MotoGP’s longest winter (it wasn't this year)


It’s already six months since MotoGP went racing, but back in the day the racing winter sometimes lasted nine months

When (if) MotoGP 2020 roars into action at Jerez on July 19 it will have been eight months and two days since the grid last turned a wheel in anger.

That’s by far the longest time any of today’s riders have gone without racing their MotoGP bikes. It will therefore be interesting to see what effect this absence has on their riding, both mentally and physically. Will some of them have got stronger? Will some of them have got weaker? Will it shake up the status quo? And will there be more crashes than usual?

Last week Red Bull Formula 1 team principal Christian Horner predicted some chaos when (if) F1 starts its 2020 season at Red Bull Ring on July 5. “The drivers will all be rusty as hell and there will be some incidents,” he told The Guardian.

Until Covid-19 arrived, the modern world of sport and commerce had shrunk the racing winter into little over three months. The 2019 MotoGP championship ended on November 17 and this year’s was due to start on March 7, an interval of three months and three weeks. The shorter the winter the longer the summer and the longer the summer the more ice creams Dorna gets to sell, if you know what I mean.

By the end of the 1980s GP racing had changed forever. It had become a high-octane TV show: a petrolhead’s soap opera

Many years ago, a seven or eight-month winter was the norm. The last time riders had this much time off their GP bikes was during the winter of 1985 and 1986, when the offseason stretched from the San Marino GP in early September until the Spanish GP the following May, a break of eight months and three days.

The previous three world championship seasons – 1983, 1984 and 1985 – had kicked off in March at Kyalami, South Africa, but the event ran into difficulties and dropped off the 1986 calendar. To emphasise the passage of history, in those days factory Honda rider Takazumi Katayama had to get special dispensation from the South African government to compete at Kyalami, because he was a non-white.

Of course, back then, many riders raced before the GP season started and after it finished, doing a bit of moonlighting for some extra cash. The world-class racing season traditionally opened at Daytona in March, where riders could at least re-accustom themselves to riding race bikes at crazy speeds, even though the Floridian banking was nothing like a GP track.

Daytona in early March also served as a kind of final preseason test, although it didn’t always produce the desired results. In 1984 Freddie Spencer chased home ‘King’ Kenny Roberts in the Daytona 200, riding Honda’s first NSR500 – HRC’s blue-sky-thinking wonder with its fuel tank under the engine and the expansion chambers over the top. HRC also equipped the NSR with carbon-fibre wheels, a first in motorcycle racing.

That year’s South African GP took place two weeks after Daytona. Soon after practice got underway at Kyalami on Thursday morning (yes, Thursday) Spencer crashed, because his NSR500’s carbon-fibre rear wheel had collapsed. As Soichiro Honda once said, “Success is 99 per cent failure”.

Geoff Duke in the 1950 TT

Geoff Duke at the season-opening 1950 TT, nine months after the last GP

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The cause of the wheel breakage remained secret for many years. “After the 200 I said to Erv [Kanemoto, Spencer’s pit-lane guru] the rear end seemed a bit unstable in the last few laps,” Spencer told me recently. “We thought it was the tyre, but when the wheel broke at Kyalami we realised it must’ve been the wheel spokes fatiguing on the banking.”

The g-forces experienced while hurtling around Daytona’s 30-degree banking would’ve been many times greater than those encountered at any GP track.

During the 1980s the world championship grew from eight rounds in 1980 to 15 in 1989, which shrunk the off-season from eight months to six. This was the era of expanding TV networks and booming sponsorship deals. The two worked to their mutual benefit: TV stations wanted content, sponsors wanted their products on TV. So there were more races and more sponsorship; most of it from the tobacco industry, which by the end of the decade bankrolled most of the grid: Marlboro, Lucky Strike and Gauloises Yamahas, Rothmans, HB and Cabin Hondas.

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By the end of the 1980s GP racing had changed forever. It was no longer the Continental Circus: a bunch of racing gypsies struggling to put petrol in their fuel tanks and food in their mouths and hoping to stay alive. Instead it had become a high-octane TV show: a petrolhead’s soap opera, in which the millionaire masters of new-wave riding techniques competed to have the grandest motorhome.

The first two world championship seasons of 1949 and 1950 counted just six races, between June and September. The off-season between the final GP of 1949, at Monza on September 4, and the first round of 1950, on the Isle of Man, on June 10, lasted nine months and six days.

But that short GP season didn’t make for an easy life, far from it. To earn a crust most riders contested dozens of minor events, most of them round-the-houses races in towns throughout Europe, and just getting to the circuits through the war-torn landscape was a challenge.

“A lot of road signs were still full of bullet holes and the roads in France were still really rough and full of muck,” recalls Cecil Sandford, who raced his first GPs in 1950 and won MV Agusta’s first grand prix two years later.

Each era of grand-prix racing offers its own particular challenges to those working in the sport: safety, money, working conditions and so on.

If you speak to the mechanics – the people who literally make the wheels go around – they will tell you which eras were the most difficult: was it when there were ten GPs per season or is it now, with the championship originally planned to run over twice that many races?

Mechanics from the 1970s talk of working without electricity or running water and wondering where their next meal was coming from

Mechanics who tended GP bikes during the 1970s talk of the paddock camaraderie and the fun they had, but they also talk of the nightmare of fixing bikes in paddocks that were little better than fields, often working without electricity or running water and wondering where their next meal was coming from.

The 1980s – specifically the arrival of teams association IRTA – solved most of those problems, but as always in life, when you fix one problem another pops up.

I remember talking to renowned engineer Mike Sinclair during the 1999 GP season. Sinclair is best known for guiding Wayne Rainey to his three 500cc titles in the early 1990s, but the New Zealander had been working in the paddock since the 1970s, winning GPs with Pat Hennen, Randy Mamola and others.

He told me he was quitting at the end of the 16-round 1999 championship because the season was getting too long – for the first time it was about to drag itself into November. Sinclair is a keen windsurfer (these days he designs boards and fins) and he had decided that GP racing was making his life too one-dimensional – all bikes, no windsurfing – so he packed his laptop and went home to enjoy the waves.

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During that era of GP racing there was much more than 16 races going on. There were no rules telling teams how often they could go testing, so the factories went testing all the time: numerous times before the season, numerous times during the season and numerous times after the season. It all got too much for some paddock people, including Sinclair.

Nowadays there are even more races but much less testing. Ask any MotoGP mechanic who has been doing this job since the days when Sinclair was around and they will tell you that their working lives have never been better. They know their exact travel commitments before the season starts (COVID-19 permitting) and despite the extended calendar they get to spend more time at home. And when they do go to work they are looked after better and they never have their elbows in crankcases at 3am in the morning.

On the other hand we could still be racing at Christmas this year…

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