Evolution of the craft

I was at a motorcycle event in Hockenheim back in 2012, when I was approached by a fan who, very generously, presented me with a gift of a Metzler calendar featuring some of the most brilliant photographs I have ever seen from the 60’s racing period. Looking through the calendar when I got home, I was excited to discover one of my South African boyhood heroes featured. To be honest, I was totally unaware that Abie De Kock had ever ridden anywhere other than in South Africa, but there he was, A E W de Kock, rounding Sulby Bridge on the Isle of Man during the 1965 Junior event aboard his beautiful 350 7R AJS, resplendent in a brand new Peel fairing with the number 98 on the front. Completing the picture, the legend, “SA”, was proudly emblazoned on his Cromwell pudding basin helmet. What a sight.

As I looked at it, my memory drifted back to the days when I was living in a youth hostel in Woodlands, Durban, just down the road from where Abie and his brothers had their workshop. I used to sit on my 50cc Honda on the opposite side of the road watching them work on their race bikes and dreaming of one day emulating Abie’s exploits on the track. They must have wondered who the strange kid was, sitting quietly observing them, yet we never spoke, not even one word.

A few years after being given the calendar, I had that photo framed, and today it is the only racing picture hanging in my house. That may sound weird considering my own involvement in the sport, but you see, that picture of Abie encompasses my whole racing life, from the very beginnings of my interest in the sport, up until today, and everything encased in between. It has prompted so many thoughts in me regarding the different stages motorcycle racing has passed through, from the classic style of racing practiced by men like Abie back in the day, to the ridiculously extravagant style employed by today’s exponents of the art. Who would have thought back then that one day dragging one’s elbow on the ground would be even possible, let alone a good idea.

It also begged the question of how difficult it must have been to adapt to a new style, or different motorcycle, for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in a transitional stage, particularly when they were firmly set in their ways. It is one thing to adapt to change when one is young, but quite another to attempt to do so when approaching the other end of one’s career.

Take someone like Jack Findlay for example. He grew up in the four-stroke, single cylinder era, and just when things reached the point where it was going to be extremely hard, if not impossible, to teach an old dog new tricks, along came the two stroke revolution, and a thirty year old Jack Findley found himself forced to adapt or die. He was caught at an awkward stage in his career, where, as a professional racer, he was too young to retire and too old to adapt. Racing was all Jack knew, and he tried bravely to change. Yes, he had success on the two stokes, particularly on the big and powerful 750’s, but he once admitted to me that he never really felt quite at home on them. To compound the issue, as if it could actually get any worse, riding techniques also changed at about the same time, and Jack would have been forgiven for wondering what planet he had landed on. From a man who had been more than able to challenge for world titles until that point in his career, he suddenly found himself trying to come to terms with a sport that was rapidly evolving, and at the same time, leaving him behind.

There were many like him, and in many ways, I also fell into that category. I just missed the single cylinder four-stroke era, and most of my racing was done on twin cylinder two strokes. When I finally got the opportunity to race a four cylinder machine I was already into my thirties, and I would be lying if I said that the transition was an easy one. I struggled to get my head around the fact that the powerful multi cylinder machines needed to be ridden in a completely different way. Instead of relying on out and out corner speed, one needed to square the corners off and adopt what was called a point and squirt style of riding. It went against everything I had ever done up until that point, and I must say I found it practically impossible to adapt. While I had one or two really good rides on the big multi cylinder bikes, I think it’s fair to say that my style of riding never quite did them justice. Being old and stubborn, I kept on doing what I had done all my life, and it was a mistake. I never realized it at the time, but in hindsight, I know that now to be true.

Bearing all this in mind, one can really appreciate the incredible challenges someone like Valentino Rossi has faced in the last decade. In this time he has been forced to abandon the two strokes for four stroke machines, and to make life even more interesting, he has had to cope with ever more intrusion from the electronic aids needed to tame the modern MGP monsters. This development alone would have been an absolute nightmare for someone like me. Added to that, riding styles have also undergone a significant change from when he begun. Advances in tyre, frame and suspension technologies, meant that ground clearance became the limiting factor when going around corners, with the result that in order to take full advantage of the enormous levels of grip on offer, riders had to shift their weight to the very inside of their machines in order to rediscover the limits.

There is another reason which makes changing one’s style at an advanced age very difficult. Your muscle memory has already been formed, and to alter it without losing the feeling required to explore the outer limits, isn’t something many riders can do.  When a rider is young he is still questioning, and he is more receptive to new ideas because he is still consciously looking for the best way to go quick.

The more we learn about the sport the better it will get, and that is why the kids of today are starting out at a very early age, which provides them with the opportunity to perfect skills which older riders would definitely struggle with. Their minds are still open, so they can learn more.

I recently had the opportunity to renew my friendship with Freddie Spencer after not seeing him for almost thirty four years. As I have always regarded him as one of the best riders I have ever seen, I always listen intently whenever he expresses his thoughts on racing, and oddly, we ended up discussing this very subject. I asked him how old he was when he decided to retire from GP racing, and I was amazed when he told me he had been just twenty-six. But, he pointed out, he started riding at four and racing at seven, with the result that when he went to the line for his first world championship race in 1979 aged just nineteen, he was already a battle tested veteran with literally thousands of races under his belt. He confessed that, even though he was a relatively young man when he retired, he was simply burnt out from the grind and pressure of racing almost every weekend for almost twenty years of his life. While he may have had a much longer career had he started later in life, I think it is safe to say he would never have been able to ride at the same high level he achieved. Starting young was key to his success, something he freely admits. What was also in his favour was the way his father helped him, not only financially even though he was just an average working man, but more so morally and with sound advice. Freddy told me his Dad never shouted at him or scolded him, but simply imparted words of encouragement in positive tones, and when it came time to step aside  and allow others to take the reins, he did so without any acrimony whatsoever. Now there’s a lesson for all the fathers out there assisting their offspring to live their dream.  Spencer Snr was smart enough to understand, that in order to succeed it had to be Freddie’s dream, not his.

In contrast, I only rode a motorcycle for the very first time when I was seventeen years of age. Think about that. Valentino Rossi was already a 125 world champion by that age, yet besides one or two 50cc races whilst in my teens, my racing career really only started in earnest when I was twenty-two, sadly without any help and encouragement from my Dad who was vehemently opposed to me racing. Also, when one considers the limited number of opportunities to compete in races in South Africa when compared to America or Britain, it goes without saying that I was still a relative novice when I finally lined up on the grid for a world championship GP at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. It is clear to me now that there was no way in the world I was ever going to develop to my full potential considering my late start, yet like Spencer, I too suffered from burnout. There was a time, at the end of my career, when the simple thought of getting into my leathers and swinging my leg over the saddle of a bike became darn right unappealing. Yet oddly, I struggled to retire. It seems motorcycle racing, despite being a hard sport to get into, is an even harder one to let go of. Life without racing was daunting, and not one I was looking forward to with much relish.

But let’s get back to Rossi, shall we? Here we have a guy who not only started riding and competing at an age when a pit stop probably meant his diaper needed changing, but at the ripe old age (in racing terms) of thirty-eight, he is still on the start line every weekend fighting for another title. For me, this is the most extraordinary thing about him.  Despite the fact he has achieved almost every distinction possible in the sport, the flame of desire still burns fiercely in his warrior heart.

On an entirely different note, how wonderful it was to finally see the real Brad Binder emerge at the Sachsenring two weeks ago. He has struggled valiantly with his recurring arm injury, but finally it appears the worst is behind him. I can’t wait for the second half of the season to begin, and I am very upbeat regarding his chances considering how well the moto 2 KTM is performing. Brad’s teammate, Miguel Oliveira, should have won the race at the Sachsenring, but he showed his hand too early after tipping his opponent on numerous occasions as to where he was going to make his final effort. It was poor race craft, as he had both the bike and the riding skills to get the job done. He was capable of lapping quicker than Morbidelli, but that isn’t always what decides these things. It also requires the ability to think clearly under pressure, and not everyone is capable of reading a race perfectly while engaged in a hard fight. Sometimes it can only be learned through experience, but even then, not always, and not by everyone.

All in all, KTM can be more than happy so far with their first year in the two big classes. Their moto 2 chassis has proven to be extremely competitive, while their MGP effort is about where they expected it to be, I would imagine. Like their moto 2 bike, it appears their chassis is first class, while the engine and electronics need time and further development, which was only to be expected. Anyone who has been involved in engine development knows that this area needs time. It has a steep learning curve, and if you doubt me on this one, simply cast an eye at Honda’s F1 engine program, or Suzuki’s MGP effort. After a very promising start last year, Suzuki seem to have lost their way somewhat, which might or might not have something to do with them losing Maverick Vinales to Yamaha at the end of last year. Whatever the reason, it shows it’s not easy, no matter how much money is thrown at the project. As such, hats off to the Austrians. It was an ambitious project, but they certainly look to be on the right road.

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