MotoGP Then & Now – Part 2

October 19, 2004
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Giacomo Agostini and his crew bump start the MV Augusta back in 1965. It would be great to see how riders like Agostini would fare on one of the modern 200 hp machines.
Giacomo Agostini and his crew bump start the MV Augusta back in 1965. It would be great to see how riders like Agostini would fare on one of the modern 200 hp machines.

Even now, the experience is as vivid as if it were yesterday. I remember seeing the MV team working on the then brand-new 420cc triple next to their van. Although built just a few days before, the MV looked very second-hand. Ago, had put strips of red insulating tape on the clutch lever for extra grip – I can see it is as clear as if it were on my desk now – and the engine had leaked oil on the left-hand side.

Then I stood by the 125cc five-cylinder Honda as it was warmed up. The Honda mechanics were just as dowdy, though more serious looking than the MV team. One spun the tiny Honda’s back wheel and the other caught the motor on the throttle and it shrieked into screaming life. The tach didn’t start reading until 11,000 rpm and the engine stopped instantly once the throttle was closed. The motor’s voice was a series of tortured exhalations – scream, gasp, scream, gasp, scream, gasp – and then not quite silence as the rear wheel continued to spin on the oil drag in the gearbox for seconds after the engine stopped.

The Aermacchi team would have passed for autojumblers at a modern bike show. One mechanic stripped an engine on a piece of cardboard laid on the floor whilst another worked on Pasolini’s 350 – with his roll up firmly stuck to his bottom lip.

The privateers, with their Manx Nortons and Matchless G50s, were even worse. Battered old vans with ex-army sleeping bags in the back were the norm whilst fry-ups on paraffin powered Primus stoves provided the carefully monitored calorie controlled diet. The Grand Prix looked just like a club meeting.

Even with a totally legitimate pass, getting into the paddock at Donington was an achievement in itself – seeing anything even more so. The overwhelming impression was one of deadly seriousness and ruthless professionalism.

The bikes are fed electronic data by umbilical cords attached to computers the size of textbooks. Working areas are sterile and pristine. You couldn’t imagine doing this in your garden shed.

At Assen, I remember seeing the works MZ rider, Derek Woodman, dining in his leathers sat on a five gallon Jerry can – sandwich in one hand and mug of tea in the other. In the Donington paddock, pristine PR girls, sunglasses perched so very stylishly on top of highlighted hair, moved food aimlessly around their bone china plates whilst studiously conversing on mobiles. At the next table, unsmiling executives tapped calculators and issued dictums to hovering P.A.s. I wonder if they rode here today on their bike? I wonder how many lie awake at night dreaming of being a motorcycle racer?

If the over-whelming impression at Assen was a passion for motorcycle racing, then at Donington it was a passion for money. Listen carefully to the fragments of conversation drifting down from the tables of the mighty and the focus is firmly fixed on branding, image consolidation, maximization of income, generating fresh markets – and how a given rider can add leverage to a brand.

This is not to say that the people at the sharp end are not every bit as passionate about racing as the ’60s teams but rather that the rationale for racing has changed. At Assen, all the teams and riders raced because they liked racing. Soichiro Honda went racing to show the world that he could build fast reliable bikes. Count Agusta raced because he enjoyed making racing motorcycles and seeing them win. The privateers raced because it was a better alternative than having a real job. At Donington, racing was subsumed by other, bigger considerations.

In writing about comparative riding abilities between the two generations of riders, I realize that I am risking the wrath of older readers. Even so, the hard truth is that the riding standards in MotoGP are much higher than they were 40 years ago. Strangely, it wasn’t the awe-inspiring excellence of Rossi, Edwards and Gibernau which was most striking, but the ability of Michel Fabrizio and Alex Hoffman who were dicing for last place Last? On paper, this looks like it was hardly worth turning up and yet the riding ability of the worst rider in MotoGP is truly astonishing. At Assen, the back markers looked ordinary even to my teenage eyes. Of course, they were brilliant riders but they looked like the older lads you saw in the pub. Watch even the slowest of the MotoGP riders and you absolutely know they belong to a different species.

Great Britain s Derek Woodman pilots the 250cc disc-valved MZ Twin  made a name for himself at the Isle of Man TT.
Great Britain’s Derek Woodman pilots the 250cc disc-valved MZ Twin, made a name for himself at the Isle of Man TT.

The speed of the bikes and skill of the riders explains a lot about their life-style. Colin Edwards makes a 2.5mm change of to the trail on the front forks of his Honda – barely a tenth of an inch in real money – and goes from being the best-of-the-rest to a contender for the winner’s podium. A tenth of an inch alteration on a ’60s GP would have literally no effect on the bike – and would have never been noticed by the even the most technically sophisticated rider. Remember, the immortal Mike Hailwood rode four-stroke Singles, Twins, Triples, Fours and Sixes, as well as two-stroke Twins and Singles. His motto was simple: “Give me the bike and I’ll ride round the problems.” This approach would be impossible today.

The adaptability and lack of sophistication of the classic bikes also explains why the old GP stars could achieve some remarkable feats – such as winning 125, 250 and 350 GPs all in one day. They were simply stunningly adaptable in a way which would destroy a current rider mentally.

Today, in a race where every bike is extremely good, and every rider is brilliant, no one can afford to maintain physical fitness by bedding as many local girls as possible whilst living on a diet of cold tinned beans and fried bacon – and then relying on natural ability to win. In 2004, racing is serious in a way it never was in the 1960s. The fitness trainers, dieticians, sports psychologists et al who currently inhabit the paddock are not window dressing: they really do matter.

Finally, what did MotoGP feel like? I was lucky enough to watch all three World Championship races from what passes as trackside at a modern circuit. The 125 and 250 races reminded me of any Formula racing: brilliant riding but with all the grey porridge consistency of competitors on near identical bikes. The MotoGP race was completely different. Gone was the silenced drone of the two-stroke era, or the muffled roar of WSB. MotoGP was primordial. This was earthy, basic racing with heroes battling roaring, bellowing mechanical steeds of snorting rage. In short, the experience was all that a race fan could have ever asked. Even if you don’t like racing, make sure you see at least one MotoGP race live.

So which would I prefer, Assen then or Donington now, 38 years later? For the sheer intensity of the experience: Donington. But as a race fan, it would have to be a classic Assen every time. I went to Assen and was inspired to try to become something in motorcycling. With a tiny leap of faith – thank goodness that I never knew at the time just how big the jump would actually be – I felt that I could be there. The riders, mechanics, vans, Primus stoves, sleeping bags and bits of tape were all discernible and comprehensible to a working class teen toiling away painting shelves for a living. I could reach out and, in my mind’s eye, do it. Eventually, in my own way, I did.

I wonder how many 16-year-old laborers visit Donington today and feel the same?

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