Racers' Flags Are Chequered First
There was a most unfamiliar reflection in the puddles of Silverstone. An increasingly real chance that Britain is on the brink of celebrating another motorcycle World Champion, after yet another sterling performance by Wiltshire lad Danny Kent.
For a sixth time this year, Kent was all-conquering, prevailing not only over his rivals but also treacherous conditions that meant only just over half of the starters made it to the end. Several of them had fallen and remounted, a couple of them twice. Kent sailed on regardless. Importantly his closest title rival Enea “The Beast” Bastianini crashed and didn’t get back on, and the points gap opened up again to a yawning gulf.
It now stands at 70 points, with six races left.
Don’t count your chickens etc … but it looks very much as though the 21-year-old will become Britain’s first world champion in almost 30 years … since Barry Sheene pulled of a 500-class double in 1977.
It will mark the end of a long slump for a country that dominated the early years of grand prix racing, most especially in the premier class. The first World Champion, Les Graham, was British. The names of the champions that followed him are the very fabric of racing history, right up until it all stopped short with Sheene. Reel them off: Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood. Phil Read. And Barry.
The last British 500 race win also went to Sheene – Sweden in 1981. The country’s 135th. In terms of 500 championships, the statistics are even more striking. Only Italy has more – 20 to Britain’s 17. And Italy only took the lead in 2004, with Rossi’s fourth crown. It took 27 years after Sheene for them to catch up.
The point of all this is not to crow like a rooster, nor to lament the loss of past glories– just to prove that until the 1970s … until Kenny Roberts, actually, Britain was like Spain is now. Running riot.
Britain stopped being that way through a gradual fading away, a lack of interest from either the ACU or sponsors, and a little hiccup in the availability of talent. The decline was helped by a major diversion into World Superbikes in the 1980s and 1990s. I used to take some stick then for regarding Superbikes as B-movie stuff; but I still feel the same, and I know that Fogarty agreed. He was a great rider who constantly hankered after a top GP ride, but was never quite in the right place at the right time.
At the same time, Spain was getting going. Dorna’s acquisition of MotoGP (and now of course Superbike as well) was backed by a concerted effort to find young riding talent, and to develop it; with special race series and a serious upgrade to the national championships as well.
The consequences of both these trends is now plain to see. Spain has become the dominant country; while those British riders who do defend national honour are to a large extent there both because they trained in the Spanish system, and because Dorna supports selected foreign riders, in order to broaden the international appeal. Fans are determinedly nationalistic, no matter what country they come from. In this way, when a British rider achieves something. British fans feel good about themselves. That’s why the thought of a long-denied championship is so beguiling.
I don’t think the riders feel the same way. No matter what they might say, and even half believe themselves, they’re not racing for their team, for their manufacturer, and certainly not for their country. They’re racing for themselves.
Racing remains essentially an intensely selfish act of hedonism, dedicated to the riders’ personal satisfaction.
And it’s all the better for it.