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GP Week : Issue 84A
Moto GP FEATURE >> There are certainly some sweeps of history to be observed. The first is the long-standing pre- eminence of Italian riders. It helps that Agos- tini and Rossi lie individual first and second in the number of wins (122 versus 104 and counting), but the pre-eminent pair have had plenty of partners in this enterprise. More than 100 different riders have sounded the stirring strains of the national anthem on top of sundry rostrums over the years. The next most numerous nationals have been God-Save-the-Queening Britons, with 65 different winners over the years. And that British strain is another passage of history. The first 500-class champion was English bomber pilot Les Graham in 1949, but the last British premier-class winner was Barry Sheene back in 1977 -- a rider long since retired, moved to Australia and since succumbed to cancer. There is such a dearth of British riders in GP racing now that it is hard to believe just how powerful the nation once was. Powerful enough to have retained second place in the number of race wins until 2010, more than 30 years after regular British winners became almost extinct. Which begs the question: have the British forgotten how to race? Not when you look at World Superbikes, currently all- but dominated by a pack of British super- stars. But, largely for lack of official nurture, they just dropped out of the GP world. So how great are the Spanish? Especially so, when the engines are small. Of the national total of 340 wins, 213 -- almost half -- have been in 50/80 and 125cc classes. Spanish riders have a lot more work to do in the premier class, where a total of 41 wins by seven riders puts them only fifth in the list. Italy is of course first (217 wins, 20 riders); then Britain (135 wins, 22 riders). The intervening places are taken by maverick racing newcomers who have concentrated on the big-time big class: the USA and Australia. America had one astonishingly produc- tive spell. The nation's first win was only in 1976 (Pat Hennen), with the champi- onship already 27 years old. Yet a total of just ten American riders added another 152 wins since then, the vast majority of them between 1984 and 1995. In that time, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey took 80 wins between the three of them. And Australia has tended to do things in a similar way: a full 106 race wins have been racked up by only 11 riders, with almost half of them scored by five-times World Champ Mick Doohan, and all but a handful since 1986. What does this prove? What is national character worth, in a sport that relies on individuals? Well, it's clear there are passages of history when the type of racing favours a type of rider with a certain type of racing background. For the first three decades sundry factors made it a British and Italian game, but things changed when power increased beyond the limits of the tyres to handle it. Now riders with a dirt-track background found their special tech- niques could pay big dividends. This meant Australians and Americans. Now racing is more scientific, and tends to favour those who have been concen- trating on pure road-racing since their early teens. Spanish riders have an estab- lished training structure to provide this route to success, and it shows. Somehow, however, Italian riders manage to be there whatever else is going on. Must be something to do with passion. Agostini -- gratest of them all? (above left); Americans Rainey and Schwantz (left); Eddie Lawson heads Mick Baldwin (right). 39