At last year’s season-ending Valencia GP, Scott Redding completed a circle started half a century ago: he leaned so far through a corner that his helmet kissed the road. The young Briton reached this mind-boggling landmark in practice for the sheer hell of it (sadly, no one caught it on camera), but his little joke is surely the end of a long-running game between bike racers: who can get what on the ground, without crashing.
Mike Hailwood may not have been the first rider to scrape his boots on Tarmac, but he was the first to draw blood from his toes when he wore right through the leather. This was the 1960s, when lean angles reached 45 degrees.
Next it was knees. ‘King’ Kenny Roberts first got his knees down in the 1970s after watching Finnish maestro Jarno Saarinen, who understood that shifting his body to the inside made the bike turn more quickly and allowed him to corner faster without riding off the tyres’ edge. Roberts’ new trick didn’t amuse everyone, especially well-known maniac Art Baumann, as Roberts recalls. “Baumann came into the pits and said you’re going to kill yourself – you’re the craziest sonofabitch I ever seen in my life and you’re gonna die!”
Roberts didn’t die. What he did was apply layers of duct tape to his leathers so he could skate through corners, using his knees as out-riggers. He went on to win three world titles. At about the same time fellow American Mike Baldwin won the nickname ‘Bloody Boots Baldwin’ from riders who’d had their visors spattered in blood while giving chase. Baldwin was slow to realise he could save his skin by shifting his feet back onto the footpegs.
Baumann wasn’t alone in his contempt for these wild new antics. Legends of the 1950s and 1960s such as Geoff Duke and John Surtees criticised this aggressive new riding style for its lack of grace. But time and tyre development wait for no man: you either adapt or you get left behind.
Purpose-made knee-sliders first appeared in 1981 – early examples used football studs, then leather came into vogue, then plastic.
At first a good set of sliders would last a whole season; now they get ground to dust in minutes.
“I use a new pair of knee-sliders every practice, every warm-up, every race,” says Valentino Rossi, “I think we use the knee 30 per cent more than we did 15 years ago. We even use double-thick sliders because one slider won’t last a race.”
Three-time world superbike champion Troy Bayliss took knee sliders to the next level – he fitted titanium inserts as a weapon of distraction. Anyone who got too close to the hard-riding Australian was showered in sparks. “That bugged the s**t out of me,” says Bayliss’s great WSB rival Colin Edwards. “You just thought he’s gonna crash every other corner when he had those sparks coming off.” Not surprisingly, titanium sliders were banned.
In the early 1990s, Mick Doohan, the predecessor to Rossi’s crown, started dragging his entire lower leg on the road, requiring boot manufacturers to attach replaceable sliders to the calf area, as well as to the toes.
Although reigning MotoGP king Marc Márquez was the first to use magnesium elbow sliders a couple of years ago, the first racer regularly to drag his elbows was 1980s French star Jean-Philippe Ruggia, who hunched over the front of his bike, extending his elbows towards the road. He was fast but accident-prone, so his technique never caught on.
Only in the past few years has tyre technology reached the point where all the top riders can scrape their elbows, with their shoulders often kissing the kerb at the same time. Márquez started out using plastic elbow sliders, but these soon proved inadequate because they wore out in half a dozen laps. This is a greater concern than a worn-out knee-slider, because catching elbow leather on the road at 63 degrees of lean would spell disaster. Instead, Márquez uses his metal elbow sliders as an extra set of out-riggers.
There comes an irony with ever-increasing lean angles: riders use so much lean angle now that there’s very little room between bike and road, so they must tuck in their knees, rather like their forebears did in the 1960s. That might be one reason why MotoGP tyre supplier Bridgestone believes lean angles will not go much farther.
What is it about the British GP? After years of Formula 1 agony, it is now the turn of the UK’s motorcycle GP to be dogged by chaos. Last year Silverstone lost the event to the Circuit of Wales, which had signed a 10-year contract with rights-holder Dorna, despite the fact that work hadn’t even started on the site outside Ebbw Vale.
CoW’s plan was to run its 2015 event at Donington Park while work went ahead, but the two parties fell out over the cost of resurfacing, which had been demanded by Dorna as a requirement for homologation. That left CoW with only one place to go – back to Silverstone, the only British circuit currently homologated for MotoGP.
The Northants track, which inherited Britain’s round of the world championship in 1976, after the Isle of Man TT was deemed too dangerous, hosted the race until 1986 and again from 2010. Now it is expected to hold it for at least the next two years.
Most riders are delighted the British GP is returning to Silverstone because the track is challenging; indeed it’s MotoGP’s second-fastest venue after Phillip Island in Australia.
And the CoW? People behind the project insist it will go ahead, but the latest ructions surely raise doubts about its future.