Entering the paddock at any World Championship event still sends a thrill of excitement through me every time I do it, though as a fellow - and far more experienced - journalist pointed out to me, perhaps that's because I've only been doing this for a couple of years. Yet the difference between entering the World Superbike paddock and the MotoGP paddock is huge, despite the fact that their core activity is absolutely identical: allowing brave young men (and in the case of the World Supersport paddock, one brave young woman) to go as fast as possible on two wheels.
There are the obvious differences, of course. The World Superbike paddock is a much friendlier, more relaxed place. Riders, team members and fans mingle freely - or as freely as the constraints of time and hard work required of the riders and teams allow. The fans are welcomed into the paddock, as paddock passes are on sale to the public, rather than only available through specialized resellers as part of VIP packages. The post-qualifying and post-race press conference takes place in the public WSBK tent, in the middle of the paddock, in front of a live crowd, rather than in the press room in the media center. And there are still plenty of teams who race out of the back of a van - albeit a large one - instead of a giant race truck.
The MotoGP paddock, on the other hand, is a more strictly regulated, but also more professional affair. Access is strictly controlled, with fans being scanned in and out using their barcoded passes, and bypassing the controls is almost - but not quite - impossible. Riders - at least, the MotoGP riders - are carefully kept away from the crowds, in a separate paddock-within-a-paddock, and shoot past autograph-hunting fans on their scooters, used to commute between their motorhomes, hospitality units and garages.
What the fans lose, the journalists gain, as the MotoGP paddock also has a well-organized round of press debriefs, which sees mostly middle-aged and largely overweight pressmen sprinting from hospitality to hospitality, to interrogate the top MotoGP riders about how their day went. If such a system exists in World Superbikes, I have yet to discover it, though honesty forces me to admit that I don't attend enough races to find out whether a similar system operates.
Which rather highlights my position in the WSBK paddock. Although still a long way from being a real MotoGP insider, I no longer have to introduce myself to everyone, and for the most part, the other journalists in the paddock treat me very much as a colleague, rather than an annoyance. I feel relatively at home there, and understand roughly what is going on.
Not so in WSBK. As a result of not showing my face in the paddock often enough - entirely my own fault - few people recognize me, and digging up news and arranging interviews is a good deal more complicated, having to first find out who I need to be asking, then going through the niceties of introducing myself and explaining what I do. Fortunately, the growing popularity of MotoMatters.com is such that teams and riders at least know and read the site.
It remains strange that the two paddocks should be so fundamentally different. But thinking about it, the way the series themselves are perceived reflects that difference. Arguments among fans continue to rage about which is the better of the two series, WSBK fans pointing out that the racing is closer and the outcome far harder to predict than in MotoGP. MotoGP fans counter that the premier class is exactly that, featuring the best riders on the best bikes, preferring the purity of the contest over the excitement of the racing.
It is a dilemma and a difference I know all to well, and something that continues to puzzle me. As much as I love World Superbikes, the series simply does not excite me like MotoGP does. My wife asked me today why that is, and I honestly could not provide a simple answer, or even an answer that makes sense. The racing in WSBK is undoubtedly closer, and certainly more robust, and the variety of bikes is also greater than that in MotoGP. Yet the bark of a MotoGP bike sends shivers down my spine, which the howl of an inline four simply does not do. There is no rationale, no reason, no logic, the choice really is that simple. Others disagree, and rightly so, for there are plenty of reasons for preferring WSBK to MotoGP.
Despite my personal preference, being in the World Superbike paddock is still a huge thrill. The bustle of mechanics, the howl of the bikes, the intensity and the passion of all those involved, there really is nothing quite like it. Whatever the flavor, motorcycle racing remains a fantastic sport.
For a taste of Friday in the World Superbike paddock, here's a few photos of the event. I am no Scott Jones, but at least my finger isn't in the way in too many of them.
The WSBK paddock at Assen is much emptier than last year, the biggest difference being in the number of teams in World Supersport. There are just 17 riders this year, down from nearly 30 in 2009. Whether that's due to Moto2 or not is a point which is being hotly debated.