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GP Week : Issue 76
Andrea Dovizioso will all be 24 when the green light goes at Qatar; and (rather irritatingly, as Valentino has several times joked) Jorge Lorenzo is just 22. By this measure, Ben Spies at 25 had better get a hurry on. At the other end of the scale, the youngest rider in the class is rookie Aleix Espargaro, aged 20. There never was what might be called 'a gentler time' in motorbike racing ... it's not that kind of sport. But it doesn't seem that long ago that 250 World Champion and 500 front runner Christian Sarron described to me how he had discovered that he had a talent for riding motorcycles . . . when he turned out to be faster than his teenage pals when they were riding on the road. A number of other stars of the time had similar beginnings. In other words, riding motorcycles fast on the road came before racing. It's very different now: there's not a rider on the grid who has not been racing since his early teens, if not sooner. Commonly they started riding at five or six years old, and competing not much later. This trend was begun by the first wave of American stars, and it has to do mainly with opportunity. Not just the availability in the 1960s of a new generation of minibikes, but also a boom in places to race them. In California it was mini dirt-tracks, in Italy and Japan holiday go-kart tracks served the same purpose. Later, Spain led the way with special one-make series for pre-teens on real race-tracks. Then came the Red Bull Rookies Cup, in 2007. Rather shockingly, this put riders as young as 13 on real grand prix bikes (privateer-level KTM 125s) on real grand prix circuits, racing in front of real grand prix crowds. Old-timers wondered if it was a step too far: the kids took to it in their hundreds, turning up from far and wide to take part in special selection riding tests, under the stern eye of Alberto Puig and two-stroke guru and KTM designer Harald Bartol. The project grew to include a US series, although a fatal accident may have been why the US branch abandoned it after 44