Mat Oxley

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“It was dangerous but great”

Lately there has been much talk about safety in MotoGP. Even before Andrea Iannone’s Ducati reached 224mph during June’s Italian Grand Prix, the people in charge had decided bikes must be slowed down.

In the old days the safety focus was elsewhere – on the tracks. During the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, one by one the grand old tracks of old were deemed unsafe for motorcycle Grand Prix racing. Many of them, quite rightly; others, perhaps rightly but sadly.

After 1994 the sport quit Austria’s Salzburgring, a wonderful but perilous racetrack that had claimed several lives. Ironically, many of the riders who agreed with removing the track from the championship now find their memories buzzing with vivid recollections; rather like remembering a long-lost, dangerous girlfriend who gave you thrills you will take to the grave.

The Salzburgring is Sound of Music picturesque, with several hundred feet of craggy rock overhanging the start and, across the valley, a mountainside filled by an army of fans, looking rather like a horde of Sioux about to descend upon a cowboy encampment.

The track runs along the valley floor before curling back on itself and climbing the valley’s north side at ever-increasing speed along a curving back ‘straight’ (above, with Mick Doohan leading Kevin Schwantz). At the track’s highest, fastest point the road veers gently left and right before plunging right into the fourth-gear Fahrerlagerkurve.

It is that left/right kink that still reverberates in the memories of legends such as Doohan, Schwantz and Wayne Rainey. All these world champions raced at the Salzburgring at the peak of the 500cc two-strokes’ wickedness.

“The Salzburgring had my all-time favourite corner – where you came over the top of the hill overlooking the pits,” says Doohan, who won five consecutive 500 titles with Honda during the Nineties. “I know it was dangerous but to me it was everything racing is about.

“You’re in sixth gear at more than 300kph. The bike is just about revving out and it doesn’t want to turn left or right. You flick it left and you run past the grass bank really fast. As you go through the left you’re over the brow of the hill and the track starts to fall away and there’s a little dip there, too. The bike also unloads the suspension as you go from one angle of lean to the other. The steering suddenly goes light and the back end breaks away – the whole bike is loose. It’s sliding at close to top speed, then while that’s happening you knock it down two gears for the next right. For me, riding a bike like that at those speeds is why I liked racing.”

Whenever I covered races at the Salzburgring I’d scramble up the steep hillside and literally hang on to the Armco at that exact point to watch Doohan and the rest do their thing. The bikes rocketed past just yards away, making the eeriest sound as they punched aside air that then bounced back at you off the mountainside.

Schwantz, like Doohan and Rainey, wasn’t above going on strike when he considered conditions to be too unsafe at a GP. But like Doohan, the thrill of that Austrian Alpine ride is burned deep into his consciousness, precisely because it was so dangerous.

“The reason I liked it so much was that you were leaning on the grass through the left and the guardrail on the right, probably certain death if anything were to go wrong,” says the former Suzuki rider, who won his only 500 world title in the Salzburgring’s final year as a Grand Prix venue. “There was guardrail everywhere, so you were running in a tunnel. You knew if you made a mistake it was going to cost you.

“But if the bike was working right, I’d try harder through there than most places because it was usually a frustrating run up the hill, where I’d be doing everything to hang in the draft of the Hondas. In corners like that, if you did them better than the guy who was either in front of you or behind you, either you created a passing opportunity into the next right-hander, or eliminated a passing opportunity for them.”

Irony upon irony, just a few months before the Salzburgring’s final GP, Rainey crashed into an expansive gravel trap at Misano and was paralysed from the chest down. But even he has fond memories of the lethal Salzburgring.

“It was dangerous but it was great,” says the Californian who won three 500 titles at the start of the 1990s. “There was a fascination about that 160mph left/right at the top of the hill. It was awesome, it was fun, it was good.”

Silverstone has lost the British MotoGP to a new venue that is currently virgin countryside near former steel and mining town Ebbw Vale.

MotoGP rights-holders Dorna has signed a long-term contract with the Circuit of Wales from 2015, even though the track is highly unlikely to be completed until the following year. That left CoW to negotiate with Britain’s only two MotoGP-homologated tracks – Silverstone and Donington Park – to decide the site of the 2015 event. Since Silverstone had protested about CoW’s efforts to fund part of its £300 million development with government money, the outcome of those negotiations was always inevitable. Donington therefore regains the event it staged for 23 years between 1987 and 2009, although some work still needs to be completed to allow the Midlands track to host MotoGP.

The Circuit of Wales estimates that its venue will create 6000 jobs and bring 750,000 visitors to the area annually.

Circuit of Wales design story – p114

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