Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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The dirt track tradition

It sounds like someone has just unbolted the Gates of Hades. A deep and mournful groan reverberates through the darkness pockmarked by a hundred spotlights. The groan becomes a baleful roar and out of the white-light blackness comes a many-headed monster, riding right at you, spewing dirt and rocks and gasoline fumes. It’s a pack of 16 angry young men, tangling handlebars into turn one, their open-piped Harleys twisting and bucking as tyres scramble for grip on the slithery dirt, finding traction, losing it, finding it again.

Bikes and riders sideways to various degrees, the pack accelerates down to the back straight, tucked as low as they can go, left hands dropped from handlebars to fork legs for a (surely not worth it) aerodynamic advantage. One-hundred-and-twenty miles an hour, left hands back where they belong, riders kick their bikes sideways into turn two at the other end of the mile oval.

This is Grand National dirt track racing, quite possibly the world’s most primal motor sport: a man, a Harley and a dirt oval. It is all-American entertainment of the old school – US dirt track has barely changed since the days of James Dean. It is still macho rednecks slugging it out in circles, while some good ol’ boy flips burgers on the infield, surrounded by tatty awnings, beneath which mechanics toil in the dust, generators humming, hammers hammering. A rider limps past, steel shoe clanking through the dirt, like he’s some kind of medieval knight. Dirt track bikes don’t have brakes or steering to speak of, so riders get sideways to scrub off speed and slide into the turns, using their steel-soled left boots like outriggers, completing each trajectory with a generous application of throttle.

Dirt oval racing may be gloriously basic but it is also the most educational of two-wheel motor sports – since 1978 all but four premier-class road racing World Champions have learned their craft by going round and round in anti-clockwise circles. The giants of the sport – Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, Kevin Schwantz, Freddie Spencer – all hail from America or Australia, where dirt track is how most racers start out. Dirt track has always been all about traction, which of course is the ultimate arbiter of the lap time in any motor sport. It is the purity of the relationship between throttle and track that makes dirt track such an educational force. Technology cannot win the race, because everyone’s using pretty much the same kit their ‘grampas’ used. Talent and technique are all that matter. These are honed endlessly, riders training day and night, until brain, right wrist and seat of pants are hard-wired.

Dirt trackers usually make brilliant road racers because they have an intimate feel for traction which they can use to exploit every last smudge of tyre grip and then a little bit more, whether they’re on dirt or asphalt. They are also better when things start getting out of control because they are happy riding sideways. These talents became vital during the 1970s when Grand Prix engine performance raced ahead of tyre performance. Even now, racing motorcycles are relatively under-tyred, so a dirt tracker’s skill is still enormously useful, which is why ex-dirt trackers Casey Stoner and Nicky Hayden have won the past two titles.

Traction control has made life easier for the rest, but the really good road racers still do dirt track as part of their training regimes. Valentino Rossi uses a motocross bike fitted with a low-grip rear tyre during winter training, while 1999 World Champion Alex Crivillé, the only other non-dirt track road racing champ of the past 25 years, visited dirt track’s Mecca to learn his craft. ‘King’ Kenny Roberts was the first sideways racer to win motorcycling’s biggest prize in 1978. Since then he has become the high priest of traction, his Californian ranch a pilgrimage for most of the greatest road racers of the last few decades.

“Dirt track teaches you a lot,” says Roberts, who sometimes joins his pupils riding round his private oval, hollering and cursing in their ears as he gets sideways with them. “The natural stuff comes out because the racing’s not so fast, it’s more physical and the motorcycle’s much more controllable than in road racing.”

Roberts is arguably dirt track’s greatest hero. Signed to Yamaha at an early age, the former cowboy struggled to beat the all-conquering Harleys. So he had a bright idea: shoehorn a two-stroke TZ750 road race engine into a dirt track chassis. This beast of a bike made double the power of a Harley. Indeed it was so over-powered for its new surroundings that its creators fitted a kill switch to extinguish one of the four cylinders for those moments when Roberts struggled to get the rear tyre to hook up. Shell-shocked after his first (and victorious) race on the weapon in 1975, Roberts opined: “They don’t pay me enough to ride that thing”. The sport’s governors took the hint and rewrote the rules to ban TZ750s from US ovals.

British road racers got their first taste of what dirt track can do for you at around the same time, during the annual USA versus UK Transatlantic match races at Oulton Park. As the rain poured down, the Brits just knew they were going to teach the Yanks a lesson, because in the States road racers didn’t bother racing when it rained. Inevitably, the dirt track-trained Americans cleared off into the distance, leaving the home team open mouthed. How could they ride around greasy, slippery corners so fast?

Dirt track car racing has produced its share of four-wheel greats, but Mario Andretti is the only driver who has gone all the way to conquer Formula 1. In motorcycle racing, where the rubber-to-asphalt equation is always a bit thin, dirt track will always give its exponents a fundamental advantage. It is why Stoner can happily keep the throttle pinned while his Ducati tries to tie itself in knots out of a turn.

*****

Swaps, rookies and a comeback

Next year’s MotoGP grid is almost fixed. It will feature three rider swaps: Nicky Hayden from Repsol Honda to Marlboro Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso from Scot Honda to Repsol Honda and Toni Elias from Alice Ducati back to Gresini Honda, with whom he contested the 2005 and ’06 seasons. Three rookies will enter the class: 250 riders Mika Kallio and Yuki Takahashi, plus GP newcomer Niccolo Canepa, who is currently Ducati’s test rider. Kallio and Canepa will ride for Alice Ducati, while Takahashi will take over from Dovizioso at Scot Honda. And there could be one comeback, with former world number two Sete Gibernau linked with a yet-to-be-confirmed Ducati team.

Gibernau is the surprise, because he hasn’t raced since the end of 2006, when he was sacked by Ducati in favour of Casey Stoner. But he has impressed with his speed in testing for Ducati this summer, encouraging interest from a Ducati outfit being formed by Pablo Nieto, a member of Spain’s famous Nieto racing dynasty. Another Spanish team manager – former World Champion Jorge Martinez – is also planning a MotoGP team, with Kawasaki. MotoGP needs all the new blood it can get – this year’s grid features just 18 riders.

*****

MotoGP follows one-make tyre trend

MotoGP will follow current motor sport trends and instigate a one-make tyre rule for 2009. Rights-holders Dorna insists the move was made for cost and safety reasons. It says that recent competition between Bridgestone and Michelin has dramatically increased corner speeds, with serious consequences for rider safety.

But the issue of the MotoGP spectacle was certainly another factor in Dorna’s wish to move to a single tyre supplier. During the past two seasons there has sometimes been a huge discrepancy in performance between the different tyre brands, resulting in poorer quality racing at the front of the pack.

“Now we are the same as the other big championships: Formula 1, WRC, NASCAR and World Superbike,” said Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, announcing the decision during September’s Japanese GP. “We believe that corner speeds won’t continue to increase when there’s no competition between the different tyre companies; this is the opinion of all the riders too. We have yet to decide the exact regulations, but in principle, several different specs of tyre will be offered at each race, and riders can choose what they use.”

Either Bridgestone or Michelin is expected to be MotoGP’s tyre supplier in 2009.

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