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GP Week : Issue 150
Are modern MotoGP racers pampered? Well, of course they are. Things were always tougher in the old days. Ask any old-timer. Back in the day grand prix racers exercised their craft without the aid of electronics or gravel traps, to name but two major changes. The introduction of CRT bikes has highlighted something else that had changed, and has now changed back. Fast riders once again have to deal with backmarkers, on much slower bikes. There have been complaints from among the fastest: Casey Stoner in particular bringing out the danger element, though he was not alone. Which in turn evoked a chorus of “ninnies” from those with memories going back beyond the past ten years, which have seen grids made up entirely of factory and satellite bikes, so that having to lap anybody was a rare event. To be fair, Qatar showed that the speed differential between the fastest factory bike (Barbera’s Ducati) and the slowest (Danilo Petrucci’s very production- based Ioda Aprilia) clocked 342.3 km/h and 301.1 respectively) was rather too large for comfort. Riders of an earlier generation have a different opinion. Slower bikes – whether they be single- cylinder Nortons to Agostini’s MV Agusta or the grid- filler V-twin Honda two-strokes built round the turn of the century to the factory V4 500s – were just part of the landscape. Another element of racing, to be dealt with. Or more than dealt with. A canny rider would use back-markers to his advantage, trying to time it so as to sandwich a slow bike between himself and his attacker, and thereby make his escape. It could of course work the other way ... sometimes famously. Back in the 1970s one of the greatest races of the decade pitched Barry Sheene against Kenny Roberts at Silverstone. Race long they toyed with one another, each believing he had a winning plan for the last lap. But as they started it they came on a back-marker (Carl Fogarty’s father George). Sheene got the worst of it, and spent the rest of the long fast run round the airfield catching up. When they got the flag he was still (back in those days of hand-timing) 0.03 sec behind. More recently, the outcome of a wet two-legged Brazilian GP was decided by a back- marker, hapless Anthony West on one of those Hondas. West, his tyre shredded and being lapped for the second time, was in the last corner as Carlos Checa and Rossi arrived. West deemed it safest for all three of them if he held his line, Checa hesitated, and though he passed the flag still ahead of Rossi, and thought he’d won, on aggregate times he lost the race by 0.153 sec. Discovering the truth back at his pit “was the worst feeling in my life,” the current Superbike champion said. The best back-marker story also changed the result, denying hot-headed Brazilian Alex Barros only his second rostrum finish while giving a valuable third to Wayne Rainey. The American remembers it today with almost as much amusement and glee as he felt on the day. “At that time, there would be huge speed differences. We would lap some guys three times. “You just dealt with it. You knew who they were and that they didn’t have the speed, and you had to adjust to avoid accidents. If you were in a battle for position, sometimes you’d look for ward to lapping those guys, because they could help you get a gap. “We complained after a few years of it, suggesting that people being lapped a second time should be pulled off the track. It never happened, but that’s something they should think about now, if the CRT bikes ever get that slow.” The incident in question was at Austria’s fearsome Salzburgring in 1993. Kevin Schwantz’s Suzuki won narrowly from Mick Doohan (Honda). A little way back Barros (Suzuki) held third, with Rainey striving to catch up. Until Barros came upon a slower rider, Spaniard Juan Lopez Mella, on a Roc Yamaha, in the chicane near the start of the final lap. Rainey tells the story now. “That was the classic way of not dealing with a backmarker. I still giggle about that. “Starting that last lap I was about 2.5 seconds back. By the time we went through the chicane then the first loop, a quarter of the track, I was right on Barros, because in both corners Barros hadn’t got past. If he had just followed the guy through the first part of the chicane instead of trying to pass him going into it, he’d have had third .. but he screwed it all up trying to take too much.” Rainey came out on his tail, planning to attack on the last corner. Then it got really crazy. “I was in his draft and we’re coming up on Lopez Mella again – this was about the fourth time he’d come up to pass him. He was just going to blow past the guy, but instead he took his hand off the left handlebar and whacked him in the head as he went by – all this at 180 mph. “I never expected that. I had to swerve off the track onto the ambulance road.” Nonetheless, he kept it pinned and carried on with his plan. He took the rostrum by 0.062. BACKMARKERS MAKE A COME-BACK Slow CRT bikes have re-introduced an element recently lost to MotoGP – a gaggle of much slower riders. MICHAEL SCOTT looks at what it means ... One of the great battles of all time – Roberts v Sheene, Silverstone, 1979, was 'backmarker-affected' ... 34 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: MOTOGP >>> FEATURE