Saturday, 18 February 2012

Weekend Ramblings

You know…you can sense’s coming...slowly but surely…even the weather seems to be picking up. Spring is around the corner – we have lambs in the fields near me - and that means there are motorcycles of all varieties, capacities and manufacturers being started up and sent out for testing at racetracks in Europe, Asia and ‘the gateway to hyperthermia’ (quote courtesy of Barry Sheene Esq.) Phillip Island.

In Spain the most entertaining class of 2011, Moto2 has embarked on its second test of 2012 down at Jerez de la Frontera after a successful 3 day shakedown Valencia last week. Scott Redding came out of that test on top with not only an unofficial fastest lap, but a stunning race simulation too. The Gloucester boy was understandably happy with his first outing of the year on his new Marc VDS Racing Kalex machine and is looking to take that forward to this test and reaffirm his potential as a title contender for 2012.

Bradley Smith wasn’t so fortunate with his first test but, it’s early days yet for the Tech 3 rider. The bike is all new so will take a little time in finding that base setting, but when he does, I expect him to be further up the timesheets. It’s a big season for Bradley; he already has a MotoGP contract in place for 2013 with his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha parent team so he really has to start delivering the results and gain some race-winning credibility before the move up to the big bikes.

I know that testing is exactly what it says it is and the fact is that there are all sorts of smoke screens, double-bluffs and PR artistic licence (not to mention the lack of actual race engines) to fudge the figures so we have to wait until Qatar to see the real picture as always.


It’s been a busy time in BSB – current team previews to be found Part 1 here and Part 2 here and part 3 still to come - after the flurry of announcements in late January. The unfortunate injury to Ian ‘Hutchy’ Hutchinson and his subsequent replacement has been the subject of much debate. Rumours on social media networks linked the ride with such luminaries as Moto2 outcast Ant West and Japanese WSB rider and, hero of many, Noriyuki Haga mentioned as two such possible replacements.

 It came as no surprise, to those who read a certain post and the subsequent conversations on twitter last Friday, that Swan Yamaha announced on Monday 13th Feb that fan-favourite Haga was the man chosen to replace TT legend Hutchy for the forthcoming season. All rumour and talk before that Friday announcement pointed to the fact that it was all in favour of West for the vacant seat in Shaun Muir’s team, I would have even put a full £1 coin on it being so...which clearly shows how much I actually know!

However it wasn’t to be the case for West and the likeable Aussie, who after initially and emphatically tweeting that he ‘would NOT be riding for Supersonic BMW’, has now performed a full about-turn and actually signed to ride in BSB for the former World Superbike squad. I personally am really happy to see Westy finally get a ride in BSB to help resurrect his career and can only hope my well-supported twitter campaign of #GetWestyInBSB might have helped...but I doubt it!

On the subject of money and sponsorship - can you imagine a footballer, for instance, being offered a place at major club but be unable to accept it as either he couldn’t bring sponsorship with him to cover his wages or was rejected as he wanted to be actually paid for playing? No, me neither. This is the state of play in our sport and I do worry for the future of it sometimes. I don’t know the in’s and out’s of either Haga’s or West’s deals but somehow somewhere money has, legally obviously, changed hands via a ‘welcome’ or sponsorship deals to enable these appointments to take place.

The one thing that really did leave me scratching my head this week was that even though we have the arrival of new teams and a handful of exciting foreign riders trying their hand at the most competitive domestic series on the planet, our 125cc British Champion Kyle Ryde was scrabbling around trying to raise funds to race for 2012 and almost ended up having to sit out the year due to lack of sponsorship. He was not trying to raise the £1000’s to race in the Spanish series to give him the best shot of a future Moto3 ride, not to race in the World Championship itself or the Red Bull rookies support series, it was just to go out and defend his national title. Seriously, if the sport can afford to warmly welcome non-British entrants in to the big class and secure sponsorship for teams, surely it can facilitate some kind of sponsorship for our own young Champions to help secure the future of racing?!

Another development in BSB was the release of Simon Andrews from the PR Racing Kawasaki squad this week. Now I’ve heard differing reports on this story as to the whys and wherefores of how it came about – one source suggesting PR’s hand was forced and another stating it was Andrews’ contract with Honda for the Roads and Endurance Racing series that saw him leave the Liverpool-based squad, but as Andrews’ rightly went public asking why is it was deemed wrong to try and earn a living from racing. Andrews is currently still injured, with his leg currently behind schedule for healing, but his condition and his Honda contract are all things the team knew before announcing the squad, so it’s all got a little too political behind the scenes. I hope Simon heals fully and does well on the Endurance circuit and the roads this year; he has my full support.

The first series to kick of the race season is, as usual, World Superbikes down at the stunning Phillip Island circuit in Australia. The main protagonists for the 2012 have just completed a 3 day test at the Island with last year’s runaway champion Carlos Checa ominously topping the overall time-sheets on his ‘non-factory’ private Althea Ducati 1098R...with a 6 kilogram penalty weight on the bike too!

It was great to see Tom Sykes at the sharp end of the times on the Kawasaki Race Team ZX-10R, the Grinner could be a good outside bet for a top three place come the end of the season as he hopes to build on his first ever Superbike class win last season.

Saddest news of the test were the injuries to British Superbike runner-up and former MotoGP star John Hopkins and Northern Irish Aprilia new boy Eugene Laverty.

‘Hopper’ has damaged the remainder of the finger that he badly broke in qualifying for the Brno MotoGP round back in August, and had subsequently partially amputated recently, and is expected to be out for up to 6 weeks therefore missing the start of the season and not to mention valuable points in the championship chase. TAS Suzuki’s Aussie BSB rider Josh Brookes has been drafted in as replacement for Hopper for the first round in just 7 days time.
Eugene was a victim of the super-fast Turn 1 at PI, joining a distinguished list of riders to fall foul of the infamous right-hander. Laverty smacked both his left hand and head hard when he fell, breaking a bone in his hand and suffering slight concussion. He has since returned to Northern Ireland to seek further medical advice, although it is expected he’ll be on the grid for the first race.

It’s going to be a great season for WSB if Checa can be reigned in – Laverty, a fit Hopkins, Biaggi, Rea, new boy to the series and former Honda MotoGP rider Hiroshi Aoyama, rookie Chaz Davies, Sykes, Haslam, Melandri and Camier are all potential race winners making it yet another race series that is almost impossible to call!

Like you, I really cannot wait for the season to get under way on all fronts - with WSB kicking it all off just one week from now. There is far too much talk and not enough action to report on, but that is all about to change and, I for one, welcome it with open arms, an open mind and a fully-charged laptop.

As always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Blog Returns!

I’m back!

Welcome back to the blog that is Straw Bales! As most of you know just after New Year I lost my dad so unfortunately the blog had to take a back seat, but I’m back now and hopefully on a more and more regular basis.

So what’s happened in the world of motorcycle racing since my last blog? Well for a start the winter testing ban has been lifted and the MotoGP boys are back out on track over in Sepang. I’ll cover that in this blog as its most current.

This event in itself has caused more interest than normal as it’s the first time this year that we see a CRT bike with a time-served, and much-loved, racer on board in the shape of Colin Edwards testing against the full factory might, and satellite squads, of Japan and Italy. After day one...oh dear...not a particularly spirited opening salvo from the much-maligned new kids on the block but day two was to prove a little better with Colin ending up 4.708s back from a returning Casey Stoner. Most of the more learned observers of MotoGP expected a 5ish second gap before CRT turned a wheel so it’s not that much of a surprise to me that the gap is where it is.

I’m not about to start slating the CRT side this season, there are many good reasons both for (increased grid numbers, available rides, financial outlay) and against it (lack of pace, lack of ability of some of the riders, lack of the ‘prototype’ ethos) but on the whole if they can be within a realistic time limit of the more ‘established’ bikes then I’m all for it. I don’t profess to understand nor care too much about the politics side of the introduction of these bikes to MotoGP and as we all know, you can’t please everyone but it seems a step in the right direction to bring more opportunities for more talent to race in MotoGP – I mean, really, is a potential average of 2 or 3 satellite-only seats a season acceptable these days?!

The top guys, bar Valentino Rossi, are all still young and not likely to go anywhere soon, thus making the top echelon of seats are even more limited over the next 2 years which increases the queue to join the ranks of motorcycling’s elite. Over the next 2 seasons we would expect to be welcoming Marc Marquez, Bradley Smith, Scott Redding and Andrea Iannone from Moto2 alone in to the MotoGP family, without any cross over from World Superbike, there taking 4 seats before we even start 2013. There is some considerable talent spread throughout all world class racing, most have a MotoGP dream and some are good enough...but where do we put them with the lack of available seats. You’re not telling me James Ellison would be in MotoGP this season without CRT...he was guesting at BSB last season in the hope of securing a top ride there for 2012 and now he’s off around the world again. It’s an extra step on the ladder, another vehicle to get your name known and as has always been the case, if you’re fast enough –you’re good enough.

I will make my overall judgement on CRT come the end of the season, it needs time to shake down the machines and find its own role within the series – they haven’t been brought in to challenge for podiums, they have been brought in to bolster a threadbare grid and eventually I feel they will become an integral part of the series, but they have to be given fair chance because if we look at some of the races last season we could be relying on CRT for the entertainment! Moto2 was mocked before it left us in awe with its close racing, I'm not saying CRT will be at that level but some people are afraid of change but its a change that is undoubtedly required.

Speaking of entertainment there was much mirth, merriment and abuse on social media networks about Casey Stoner’s sitting out of Day 1 of testing in Sepang due to niggling an old back problem putting his leathers on. Now I could be really cutting but at the risk of offending people who I genuinely like I won’t put down what I’m currently thinking about it all, as ever everyone is entitled to their opinion – hell that’s why I write this blog – but I can’t ever remember a rider being so roundly criticised and scrutinised for his every move and everything he says and it disappoints me to be honest. This will no doubt be the case throughout the season ahead, but a look at the time sheets on Day 2 in Sepang confirms what I said's going to be a matter of who’s going to come second again this season.

I have to say I’m really happy to see Valentino Rossi firing the big Ducati a little closer to the front 2 rows, he looks happy and relaxed with the GP12 which is a far cry to how he felt exactly 12 months ago. I hope he continues with his 58/46 hybrid colour scheme on his helmet for ‘12 that itself would make me smile.

Kudos must go to the Dog himself, Cal Crutchlow – an excellent showing over the first two days of testing, I know it’s only testing but you still have to get on and ride the thing and ride it he is. I think Cal will be a constant threat to the Top 6 throughout this season – no tracks to learn, just concentrating on getting the best out his new steed.

I will be looking in to WSB when the races in Australia are under way and BSB will reappear when pre-season testing gets under way out in Spain, off the top of my head, I think first week of March. Both these series will be a great follow this season with the level of competition between the teams and riders at its highest, and most open, for some time. I will delve a lot more in to both series over my next couple of blogs.

Also before the unfortunate event of recent weeks I had planned to have an inaugural Straw Bales Awards blog covering the 2011 season, a light-hearted bit of banter to get people smiling (hopefully!) and a little mickey-take out of some of the finest riders on the planet. I will include it in the next blog if you wish as I enjoyed putting it together.

Thanks for reading.