It was not always so, and two deaths in the past 12 months are reminders of a time when Dorna’s involvement was in its infancy, and when Englishmen and anglophone allies were the greatest influence and played the major part in creating the modern racing landscape.
Most recently, late in January, legendary Suzuki team manager Garry Taylor succumbed to the effects of a long illness. Taylor had run the team from the 1980s until 2004, encompassing world championships for Kevin Schwantz and Kenny Roberts Junior, and an era when motorcycle racing grew up.
Five months earlier, on the eve of the San Marino GP, IRTA secretary general Mike Trimby died suddenly at dinner with members of his predominately British IRTA staff. This left just one of an important triumvirate – former Team Roberts manager and later race director Paul Butler, now retired and resident on the Isle of Man.
The trio were key to the foundation of IRTA (International Racing Teams Association), a massively influential power group that, under Trimby’s control, not only organised grand prix racing to become a successful commercial entity, but most importantly led a revolution in both rider safety and rider pay.
IT wasn’t only the British: among prominent American and Australian riders and engineers, the stand-out was former triple champion Kenny Roberts, by now a team owner. Kenny, along with Barry Sheene, had been a leader of the proposed breakaway World Series of the early 1980s. This came close to wresting control from the FIM, the dreaded “blue-blazer brigade”, offering not just safer circuits but most importantly a distribution of earnings. Until then only a handful of top riders made decent money: the World Series would turn the prospects of mid-field runners from an expensive hobby to a commercial possibility.
The FIM won that battle but made important concessions along the same lines … it was the start of establishing a new order. Trimby was probably the single most important of the above because he stayed in the same position throughout. He had started as riders’ representative in the early 1980s. One major event was a walkout by leading riders at the French GP of 1982. The Nogaro circuit was way below standard, for all sorts of reasons ranging from safety to hygiene.
But the joint influence remained an important factor, and they mostly backed one another up, applying pressure to an increasingly beleaguered FIM on issues including TV rights. No Briton played a greater yet more fleeting role than Bernie Ecclestone, who was brought in (with some trepidation) by IRTA to lead the wrangle over TV rights. For a short time, it seemed likely that bike racing would come into the same sphere as F1, inevitably a poor relation.
Bernie’s interests moved on elsewhere, though he left in his wake a structure that had gathered the diverse TV concessions into one. At the same time, the FIM – fearful of an Ecclestone takeover – had sold commercial rights to Spanish sports promotion company Dorna. Dorna inherited the Ecclestone TV package as well.
In the following decades, Dorna has made the most of what they got, with a combination of commercial acumen and sporting enterprise. Trimby remained in place as a powerful influence, but Dorna’s own rigorous safety standards meant that fight was over.
This left the other Britons and allies free to get on with their own riding, team- or race-management duties and to share in the growing success of the series. It also marked the start of a new era.
From the earliest days of the championship, Britain and Italy had vied for superiority, both in terms of riders and machines. Then came Japan to dominate the machinery. And now the new order was Spanish.
Long a factor in the smaller classes, the first Spaniard to win the premier 500cc crown was Alex Criville, in 1999. The second was Jorge Lorenzo, 11 years later. But all the while a carefully curated conveyor belt of talent was feeding a new generation up through the classes. Since 2012, only three titles have not gone to Spain, with Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Joan Mir sharing the spoils.