In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.
What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.
As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.
Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?
At the core of this is a much bigger question: Is motorcycle racing a team sport?
The answer to that is not as obvious as it may seem. Clearly, motorcycle racers do not succeed on their own, they have a large group of people supporting and helping them. Without a crew chief to find the right set up, mechanics to ensure the bike is running smoothly and well, team managers to find the money to pay for the whole show, a rider would be nowhere. Getting the rider onto the grid and ready to try to win the race is plainly a team effort.
On track, a rider is usually joined by a teammate, wearing the same colors and racing under the same banner. The two will be expected to work together in some areas, sharing information to help develop a bike and optimize both riders' set ups, appearing together at PR events to help promote the team and the interests of the sponsors.
Once the lights go out, however, it is every rider for themselves. Racers do not work together like a soccer team, or a basketball team, to outplay their rivals. Racers do not work together like a cycling team, a group riding together to keep their leader out of the wind, so that they arrive at the line with energy to spare. Motorcycle racers ride as fast as possible to try to finish ahead of everyone else, be they rivals or teammates.
There are only two instances in which one teammate can help another. The first is by doing what Melandri did at Magny-Cours in race one, moving aside to allow their teammate to pass. The second, slightly less common, is by doing what Dani Pedrosa tried to do at Valencia in 2006, what Valentino Rossi tried to do in Valencia 2013, what Danny Kent did at Sepang this year. They can try to mix it up with their teammates' rivals, doing their utmost to race them hard, get in their way and hold them up, in the hope that their teammate can get away and out of reach.
But both of these are measures taken only in extremis. When all else fails, teams will prevail upon a teammate to help the rider with the best chance of a result. It is a request only made if that rider does not have total control of a championship. It is, if you will, a last resort, a desperate measure.
It also goes against the grain for a motorcycle racer, and perhaps against the very ethos of the sport. When a team signs a rider, the only discussion there is about teammates is usually only to ensure that the rider being signed feels certain of beating them. Rider contracts are full of performance clauses, and clauses about results, but what a rider's duty is towards the other rider in the team is never specified. Usually, the only order a team manager will give to their riders is "don't knock each other off."
Sometimes, though, a team will have something at stake which transcends the interests of the individual riders. One rider may have a shot at a title, and the other may be in a position to help. The manager may make the team's position clear to the riders, and hope that they will submit their own ambition to the interests of the team.
More often than not, riders are entirely unwilling to listen. From the perspective of a motorcycle racer, the sport is an entirely individual pursuit. All weekend long, a group of engineers have spent their time focused on just a single thing: preparing the bike as perfectly as they can, and making it as competitive as it can be. They have spent their time working for the rider, putting their fate in the rider's hands. From the moment the team leaves the grid, the riders are on their own, all of that work focused on this one point in time. There is just the rider, their bike, the track, and the enemy, the rest of the grid. Nothing else matters. This is the moment a motorcycle racer lives for: to ride fast, and beat the rest.
There is something egocentric about all elite athletes – there has to be, or they are simply unable to make the sacrifices necessary to get to the top – but that egocentricity finds different outlets in different sports. In a sport such as soccer or basketball, the individuals work together, sometimes sacrificing personal glory to serve the greater ambition of winning as a team. In an individual sport such as the long jump, the athlete works entirely alone, focused solely on their own performance, nothing more.
The attitude of motorcycle racers is much closer to that of long jumpers than it is to basketball players. Once they close their helmet, and leave their mechanics behind, they are alone, just them and the bike, and an army of rivals to defeat. The team a rider races for may have a lot of prestige and money riding on the performance of the other rider in the team. A rider may even be in a position to help that teammate. But when the chips are down, a motorcycle racer only really cares about one thing: their own success.
The paradox of motorcycle racing is that there is an "I" in team. The "I" is in "RIDER".
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