Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Rambings of a Bike Racing Fan

I've no idea why I only seem to sit and do this once or maybe twice a year, it's not like I don't have the time these days. I'm regularly encouraged to put finger to keyboard but the motivation to do so has been lacking after an at times turbulent last 12 months on a personal level. Those turbulent times affected many things, including my love of racing, however for 2018 things are looking better and brighter on all fronts! So it's back to basics, tapping on a keyboard to make words that a few will read. I hope you enjoy it.

The 'Big 3' of British Superbikes, World Superbikes and MotoGP all reconvene over the next six weeks or so and at least one of those series has the potential to be the very best season in a number of years, which after the excitement of  recent years, is going to be some achievement. The other two series, or more to the point certain teams within them, have their own hurdles to jump before we see the absolute cut and thrust of racing return along with all the regulation celebratory pomp and back-slapping. Or is that stabbing? Who knows, it's motorcycle racing so there's always liberal doses of both in almost equal measure.

While WorldSBK undergoes changes in its rules with regards to rev limits, the teams are doing all they can to try and close the gap to the pretty much all conquering KRT squad. The first real look at the riders and teams at the recent test was the first time we've seen all WorldSBK protagonists on track together and there are no surprises on seeing who was fastest. Triple and reigning WorldSBK Champion Jonathan Rea topped the timesheets at the end of the final pre-season test at Phillip Island ahead of this weekend's season opener at the Gateway to Hypothermia, once again asserting his dominance on the field.

As I'll touch on later (I may be here for a while...) testing is testing, it's hard to gauge the true pace of man and machine and no matter how many race simulations they do, you can't replicate racing without, well, racing! Every year the unique nature of Phillip Island provides close testing times and sometimes even closer racing so it's tough to get a true perspective on the strengths of the teams battling Kawasaki for honours this year. There are the obvious ones, namely Ducati and Yamaha, that will constantly push for podiums and race wins however it's the ones who have not shown their full potential in recent seasons that may make the biggest progress. Milwaukee Aprilia finished the Test in positive form as did Barni Ducati while wholesale changes at Red Bull Honda saw visible progress in to the top ten. With the uniqueness of PI and the challenges of Buriram and the damage limitation required at both, I suspect it won't be until the circus reaches Europe that the true story of WorldSBK 2018 will unfold.

MotoGP testing has been in full swing these last four weeks with a sack-load of stories winding their way out of both Sepang and the Chang circuit at Buriram, Thailand. For almost every Factory  team Sepang, as is the law these days, was the first chance to get to grips with the 2018 machinery with their full-time riders after the final tests of last year and it was the contrast of Factory fortunes that really made the bulk of the headlines. Tip of the hat to the new boys of Morbidelli, Luthi, Syahrin and Nakagaami, who all made solid progress throughout testing.

Honda, Yamaha and Ducati were the main focus of attention as you'd expect and the fortunes could not have been more different. The HRC Holy Trinity of Marquez, Pedrosa and Crutchlow looked to have the consistency over the six days of Far East testing as they looked to refine the latest incarnation of HRC engine along with revised aero packages, that subject explored by pretty much everyone and with varying degrees of aesthetic pleasure.

Marquez wasn't always the fastest of the trio, that honour was shared between the triumvirate, however his race runs were somewhat ominous. This developing, maturing-thinking Marc Marquez will be a concern for the rest of the field, no longer a pure Pole hound, no longer a man chasing the fastest time, he's a man working in the same way we saw last season. Points per round is the target.  And points make prizes.

Yamaha are in trouble. There are no two ways about it. As I said before, testing is testing however there are glaringly obvious issues when a Factory team of Yamaha's standing are so far off the pace on Day 1 and Day 3 at Sepang but 1 and 2 on Day 2. Confused? So are Vinales and Rossi! According to Rossi in Buriram the problem is obvious but difficult to fix whereas after Buriram Vinales was almost at a loss as to what to say to the waiting Journos. It may well be a difficult start to 2018 for Movistar Yamaha, the only positive in the early rounds being a contract extension for the grid's fluorescent yellow-clad elder statesman. Which will keep a few bums on seats in the stands for another season, at least.

At Ducati things are also not as they may have appeared to be after the Buriram test. A stunning lap of Sepang on the final day saw Jorge Lorenzo take the fastest ever lap of the Malaysian circuit. It was a  suitable end to the test after both he and team-mate Andrea Dovizioso had, apart from an 8th position on Day 2 for the Italian, consistently run well inside the top 5 over the three sweltering days. If Sepang was a triumph then Chang was a tragedy for the Mallorcan, even out-paced on the final day by Tech3 new boy Hafizh Syahrin. Dovi fared somewhat better, the story of last season all over again, by posting top ten times on all three days of the test. With just the Qatar test to go before it all gets serious, there are some searching questions that need answering amongst the MotoGP elite.

The Bennett's British Superbike Championship is building up to the start of the season with various teams cutting laps around the circuits of Spain where many are gearing up for the Pro-test at Cartagena at the beginning of March ahead of the annual Test Day at Donington Park on 20th March. So far as comparisons in times go, there aren't any apart from Honda and JG Speedfit Kawasaki who attended a WSB Test at Jerez.

So what do we know ahead of the 2018 Season? The usual suspects will all be a force, that's a given. Reigning champ Shane Byrne along with Josh Brookes and Leon Haslam will be strong from the first lights-out, there's not a doubt about that. The Honda duo of O'Halloran and Linfoot finished the season on the front foot and they'll be looking to continue that trend from Round 1 after the difficult start to 2017. The Tyco BMW duo of Christian Iddon and a returning Michael Laverty will have a firm eye on podium positions as will Luke Mossey and Glenn Irwin. James Ellison, in what will be his final year in BSB, will be as keen as ever to put a strong, consistent season together aboard the Anvil TAG Yamaha vacated by Josh Brookes as he in turn takes the McAMS seat from Ellison.

Youth will play a big part in the series this year. Expect to see BSB race winner Jake Dixon to carry on his form of last year on the RAF Regular & Reserves Kawasaki and Brad Ray to make his mark fully on the top ten on the Buildbase Suzuki alongside Richard Cooper after his impressive showings last season. Alongside Brookes will be former British Supersport Champion Tarran Mackenzie, returning from a torrid time in Moto2, who I suspect will challenge for top ten honours before mid-season, lining up on the grid alongside his Moto Rapido Ducati-mounted brother Taylor. Team WD-40 have put their faith in their STK1000 rider of last year, Mason Law and the youth emphasis continues with Kyle Ryde joining the ranks from WSS along with Northern Irishman Carl Phillips who steps up from STK1000.

After plying his trade on the European and World stage, Gino Rea will make his BSB debut this year aboard the OMG Racing Suzuki as will Sylvain Barrier, the twice European STK1000 Champion joins the multifaceted Peter Hickman at Smith's BMW. FS-3 Kawasaki have signed STK1000 Champion Danny Buchan for 2018, after two previous attempts it could be third time lucky for Buchan to get to grips with a Superbike and finally transfer that obvious talent to the big class and Tommy Bridewell returns to the bosom of Martin Halsall and the team which brought the Wiltshire rider much of his BSB success.

I suspect the top six places of the Showdown will be the most hotly contested (good English? Not sure) positions since the format's inception back in 2010. Byrne & Irwin, Brookes, Haslam & Mossey, O'Halloran & Linfoot, Hickman, Iddon & Laverty, Ellison, Dixon and Brad Ray all stood on the podium in 2017 and quite possibly will all do so again across the forthcoming season. If a Rookie can score a Top Ten this year he'll certainly have earned it as the competition for points is stronger than I can ever remember. As for who will win it, I'm not brave enough to predict, however, on last season's form alone it's difficult to see past a Haslam/Brookes/Byrne title fight once again come October. There are a lot of laps and a lot of stories to unfold before then and as Larry Carter regularly reminds us, we should expect the unexpected once again.

In true Motopod style, this could be "the best season ever", well in BSB, at least.

Thanks for reading.

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.