The new Argentine circuit at Termas de Rio Honda was received with great acclaim. Cleverly designed with motorcycles in mind, with computer-aided cambers and careful corner combinations, it pleased every rider.
There was one particular reason. Speed. It joined the calendar as the second-fastest circuit of the year. In fact, Dromo’s (the track designers) computers had predicted an even faster lap time to move the average speed beyond Phillip Island. Human frailty, in the form of Marc Marquez, fell short. The best-lap average was 109.8 mph, compared with Australia’s 112.9. But it was faster than both Mugello (109.2) and Silverstone (109.0).
The numbers, however, do not impress anyone with a sense of history. Today’s bikes may be much faster. Today’s circuits and average speeds, however, are much slower.
The fastest-ever GP was won by Barry Sheene at the old Spa Francorchamps in 1977, at an average of 135.067 mph. But Spa was just one of several tracks where riders spent long spells at blistering speeds, slipstreaming and hoping not to seize. Because in those days crashing in these places could easily mean certain death.
Spa was cut in length, and the still-daunting new track was last used for a GP in 1990. Something similar happened to the Hockenheimring in Germany (128.121 average) and Austria’s Salzburgring (121.929) four years later.
So how important is speed in racing? What has been lost, with the new generation of slower circuits? And what (apart from the obvious safety) has been gained?
We turned to riders both past and present for the answers. The old guys came up with by far the best stories. Being racers (and survivors), they were often less about danger and fear and more about the hunt for a technical edge.
Steve Parrish, a close fifth in that fastest-ever race at Spa and later four times European truck champion, explains: “The fear and trepidation wasn’t about dying, it was about not doing as well as you’d expected. I worked that out after I tried truck racing, because I got nearly as nervous, and clearly I was in nowhere near in as much danger. I think most of the nerves actually come from wanting to achieve what you expect of yourself.”
The Isle of Man TT was the scariest and most dangerous of all, but was dropped from the calendar in 1977.
To read more of “The Danger Zone” in this week’s issue of Cycle News, click here