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COLUMN - PUBLISHED ON MAY 6TH 2009
Editor's note: On two wheels at Jerez
Autosport.com editor Simon Strang reports back with his impressions from a visit to one of MotoGP's biggest events, last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez

  By Simon Strang
 
 

The opportunity was granted to me to visit one of the cathedrals of MotoGP racing last weekend when I travelled to Jerez for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Coming from a car racing background, what follows are some of the observations taken from an absorbing and fascinating insight into one of the most intensely spectacular sports on the planet.

Heaven's gate

Spectators at Jerez © Back Page Images

As you walk through the gates of Jerez de la Frontera early on the Sunday morning of the Spanish MotoGP you are aware of a dull hum resonating across the landscape.

When light begins to invade the already crowded hillsides that form an intimidating natural amphitheatre around the 2.748-mile track on the southern coast, the hum becomes a buzz. The raucous, feverish, adrenaline-effected crowd is waking up.

As the first curvature of a dawning sun cracks the uneven horizon, tannoys play the opening chords of Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond. It's a long-held tradition here, and it heralds the beginning of one of motorcycle racing's biggest events.

In this country, the race at Jerez is second only in sporting stature to a Real Madrid versus Barcelona football match.

The music crackles to a close and it's as if the King of Spain himself has given royal decree to 123,000 of his subjects to rise up and go bananas – any divisions carved by the 6-2 drubbing Barca gave Madrid the previous night are quickly forgotten.

The place is alive

Jerez never truly managed to harness Formula 1 in all its majesty, despite being the venue of that infamous race in 1997 when Michael Schumacher tarnished a brilliant season by driving into Jacques Villeneuve, handing the Canadian his only world championship title. At the time of course, Spain had not uncovered Fernando Alonso, and the potential of Jerez has remained unexploited by F1.

But, here and now, it's a festival the likes of which you would expect Oasis to play at, and the fans have gone off like a champagne supernova. It's the equal of Monza on the occasion of a Ferrari victory.

I'm told horror stories of journalists innocently walking the perimeter road in front of the grandstands down at the stadium area of the circuit comprising Turns 11 to 14. The crowd is known to throw beer cans – not empty – at passing police vans, and though media types are not targets, they are considered expendable.

By race-time, the atmosphere is both exhilarating and intimidating. It's pure Latin passion on an unbridled and unimaginable scale. The sound of the 800cc four-stroke engines of Jorge Lorenzo's Yamaha and Dani Pedrosa's Honda, local boys both, is entirely drowned away by their fans' approval.

But while the Spanish are partisan to an extreme not witnessed anywhere else in the bike racing world, there is one other who still commands their awe – Valentino Rossi.

Valentino Rossi celebrates victory at the Spanish Grand Prix © Back Page Images

Eurosport commentator and AUTOSPORT columnist Toby Moody insists that a Rossi victory must be witnessed by all self-respecting racing fans at either Jerez, or the Italian's home race at Mugello, before the great man retires.

So when Rossi wins, the crowd stands and salutes in euphoric choreographed union. He parks his Yamaha M1 on the inside of Turn 8 on the slowing down lap, jumps the barrier and celebrates his 72nd premier class victory with a trademark prank – using a blue plastic portaloo. It's a repeat of the stunt he pulled in 1999 after winning the 250cc race here for Aprilia – and as Rossi points out in the press conference afterwards "10th anniversaries are important!"

It's the perfect day for the Jerez tifosi, made all the better because their beloved Pedrosa finished a defeated but defiant second – no small achievement given the devastating knee injury he still nurses.

Moody is absolutely right. You really must see this before it's gone for good…

A wise owl

Rossi pointed out in the post-race press conference that while he may yet overhaul Giacamo Agostini's all-time grand prix victory tally of 122, following his 98th win, he is unlikely to beat that of his Australian technical guru Jerry Burgess.

Burgess is not only the architect of so much of Rossi's success in the MotoGP class, but he was also chief engineer for that other legendary Australian, Mick Doohan during his heyday as five-time world champion for Honda.

Rossi paid tribute to Burgess by blowing him a kiss from the rostrum.

"Jerry is fantastico and I don't think without him it is possible for my team to arrive at this amount of victories in the 500s and MotoGP, but I am jealous!" he said. "Maybe Agostini is possible, but Jerry is not possible to catch – he has won two or three hundred races already!"

The admiration, of course, goes both ways and Burgess is fully aware that he is working with an extraordinary, perhaps once in a lifetime, talent.

Burgess may be modest to his own success, but he is not short of an opinion. And he's happy to share the wisdom he's microscopically calibrated over three decades of winning in the top class like a kindly elder statesman. What he delivers though, leaves no quarter for sympathy or room for inaccuracy.

Asked if he agrees with Tech 3 Yamaha rider Colin Edwards theory that the 2009 specification M1 is the best machine on the grid, Burgess whips back with a slight grin: "Well if he thinks that, then he should be out there winning on it, shouldn't he!"

Jeremy Burgess and Valentino Rossi © Back Page Images

His expression softens and quickly switches back to his default kind and cuddly mode as he assesses the former factory rider's view. "Colin's right I think. If you look at the relative spread of bikes through the field, we have Valentino and Jorge [Lorenzo] at the front, and Colin often in the top seven. You can't really say the same about Honda, and Ducati just has Casey [Stoner] right now because of all the misfortune Nicky [Hayden] has had it's difficult to see his level."

Edwards also spoke of the work Burgess and Rossi achieved to make the M1 so competitive on Bridgestone tyres during 2008, and Burgess agrees the bike is perhaps as much as 0.5s quicker this year than the one that took the crown last season.

"In the end it's just a tool for the riders, but Valentino and I had to learn it [the Japanese rubber] together through last year.

"Fundamentally, the two tyre companies - Michelin and Bridgestone - were working at completely opposite ends of the technological spectrum, and that's unusual for engineering. If you put a bunch of engineers together on a task, they will usually all come to a similar conclusion about the most effective solution.

"But while Michelin focussed on the carcass of the tyre to find its performance, Bridgestone totally relies on compound technology."

The result is that Bridgestones generate grip in a different way and create a different contact patch on the tyre. Obviously Rossi and Burgess have had to evolve bike set-up to cope with this, as well as the unstoppable advent of rider-aid technology. But Burgess knows that for now at least, he has a secret weapon.

"Riders have to be more intelligent these days, as the bikes have become more complicated," he explains. "Traction control and engine mapping mean you have to understand the programme through the practice sessions. You could be the bravest, fastest guy in the world, but if you don't work on your engine settings you won't be competitive.

"But we often find that Rossi is smarter than the bike anyway!"

By Sunday night, Rossi and Burgess had won again, but the Australian is typically grounded, and in the end it's the engineering challenge that drives him rather than the trophies and the success. "They say in this sport, 'When it comes to writing the history of the world, motorcycles won't get a paragraph'."

You have the feeling that when it comes to writing the history of motorcycle racing, he, and Rossi, will get rather more than that.

Building for the future

Honda-BQR Moto2 prototype © MotoGP

The FIM and Dorna confirmed on Saturday at Jerez that Honda will supply motors for the new single-engine Moto2 category set to replace the 250cc class in 2011.

The idea behind the new MotoGP feeder formula is to equalise the performance of what will still be an open-chassis second step on the ladder, and crucially, make it affordable.

Next year, it will be integrated into the current 250cc championship, but from then on it will stand alone as an essential talent fishing pond for the big teams in the premier division. The concept has already won fans in the MotoGP paddock.

Ducati boss Livio Suppo believes it could be the answer to the debate over the diminished level of racing in MotoGP since the advent of the 800cc engine two years ago.

The charismatic Italian reckons the sport's rule makers could close the grid back up and manufacture a return to monumental fights for the lead, such as we saw in the halcyon days of the 990s, but he questions whether this is the right way to go. After all, MotoGP is supposed to be the pinnacle of prototype motorcycle racing – much the same as F1 is for cars.

"If I was to do a race with Casey on a scooter at Mugello he would beat me, but not by far," he tells me. "Because the limit of the scooter is so low that I can reach it. If we go to 125cc the gap would be bigger, go on a 600cc bike and it's bigger again. On a MotoGP machine, he would probably overtake me before I have finished the lap!

"So there must be something that is so extreme that only huge talents like Casey [Stoner], Vale, Lorenzo or Dani [Pedrosa] can reach. If there is a chance to reduce this limit then probably the races would be more exciting.

"But only maybe, because if you look at the package in World Superbikes the performance is lower, and in theory you see more fighting. Still you see Noryuki Haga winning, and if you didn't have Ben Spies around this season, then he would win every race.

"So in my personal opinion, if we increase the weight of the bike and decreased the performance of the tyres, then maybe we would improve the racing, because obviously the bikes become slower and the tyres have less grip."

But this theory assumes that the solution is to reduce the performance of the fastest bikes that only the planet's best riders can access. Suppo says there is another way, and he believes the root of the problem is in the limited supply of hyper-talented riders.

Hiroshi Aoyama (Scot Honda) leads the 250cc race at Motegi © Back Page Images

"The real problem is to have more show we need more talent in this category. It's a long-term problem and we need to grow more riders. I would rather see more talent than create a false sense of close racing.

"This is why I personally believe that Moto2 is a good idea. Because we need to have proper riders back again in this championship. Moto2, like it is now with a single engine, will be cheaper.

"It must become cheaper at a national level, because unless we do this it will impossible to find new talent. Moto2 could provide this."

Toby and Julian

It's difficult not to be biased about these two characters given that one of them is our very own MotoGP guru. But watching the double-act Eurosport UK commentary team of Toby Moody and Julian Ryder at work gives you a glimpse of the passion they have for their sport, and the genius comic timing involved that has endeared them to fans the world wide.

Much in the same way that Murray Walker could never stand still in the commentary box, Moody is a flash of colour and arm signals as he doesn't so much as narrate each session but conduct it.

I joined them for the MotoGP qualifying, and even as the 250bhp machines burbled down the pitlane opposite our position at the beginning of the session, Moody is animated, speaking faster than the staccato of the limiters the riders employ before entering the track.

As the 45-minute session gathers pace, and Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa engage in a duel for home pride that so encapsulates the Spanish sporting ethic, Moody's physical level raises to the point that he appears to be floating two inches from the floor.

Ryder meanwhile, his emotions less physically visible, remains in his traditional seated position, scouring the copious notes the pair generate pre-session, and allows his enthusiasm to access his vast and unusual command of vocabulary as his face begins to glow in the excitement.

In the final minutes, when Pedrosa guns it in a vain attempt to topple the astonishing Lorenzo, Ryder's head begins to pulse red, as if it is a warning sign not to stand within the danger zone that has become the gyroscopic Moody.

By the time the chequered flag falls, both men are on their feet and there is no longer a safe place to occupy within the sound-protected walls of the 10 by six foot box above the grandstand opposite the pits.

Thus I reluctantly leave the addictive hysteria, and retreat to the relative safety of the deafening noise of Spain as it celebrates its newest hero – poleman Lorenzo.

The witness for the defence

Chris Vermeulen, Suzuki © Back Page Images

Following the slow and relatively timid apex point at Jerez's Turn 1 and a short blast that momentarily lifts the bike's front wheel before another brief, heart-stopping deceleration for the long, 90-degree hairpin of Turn 2, there is perhaps one of the world's best example of why MotoGP riders can take their skill to an astonishing, almost ethereal zone.

Wide open on the throttle on the exit of the hairpin, the front rises again as the bike tip over from right to left, all the better to 'change direction under acceleration' explains Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen for the long, sweeping left hander that leads out to towards the 170mph back straight.

Turn 3 is a daunting, fearsome place. Not just for those watching on the inside of the bend during Saturday morning practice, but for the riders themselves.

The protagonists can reach as much 125mph before they lift the bike on the exit, and prior to the entry of the turn they make full use of the serrated rumble strip. All the while forging momentum and dropping the bike closer still to the apex to build critical energy in the front tyre.

This is the place that ended Mick Doohan's prestigious career following a horrific accident during first practice for the 1999 Spanish Grand Prix. It is also a key reason for James Toseland's current fight for confidence, though he might not admit it, after a huge crash in testing prior to the start of the season.

Watching from the side, it is difficult to comprehend how the adhesion is generated to continue accelerating on the seemingly grip-less kerbing.

Later in the weekend I would be given the priceless opportunity to experience it first-hand, when Alpinestars offered me a chance to ride on the back of the Ducati X2 two-seater with Randy Mamola (look out for a feature on this coming soon to autosport.com!).

I was not satisfied by Vermeulen's nonchalant response to my enquries over the vagaries of kerb use and fear – they are indeed a different breed. So I asked Mamola, whose career covered three decades in the top class, to explain where the courage and belief comes from to consistently place the bike in what the rest of us would consider an unachievable attitude.

"My son, who is now racing, says 'I don't want to go on those kerbs because it makes my bike wobble'," explains the 49-year-old American. "Eventually he is going to forget about that, because he is going to need to use them.

"There are some places where you need to go and some places where you don't. There are places where the kerbs are too dangerous and places where they are ok. We have to create energy in the front, we have to create energy to make it turn.

"There are a lot of natural things that happen and also a lot of mechanical things that happen by what we do. When a rider is not confident in the front end, it's hard for him to get the bike to turn.

"When you have a lot of confidence, the harder you turn the more you force it and the tyres flattens – when it flattens like that you can gain an eighth of an inch in contact patch, think about how much more grip you are going to have."

It remains beyond my comprehension. So I put it down to this, as one experienced journalist told me over the weekend, "they are all wired up wrong".

A living legend

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha © Back Page Images

There are at least a hundred observations one could make about the differences between the Formula 1 and MotoGP paddocks. In some cases one is better, in some the other wins favour. Yet the way the two sports operate is fundamentally the same, and eventually their principle objective is to deliver paying fans and television viewers with first class racing entertainment.

One stark difference that struck me on Sunday night however, as I walked along the balcony that adjoins the press centre behind the Jerez de la Frontera pit building, was the unadulterated access fans have to the riders in MotoGP – and in particular their hero Valentino Rossi.

It had been three hours since the eight-time world champion had wheelied across the line to gather his 72nd grand prix victory in the top class, yet there he was not just signing autographs and posing for pictures with a huge gathering of fans, but engaging in deep conversation about the race they had just witnessed.

Such is the way of modern sport that of course it wasn't long before a television crew spotted him and called his attention.

But before politely accepting the invitation to conduct probably his 17th interview of the afternoon, he finished his explanation to the group. Then, before switching back over to professional mode once again, he stopped, waved and fixed the gaze of the fans until the last of them had tired of waving back.

The adoration is clearly a two-way thing.

It's these frequent glimpses of the profoundly human side of a motorcycle racing legend that for me crystallised the true nature of one of the world's greatest sporting icons.

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