Mat Oxley – MotoGP

A nod to the Futurists

If you’ve been lucky enough to receive an invitation to dine at Fiat Yamaha’s MotoGP hospitality unit this season (I’m still awaiting mine), you can’t have failed to notice the funky table mats (right). The mats feature the team’s riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and celebrate the centenary of the Futurist Movement, 1909 to 2009.

Futurism was a hugely influential Italian art movement, led by the slightly bonkers Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The Futurists sought to represent the 20th century’s new world of speed with radical art that illustrated the thrilling sensation of high-speed movement and ever-shifting perspectives, hence the cut-up, chopped-up images created by Fiat Yamaha.

The Futurists didn’t only paint and sculpt. They sang “the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness”. And they loudly demanded that Italy abandon its backward-looking culture of Passatisme as well as its struggling agricultural economy and rush headlong into a noisy industrial future, powered by the wondrous new technology of cars, motorcycles, aeroplanes and electronic communications.

In fact, Marinetti and his cohorts wanted even more than that – they wanted to board up the museums, burn down the libraries, trash the art galleries and concrete over Venice’s canals. “We want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists and antiquarians,” he wrote.

Marinetti published his Futurist Manifesto in 1909, proclaiming that “the world has been enriched by a new beauty, the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath… a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace [a much-loved Greek sculpture housed in the Louvre].” In other words, this bunch of art revolutionaries were the world’s first petrol-heads.

Marinetti also preceded the popular relationship between the automobile and sex by several decades, fetishising the internal combustion engine as some kind of sexual organ: “the hungry automobiles began roaring under our window… we went up to the snorting beasts to lovingly caress their hot breasts”. He was saying: look at these machines and you will be amazed at how beautiful the future can be.

The Futurists made Italy fall head over heels in love with the machine and with the future it might offer. They were one of the fuses that triggered the explosion of interest in speed that became the country’s car and motorcycle industries. Marinetti is still revered in Italy for the part he played in firing the imaginations of the country’s grand old men of the combustion engine. A recent exhibition staged in Rome, ‘Art, Motorization and Society in 20th Century Italy’, focused on “the most significant moments in the history of speed in Italy: the Futurism of Marinetti, the birth of the great automobile companies…” Would names like Ferrari and Ducati have existed without Marinetti and his followers? Probably, but possibly not.

During the inter-war years companies like Gilera and Alfa Romeo (where Enzo Ferrari started out) were inspired by the Futurists’ worship of speed to design record-breaking bikes and cars, most of them looking more like rockets or fighter planes than street-going vehicles. Gilera built the seminal four-cylinder dohc Rondine (which reached 170mph using fighter plane-style aerodynamics) while Alfa created the 12-cylinder Gran Premio Tipo C. The faster, the more futuristic, the better, cried Marinetti.

Inevitably, the fire of Futurism soon spread beyond Italy’s borders. The Mercedes and Auto Union cars and DKW motorcycles that ruled much of motor sport before World War II all bore the mark of Futurism. To be fair, Marinetti had been inspired by 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – both men championed a hard, uncomfortable view of the future.

The Ducati brothers also fell under Futurism’s spell. Before WWII and before the company made motorcycles, Ducati manufactured a range of electronic goods created in the Futurist style that dominated Italian design and architecture of the 1930s. It’s worth noting that the Futurists were well ahead of the game in architecture, drawing fantastic skyscraper cityscapes before World War I, some years before Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. After WWII Italy’s iconic Vespa scooter carried Futurism into the 1950s and beyond.

Marinetti had a bad habit of taking his ideas to extremes. His idea of a perfect New Year’s Eve dinner was to cook up a storm in the kitchen while his guests waited, salivating at the delicious aromas. Then he would march into the dining room and announce that dinner would not be served, thus keeping his guests’ minds fixated on the future.

So far, so bonkers. But there was a darker side to these Italian radicals who created so much wonderful and important art. Marinetti and many of his followers were fascists. And their obsession with technology allowed them to be seduced by the latest military hardware, especially fighter planes and bombers. They believed that violence and war were good, the only way forward to what they considered social progress.

Their manifesto declared “we shall glorify war – that sole hygiene of the world”, and in 1914 Marinetti announced that WWI was “the most beautiful Futurist poem which has so far been seen”. During the years leading up to WWII he became a close acquaintance of Mussolini’s and sat on Italy’s first Fascist Council. Marinetti was a misogynist too, glorifying “a disdain of woman”.

Which makes Fiat Yamaha’s celebratory table mats seem rather surprising. It’s a dilemma, especially for an Italian-run team: do you abhor this bunch of woman-hating warmongers? Or do you acknowledge and celebrate the effect their ideas had on the world?

*****

Rossi threatens Ducati switch

Valentino Rossi has dropped the biggest hint yet that he might quit Yamaha. The MotoGP king has achieved huge success with the Japanese company but it now seems he is contemplating a risky move to Italian brand Ducati in 2011.

Rossi is talking defection because of his super-fast Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo; it would seem to be a case of ‘this team ain’t big enough for the both of us’.

But would Rossi be able to tame Ducati’s fiery Desmosedici, which has befuddled World Champions Marco Melandri, Nicky Hayden and Loris Capirossi?

Rossi’s former Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards is convinced the Italian could make any motorcycle work. “Valentino could ride anything,” says Edwards. “You could put the Ducati engine in a scooter chassis and he would figure out how to make it go fast.”

However, Lorenzo doesn’t believe Rossi is seriously considering leaving Yamaha. “To me, this is similar to a family, when you have a mum and two children,” he says. “One of the children says ‘I want more food’ or ‘I want more toys’, so mum brings more food or toys. In Spain we have a saying: ‘He who doesn’t cry, doesn’t eat’. This is what Valentino is doing.”

*****

Spies to take Toseland's Yamaha ride

Next year Ben Spies becomes the latest American Superbike ace to join the premier Grand Prix class. The Texan (below), who has taken the 2009 World Superbike series by storm, will ride for Yamaha’s MotoGP B-team in 2010 and is expected to move to the A-team when Valentino Rossi defects or retires.

Former US Superbike champ Spies follows an illustrious roll-call of American GP stars who learned their trade wrestling tuned-up street bikes in the US Superbike series. Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz – who dominated GPs from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s – all raced Superbikes then GP bikes.

Back then, the riding styles translated well, but that isn’t necessarily the case now, as proven by Britain’s WSB champ James Toseland, whom Spies is replacing. Toseland returns to Superbikes on the Yamaha R1 Spies has ridden so well this year.

MotoGP requires finesse, not aggression. Nevertheless, another former US Superbike champion who went on to conquer MotoGP believes Spies has what it takes. “I think Ben has got the talent and the determination to cut it in MotoGP,” says 2006 MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden. “But I don’t think he will come in and win the first few races like he did in Superbikes. It’s a different level here.”

Spies will make his Yamaha MotoGP debut at this year’s Valencia GP which closes the season on November 8.