By Manuel Pecino / Photos courtesy 2snap / Copyright restricted
When the 500cc race in the first edition of the World Speed Championship was held on June 7, 1949 on the Isle of Man, 35 of the 59 participants started crossed the finish line. The first five finishers in that first world competition were Anglo-Saxon. By the end of that first season, 14 riders had managed to score points over the six races held. Five of them were Italian and nine were British, including Leslie Graham, the first World Champion in the history of the main category.
Over the following 17 seasons, Her Majesty’s riders took 14 of the 500cc titles, a domination only cracked sporadically by Italian riders – Masetti and Liberati. Surprisingly, after Mike Hailwood’s triumph in the series in 1965, British motorcycling ascended down a slope and has never returned from it. The numbers speak for themselves: After Barry Sheene’s second 500cc title in 1977, ‘God Save the Queen’ has not played again to honor a World Champion in the biggest category…It’s been 42 years.
After Barry Sheene’s second 500cc title in 1977, ‘God Save the Queen’ has not played again to honor a World Champion in the biggest category…It’s been 42 years!
Throughout these four decades, the nationality of the protagonists first in 500cc and later in MotoGP changed. First these protagonists arrived from the other side of the Atlantic, from the United States followed by the wild Australians; Then came the Italians headed by Valentino Rossi, whose reign was taken from him by the Spaniards who currently control the championship.
But let’s go back to the Brits. What happened to them, where have they been all this time? Well, you can say they’ve been around. Some riders from the island were prominent over the years, although without ever being major protagonists. But as the old adage goes, “It went downhill from there” and in the case of British motorcycling in the GP, it did. So much so as to be on the verge of extinction …And I’m not kidding.
After frustrated attempts to make a place in MotoGP by Sam Lowes, Scott Redding and Bradley Smith, British motorcycling in the top class hangs by a thread. In 2020, the only representative among the elite of the elite will be veteran Cal Crutchlow, who at 34 years of age is plucking daisy petals deciding whether to continue competing at the end of the season or move to California, his chosen place of retirement. If his final decision is to hang up his suit, there will be no representative of the Union Jack in MotoGP.
To find the answer to ‘Where are the people who invented this?’ one merely needs to recall the phrase that Americans turn to when looking for answers to an apparent mystery: ‘Follow the money.’
And the British collapse doesn’t end there, because behind Crutchlow is no one. There is no racer in the lower categories, neither in Moto2 nor in Moto3, with the possibility of having a chance in MotoGP. It is a strange and paradoxical situation. Strange because the United Kingdom is still a country in which motorcycling is a sport that has faithful and knowledgeable followers, there is a big fan base; paradoxical because the British riders dominate, even tyrannize, the Superbike World Championship. So, the question of what has happened and what is happening to the Brits in MotoGP is a must.
The continent theory
Personally, I always thought that behind the “extinction” of the British in the World Championship was their islander’s philosophy, their world is on their island and the rest is just that – the rest. That leaving the island was not worth it, that they preferred to test each other on their own circuits. In fact, the BSB – British Superbike Championship – has been and continues to be the model for national championships. A championship where all manufacturers participate, with its own rules, with intense and exciting races and consequently with full circuits. And in my analysis, I imagined that this image made it economically more profitable for them to run at home than to go to the GPs.
But my theory, perfectly structured, is apparently in the opposite of reality. At least that is what Mat Oxley explained to me when I asked him to give me his point of view of the falling numbers of Anglos in the World Championship. Oxley is undoubtedly the most influential motorcycle racing journalist in England, so the credit his explanations warrant is complete.
And as almost always, to find the answer to ‘Where are the people who invented this?’ one merely needs to recall the phrase that Americans turn to when looking for answers to an apparent mystery: ‘Follow the money.’
Follow the money
“Yeah. The big problem in Britain is money,” says Oxley. “We enjoy a sport in which money is very important. In places like Spain and Italy where it’s a huge sport, there’s always money. Even if you not such a well-known rider, you can get like 200,000 Euros from somebody for a ride. In England, that’s impossible! Because for a long time now in Britain, people don’t care about motorcycles; they really don’t care. In Spain and Italy especially, and also now in southeast Asia, which are the big areas, everyone loves motorcycles. Everyone when they are twelve has a scooter and you know that once you’ve ridden a bike when you’re twelve, you are in love for the rest of your life. Even if you then go and get a car, you still love motorcycles. So, I think that is the basic difference. In Britain, being a motorcyclist is like being a second-class citizen … There is something a bit wrong with you ... How many British sponsors are there in MotoGP? None.”
“In Britain, being a motorcyclist is like being a second-class citizen … There is something a bit wrong with you … How many British sponsors are there in MotoGP? None,” Mat Oxley
Considering the words of our English colleague, this explanation seemingly does not fit with the massive presence of British riders in WSBK, a championship that has not only dominated for years but is constantly fed by young new riders coming from their championships. Oxley’s explanation of this is at least curious.
“I can tell you the reason it started. Like everything in motorcycle racing, it has to do with the world outside. In Britain in the early 1980s we had a big recession. Everybody was riding RG’s and TZ’s and then there was no money. All the motorbike shops closed down, all the sponsors stopped. They were like, okay. What do we do? They had something called Superstock, which was introduced in 1985 and was basically street bikes with loud pipes and slick tires. This suddenly became the big thing overnight. So when WSBK arrived in 1988, all the British were ready and jumped straight into it. This has been the path ever since, the natural path.
Cal [Crutchlow], he was very brave because he did one year in WSBK and then he moved to GPs. He took a total risk! For sure if he succeeded, he would make a lot of money and be very successful, but if he had not, he would have looked like a fool. Because in WSBK he had guaranteed money.”
The mirage of WSBK
Another idea that Oxley claims to be false is the idea that WSBK in England is what MotoGP is in Italy or Spain, where each GP fills the circuits. One imagines that the figure of Rea, WSBK World Champion in the last five editions, is equivalent in the Anglo-Saxon world to that of Valentino Rossi in Italy. But it seems that this is not the case. “The thing is that WSBK in Britain is not very popular with the fans. You go to Donington. Tom Sykes said he went a couple of years ago to a classic event at Donington and he said there were more spectators at the classic event watching Manx Nortons and everything, than there were at the WSBK round. Because of Rossi, MotoGP now is much bigger in Britain than WSBK. But BSB is also very successful as well.”
It has come to light the national championship, the BSB, a format that has been and I think is still a model for so many national federations. But here things apparently are also not what they seem. “There is no money in BSB. For sure the top four or five earn some money but the rest… There is no prize money, no start money, nothing! So in theory you could win every race and the title and not make one penny. Jonathan Palmer, the owner of MSV, the company that owns all the tracks, arrives at the races in his helicopter and tells all the riders he cannot afford to pay them…And then he takes off in his helicopter.”
The situation is paradoxical: WSBK is where the British riders are, and they are winning, but MotoGP is what interests motorcycle enthusiasts, which are many.
After listening to Mat, the situation is still paradoxical: WSBK is where the British riders are, and they are winning, but MotoGP is what interests motorcycle enthusiasts, which are many. “Exactly, we’re in this really weird situation. There is not enough money to go to the GPs, so you go to Supersport 600 and then Superbike. Somebody like Rory Skinner, he went to the GPs and he was good. He won the Moto3 Talent Cup last year… No one wanted to sponsor him … His phone didn’t ring, so I bought a 600 from a dealer and he’s now doing Supersport 600 and will probably go to WSBK.”
And the future?
We have reviewed the bright past of Anglo-Saxon motorcycling and explained its complicated present. But what about the future? “Since the late ‘80s, everyone goes to WSBK. Cal was brave enough and cocky enough to go and take a risk. Most of the riders don’t. They think, ‘I can go to WSBK and earn good money for four or five years, probably get a factory ride–in fact all the factory riders are pretty much British–or I can risk everything and go to MotoGP. Which would you do? I don’t know about Spain and Italy, in Britain motorcycle racing is a very working-class thing. So I think the people that do it, to them if they manage to have two million in the bank or three million in the bank they are sorted for life…You can have a nice enough life and you don’t have to worry.”
“And everybody goes on about Jonny Rea saying he deserves the MotoGP ride… Bullshit! No one deserves a MotoGP ride. No one. You have to go there and have balls and work for it. Cal came here. He risked everything. Johnny Rea should have done that four or five years ago. Go and ride for an independent team, prove yourself… You know what it’s like. You don’t even need the best results because the people who are watching, they see who is good. You can ride twelfth, they know… This is the problem, everyone prefers to go to their comfort zone and stay there.”
“Everybody goes on about Jonny Rea saying he deserves the MotoGP ride… Bullshit! No one deserves a MotoGP ride. No one. You have to go there and have balls and work for it. Cal came here. He risked everything.”, Mat Oxley
“Chaz Davies, for example. He tried here for many years and it was a nightmare. He got a shit Aprilia 125, a shit Aprilia 250 …As soon as he went to WSBK, a Factory Ducati. You can earn maybe half a million, one million a year. You do this for five years, you’re ready for life. If you chose to go to MotoGP… Look, I was trying to get the crash statistics out of WSBK but they were not very keen to give them to me. I know for sure that if you look at crash statistics for SBK and those of MotoGP the numbers are at completely different levels: MotoGP is up there, WSBK is much lower … It’s a big risk to come here.”
As you can see, Oxley is quite severe forceful when it comes to assessing British racers. He understands the human side of taking refuge in a comfort zone that allows them to secure a comfortable economic future, but as a fan of racing and an ex-rider, he is at the same time critical of the lack of spirit for sports improvement. Cal Crutchlow has been the exception, but the same goes for a Casey Stoner or a Jack Miller. Both left everything in Australia to pursue their dream. Both settled in the United Kingdom when they arrived in Europe. Both would have triumphed at BSB and then at WSBK, but both faced the challenge of winning a World Championship in the GPs instead of securing an economic future. For that, for the money without glory, they would not have left behind their country, their home, their family and their friends.