Nuclear over-reactors

This month’s Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix at Motegi will go ahead despite the best efforts of the MotoGP elite. Riders’ strikes – or attempted strikes – are nothing new in bike racing, it’s merely the grievances that change.

In the past, riders usually withheld their services because they wanted more prize money or because they were rightly fearful of tumbling headfirst into a trackside wall at any of the World Championship’s many lethal race circuits. This time it’s a different concern: fear of radioactive contamination from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, 70 miles from Motegi.

This latest attempt at a strike is the first since the 1980s, when aggravation between the riders and the people in charge was commonplace. I was at Nogaro in ’82 when the stars – led by Barry Sheene in his Rolls-Royce – went home halfway through practice, complaining of slum-like paddock conditions and a wreck of a track that the promoters were still fixing during first practice.

I watched in amazement as workmen calmly painted the grid while motorcycles sped past either side, the two separated by a few traffic cones. On race morning, fans arriving at the track weren’t happy that their heroes had gone home, so they tore down the gates and enjoyed what was left of the racing for free.

The last strike – at Misano in ’89 – was another step on that long journey towards racing only at safer venues. The track was like an ice rink in the wet, so when the race started and the heavens opened the riders rode back to the pits. The race was then restarted in heavy rain, the factory stars sheltering in the pits while the hard-up privateers grabbed a rare opportunity to earn some proper prize money. The rebels – Kevin Schwantz, Wayne rRiney et al – jeered the ‘scabs’ from the sidelines. Not a pretty sight.

That is always the problem in these situations – establishing unanimous support for action. The fastest, richest riders are more likely to be confident in withholding their services, because they know that if they get sacked someone else will give them a job, but the lower order riders are less so.

The most vocal supporters of a Motegi boycott have indeed been this year’s fastest riders – Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo – but no one has covered themselves in glory over this episode.

A few months ago Stoner was sure of his intentions. “I… will… not… go,” he said in read-my-lips style. Lorenzo was also insistent, but looked foolish in announcing his decision. He told us he’d seen a Spanish TV documentary about Chernobyl and was thus too scared to visit motegi, which prompted this question from a quick-witted colleague: Jorge, does that mean if you watch a vampire movie you’ll be too scared to race in the dark in Qatar next year?

Rightly or wrongly, the would-be strikers – most of the MotoGP grid – have been branded wimps by some people. Others have accused them of hypocrisy. While many of the stars wear ‘with you Japan’ stickers in support of the disaster-hit nation, they are crying off performing there, despite the publication of an independent report giving the region the all-clear and despite the Indycar series racing at motegi in September.

The tone of most of the riders changed in recent weeks, almost certainly as a result of the Japanese factories exerting pressure on their star employees to attend what is arguably MotoGP’s home race. When Stoner began to equivocate, saying he had studied the relevant documents, cynics suggested the document in question wasn’t the radiation report but rather his HRC contract.

Being who he is, and being an employee of an Italian manufacturer, Valentino Rossi used this moment to cause maximum discomiture for Stoner and Lorenzo. He waited until their resolve was crumbling and then announced that he really didn’t think he would go, leaving his bitterest enemies between a rock and a hard place. When he retires, Rossi should run for the Italian presidency – he’s as perfect a machiavellian as can be.

Mat Oxley