In The Paddock
Change the numbers, but don’t change the music. Switching the date as we embark on the third decade of the new millennium sees more of the same, but all the same, constantly changing.
The second new-millennium decade of World Championship racing that ended last November was very, very Iberian. In the previous 10 years, dominated by Rossi, the last champion to come from Italy was joined by representatives from the USA (Roberts and Hayden) and Australia (Stoner). From 2010 to 2019, however, Stoner has been a one-off interloper in an all-Spanish fiesta. It started with the first of three titles for Jorge Lorenzo, and has finished with a serial run from Marquez.
This constancy came against a background of rapid evolution. During the decade, Dorna completely remodeled the landscape. At the start of it, the classic Grand Prix series was in danger of disappearing up its own fundament, with shrinking grids utterly dominated by a small handful of factory teams, and the dwindling numbers of private entrants who had put meat on the bones of the championship starved into submission.
In 2010, big chief Carmelo Ezpeleta was already engaged in battle to cut the factories down to size. This basically meant Honda, and to a lesser extent Yamaha, for Ducati was soon to start a spell of struggles, while Suzuki would slip-slide away by the end of 2012.
At the time, Ezpeleta’s increasingly vociferous fulminations seemed implausible. Thumping his desk and stumbling over the words, he threatened to ban the factories and switch the premier class to cheapo production-based clunkers—the notorious CRT (Claiming Rule Team) bikes of 2012.
The results of these second-stringers were negligible, although they succeeded in the task of bumping up numbers. Rather surprisingly, their presence also convinced Japan Inc. that Ezpeleta’s threats were serious.
After just three years, the CRT clunkers were replaced by a complicated two-tier system intended to favor new factories (and cleverly manipulated by Ducati in a successful quest to regain competitive form). More than that, it had brought Suzuki back, and over the next two years Aprilia and KTM, too. Only BMW and Kawasaki stayed away, while now the grids were full with proper prototypes, fielded by six different factories.
One consequence has been much closer racing, with some truly memorable skirmishes over the last two or three years—at Assen, in 2018, the top seven were over the line inside 4.4 seconds, and there was more similar, although not quite as numerous, in 2019.
But with one inevitable winner, so it seemed. Standardized electronics robbed Honda of their own expensive and effective way of smoothing out their mechanical quirks. But apart from a blip in 2015, Marc Marquez had the genius-level talent to ride around problems that left Dani Pedrosa and, last year, even Jorge Lorenzo floundering into retirement.
Life, however, presents a pattern of continual change. The pivot-point of a new decade requires one to look forward as well as back. The end of the last one brought a welcome reminder that nothing lasts forever.
As the old challengers variously dwindled, along came Quartararo, hounding Marquez without even requiring a top-grade Yamaha to do it. Marquez remained the GP giant. As the inscription on Ozymandias’s broken effigy put it: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” But there is no doubt he can feel the cold wind blowing up around his ankles. Quartararo is coming.
Believe it or not, however, racing is not just about riding.
The biggest change wrought by Dorna, hand in hand with the fake news and instant gratification of social media, has been to bend what was once sporting enterprise into more of an entertainment industry. Grand prix racing is the worse for that only in some selected ways.
One is in turning riders from sporting heroes risking their lives into “accessible entertainers” (aka “performing monkeys”), with banal and often plain silly social media questions at press conferences, seriously undermining their right to respect.
Then there is the Instagram/Twitter axis of moment-by-moment communication, where the most trivial of opinions and statements are within minutes giggling shared world-wide, and as quickly forgotten. Interest in racing and in the people involved is transmuted into a series of fleeting impressions, with any depth left to a handful of “sound-of-my-own-voice” bloggers, expounding on the minutiae of chassis design or tire degradation barely understood by the riders and engineers themselves.
To be fair, occasional glimpses of humor or humanity emerge, especially from the handful of media-savvy riders—Rossi the all-time greatest. (Dovizioso is thoughtful and interesting; Jack Miller a fast learner. Asked what he would like to do to improve racing, he replied: “Cut one of Marquez’s legs off”).
Thankfully, one eternal truth cannot be extinguished. On Sunday, there’s still a motorbike race. CN
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