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.
With the racing world in turmoil due to the coronavirus outbreak (just like the rest of the world) we decided to publish this blog in full for all readers, rather than just for subscribers.
Poor old WorldSBK, it just cannot seem to catch a break, can it? After one of the most remarkable opening rounds in its 30-plus years of history, laden with close racing, human drama and an entirely positive outlook from both within and without the paddock, the post-Phillip Island WorldSBK posse was looking forward to another triple-header of high velocity brawls two weekends later, at Losail in Qatar. The MotoGP guys would even sweep the dustbowl track clear for us one week before, so everybody would be primed, ready and able to show the same kind of close formation action at another fast circuit so very soon after the classic opener in Australia.
And now we are facing an immediate future that may feature no racing whatsoever. Maybe even nationally, not just for those who have to cross borders and fly on scheduled airlines all over the place to joust with each other on two wheels. The TT, we hear, has just been canned for 2020.
It must be so frustrating for the fans, especially after the season started with such a gladiatorial series of chariot races at Phillip Island. Waking up on Monday morning afterwards with such a warm and fuzzy feeling was the motorsport version of post-coital euphoria. And we’ll leave that kind of talk right there from now on.
But you get my drift if you saw any of it. A beaming WorldSBK glow was truly back, even if reality reminds us that PI always tends to provide close finishes and some weird results. But this year did feel different and there seems to be no reason why all the riders who battled for podium places on many different machines there could not carry on in a strong vein at most of not all circuits.
Taking the positives
The positive indicators were many. Toprak Razgatlioglu won first time out on the new 2020 Yamaha at a track he has never really finished so well at in the past. Michael Van der Mark never scored a podium in PI but was so close he could have also won all three races. Jonathan Rea overcame personal loss at home to win the sprint race on Sunday after his race one mega-crash on Saturday. A couple of hours later he then witnessed his new teammate Alex Lowes beat him audaciously, to turn the former BSB-champion’s frustrating winter test experiences into a glorious springtime start. He’s leading the championship, no less.
Even the all-new Hondas of Haslam and Bautista were right there at times, so should be fully competitive long term. And topping everything off with crimson sugar candy, Scott Redding and Ducati showed that the post-Bautista season would deliver instant success in the form of three strong third places, all hard fought and confidently taken.
It was all so invigorating and bursting with good Karma that the watching world was energised even as their nerve-endings were overworked. Roll on Round Two!
From there on in, however, the news just got worse and worse. Even though the whole WorldSBK championship could have stayed outside the imminent travel lock downs and quarantine measures in Europe - by simply not returning home in between the two opening rounds - the WorldSBK event at Losail was finally cancelled.
By an unavoidable external reality. Get used to it.
In the period right after PI there was a mixture of both feelings and facts affecting everyone’s consciousness as we all waited to see what was coming next from the powers that be. Both in the real world and within our own much smaller one.
Waiting for clarity, while I was in the astoundingly fortunate position of riding Adventure-style motorcycles around some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Aussie state of Victoria, I was still working in the evenings, albeit with one eye on the newsfeeds. It all felt like watching an old clockwork mechanism struggle through treacle.
And yet deep down we all realised that factors beyond racing’s control were accelerating our imminent dreams of more glorious action away from us so swiftly it was like they were riding pillion on a 2019 V4R with some small Spanish bloke clicking hard through the gears.
In those few days after PI, and in all the ones since then, people you never thought would use that kind of language in a public arena have been carpet-bombing us with the C-word. Coronavirus, which has had an unspeakable effect on every aspect of human life already, is spreading like the contagion it is.
People are, literally, dying all over - even if a small percentage of those who get infected. Some are also getting sick in a fashion that will have significant effects on our societies’ functioning at any level of normality. Especially for intensive health care provision. The human tragedies, individual and more broadly, are the only stories that matter. The health of human beings all over the planet transcends any other comment or action that can be taken, so our perceptions of what is truly important have to be reset.
In the absence of a Losail WorldSBK weekend to talk about here’s some more racing chat to while away the long hours of self-isolation. Something to read about racing while the racing itself fails to happen.
Even the MotoGP monolith has never felt so small as it has right now; the next-level WorldSBK championship I work in even more so. Nor have all we powered-two-wheeler petrol heads missed the racing weekends so much.
The blow to the spirit of competition is especially ill timed, coming as it has just after the two big global road racing championships have come out of winter hibernation. No MotoGP class racing at all so far, but good on the Moto2 and Moto3 superstars for shining in the desert. And of course the Superbike fairing-bashers coated in dust from a distant sun in Australia.
The WorldSBK championship has now had a mini calendar re-shuffle, with Jerez becoming the final round of the year, in very late October. Magny Cours has shifted one week closer to Christmas to make way for the rearranged MotoGP calendar, while the postponed Qatar WorldSBK weekend… May be very, very postponed.
In theory, we WorldSBK types next get together with two metres of space between each other at the always-awesome Assen. I certainly hope so anyway, as I just booked a flight there for April 17-19. As have others maybe, from every one of the many more significant jobs and roles than mine that make racing inside WorldSBK happen.
Given that they are just closing Europe off from most other places this £135 gamble on an economy seat with a well-known Dutch airline may have been foolhardy on my behalf, but if the event is on, I will be going. Writing about WorldSBK racing is what Gordon Ritchie Enterprises Incorporated does for a living, and has done for more than 20 years. So unless I want to bail on my entire career I need to go to the races. Some of my clients insist on it, in fact.
Not everybody does all the races anymore but I have clung on to the quaintly old-fashioned idea that speaking directly to the riders, manufacturers, teams and organisers is the only way to get the information you really want (and you guys basically deserve if you are paying or clicking to find out about a sport you care about) rather than go along with whatever information ‘they’ choose to put out as their personal/corporate truth. We live in a fact/alt-fact world now - Gawd help us all - but I just think it is better to go with eyewitness testimony and direct quotes wherever possible.
Argentina last year was a new learning experience for me on how much more people ‘knew’ from 10,000 miles away than I did from being there. What did I know, speaking to everybody possible to try and build ‘the’ big picture by the end of it, while doing all the other related and unrelated things any busy working weekend demands?
But at least we had some kind of Argentinean race weekend in 2019; it may be a very long time before we have any racing in 2020. And this time it may not be anything to do with even the highest powers in global racing. Travel bans from governments? No world racing.
The oft-mentioned idea of ‘Globalisation’ as a concept cannot be better encapsulated than by international motorsport, with its rainbow of nations converging on racetracks on all five continents - usually. No Laguna or Thailand this year for WorldSBK was always in the plan. Now? Is it proving to be a blessing in disguise, maybe? Losing money changing Qatar flights and cancelling other things from now on… less of a divine interruption for most paddock workers.
If things get as bad as they can over this global contagion there is an existential threat to too many jobs involved in racing, certainly in the short term. This is not scaremongering, this is not a certainty either, but this is just a reality that will affect everybody in the gig economy in some way. I am sure many of you reading this at home have very similar questions about your own industries and businesses.
Motorcycle racing is a business, industry and a sport, all rolled into one. But it is amazing how many people who have been there for years are always on a year-to-year contract, and/or only get paid if there is actually a race. If this season turns out to feature only half the races we should have had we’ll be on half money. No travel expenses either of course, but if there are no races, there will be no money in or out. An internal zero-sum game.
I am lucky in that I have booked no flights at all beyond Assen, and I think (I hope) all my hotel bookings are cancellable. Ironically, had I been in a better financial position this winter, I would have started booking the cheapest flights possible all over Europe and beyond before Christmas - and I feel for those who already have. In a more normal year I would have been in their position too. I hope they all get a refund, as teams and individuals.
I also hope that when this is all over there will still be some airlines left standing to cram me and my sub-10kg weekend bag into ever-shrinking seats and then charge me too much for coffee that they used to give you as part of the deal in the ‘good old days’.
The travel, the endless unglamorous EasyRyanBAstid travel, is what finally gets to even the most committed paddock staff and freelancers in the end, it seems. Being in cool parts of the world to work is priceless, even after all these years; getting there is a process that is getting worse and worse, with fewer and fewer options unless you live in London/Paris/Barcelona etc.
Worth the sacrifice
But even the most knee-crushing, hen-weekend-overloaded 6am flight from the Central Belt of Scotland to anywhere near a racetrack with racing like we had at Phillip Island – and even the inevitable three-line deadline whip of writing about it all immediately afterwards – has never felt more viscerally appealing than it does right now.
I have to face the saddo fact that I am already homesick for something that takes me far from home. And I love home.
I miss racing already and if it goes really bad for the calendar I won’t be the only one who misses the income from it. I am the only ‘breadwinner’ in my house, as are many others, no doubt. Many, many other people in our travelling paddock, its suppliers, the host circuits, etc, etc, are in the same suddenly leaky boat.
So, we should all keep rowing every bit as hard as we normally do and hope someone else clears us to make landfall somewhere with painted kerbs and gravel traps sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, stay safe people.
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