Motorcycles: September 2018

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Why Silverstone is the best host for the British MotoGP round and why a home rider has a genuine chance of winning the race

Silverstone hosted its first car event 70 years ago this October and its first motorcycle meeting 12 months later. Appropriately the feature 500cc race was won by Les Graham, who had spent the war years as an RAF bomber pilot and had recently secured the inaugural 500cc world championship aboard a twin-cylinder AJS.

On that day Graham established the track’s first motorcycle lap record, at 90.05mph. This was impressive stuff from a 50-horsepower motorcycle, especially because the Isle of Man TT lap record, broken by Graham a few months earlier, stood at 88.7mph. The current TT record stands at 135.4mph.

In other words, Silverstone was mega-fast.

The original bike circuit layout – all eight corners of it – was a wonder of huge, sweeping curves, with not a chicane in sight. By the time the British Motorcycle Grand Prix moved to Donington in 1987, the 500cc two-strokes were averaging 119.5mph.

When the British Grand Prix returned to Northamptonshire in 2010 the track layout was very different, but still very fast. The lap record now stands at 108.6mph; which makes Silverstone MotoGP’s fourth quickest venue. What makes the circuit a real challenge is the giddying mix of very fast and very slow corners that requires riders to change their technique several times each lap: braking very deep into the slower turns and carrying maximum speed through the faster corners.

Silverstone is (excuse me, ladies) a big-balls racetrack, where riders must push the risk/reward ratio as far as it will go if they want to get anywhere near the front. Its fastest corners require plenty of commitment and bravery. And some of them are so quick that they scare the world’s fastest riders.

I’ve only twice heard Marc Márquez admit to being frightened during his MotoGP career. The first time was when he crashed at 209mph at Mugello in 2013. The second occasion was during practice at Silverstone in 2014, when cool conditions and strong winds made life tricky. “The first sector is a little scary,” he said. “With the wind and the bumps, everything becomes a little crazy.”

That’s what I want to hear from riders – that they are being pushed to their mental and physical limits. Not many other MotoGP circuits do this. Places like Valencia are little more than glorified kart tracks. If you want to see a MotoGP rider unleashing the full potential of his 260bhp motorcycle and riding “with his nuts on fire and a silent scream in his throat” (to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson) you need to watch at Silverstone, Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen or Brno.

These are the last of MotoGP’s old-school, rock and roll racing circuits, where riders don’t spend most of the lap in second and third gears.

Fast, open layouts don’t only demand the maximum from riders, they also create the best racing, because there’s room for a variety of lines and there’s room for drafting. The average winning advantage in the last five MotoGP races at Silverstone was 1.4sec. The average gap in the last five races at Donington was 5.1sec, which is why I’m glad Silverstone won the battle with Donington to host the British GP until 2020.

Some fans complain that Silverstone isn’t great for spectating, pointing out that when they visit Valencia they can see the entire lap from any vantage point. To me, these people are missing the whole point of motor sport. I’d much rather see a high-speed dogfight zooming past me once a lap than watch every corner of a low-speed procession.

I have fond memories of my earliest visit to Silverstone for the very first British Motorcycle Grand Prix in 1977. Previously, Britain’s world championship rounds had been staged on the Isle of Man, but the TT was struck from the series following the 1976 event, due to safety concerns. Eight riders had lost their lives at the TT during the previous five years.

Silverstone’s spectator facilities were very rudimentary in the 1970s. In fact, the word facilities is an exaggeration in itself (OED: “a service offered which gives the opportunity to benefit from something). I camped at the so-called campsite near Stowe, where drunken, mud-caked fans pulled wheelies among the tents and burned the site office to the ground in the early hours of Sunday morning. I spent most of the weekend spectating at Stowe, ankle deep in empty beer cans.

I only saw the action once a lap – no giant TV screens back then – but what action: two Britons leading on the last lap and both crashing out, gifting victory to Barry Sheene’s team-mate Pat Hennen. Sheene had started the race from pole but retired in a cloud of steam, his Suzuki RG500 stricken by a blown head gasket. The reigning world champion was so angry he rode into his pit so fast that he bent the RG’s front forks against the back wall of the garage.

Home-race victory was one of the few things Sheene failed to achieve during his career. Indeed no British rider has ever won a premier-class British Grand Prix. Which brings us to Cal Crutchlow. The Coventry-born former World Supersport champion has already won a race this season and two years ago finished a close second at Silverstone, winning an entertaining dogfight with Márquez and Valentino Rossi. He is now a fully paid-up HRC rider, so he gets 99 per cent the same bike as Márquez. This is especially crucial this year because HRC made major improvements to its RC213V during the winter, making the bike both faster and easier to ride. Crutchlow now races consistently at the front – when he doesn’t overdo it – and he loves the Silverstone layout. If he has a good weekend, there’s no reason he won’t be in the race for victory on August 26.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner