When The Reward Is In Risk
Unnecessarily fast? Some killjoys might think that is what racing is all about. I mean to say: if you’re in such a hurry to get back to the start-finish line, why not just stay there?
But let’s not completely undermine the point of it. Let’s accept that it is necessary to go—well, not fast as such, just faster than the other riders.
Two things at Brno triggered these thoughts. One was the presence of Mighty Mick Doohan, who was glad-handing and passing out signed posters with a picture of his old Arai crash helmet (eh? I have a spare if anyone is interested.).
The other was Marc Marquez, fitting slick tires on a damp track in qualifying. He wasn’t the only one, but also Jack Miller, the master of mixed conditions. But Marquez was the more conspicuous, as he danced with disaster and played with the physics, to set a clear pole time. Mission accomplished.
But then, even as a light rain started falling again on the final corners, he went around and did again! A full 1.5 seconds faster and several degrees scarier. It put him a massive 2.5 seconds ahead of the rest.
Everyone watching was holding their breath. It was a display of sheer brinkmanship, seemingly for its own sake.
Even he laughingly admitted it was unnecessarily fast. “Now I realize, especially with the championship position, it was too much risk. My first target was only the first two rows.”
Among the back-slaps, he’d had a talking to when he got back to the pit from austere team chief Alberto Puig, personally all too familiar with what happens when these things go sour. He could have thrown everything away attempting the unnecessary.
But Marc had a characteristic riposte to the doubters. “It’s my ambition. And my mentality.”
Later, he added that taking too many risks “was one of my weakest points when I was younger.”
Twenty years ago, back when those ill-tempered firecracker 500cc two-strokes ruled racing, five-time premier-class champion Doohan had his terminal crash at Jerez. It was on a Friday afternoon in mixed conditions, although it had stopped raining. On slick tires, he touched a damp white line. The consequent flick-and-fly flung him high into trackside advertising and smashed him up good and proper. He would never race again.
I earned his undying opprobrium by writing that same weekend that he had been going “unnecessarily fast,” meaning that there was a full day of qualifying left (full sessions on both days counted, back then), with a forecast of dry weather. Grid times would surely be determined on Saturday. And anyway, he reigned supreme. The start to his season hadn’t been ideal, with a fourth and a second place, while Kenny Roberts Jr. had two wins. But with 14 rounds left, it was far too early for a rider of his stature to worry.
The next week, from his hospital bed, Mick told a colleague that, “the person who wrote that knows nothing about racing.”
I take his point. But what I know nothing about is, not racing itself but the mind-set of that tiny handful of truly extraordinary champions. The unflinching killer streak that is preserved for the select few and not shared by every rider on the grid.
Can anyone really know that, except themselves?
Of racing’s greatest, Geoff Duke was smooth and contained, likewise Agostini. The risks were carefully measured. The great Mike Hailwood’s mantra was always to “win at the slowest possible speed.”
You saw Barry Sheene being brave, yes, but never taking wanton risks: his many injuries were not the result of his own mistakes. Kenny Roberts pushed the limits, but never looked reckless. Freddie Spencer’s bike control was magical, not maniacal. And Rossi had enough talent not only to make winning look easy but also the nous to make a show of every race, rather than just galloping into the distance. Slowest possible speed again.
One possible exception was Jarno Saarinen. There’s some astonishing footage of the 1972 250 champion’s exploits, but the Finn died through no fault of his own when he was only just starting on 500s and had won every race he finished.
Marquez is not the only notably brave rider on today’s grid—Crutchlow, to mention just one other. Plus, both Espargaros, Miller, and more.
What is truly special is when the compulsion to take risks is combined with a level of conspicuously superior ability. And risks are risks, no matter how good you are.
Mick came out on the wrong side of that risk; Marquez on the right side. So far.
Some riders measure the risk against the reward and take the appropriate decision. It’s not always the right one.
But the special ones find the reward is in the risk in the first place.CN