tide turned...

Dani Pedrosa found some self-belief, a consistent but somewhat lack-lustre start to the season saw the diddy Spaniard consistently finish top four and remain fully fit. His first victory of the season at the German GP at Sachsenring saw the beginning of a sequence that, had Honda produced THAT bike for Qatar would have seen a whole different light shed on the 2012 season.

Sachsenring was almost the beginning of the end of Casey Stoners title charge, a fighting second at Silverstone followed by a win at Assen showed he had the desire to defend his crown, even though at that point he was all for retirement from the sport, a distant eighth at Mugello made many ask questions of Caseys commitment before a dominant win at Laguna (the race noted for its ONE pass) saw a brief upturn in fortune but then came Indianapolis qualifying, and we all know what happened there...

Caseys injury at Indy saw a fire lit under Pedrosa, after spending the whole of 2011 in the dark shadow of his imperious team-mate, he looked a different rider. While Stoner struggled round the Brickyard (struggled as in finished fourth, 30 secs ahead of Valentino Rossi) with an injury that curtailed his season, Dani, in true Spanish style, took the bull by the horns (you see what I did there? Always thinking...) and embarked on a remarkable string of results which Lorenzo had no answer to, regardless of how hard he tried. You could sense the tension in the Yamaha camp as Dani was on a run of form that matched Lorenzo's early season stats, at Phillip Island though the story was to end prematurely.

I know that every season can be looked at in hindsight with ifs, buts and maybes but really, IF after qualifying on pole for the San Marino GP at Misano, the chain of events that followed hadn't happened therefore making Dani over-ride too early at Phillip Island and IF Jorge hadn't have been skittled by Bautista at Assen or dropped it at Valencia...well  the championship would have looked the same...

Jorge was going to win at Assen, of that I have no doubt. Dani was going to win at Misano, again of that I have no doubt - such is the season we've just had - so taking that in to account, with the Phillip Island result staying as per qualifying leaving Dani in third, which was also more than likely and Jorge staying on to finish second at Valencia, then Dani Pedrosa still would not have been 2012 World Champion. Jorge would have still taken the crown 390 to 369. Even though both riders shared an outstanding run of results, it was Pedrosa's early season form over the first six races with three 3rds and a 4th that ultimately cost him the title compared to Lorenzo's staggering 1st/2nd consistency throughout the year.

But, back to reality, as it was Dani had to ride hard, fast and early at Phillip Island to stand any chance of clawing the defecit back on Jorge, and in Stoners back yard it was, ironically, the tallest of orders for the shortest of riders... On that day nobody, and I mean N.O.B.O.D.Y, was going to beat Stoner on his final appearance in front of his adoring crowd and it was the simplest mistake that handed Jorge Lorenzo his second world crown. A crown won the hard way, from the front and without the 'ah, but' stigma of injury to his closest contenders.

Dani was back to dominant form at Valencia where interference from Mother Nature saw the most exciting race of the season unfold. Starting from Pit Lane after a last minute tyre change saw Dani chase down race leader Lorenzo and win from the very back of the pack. Sadly an uncharacteristic lapse of concentration saw Jorge end the season in the gravel, and with it the chance of taking the record for most podium appearances in a season, after a mis-guided attempt to pass James Ellison, who rode a fantastic last race to finish a deserved ninth. Shock of the day was a CRT machine leading for two laps, a mix of youthful exuberance and nationalistic pride helping Aleix Espagaro to his short burst in the limelight before normal service was resumed.

Maybe Dani felt a little karma at this point after his Phillip Island off, over-excitement putting paid to a points haul there and the same for Lorenzo at Valencia. Either way it didn't prevent him from hammering home his seventh win of the season and taking the 'prize' of Most Wins in 2012. He'll carry that forward in to 2013, whereas Jorge showed us that he still has, albeit deep-rooted, that impetuousness that flared so often in the junior classes with his haste to get around James Ellison but his consistency is nothing short of phenomenal, and if Dani starts '13 the way he ended '12, then it's going to be an amazing season.

Testing for 2013 was held in difficult conditions over the Tuesday and Wednesday  following the  GP with Valentino Rossi's long-awaited return to Yamaha the focal point of most peoples attention. The keener eyes of the paddock were waiting for the young pretender to take his place at the top table. Enter Marc Marquez....erm...but not until the Thursday and, sadly by that point, Yamaha had de-camped to Aragon.

This is the point where my limited vocabulary runs out of superlatives, his performance in testing was nothing short of spectacular. Whereas rookies before him had had two full days and a 100+ laps to get within 2 seconds of the fastest time of the test Marquez required half a day, 28 laps in total, to get to within 1 second of Dani Pedrosa's best time. I said it last time, this kid is special, very special. He may well visit the Clinica Mobile on a regular basis as he searches for the limit on a 1000cc Prototype, just as Jorge did in his maiden season on the 800. But believe me, he's going to win races next season. Dani, Jorge, Marc, Cal, Stefan all fighting it out to be on that podium...oh and Valentino too. Bring on Sepang!

David Emmett at sums the testing and rookie debut up far better than I right here and if you haven't already, then read it - it's an education in to the future of MotoGP and that future IS Marc Marquez.

Final word, as I said earlier, goes to @guyhanderson 'What if...'

Casey Stoner retiring at the age of 27 is nothing if not remarkable.  And he neatly steps away from the circus as a two-time world champion to enjoy fishing and his marriage and daughter as well as some V8 car racing it seems.  It must take a lot of determination to get to the top and even more to walk away from it all when riding the crest of the biggest wave in bike racing.  Its almost been universally accepted in the racing circus that Stoner has done what a lot wish they could do; that is separate the mind-blowing act of racing from reality.  Its not that important to Stoner; it might be to armchair experts and 99% of the other riders, but to him?  “Pfft…!” as he might say.

But what if he hadn’t?  What if he had stayed at Honda next year? He was possibly the number 1 in the team as the reigning World Champion at the time of joining and recognised by all as being the fastest on the RCV213, although Pedrosa’s transformation into a tougher, faster rider this year has been not much short of brilliant.

Stoner staying would have caused HRC a mighty headache.  Remember the 3 man team last year with Stoner, Pedrosa and Dovizioso?  As rich as Honda are they only wanted a 2-man team, and only ran a three man team because Dovizioso (foolishly?) exercised his rights in his contract that said if he was third the season before he would be retained.  But Stoner left Ducati and Honda wanted him. 

So to 2012 and there was one thing that was 100% cast-iron certain; Honda wanted to keep Marquez in the family.  Marquez is Spanish, but don’t read too much into that – they’d have wanted him if he had been British and that fast!  Repsol have no problem with Marquez, after all he’s already riding a bike sponsored by them; a perfect marketing tool for Repsol and the other sponsors.  There was no way Honda were going to let him go to Yamaha.  Can you imagine Lorenzo and Marquez in a team together?  What a prospect; the current World Champion and almost certainly a future WC.  Now Rossi is good and alongside Lorenzo, Yamaha have a great team, but Lorenzo and Marquez? Phew.  Anyway dream on; its not happened - yet. You almost get the feeling Honda paid Yamaha to take Rossi, so they couldn’t have Marquez.  Don’t ya?

So if Stoner hadn’t have announced his retirement; Stoner, Pedrosa and Marquez in one team?  I think not.  Marquez to LCR to replace Bradl who is rookie of the season would have been a tough call.  So I guess Marquez to Gresini might have been the only way, but those guys are the only team to run Showa suspenders still.  The rest of Honda went to Ohl├»ns (after Yamaha sold them) because basically they make better suspenders.  And as you can tell everybody wants Ohlins.  I guess there could have been some technical and political manoeuvring to give Marquez a full-on full-fat factory bike at Gresini, and he may have brought some headline sponsors with him, but at the same time I doubt Repsol would have been happy.  Or Pedrosa out of Honda and off to Yamaha with Alberto Puig?  Blimey – now there’s a salivating thought!  Puig is pretty much a Honda man, and I doubt he’d hold the same sway at Yamaha as he does at Honda.  Alternatively, Pedrosa to Ducati, but Dani is much shrewder than that – he’s seen the metaphorical car crash that has been happening at Ducati for the past 2 years.  Personally I would have liked to have seen Pedrosa at Yamaha, but you have to admire his loyalty staying at Honda ever since he stepped up to the main class, despite all the speculation. 

At the end of the day, as much as Casey Stoner retiring might be a big disappointment to 99.9% of race fans, it sure as hell helped sort out the remaining riders’ team places.

Takes a special kind of talent to get 'pfft...!' in to a piece doesn't it...

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Goodbye Casey Stoner...and Thank You

The 2012 MotoGP season came to a close this weekend and with it came the end of Repsol Hondas Casey Stoner. The very much maligned and misunderstood Aussie has hung up his Alpinestars for the very last time (NB: 'very last time' is subject to change), heading to his ranch to steer cattle, ride horses, go hunting and more than likely practice making more babies with his beautiful wife and do you know something? I'm so jealous...sorry, I mean I'm going to miss him.

I've not always been a fan of Stoners, my admiration has always been there just because he races motorcycles, but the full appreciation of his style and sheer speed is only, in the grand scheme of things, relatively recent. In his days as a Ducati rider I may have been guilty of having a soft spot for Valentino Rossi which, on occasion, clouded my judgement of Casey. The tide of change began at the Valencia post-season test in 2010 and, to be honest, the comments made in that Summer by Rossi and Jerry Burgess about him not trying and 'we can fix that bike in 80 seconds' probably let me see the nine time champion in a different light. The comments were unnecessary and disrespectful, regardless of who the rider was it was aimed at. Didn't it come back to bite them on the arse tho...

As I've said before, Casey Stoner has THE most exciting riding style I've ever witnessed, what he did on that Honda defied belief, he made a motorcycle make shapes it wasn't designed to do and made his achievements on the Ducati look all the more impressive. Although the racing in 2011 wasn't the most exciting, Stoner was imperious and it got to the point that I was just enjoying watching him race, it was that special. If it wasn't for Rossi's ambition out-weighing his talent at Jerez then he would undoubtedly have gone a full season appearing on the Podium in every race. I lost a little more respect for Valentino Rossi that day, apologising to Casey in front of the watching world but without removing his helmet, maybe afraid the fans would see through his insincerity...

Yes he moans. So do you. So do I. But we don't get jumped on every time we express an opinion, if something's not right he says it's not right. Why flower it up? It is what it is. The thing that strikes me most though is the irony of the patch on his leathers and his pit board as he crossed the line...'Gone Fishing'. As I tweeted earlier in the week, that is something Casey has done throughout his MotoGP career, and every time he's 'gone fishing' he's got a bite and with the growth of social media he gets thousands of bites every time he drops bait. And I love that.

So, thank you Casey. Thank you for leaving me, at times, lost for words with your style and speed. Thank you for helping the likes of Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Crutchlow etc raise their game. You will be missed.

As with the last installment of Straw Bales, @guyhanderson as again kindly penned a piece that is worthy of a read. I'll leave the last words to Guy...

“This website won't be updated during the 2011 Campaign.” *

There is more than one Casey it seems.  One is a father and husband who likes nothing better than fishing and the outback.  The other is, in the eyes of some, an arrogant whining Aussie who rides faster than anyone else. 

MotoGP fans don’t get to see nice Mr Stoner except maybe at Philip Island when TV shows him with his family.  Some MotoGP fans only chose to see the arrogant part of Stoner.  But those of us who divest the emotion of favouritism get to see a blindingly fast exponent of bike racing.  A guy who has made the unrideable Ducati Desmosedici win when no one else could.  Stoner won the last six MGP races at Philip Island – 4 on a Ducati. 

Until this year Stoner’s biggest competitor was Valentino Rossi. Comparing one aspect of Stoner to one aspect of Rossi is telling: Rossi has had at sometimes in his career absolute adoration of a bike he has ridden.  Rossi looked lovingly at the Yamaha M1 of 2008, and has spoken with affection of other bikes he’s ridden.  Ever heard any such nonsense from Stoner?  Me neither.  It’s as if he hates the bike and he’s in a 45 minute fight with it hanging on for his life.  I’ve heard less contempt of Jimmy Saville than the way Stoner looks at his bike when he gets off at the end of a practice or qualifying session.  Consequently Stoner has a reputation.  A reputation that has been borne of beating Rossi.  And beating Rossi is tantamount to being the insurrection in the eyes of the fan-bois.  None of this is Stoner’s fault, but the negative press he receives may weigh (wears?) heavily on him.  And this ends up being a self fulfilling prophesy; that is, Stoner is negative/whining/ungrateful/disrespectful/whatever whereas he says his job is to ride a bike faster than anyone else and win races.  Which is what he does.  So what’s your problem? 

To some viewers beating Rossi is unthinkable, but to a rider it is probably the pinnacle of their career, although he would probably never admit that.  Admitting that beating a rider is above winning a World Championship is flawed.  It shows a flaw in your character of being a rider.  And 95% of winning is psychological, so you don’t do it.  You don’t admit anyone is better than you.  Least of to yourself.  Until you win the championship and are being gracious in victory (but never in defeat).

So Stoner carries these projections around with him; from being booed at Donington by fuckwits who are comparable to Jimmy Saville to being “difficult with the press’ and to this day I’m unsure if it bothers him or not. 

Well not anymore.  Valencia 2012 was the last time you will see Casey Stoner on a motorbike in a race.  Or so he says.  I hope he changes his mind, but at the same time I suspect he won’t.  He has that dogmatic determination of a winner that comes across as arrogant, but is the only way they know. 

You can look back and read the cold statistics that say Stoner won 2 championships 4 years apart in 2007 and 2011. Neatly they were on different machines; Ducati and Honda.  2007 was Stoner’s second year in MGP and his first on the new 800 Ducati Desmosedici.  And from then on he risked the ire of many; from Rossi’s fans for not showing enough respect through to journalists who don’t understand his quite ways, of his dislike for everything to do with racing that isn’t riding.  And this has probably been the biggest negative side of Stoner; his unease at being involved in anything other than racing. 

Stoner doesn’t do PR bullshit; he doesn’t enjoy corporate crap or pandering to sponsors.  This is Stoner’s flaw.  Or one of his flaws.  He is also unspeakably hard on himself and his team.  In fact someone from his team this weekend took him to one side and told him that there is only so much a bike can be made to do – there are indeed limits, though to Stoner they are obstacles he wants to overcome. 

But Stoner is tired of racing.  Contrast that to his earlier years – in one weekend he won 32 out of 35 races he rode in.

There is another Casey too.  Casey Jones, steamin and a rollin.  *winky smiley face ;-) 

* Want an illustration of what Stoner thinks of all the media stuff he has to do?  This quote is from - it hasn’t been touched for over a year.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Marco Simoncelli Remembered

Today, 23rd October 2012, marks the first anniversary of the passing of the Italian motorcycle racing superstar, Marco Simoncelli. His death was without question the singular most upsetting event in recent race history and any race fan will be able to tell you exactly where they were when news broke that he'd lost his fight for life and their immediate feelings thereafter.
I was at a swimming gala in East Yorkshire with my daughter, it was her landmark first competitive race away from our home pool and I was following events on twitter. The story unfolded before me, text messages started arriving from as far afield as Australia asking if I was watching the tragic news developing.
I was sat on my own at that swim meet, as we didn't know many people in the swimming club at that point, and I went through the whole range of emotions as I sat there looking across at Emily having a great time with her team-mates blissfully unaware that 'Marco Lemonjelly', as she called him, had lost his life. It was hard to hide the sadness from one so happy, and in such a proud moment, as she took to the block for her race.
Loss of life is accepted by spectators and competitors alike as part of racing, it's always happened and will continue to do so - it's the nature of our sport - however, it is becoming increasing less and less common. Freak accidents still happen though and there is nothing that can be done to prevent them. Shoya Tomizawa and the brilliant Craig Jones to name but two where a second of time either way would've possibly seen a different outcome. I still wonder today what Jonesy would've done on a Moto2 bike, it was absolutely built for him.
I've read lots of tributes and remembrances about Marco today but this observant and openly honest piece from @GuyHAnderson on twitter sums up the whole picture of Marco better than I ever could and I whole-heartedly agree with every word...
Simoncelli’s death was possibly one of the most significant deaths in premier bike racing for years.  Others have died and although their death had an awful impact, none has lingered longer that the impact of Simoncelli’s. 
 But talking about his death is no substitute to talking about his life.
 Simoncelli wasn’t the best rider in MotoGP; that would be Stoner. He wasn’t the most polished PR-guy in the paddock either; that would be Rossi.  But he was a sum that was greater than his individual parts.  He was a lightening fast rider, a fantastic personality, and a young man having the time of his life.  He was a euphoric whirlwind that appeared to catch hold of everyone who met him, and just about every bike race fan who saw him.  Undoubtedly he was too much of a good-time nightmare to have been in F1, and MotoGP seemed to be perfect for him; he was an Italian where both F1 and MotoGP vie with football to be the sport of passion.  Only Spain has arguably a greater passion for racing on two wheels. 
 The thing is, he was good on a bike.  He may have been influenced by his fellow countryman Rossi in trying obscure and downright weird lines through corners and often this got him into trouble with the more orthodox lines the rest of the riders took, but his lines would work.  For him.  Sometimes.  And that was a major fascination in watching him, and why it used to be wonderful to watch Rossi too.  They both tried ‘another way’ to get around the strip of tarmac faster than anyone else. 
 I never met Simoncelli so for me to comment on his personality is unfair to everyone.  But those who met him just once gave to him a little bit of their heart that he has carried with him to his grave; a small part of everyone who met him died when he died as the piece of heart he stole from them died too.  Those who met him often or worked with him seemed to be swamped by his good nature, his perfect manners and no doubt his unstoppable joie de vie.  How they and his family feel must be indescribable. 
He wasn’t the best rider on a bike and his “remove brain before putting helmet on” style didn’t endear him to everyone; his antics in an effort to win the last ever 250cc World Championship that went to Aoyama were best described as mis-guided and at worst dangerous.  Also the incident with Dani Pedrosa in 2011 at Le Mans was one of the most controversial moments in past years.  For Simoncelli the incident was put behind him within hours; for others though the incident lingered and festered in the same way as the Rossi/Gibernau at Jerez in 2005.
 Simoncelli’s legacy is a strange one.  He was a World Champion once in 2008 on the Gilera, but had been correctly identified as a shining star by HRC, and riding the San Carlos Gresini bike Honda did their best to give him a full works, factory bike in all but Repsol colours.  Where he would have gone in coming years is a moot point and from some angles he would have caused team managers and DORNA a very big problem in finding a full-fat factory bike for his talents at the expense of others.  Others who may have been more boring to watch, but who would have been more consistent?  One thing is apparent, and that’s how far the effect of his death spread; understandably he was well known throughout motorbike racing, but exceptionally his death affected motorsport across the world from F1 to NASCAR to WRC; Simoncelli’s character transcended MotoGP.
 Would he have drawn Aprilia back to MotoGP earlier?  Would they have come back with a prototype bike for Simoncelli instead of the CRT bikes?  Or would he have been a Ducati rider that gave them two riders with equal and realistic chances of winning a championship?  There is no answer to those question and I merely ask them to show how deep the loss runs.  
 For me, a massive MotoGP fan who looks at WSBK occasionally, Simoncelli’s WSBK ride at Imola was one of the best I’ve seen.  It was an incredible idea executed perfectly, and probably confounded his rivals beyond irritation.
 Simoncelli died a year ago.  I never met him.  But I miss seeing him on my TV.   I miss reading about him on the web and in magazines.  I’ll leave the last words to man I’ve also never met, Lao Tzu, Te Tao Ching
 “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
 Thanks Guy, a most fitting tribute to a man sadly missed by so many.
Thanks for reading and Ciao Marco #58

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Exciting Times Coming!

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of StrawBales.

As I sit here contemplating the run in to the end of the season I must remain positive in my thoughts, it would be so easy to be drawn in to the negative aspects and disappointments of the season drawing to a close with WSB done and BSB almost done. There is still so much left undecided, even if some Championships are seemingly somewhat of a foregone conclusion, ie Moto's 2 & 3, but with MotoGP retaining some semblance of a fight to the finish there is still all to play for for Messrs Lorenzo and Pedrosa and the British Superbikes boys are again taking it to the wire.

This weekend in Japan we see the return of the current World Champion Casey Stoner to the fray and in his own words is feeling 'good and fresh' from his injury recuperation but freely admits that FP1 will be crucial in finding out how his ankle truly fairs and just how much weight transfer he can apply. It's good to have the Aussie back as I know the championship fight has missed him, and fans have certainly missed his style, he would certainly have had a big bearing on the current points standings.

As expected, and in the light of the Eugene Laverty/Max Biaggi farce in World Superbikes at Magny Cours, the spectre of 'team orders' was raised with the straight-talking Aussie and his reply said it all... 'HRC haven't asked me to help Dani and I don't think they will, I've said in the past I think championships should be won outright...' says it all really, and who in their right mind would argue..?

Dani goes well at Motegi and is the only rider to win there in all 3 classes, which is a feat in itself, and with it being Hondas home circuit you can be sure they'll be pulling out the stops to ensure there's a repeat of Dani's runaway win last season, with Casey second in an ideal world, no offence intended to Lorenzo fans anywhere but purely to keep the season alive!

There's also a big anniversary on race day, it will be 11 years exactly that Valentino Rossi clinched his first premier class crown on his Nastro Azzzuro Honda NSR500 down at Phillip Island in what was the closest race finish in years with the top nine covered by three seconds...oh to have that kind of racing today! 

Incidentally three of those in that top nine finish were Japanese riders, a contingent that is largely absent from the three Grand Prix classes today and the series is somewhat the poorer for it. Mad samurai warriors like the Aoki's, Harada, Ui, Tsujimura, 'cheese n' Tamada, Haga, Aoyama et al were a sight to behold in full flight and hopefully it won't be too long before we see a new batch of fast Japanese riders like Takaaki Nakagami in Moto2 and female rider Yui Watanbe in the Red Bull Rookies Cup series becoming regular championship contenders..

I have to say it's great to see Danny Kent get his opportunity in Moto2 with Tech3 for 2013, he was beginning to suffer from the same handicap as fellow county-man Scott Redding with his height becoming a bit of hindrance against the continental pocket rockets, so this opportunity will be a breath of fresh air for the Gloucestershire youngster (what do they put in the water down there?!). Also if you look at how Bradley Smith has performed on a bike with almost no development (regardless of your thoughts on how talented he is/isnt) and what is essentially a nail of a bike compared to the Kalex and Suter chassis of the Moto2 world, then the future looks bright for the Danny. Could we see him make the MotoGP step in two years? I wouldn't bet against it...

World Superbikes rounded off the season at Magny Cours last weekend in typically dramatic fashion. Aprilia's Max Biaggi held a healthy 30+ point advantage over Tom Sykes going in to the weekend but inclement weather and an uncharacteristic slip in race one from the Roman and a strong third place for Sykes meant it was all to play for in race two. Sykes did all he could do by winning the race and hoped Biaggi finished lower than 5th for the Yorkshireman to take the crown but it wasn't to be and the Italian maestro took his second World Superbike crown by 0.5 points, the closest points margin possible (as a dead-heat requires race win countback). 

There was an out-pouring of emotion on social media networks in favour of Tom winning the championship but, to be honest, it was actually Max's to lose with the points gap he had. If Tom won both races and Max followed him home both times the gap would still have been over 20 points so to say Tom lost the title is harsh on Biaggi, regardless of thoughts on his (lack of) personality. Sykes had a fantastic season, make no mistake - the teams goal back in February at Phillip Island was to finish in the Top 5, mission accomplished you would say. Bring on 2013!

This weekend, however, in a sleepy corner of the 'Garden of England' at Brands Hatch, the six Showdown contenders for the 2012 British Superbike title will fight it out over three races to see who will be finally crowned king. Shane Byrne leads the way by 9 points from uber-consistent Aussie Josh Brookes with Silverstone double-winner Alex Lowes 15 points adrift of Brookes in third and reigning champ Tommy Hill realistically, but not mathematically, out of the battle 18 points in arrears of the Lincolnshire twin. The remaining contenders of Laverty and Bridewell unfortunately, I believe, are too far back to make an impression on the top three in the championship although they can both have a big say on the race results as they're both capable of podium finishes - Bridewell was particularly quick at Brands last year on a Honda Firebalde that was actually five years old and was immediately retired after the race so, regardless of points standings, we have a minimum of six riders who all have podium potential, what a prospect!

For me its all in Shakey's hands, a double race win there at the summer round back in July and a host of dominant race wins prior to that must be ominous for the chasing pack although I have to say he was pushed well by Brookes and Hill that weekend and they weren't runaway wins by any means. Brookes was only .5s behind in race one and 1.5s in race two. Tommy Hill also has a strong record at Brands add Lowes to the mix and you have the makings of a race weekend to rival anything that happened last year...well...almost anyway, but this is motorcycle racing and anything can happen.

Byrne is in the ascendancy after his performances at Assen and Silverstone, where two of his main rivals each had rounds to forget - Hill with his starting grid crash in race one at Assen and Brookes at Silverstone who's Suzuki looked slightly down on power at the fast flowing venue, despite all his obvious efforts, compared to the Kawasaki and Honda he was chasing. Could Shakey have his off day this weekend, or was his off day at Cadwell Park in August? Has Brookes got what it takes to beat the Kent man in his own back yard or will Alex Lowes spring a further surprise, a 24 point deficit to claw back over three races is certainly achievable. It only takes a small mistake to put you on the back foot this weekend, as Brookes and Laverty will attest to from last year and if Hopper's bike hadn't reset itself on the opening lap of race two on the Sunday then race three would have had a whole different look to it...

The British Supersport title is far from over too, leathery Triumph-mounted Aussie Glen Richards holds a 12.5 point advantage over young Irish contender Jack Kennedy going in to the final two races this weekend. The Mar-Train Yamaha rider has had two rounds to forget at Assen and Silverstone after crashing out of at least one race each weekend so he has it all to do to turn his season back around and prove that the title-winning form he's shown wasn't just a flash in the pan and that he can over-come the smoothness and consistency of the old man of the series. Kennedy is definitely one for the future - whether that future goes through World Supersports or British Superbikes first is yet to be determined but he's definitely a star in the making. 

There are masses of 'if's', 'but's', 'maybe's', 'why's', 'wherefore's' and 'd'you mind if I don'ts' this weekend, possibly more than ever before as three riders can win the crown and the pressure will be at it's maximum for them all, so mistakes WILL be inevitable - how costly they are will remain to be seen. So, for those in the Eurosport coverage umbrella (sorry to you guys in South Africa who'd love to see BSB, yes that means you Ella!) for Saturday and Sunday afternoon make sure you've been to the toilet, take the phone off the hook, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the front door, if you're other half isn't in to racing sit them down and watch them change their mind (failing that throw them some cash and send them shopping, whether male or female!) and enjoy what will be possibly the most intense series of races you've ever witnessed.

I'll be there and, like a 5 year old child at Christmas, I absolutely can't wait!

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 10 September 2012

BSB Showdown Time, MotoGP & Even WSB!

A change around from the usual format to Straw Bales, in the lull of MotoGP action between Brno and Misano, and finally the calming of 'Silly Season', we can concentrate on the weekends action at Donington Park and British Superbikes for a change, looking in to the Showdown stage of the Championship.

British Superbikes

For those of you unfamiliar with the format of the British Superbikes Showdown, this weekends meeting at Donington Park was the last round that made up the 'regular' season. The top six riders in the championship now move forward to a level playing field of 500 points,  and on top of those 500 points are added the podium credits earned during the season - 3 credits for a win, 2 for second and 1 credit for third - all designed to reward the more consistent riders with a deserved advantage in the second part of the Championship.

The system has its flaws though, for example Team WFR Honda's Alex Lowes finished sixth in the championship's regular season on 146 points, a full 206 points behind leader Tommy Hill who'd scored 352. Once the Showdown rules and podium credits are applied, Alex is now only 33 points behind Tommy in the race for the title, where one race DNF by the current leader can throw the championship chase wide open - which, obviously, is the very aim of the format.

As well as Alex Lowes' deserved slot in the Showdown, a special mention to Supersonic BMW's Tommy Bridewell - for a team in its first season in BSB with almost the forgotten rider of the series, after being without a ride in the Championship at the start of the season, a fantastic effort by all concerned see's the Italian team in with a shout of the title with quite possibly the most improved rider of recent years in Bridewell, a great story with a potentially very happy ending.

Just as an example though, should the traditional championship chase still be in effect, Swan Yamaha's Tommy Hill would still lead the championship on 352 points from the Tyco Suzuki-mounted Josh  Brookes on 326 with the Rapid Solicitors Kawasaki of Shane Byrne effectively almost out of the running 97 points behind Hill, leaving it a straight fight between the top two over the last three rounds. That's still the case but now with a much narrower gap... It is harsh on the leader going in to the second phase really, after all their hard work and consistency seeing a massive advantage over some of the chasing pack wiped out just adds extra pressure to the situation. However, this is what MSVR wanted, to provide the paying fans with unrivaled entertainment in what is undoubtedly the premier domestic championship in the world and after last season you can't argue that it doesn't provide just that.

As for who will win the title come Brands Hatch in October, it's a very difficult call, not just for the reasons explained above either. If none of the 'Title Fighters' suffer a DNF, for me personally, I think Josh Brookes has his tail up after his double pole position, double fastest lap and double win at Donington yesterday, an impressive showing by anyone's standard, and will carry that forward to Assen and beyond. Tommy Hill looked a little jaded, giving 100%this weekend as he always does he couldn't lay a kangaroo skin glove on the increasingly likeable Aussie, a massive turnaround from Hill's similarly dominant display at Cadwell Park two weeks prior. Hill was chasing set-up all weekend, suffering chronic lack of grip (as opposed to team-mate Nori Haga who was suffering lack of glip, apparently) so confidence was not at it's highest throughout the meeting, a total contrast to Brookes who showed a rare moment of emotion in Parc Ferme after race two, a mark of just how much he's matured this year, both as a person and a rider. 

As a side note to that, I was fortunate enough to speak with Josh in the Paddock after qualifying, I was honest with him and said I'd been one of his harshest critics in the past but was really impressed with how he'd gone about his racing this year and how he was showing more character and maturity and that my opinion of him had changed for the better. He seemed genuinely appreciative of what I was saying - not that my opinion counts too much being just a race fan - but I'm sure I'm not the only one that has done an about-turn in their opinions of him. I also said something else to Josh, but I'll keep that back from you lot until after Brands Hatch...

Tommy has the experiences of last seasons epic Showdown with John Hopkins to draw on to combat the threat of Brookes and I think that will be invaluable as the story of the season unfolds. You know my thoughts on Tommy from my blog covering the Brands Hatch finale of 2011, he will always be a favourite of mine - well as close as I can get to having a favourite whilst accepting all other riders too, well they're all bloody good aren't they?! However, it's a split between head and heart for this one whereas last year it was Tommy all the way as I didn't want the 'dentists dream' to come over here and deny any of our boys the glory, just like the Trans-Atlantic Trophy races in days of yore, it was anyone but the Yank! Head says Brookes but heart says Hill...and your heart shouldn't rule your head! 

I'm not totally discounting Shane Byrne either who is well in the mix just 12 points back from fellow-southerner Hill, but just how well he will cope with his shoulder injury remains to be seen. Shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult to fix quickly and these next three tracks are high-speed maximum effort tracks so we wait and see just how much 'Shakey' can affect the top two before his home round at Brands Hatch. He says he'll be fit for Assen but his fit and our fit are light years apart, add to that the notorious bluff and bluster of just how serious the injury was we won't know the true extent of his fitness until FP1 in Holland.

Samsung Honda's Michael Laverty is 21 points back in fourth place, by no means out of the chase and also showed good form at Donington Park with a third and a second place so he is another carrying high confidence for the series debut at Assen on 21-23 September. Last year at this point on the sister Swan Yamaha he was 19 points back of Hill with three rounds remaining but a gravel trap excursion, after a coming together with Byrne, at Donington and a DNF in the second of three races at Brands Hatch put paid to his championship charge and he is desperate to make amends for that in 2012.

Looking at the comparison of the same point both last year and this, Brookes is the one who's greatly improved his position over 2011, finding himself just 10 points behind the leader over the 20 point deficit of last year. Tommy is 3 points to the good, Shakey is 5 points worse off and MLav 2 points further back than this time last year. Looking at the results over the final three races (remember Donington Park was the first round of the Showdown last year) of the first ever Showdown it was Tommy Hill who top scored with 118 points and no DNFs in the six races, Shane Byrne with 103 courtesy of a double victory on the final day with Laverty on 91 and Brookes the lowest scorer with 89, a DNF and distant sixth on the final day spoiling his previously consistent season. But that was last year...this is now, and its going to be an emotional roller-coaster for all concerned - riders, fans and team members alike, make sure you watch as it's a sight to behold and likely to go to the very last race, will we have the same drama as last season? Probably...


Over in MotoGP land we had a fantastic race in the Czech Republic at Brno. You may remember, if you've paid attention in previous blogs, that I pointed to Dani Pedrosa as a dark horse for the Championship. 

After the unfortunate injury to Casey Stoner's ankle that's ruled him out for the foreseeable future, many fans were throwing their arms up and saying 'well we might as well give Jorge the title now' wrong they were! 

Since Silverstone Dani Pedrosa has consistently appeared on the podium in the seven races from the British round to the latest round at Brno, the DNF at Assen was undoubtedly costly to Lorenzo's title aspirations as it's seen Dani close the gap on his rival taking 147 points to Lorenzo's 130, but its the sequences of the race results that make the most interesting reading. 

If you take the championship from Sachsenring, the Mallorcan and the Catalan have been inseparable on the podium finishing either 1/2 or 2/3 in the last five rounds, again with Pedrosa coming out on top scoring 111 to Jorge's 105 points. Without question the impetus lies with the diminutive Repsol Honda rider, this is the first season in his MotoGP career that Dani has started, and remained, fully fit and doesn't it show - winning three of the last five races including a memorable back to back at Indy and Brno.

If anyone thought the title was over and done, re-read that paragraph again. It is between these two riders and on this form, barring any injury/DNF, it will go down to the final race at Valencia in November in front of a partisan crowd, that itself would be fantastic for the sport as a whole and for the fans, who've been starved of a true down-to-the-wire championship battle since Nicky Hayden took the crown at Valencia in 2006!

I've no doubt Casey will return for Phillip Island, if not sooner and it's a mouth-watering prospect to see him wringing the neck of that RCV213V there for the very last(?) time. Valentino won there by 15 seconds in 2003, who'd bet against Casey doing the same this year just to prove a point? Honourable mention to Suzuka 8-Hour winner Jonathan Rea who deputises for the crocked Aussie at Misano and Aragon, a fantastic opportunity for the Northern Irishman to stake a claim on a seat for next season and if testing is anything to go by, he's doing that just fine.

After Dovi's not unexpected signing for Ducati, Ben Spies has unexpectedly signed for the Ducati Junior squad to campaign a factory GP13 next year alongside Moto2's own 'Crazy Joe' Andrea Iannone. Ben shares the same Superbike-derived style as Nicky Hayden who, all things considered, has gone well on the much-maligned GP12. (just kidding) and I think he'll do ok as he too has a point to prove after being bumped by Yamaha management to make way for the return of Valentino Rossi.

Cal Crutchlow will partner Bradley Smith in Team Rosbif, the irony of two Brits spearheading a French team not lost on the paddock comedians. This is good news for Cal and he rode the M1  accordingly at Brno securing his first MotoGP at a track he's traditionally excelled at.

Team Gresini is the final piece in the jigsaw of silly season, what of Alvaro Bautista? With Scott Redding a reported favourite to take a seat at Honda's second table and Johnny Rea doing his best to gatecrash the party it may be a while yet before that particular piece is put in place.

World Superbike

A quick nod in the direction of World Superbikes, the Nurburgring proved a happy hunting ground for the Brit Pack yesterday with admirable performances from Tom Sykes, Eugene Laverty, Leon Camier and Chaz Davies...yes Chaz Davies came of age in WSB this weekend with a third place in race one and a fine maiden win in race two, fully deserving his place for next season with the BMW Italia squad, true title contenders.

I mentioned Leon Camier too, another rider who, like Josh Brookes, I've been critical of in the past - however after watching yesterday my opinion is changing, two very mature rides and a bagful of deserved points for his efforts. Keep it up Leon, another rider I'm happy to be wrong about.

The championship fell wide open too at the Nurburgring with Biaggi falling in race two, Checa falling but remounting in race one and Melandri incredibly recording two DNF's leave the standings with Biaggi still on top from Melandri but Sykes has closed the gap in third to 26.5 points with 4 races left, all to play for!

As always thanks for reading.