Gordon Ritchie has covered World Superbikes for over a quarter of a century, and is widely regarded as the world's leading journalist on the series. MotoMatters.com is delighted to be hosting a monthly blog by Ritchie. The full blog will be available each month for MotoMatters.com subscribers. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here. This month's blog has been published for non-subscribers as well, as it addresses an important subject, and is in part a reply to an article by respected Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino. If you would like to read all of Gordo's columns in full, make sure you subscribe.
New season looming, same old story. Where are the indicators of new/young British talent coming from in the MotoGP entry list? Actually, in WorldSBK too, which is the point I would finally like to address.
Let me be clear that this column was going to be about something else entirely this month until a wander through the Twittersphere pointed my curiosity in the direction of old friends and colleagues, Mat Oxley and Manuel Pecino. Few racing journalists are as respected as these guys, each with decades of cutting-edge MotoGP scribing and insight behind them.
I was hooked even before I followed the link to read the pecinogp.com story asking – from a Spanish perspective and using Mat as their British conduit - where were the British riders going to come from now in the top MotoGP class?
You can understand the curiosity. There are hardly hordes of Anglo-Saxon/Celtic Fringe Brits about to supplant proven MotoGP race winner Cal Crutchlow on the biggest podiums of all.
In this utterly engaging and hard-hitting feature story a lot was made about WorldSBK riders and their lack of ambition to go to MotoGP. Or even bravery and commitment to that end. I think that part needs evaluation from a perspective inside the WorldSBK paddock itself.
Virtually every top WorldSBK rider would love to go and give MotoGP a right good rattle. I know because I have talked to them at every WorldSBK race, and most tests, since 1999.
Jonathan Rea hung on too long in a Honda ride in WorldSBK, in part to finally get a winning Fireblade under him, but also a decent MotoGP bike somewhere at the end of it. That good GP ride was never truly forthcoming, and when he left the Honda WorldSBK camp he was already 27. Kawasaki, his five-time championship collaborators since then, do not have a MotoGP arm and his attempts to get into GPs on a package fit to make an impact - against people who have been trained for that specific GP role since they were children - have been rebuffed.
Chaz Davies, contrary to some reports, had a very tough introduction to production-based racing after his tough early GP career. First in the USA, then on a Triumph in World Supersport - for two years - then a WorldSSP championship winning Yamaha. His WorldSBK apprenticeship began on a privateer Aprilia, a not quite factory BMW and then finally a real Ducati V-twin works bike. He’ll never get a good chance to go to MotoGP now. Be he always did want to go back to his point of racing origin.
After Chaz won a famous WorldSBK double right under the top management noses at Imola one year, I sought him out for his one-to-one reaction, from inside his rider cabin. Even before the door had shut behind me Chaz was - pretty much unbidden – speaking about testing a MotoGP bike, getting a ride on a Ducati MotoGP bike… He never got it.
The WorldSBK paddock is laden with MotoGP wannabes, which is no surprise given that 500GPs/MotoGP has always been the top level of the sport.
Look at Carl Fogarty, who said at the enforced end of his one-time GOAT WorldSBK career that his only regret was not going to GPs. The few 500 races he did seemed very impressive for the most part, but the entire MotoGP world seemed negative about them. Maybe his awkwardly-shaped character at that time was not a warm and snug enough fit for anybody’s MotoGP jigsaw puzzle. MotoGP has loved Cal Crutchlow’s outspoken cockiness as well as his exuberant riding but back then a similarly mouthy and forthright Fogarty was much less attractive.
A whole generation of post Sheene British MotoGP riders, partly due to the whole tail-steering, dirt-tracking tech and tyre focus at that time, tried hard but failed to win even one MotoGP race, and that poisoned the well for most who came after. WorldSBK, as Mat and Manuel stated, became the only game in town for most British riders, as production-based four-strokes took over all over.
The advent of four stroke prototypes into MotoGP in the new millennium had many effects but for the first time it closely aligned the world of MotoGP and WorldSBK. In theory this made for a stronger, wider, rainbow bridge from 1000cc WorldSBK directly into the highest reaches of MotoGP’s 990cc paradise.
It was not that way for most British riders, and WorldSBK riders in general. The Rossi revolution, Increasing Iberification via Spanish GP talents with piles of Spanish backers, set up for year-upon-year of GP slots, meant that strong MotoGP racing opportunities proved elusive for most of the Brits. And as every WorldSBK rider knows, some through bitter experience, unless you go up to MotoGP on at least a favoured satellite bike, you will toil and be written off early. It can be a career wrecker.
Even the half decent beginners slots in MotoGP have been closed off to the best British WorldSBK riders recently, but the Brits have always been given a fair shake in WorldSBK and dominated it for years as a result.
Merely getting the chance to go MotoGP is not the only issue for British riders. So is staying there long enough to learn – as they surely must after taking a big step up – before they can make an impression against the best riders in the world. And a strong argument can be made that (other than Crutchlow) the ‘wrong’ British riders were given those chances, from within MotoGP and without.
Nobody ‘deserves’ a MotoGP ride, of course – even some of the ambitious people who end up getting them - but as far as the British riders are concerned, it is noticeable that the one who has really made a contemporary impact is the one who came from a BSB/WorldSSP/WorldSBK background. Not the ones who had been grown through the various MotoGP systems/Spanish bases/junior GP classes. Maybe this should light up interest in WorldSBK’s Brits, but they have been very faint traces on anybody’s radar in MotoGP.
Dorna own both major series but have made no ground in boosting WorldSBK’s rep inside MotoGP, or simply placing WorldSBK riders into MotoGP. But then again, MotoGP has got WorldSBK in its pocket already and that is all that seems to matter, in reality.
Having the desire to step up from WorldSBK to MotoGP is one important thing, and of course Crutchlow really wanted to go to MotoGP as much as any rider ever did. But it is important to remember that when he went he was eventually supported by his WorldSBK manufacturer Yamaha and some very important sponsors. Three years on a satellite Yamaha? Any WorldSBK rider would have taken that. None of them would get that opportunity now.
Seriously, which British WorldSBK rider, younger or older, is in a position to go to MotoGP with anything like that calibre of bullets in his career gun? Crutchlow has been the exception, and not just because his results can be exceptional.
All of the above has not been lost on WorldSBK’s Brits. Knowing you are going to MotoGP from WorldSBK without exactly the right tools – and crucial manufacturer/team belief in you – is a risk that has a very small chance of paying off. More of a cliff edge than a climbing wall. Nobody deserves to get a MotoGP ride, of course, but nobody in MotoGP is looking at hiring anybody from WorldSBK anyway.
So the next top Brit in MotoGP…? Is neither MotoGP nurtured nor a current WorldSBK rider. Looks at that way, from this point at least.
Where the next top WorldSBK Brits are coming from is also nearly as pressing a question as the impending Brit-free MotoGP vacuum. New WorldSBK stars are not coming from BSB either, it seems. There have been few young British riders coming along behind the recent ‘golden generation’ in WorldSBK. Alex Lowes, with his one win and 20 podiums from 166 race starts, arrived in WorldSBK In 2014 as a youngish new recruit.
Really, if there is another potential Rea coming along from the British Superbike scene now (which is only interested in its own show and cares nothing about promoting its riding talents into WorldSBK) please prove it to me by coming over to WorldSBK and making an impact. I will eat my humble pie gladly. The gap in level from BSB to WorldSBK is arguably as great as from WorldSBK to MotoGP, and precious few British riders are even keen to come to WorldSBK any more. The door is always open, as MotoGP born-and-bred Scott Redding, last year’s BSB Champion, has just found out.
The real missing link from BSB to WorldSBK progression - apart from the Little Islander idea that BSB is bigger/better/more open than WorldSBK - is lack of relevant rider training for world-level success. Electronics, and how to maximise their effect with your pit crew, are an integral part of WorldSBK and MotoGP racing.
BSB riders are receiving precisely no training in how to ride like that, to win races in the pitbox as much as on the track. Unless you are Márquez, M., you have to engage with a whole bike set-up side to win on a global level.
Easy for a fast British Superbike rider to come to WorldSBK and find their talent blunted, for a while at least, on the rocks of increasing TC/engine braking/mapping factors. It took Alex Lowes maybe two seasons and much butting of heads to adapt his riding approach in WorldSBK. But he rode to third in the championship and first Yamaha home in 2019.
The next young British rider to be forged in the crucibles of Cadwell, Thruxton and Snetterton, and possessing the ‘balls’ to go to WorldSBK, will have to relearn one entire approach to riding, while running at a higher level than BSB from day one, whatever they think back home.
Not only are British riders not being encouraged to race in WorldSBK, they are also not being trained in the pathways of riding MotoGP/WorldSBK machinery. Which is deeply unfortunate for the future of WorldSBK and for the increasingly ephemeral idea of finding the next Crutchlow for MotoGP via WorldSBK.
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