It is a quarter of a century (ouch) since I visited my first United States Grand Prix in April 1988. That Laguna Seca event was historic because it was the first US GP since the 1965 races at Daytona. It was also historical because pit lane was nothing more than a row of flimsy tents, fluttering in the Monterey breeze, the timing sheets were cutely handwritten and the catering consisted of some nicely baked cakes, courtesy of a local women’s institute.
Behind the tents was a row of shipping containers, providing secure storage for team equipment. I seem to remember interviewing renowned tuner Erv Kanemoto while we were stood in the stifling heat in one of the containers. He may even have had a computer with him. Holy moly, a computer in the pitlane…
The Circuit of the Americas – venue for Sunday’s Grand Prix of the Americas – is a very different thing to 1980s Laguna: a gleaming, 21st century facility that probably spent more on toilet facilities than Laguna did on the entire race track.
So too were the riders very different at COTA. That 1988 US GP was dominated by homegrown heroes: Wayne Rainey took the 500 pole; Eddie Lawson won the race. John Kocinski took the 250 pole; Jim Filice won the race. I recall a slightly dazed Filice atop the podium – he was only there as a last-minute replacement for injured factory Honda rider Masahiro Shimizu – taking a crumpled piece of paper from inside his leathers and carefully thanking his sponsors, one by one, like an Oscar winner on an Oscar’s night, though without the tears.
At COTA there wasn’t a single American winner. Nicky Hayden was the top home-bred performer, in ninth in the MotoGP race. And there wasn’t a single American starter in the other two classes. The MotoGP podium was all Spanish, the Moto3 podium was all Spanish and the top two finishers in Moto2 were Spanish. Eight out of nine ain’t bad. The USA’s Grand Prix glory days are over, for the time being at least. Empires come and go, the Spanish know that better than most.
There’s a simple reason for this transatlantic shift in power: the jaw-dropping spectacle of riding sideways and twisting the tiger’s tail (as Steve McQueen once put it) has been overtaken by devastating corner speed and the jaw-dropping ability to lean so far that your elbows skim the tarmac.
Back in the 1970s some people loudly informed Californian King Kenny Roberts that his habit of dragging his knees on the tarmac suggested he was heading for an early grave. God only knows what they would have made of COTA winner Marc Márquez, who scuffs his elbows on the tarmac at pretty much every corner and looks like the next thing he will get down is the chin piece of his helmet.
As 1993 500 world champ Kevin Schwantz put it: “I remember the first time I dragged my knee it scared me, I can’t even imagine dragging my elbow!”
Márquez the Magnificent was breathtaking to behold all weekend, dancing with delight on the very edge of disaster and carving his own little piece of history in the Texan tarmac with his magnesium elbow sliders. On Saturday he became the youngest rider to take pole position in a premier-class GP and on Sunday he became the youngest rider to win a race, stealing both records from ‘Fast’ Freddie Spencer who exerted a similar spell on the GP circus when he arrived in 1982 as a callow 20-year-old.
The sublimely talented Spencer wasn’t at COTA. Instead he was nearing the end of a European classics tour and was staying in Imola, Italy, where he finally defeated Roberts in their unforgettable battle for the 1983 500 world title. Fast Freddie watched the sublimely talented Márquez win the race on a hotel TV and was suitably impressed. With a hint of understatement, he described the youngster’s riding style as “exciting”.
Spencer must see a lot of his young self in Márquez and he must’ve felt rather old watching the 20-year-old go about his business. So too, I think, did Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, who finished second and third at COTA. Pedrosa was contesting his 118th MotoGP race, Lorenzo his 87th, Márquez his second. In the post-race press conference they looked like two men who had seen the writing on the wall: somewhat dumbfounded and wondering at the meaning of it all.
Lorenzo certainly sounded like an old man when he explained Márquez’s advantage. “When you are a rookie, it’s different,” he said. “You have a lot of hunger and you’re not afraid you crash.”
The even older Valentino Rossi had seen it all before – young guns sneaking up behind him and stealing his thunder. He already knew the writing was on the wall before the season got underway.
“Márquez is learning fast,” he said a few weeks ago. “So we need to f**k him now, because later in the year it will be too late.”
It’s only April and it already seems too late.
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