Friday, December 27, 2013

The Biggest Events of 2013

Races aren't won in the first corner, unless you're Lorenzo

2013 was a big year for MotoGP; Rossi returned to the Factory Yamaha team and we saw some of the closest in years across all three classes, especially Moto3. Some things stayed the say, the Ducatis still struggled, Spaniards still dominated and the Espagaro brothers were as emotional as ever. There was also news and drama a plenty with a multitude of broken bones, rule changes and the usual paddock gossip coming with each race. Max Biaggi even made a brief return to the MotoGP paddock when he tested for Ducati. However, there were five events that stood out as not only critical in deciding this season’s results, but also how seasons to come will potentially play out.

Marquez Makes Magic

The first event started in July 2012 when it was announced Marc Marquez would be replacing Casey Stoner in the Repsol Honda team for 2013. The messiah was coming; the most anticipated step up to the premier class since Valentino Rossi in 2000. Everyone knew he would be fast, but they also thought he would crash and crash a lot. He did crash a lot, beaten only by Hernandez for most crashes, and he even broke some records with crashes like his Mugello Free Practice 2 175mph scare. But he managed to avoid any serious injury and limited his crashing antics to practice sessions, aside from Mugello, and was otherwise able to be on the podium in every race he finished. This sort of form is amazing from riders with years of MotoGP experience but from a rookie, it was almost unbelievable.

Marquez’ huge and obvious talent translated to him claiming his first Word Title and destroying almost every record that went along with it. The next few years look daunting from the perspective of a rider trying to beat Marquez. As a fan the future looks bright, Marquez favours racing behind his opponents, watching them for several laps before striking. This makes for extremely exciting racing and memorable moments such as the incident at Lorenzo corner in Jerez and the last laps of the Silverstone race. He is constantly learning from the riders he follows; an example of this is at Le Man for his first wet race. He essentially learnt how to race a MotoGP bike in the wet in just eight laps, then being confident enough to charge through the field. He can only get faster. How scary is that?

Lorenzo Evolves

2013 was Lorenzo’s finest year of racing. He might not have won the title but he proved that he is truly one of the best riders in the world and one of the toughest human beings on the planet. No one will forget Assen, a broken collarbone on Thursday, trip to hospital for a bit of surgery and back to the track to race, and score decent points, on Saturday. Jorge even shook it off like it was nothing. When told he was a hero he responded with "No, heroes are those who work hard just to reach the end of each month. I get paid to do these things." Despite this humility he would suffer another re-break of the same collarbone at Sachsenring, something that should have ended his championship hopes.

The second half of the season saw a much-needed new gearbox grace Lorenzo’s M1 and the Mallorcan became even more determined and aggressive in his title defence. His riding hit a new level of consistency, Misano saw him stay within half of second of his laptime for all but the first and last laps. His tactics and riding also become more aggressive when the situation called for it, particularly at Valencia when everything was on the line. From Silverstone onwards Jorge rode like a man possessed, focusing on getting the start he needed to allow him to ride the Yamaha how it wanted to be ridden. The best riders adapt how they ride to the bike and situation they’re in and Jorge proved more than capable of evolving to keep up with the missile that is Marquez. Lorenzo has, and will always be, a threat.

Mahindra, Better Than Honda

Mahindra first came into the MotoGP world in 2010, taking over the Lambretta project in the last year of the 125s. It was an average season for a virgin team, a handful of points and a surprise pole position in the last ever 125cc race from Danny Webb. The change to the Moto3 class would give them equal footing on bike development with everyone starting from scratch. Mahindra partnered with Oral Engineering and had a torrid season full of crashes, broken engines and angry riders followed. Miguel Oliveira took a huge risk signing with the Indian manufacturer for the 2013 season, but the risk paid off. A new partnership with Suter-Engineering and an almost complete overhaul of the team saw the Mahindra become the second best bike on the Moto3 grid. More than that, they were better than the big and mighty Honda.

The point of Moto3 was to give a level playing field and draw in more factories to prevent the Aprilla cup that 125s became, it hasn’t quite done this but the success of Mahindra, especially in contrast to their first torrid year in the Moto3 class, is a huge boon for the lightweight class. It has also caused Honda to refocus their Moto3 effort and come back fighting. The success story that Mahindra has been will hopefully encourage more manufacturers to join in Moto3, or potentially help to bring in more interest from new markets. The number of MGP30s (Mahindra’s Moto3 bike) has more than tripled for 2014 and this will allow Mahindra to develop the bike more and close the gap to the KTMs even further.

Out With The Old, In With The New

The last round of the year is usually a quiet affair, championship often wrapped up and only a few i’s and t’s left on contracts. This year not only saw two championships go down to the wire but also saw one of the most controversial stories of the year. Rossi dumped mega experienced Jeremy Burgess in favour of Silvano Galbusera, Melandri’s old WSBK crew chief. Rossi goes into what is potentially his last season in MotoGP and needs ‘new motivation,’ resulting in the change. It’s a risky move to say the least. The rest of the Rossi’s loyal crew remains but a big question mark remains over how next season will go. It’s not going to be Ducati bad at its worst, but will it be enough to turn Rossi into a regular winner? It would be a surprise.

Rossi wasn’t the only rider to part with a long-term partner as Pedrosa and lifelong manager Puig parted ways. Puig remains within the HRC family, now talent scouting in the Asia Cup and Dani obviously remains on his beloved Repsol RCV213V. All those years and near triumphs, but no title, like Rossi; something needed changing to see if it could be what pushes Pedrosa to the next step. Is having grid girls hold his umbrella what is stopping from Pedrosa from winning the MotoGP crown? Doubtful. But, like Rossi, maybe a change after all these years will reinvigorate racing’s favourite bridesmaid.

Puig moving to the Asia Cup is also a huge boost for the series. The Spaniard is perhaps the best talent scout in the MotoGP paddock, guiding Pedrosa, Stoner, Chaz Davies and many more in their early years in the Spanish championship. Asia is seen as a potential solution for all the financial troubles currently facing MotoGP and the best way to get to that money is by bringing in the most talented riders from continent and putting them on a competitive package, even better if that bike is from a similar area, like Mahindra.

The Phillip Island Debacle

Tyres that couldn’t last more than 12 laps, mandatory pits stops with last second rule changes but one of the most dramatic races of the year. The Bridgestone tyres at Phillip Island this year, and to a lesser extent the Dunlops on the Moto2 bikes, were a joke. WSBK and ASBK had both run at the newly resurfaced Phillip Island and had both had huge problems with tyres. Testing is extremely limited but being able to do less than half race distance on the tyres when Bridgestone were fully aware of the issues was beyond comical. What if all the Michelin riders had been able to go full race distance? There would have been even more of a riot outside the Bridgestone tent at the back of the paddock.

The single tyre rule has cut costs and evened things out, no more rider specific tyres, no more overnight specials. But it has also slowed development, Bridgestone have no one to beat, no extra drive to prove that they’re the best. It’s impossible to say what would have happened had there been another company to choose from at Phillip, but it’s doubtful it would have resulted in a race day rule change. Phillip Island was exciting, but it was also a situation that should have never arisen. Hopefully this will cause Bridgestone to be more aggressive in their development and avoid situations such as this in the future.

Bonus Moment:

The Jerez ‘No Soup for You! Finger Wag’

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Social Media, What's That?

Social media has become a huge part of our lives, particularly if you are running a business. In many cases social media sites and services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provide an excellent source of free marketing and exposure. In a clothing store I overheard that 80% of their business came from Instagram. An amazing statistic for a free service not even intended to be used as advertising.  

These services not only provide free exposure but also bring, or enhance, the personality of a business, product or person. Dorna uses Twitter and Instagram to great effect with MotoGP, not only is news posted there and links to videos on their website provided but funny little things, like the Cal – Marquez Parc Ferme ‘incident’ are also posted. Not only does this give a chance to have these photos and videos seen by a new audience, but small things like this show that even a big company like Dorna has a sense of humor, making it seem friendly. And we all like friends, right? Actions like this may seem small but go a long to keeping current fans and improving the overall image of the brand, even with photos like Cal’s and Marc’s that are a bit, questionable.

Considering all of this it’s a huge surprise that a global series like World Superbike has almost no social media presence. The name ‘WSBK’ on Instagram belongs to someone named ‘Wendy’ with zero followers or photos. Furthermore the WSBK Twitter links mostly to race reports and rider interviews, in text, on their website. Obviously there are some photos of riders and paddock personalities doing silly things but overall it’s a very dry affair.

The World Superbike championship has a lot of problems on and off the track, but social media, or lack thereof, seems a very simple thing to fix in the grand scheme of it all. But instead the championship lags behind and struggles, confusing when WSBK and MotoGP are both owned by Dorna now and one would assume they’d be able to apply a social media strategy across two championships. Video content is almost drastically different across the two championships, most likely a hold over from the days of Infront’s ownership of WSBK.

With an emphasis on social media and web content in general, video has become critical, especially in a sport with chances for spectacular replays, like racing. MotoGP, despite a few flaws, produces excellent video content, even excluding the season video pass. WSBK’s website has none of this, their YouTube channel has some content but not nearly as diverse as that of MotoGP. These videos also lack personality; they don’t play up the relationships of riders or any characters or drama in WSBK. This perhaps has to do with Eurosport having a significant hold on all the video content produced for WSBK as a result of a deal with Infront Media.

The general branding and presentation of the characters in the WSBK is lacking too. Many people who are not die-hard fans complain of not being able to distinguish between riders and teams in WSBK, especially with the majority of Kawasakis looking exactly the same in WSBK and WSS. As in GP, it is often difficult to balance the wants of a manufacturer, such as wanting to have their bikes green, with the needs of the series and promotion. To become a bigger series you first have to act like one, with all the extra flair and emphasis on characters and dramatic storylines. Sykes’ championship loss by half a point last season has set up a great story for this season, but there has been very little focus on it. Most races seem to be produced individually as opposed to being thought of as an overall series.

Obviously a better and more diverse web presence isn’t going to fix WSBK overnight, but it does highlight some of the bigger problems. Smaller details have been overlooked and continue to be, even when these small details are as essential as social media and web presence in general. With crowds at record lows in many events and factories pulling out left and right its time for change, not just with rules but how the series is promoted as a whole. Promotion is a huge part of sporting events, especially relatively small ones such as production motorcycle racing and the internet is an easy and often even free way to help with this, but like many things, the WSBK series has overlooked it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

ASBK, What Racing Used To Be

Australian Superbike is a lot like the racing of old. Small teams and working out of vans is almost exclusively what you see. There are no multi-story hospitalities or paddock scooters racing around with personal assistants, instead it’s a small team of mostly family members that help with the set up of the bike and cleaning leathers. Subsequently everyone is incredibly close. In GP there is a sense of family, almost everyone has been in the paddock for years and knows each other to some degree. But at ASBK it is taken to extremes, at the Eastern Creek round there were several teams who, for a variety of reasons, had a spare bike, bikes that they happily leant to competitors. Imagine Lorenzo lending Cal one of his M1s after Cal broke both of them.

Despite the small scale ASBK is highly professional. Frequent warning horns blast across the entire paddock, warning fans and staff that bikes are on the track and to be careful in pit lane. It’s grassroots racing at its finest. With a huge variety of classes from 250cc production bikes to Superbikes there is always a race or practice session on, it’s almost too much. The majority of races are also incredibly exciting because machinery and teams are on such a limited budget that it creates a very level playing field.

The level of access fans can get is also unrivaled. There’s no paying $500 for a paddock pass, the paddock is freely open to anyone. All the riders and team members are also extremely friendly and open to chatting and in some cases even showing fans around the pit box. This is a polar opposite to the strict rules fans must follow at a GP event and the teams who are too busy to talk to anyone. This open and friendly environment was more reminiscent of a local club race than a national series that produces world champions such as Mick Doohan.

ASBK is much more raw than MotoGP, it’s more pure. It might not have the big names that MotoGP has but ASBK was just as, if not more enjoyable. The racing was close and fierce, the riders all had personalities that were distinct and funny. Going to an event like this makes you think about why you watch the bigger series, is it for the racing, the personalities, the drama or a combination of all three? All of these can be found in national championships and on a much smaller, more personal level. This environment made for a much better overall experience than the somewhat sterile paddock that one encounters in MotoGP.

There's also the bonus of seeing the brothers, sisters and kids racing each other around the track and the paddock. Many a Goberts were seen, but sadly THE Go-Show was absent.

There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to smaller national series, but if you can’t attend a GP a local series, especially ASBK, is a great alternative and gives you a taste of the backstage action without the pressures of the more corporate and high tension Grand Prix circus.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mind Over Matter

Being physically and mentally prepared for any new task in life is always important, especially when that task is racing a Grand Prix motorcycle around at dizzying speeds. Motorcycle racing has grown up a lot since the times of post-race conference beers and deathly 500s. Now to be at the top a rider has to be at the peak of not just bike riding ability but also physical fitness and mental strength. Some say this has made Grand Prix racing too serious taken out a lot of the bad-boy rebel attitude it once had. Regardless of the truth behind the statement, the maturing of GPs has lead to some devilishly fast and competitive rookies. Riders such as Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and especially Marc Marquez have been highly competitive from the word go.

Things have not always been so easy for rookies on factory machine however. Mick Doohan’s first season in GPs was less than stellar. A 3rd in Germany was the highlight of a season filled with injuries and teething problems with his NSR. The 500s were obviously a beast for anyone to learn but Doohan also had to contend with off track distractions. Europe offered all riders a plethora of distractions off the track, especially to a rookie such as Doohan with little experience outside of his native Australia. It has been widely noted that Doohan spent perhaps too much of his rookie season ‘distracted’ and that it detracted somewhat from his performance. The late 80s was also the cusp of the fitness craze that has now enveloped GPs. Riders were fit, but not top athlete fit and this too meant that rookie seasons were spent adjusting physically to the new demands.

Unlike Doohan, Valentino Rossi took a far more conventional route up to GPs, competing in 125cc and 250cc prior. However, this didn’t mean that he had an easy rookie season. A double DNF greeted Rossi when he achieved his dream of racing a 500cc Honda. Rossi’s season would eventually turn around into a near title-winning season. But why didn’t he win the title? He knew the tracks, he was quick and he was physically strong. But Rossi, as noted by himself, didn’t believe he could win the title in that first half of the season and this mental doubt cost him. Rossi, like Doohan before him, overcame this initially tough season to dominate for multiple seasons.

Marquez has the advantage of being in a GP environment where peak physical fitness is a must for top riders. He has also grown up watching Rossi play mind games with everyone from Biaggi to Stoner and carefully studied how important mental strength is. Marquez has been prepared and groomed for this since he was in mini-moto, eliminating rookies’s greatest weakness: their own mind. Marquez has no outlandish parties to distract him, no self-doubt; he is a machine who is full of self-belief and confidence. But there is only so much the likes of Alzamora can do, in the end the belief and confidence comes from within Marc.

Having stormed to his third victory of the season while Pedrosa and Lorenzo struggled with injuries, Marquez has cemented himself as not only a title contender but also a title favourite. The natural talent of 20-year-old Spaniard is un-doubtable, but a thought must be given  to how each generation has been able to learn from the mistakes of the last.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Australian Racers' Guide To Retirement

Australia has a proud history on two wheels: Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner and Casey Stoner are all, even now in the case of Wayne and Mick, household names. But beyond these champions there is litany of other Australians who have fought for wins and championships in GPs and WSBK. Yet many of them, such as Garry McCoy, have faded into a quiet existence on Australia’s Gold Coast, well, most that is. Anthony “The Go-Show” Gobert has taken his retirement a little differently to the soft-spoken McCoy.

Garry McCoy was, and still is, a quiet man, more timid than you’d expect from someone known for slides that would make even a Japanese street drifter think he was crazy. McCoy burst onto the GP scene in 1992 in the 125cc class, having only been road racing for four months. The four years of 125s was McCoy take two victories and six podiums, enough to gain himself a ride on the big 500s in 1999. His impressive style earned him three victories, nine podiums and a truck full of burnt up tyres. The switch to MotoGP saw McCoy struggle aboard a variety of different bikes such as the Aprilla, Kawasaki and even the Ilmor, eventually landing in WSBKs on a Ducati where he won his home race at Philip Island. An ill-fated stint with Foggy Petronas saw a brief stint to supercross. Triumph then offered him a lifeline in WSS that saw McCoy score several podiums and dramatically improve the Daytona 675.  

            Despite this McCoy found himself without a third year on the Triumph and instead McCoy found refuge, all be it brief, with the FB Corse Team. The team, and the deal, fell through, leaving the once mullet graced McCoy without a ride. Then there was nothing, no one really heard from McCoy.  The Troy Bayliss Classic saw McCoy return to some form of racing and public venue. Since his stint in WSS it seems that McCoy has opened his own race school and has coached several younger Australian riders, although probably with less emphasis on being sideways as often. The combination of his school, general track days and being Australia’s Pirelli representative seem to be keeping McCoy’s head well above water as he quietly enjoys his retirement.

            Of all the Australians at the Troy Bayliss Classic there was one 'old-timer' who was a notiveable absence. The Go-Show was perhaps as far away from McCoy in attitude as anyone could get. The youngest ever WSBK winner, Gobert burst onto the international racing scene as the hottest property in a long while. His win and third place at Philip Island in 1994 on the Kawasaki was one of the most impressive rides around the world famous track. It was a strong enough result to get Gobert a fulltime Kawasaki WSBK ride in 1995, where he yet again showed strong results and finished 4th overall. The ‘96 season was trickier, but a double win at Philip Island earned him a spot on the Lucky Strikes Suzuki 500cc squad.

             Unfortunately this is where things began to nose dive for the wild Aussie. Injuries interrupted the start of his season and the drug abuse began to become more apparent. He once famously showed up after the Brno test with nothing but the ripped leathers he had crashed in. The combination of this saw Suzuki remove him from the squad. 1998 and 1999 saw Go-Show go State side and compete in the AMA, and a WSBK round at Laguna, which he won. Gobert gave the world stage one last try with a Bimota in 2000, yet again winning at Philip Island. But the drug battle continued and the once young talent returned to Australian Superbikes with mixed results. Gobert had one last flash before fading away; he got arrested for stealing 50 Australian Dollars off a pensioner, and it apparently wasn’t the first time. In court he said he had applied for a job at Subway, he didn't get it.

              McCoy and Gobert both had careers that saw them ride in almost every championship around, and both had their ups and downs. Each rider overcame injuries and battled with demons, it’s greatly saddening that the Go-Show’s final episode was such a long way from his where he’d debuted. Chris Vermeulen is another Australian talent who is in limbo between retirement and racing. Currently he races in Triathlons at a very high level, waiting for a testing ride to appear. Luckily it looks as though he’s learnt from Gobert and McCoy and is spreading his post-racing career net wide, hopefully to avoid having to steal handbags from grannies.