Growing Up Fast
Not sure how factory Yamaha Superbike racer Michael van der Mark must feel. Twenty-five years old, the Dutchman was disappointed when a plan for him to race Rossi’s M-1 at Aragon fell through when Rossi came back early from injury. He was promised an outing at post-season tests, but instead got a real taste of proper MotoGP racing, riding Jonas Folger’s vacant Tech 3 Yamaha for two races at the end of last season.
Van der Mark didn’t acquit himself badly. It wasn’t a blazing start and he didn’t score any points, but he was only one place out of them at Sepang, and two at Valencia, on the most powerful and electronically complex bike he’s ever ridden, on tires he’s never used, in a field of race-hardened MotoGP veterans.
Once upon a time, this might have constituted an entry ticket to the senior world championship. No longer. It is more than ever now, for riders as well as teams.
Only a couple of months before, there’d been another strike in the death knell of GP ambitions for him and others of his ilk, nursing vain hopes in FIM World or British Superbikes.
It was the selection process for the all-new British Talent Cup, wherein 22 riders aged between 11 and 16 were chosen from among some 100 applicants, to get their foot on the bottom rung of the grand prix ladder.
The British Talent Cup joins the Asia Talent Cup and the original Red Bull Rookies in what is now an almost global search for junior talent, with callow kids on GP-spec Moto3 bikes.
Almost global. It misses out Africa and, rather more significantly perhaps, the Americas.
The absence of the USA from these initiatives is to an extent part of the overall post-AMA meltdown of domestic road racing. There was an AMA U.S. Red Bull Rookies Cup, but it was canned in 2009, in the wake of (but not necessarily because of) a fatal accident the year before. MotoAmerica’s start-again for U.S. bike racing does have a class tailored to develop young talent, and the KTM RC390 Cup is a global affair, with international finals for top national riders. But it diverts riders towards World Supersport and Superbike rather than the GPs.
Now look at the current GP entry lists. At how many riders have come through most particularly the Red Bull Rookies series. There are a lot. It’s simpler to name only those who have won world championships—Johann Zarco, Danny Kent, Brad Binder and Joan Mir. Many other race-winners came up the same way. And only one notably bypassed any of these training routes—Cal Crutchlow.
Even before the Rookies Cup, when Dorna’s world view was still confined to the Iberian Peninsula, two more champions—Dani Pedrosa and Toni Elias—were among a handful of graduates fast-tracked from a formative all-Spanish youth series, run by ex-500 GP winner Alberto Puig. It was the model for all those that have since followed. With Puig, by the way, still in charge.
This represents a major change in a would-be successful grand prix rider’s career path.
It was not that long ago (though to current teenage riders of course almost a lifetime) that GP champions came out of national racing into the GPs, joining at a high level having already learned their trade and made their mark. This includes the champions of the previous Golden Age, the American generation from Kenny Roberts and Randy Mamola through Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz, and those who came after them indeed, the last U.S. World Champion Nicky Hayden got the factory Honda ride as a reward for winning the U.S. Superbike crown. He won MotoGP in 2006, the last premier-class winner not to come through the smaller classes, via some sort of a specially tailored youth program aimed directly at MotoGP.
This is not to say that earlier riders didn’t start racing at a ridiculously young age. That is a given nowadays, and has been for quite a long time, and not just in racing. It’s true in many sports. Practice makes perfect, and so on. Jorge Lorenzo, for instance, had home schooling from his father (who now runs his own racing kindergarten) not just in riding, but how to behave while accepting accolades on the podium or being grilled by the press.
The difference is the extreme levels of formal organization. And that if you don’t get in to one of these academies before you become a teenager, you’ve missed the boat. At last as far as MotoGP is concerned. You’ll be diverted to the likes of WorldSBK, from which nowadays there is no coming back.
In short, if you’re old enough to be reading this and you haven’t been enrolled yet, it’s too late. CN