Last weekend, Carl Fogarty tweeted that he'd noticed that a lot of his friends and acquaintances weren't watching World Superbike any more. Why, he wondered, was that? Here's something I wrote a couple of years ago that is a meditation on the same question...
The Power of Two
It never ceases to amaze me that some people insist on asking me whether I prefer working on MotoGP or Superbike, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. This is usually followed up with a comment on how MotoGP is boring compared to Superbike. And indeed the World Superbike Championship has been highly entertaining this year: Five different manufacturers, lots of Brits on competitive bikes, and lots of different winners, whereas MotoGP has resolved itself into a showdown between two Spaniards.
However, a peek at TV viewing figures, numbers of topics in website chat rooms, and a scan of the grandstands shows you where the fans' interest lies. This set me thinking. Why should this be? Surely everyone wants to see racing with big fields when you don't know who's going to win. Well, yes, but only up to a point.
I was talking to a long-time MotoGP paddock power broker about the usual subjects - the size of the grid and how it depends on closing the gap between the CRT bikes and the prototypes - when he dropped an interesting observation into the conversation. The greatest championship he'd ever seen, said our man, was 1983. That was the year that Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer shared the wins six apiece. Nobody else won a race; Randy Mamola, who finished third, was over fifty points behind both men, and a victory only got you fifteen points in those days. Nobody who followed that epic struggle gave a monkey's cuss about who came third. Actually, what the man said was "Who came third? Who gives a ..." We were watching two great champions slugging it out and we knew it was something special.
Another veteran paddock person chipped in that the worst 500cc championship in recent years was 2000, a year in which a record eight different riders won races: Roberts Jnr, Rossi, Biaggi, Barros, McCoy, Abe, Capirossi, and Criville. Anyone going to be telling their grandchildren about that season? Thought not. You'll be telling them about how you saw Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi and Carl Fogarty destroy fields, how you saw Casey Stoner do things with a motorcycle that no-one else before or since has been able to do. What we hope to see is greatness. Yes, it's nice to be entertained as well but when you flick back through the memory banks the champions and their victories are what you find.
And of course it's always been this way, in any sport. Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini; Phil Read and Bill Ivy; Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey. We don't tend to talk about triumvirates, it's the head-to-head confrontations that stick in the memory. But we need to have some back story. And what we have as the climax of the 2012 season fits the bill perfectly. In the absence of Casey Stoner, we have Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, two riders who have come through all three GP classes either in direct competition or close to it. Dani arrived in 125s in 2001, Jorge a year later. The needle started to show when they were both in the 250 class, and by the time they got to MotoGP it took the King of Spain to get them to shake hands on the Jerez rostrum. In the last couple of years that animosity has matured to mutual respect. Jorge made a joke about it earlier in the season, saying that the way their relationship had improved they'd be getting married in a couple of years. Typically, Dani had a slightly different way of looking at it: "We were kids."
So enjoy the last few races of the season. We are going to be watching the best rider never to have won a title in the top class (he has seventeen wins up to and including Brno) against a man who has been inch-perfect all year and has not finished a race lower than second place. But for being rammed at the first corner at Assen by an errant Alvaro Bautista, Jorge Lorenzo might be out of sight and on his way to his second title. There is also the sight of two different motorcycles that require to be ridden in very different ways but which produce near-identical lap times. At Brno this was seen plainly. Lorenzo could turn the Yamaha tight while carrying amazing corner speed whereas Pedrosa was having to steer with the rear. And despite the speed gun showing that the M1 no longer has a top-speed deficit, the RCV still gets there quicker, especially when pushing a lighter rider up a big hill. There is the lingering suspicion that the almost fresh engine that Lorenzo lost in that Assen smash may be a factor, as will, undoubtedly, a returning Stoner. Anyone think he's going to give way to anyone round Phillip Island? No, me neither.
Despite MotoGP's problems, and there are many, and barring injury, we are going to get a classic end to the season with the two best riders of the year deciding the championship at the final round.