Continually raising the standards is the nature of sport – of all human endeavour, hopefully. Or is this chronocentric conceit? Was everything better in the old days?
Hard to answer, when it comes to motorcycle racing. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, riders would think nothing of competing in two or three grand prix classes at the same event. Mike Hailwood took three wins at the same GP not once in his brilliant career, but six times. Such a feat is today completely unthinkable. Freddie Spencer won 250 and 500 titles in 1985, but the effort left him completely burned out. He never won another race. No-one’s tried it since.
Nor were the old-timers cossetted with namby-pamby air-bags in their leathers and acres of gravel-trap. They raced round deadly street circuits, and judged their speeds accordingly. Does that make the old guys better than the current generation – or just the same, doing things differently?
Of course the lap times keep getting quicker, along with top and mid-corner speeds. That’s a matter of improving technology. It’s different from higher sporting endeavour.
What does change is the same thing that happens to policemen: they keep getting younger. And while Valentino Rossi is still a factor at 40, in his 24th grand prix season he is the exception that proves the rule. The way 2019 has been going recently, even exceptions must eventually conform.
One rider in particular, half Rossi’s age, prompts these thoughts. He is Frenchman Fabio Quartararo, who has outqualified and (at the time of writing) has in the last four races outpointed not only Rossi, but also Rossi’s factory Monster Yamaha team-mate Maverick Vinales, in spite of the latter’s win at the last round in the Netherlands.
Quartararo has achieved this also on a Yamaha, and although in the same basic spec as the factory bikes, lacking the latest updates, direct input of Yamaha factory staff, in an all-new team and using an older front suspension.
More significantly, he’s a rank class rookie. He first rode a full-size 1,000cc racing bike at post-season tests last November, and has raced one just eight times. At three of those races he qualified on pole, and in the last two finished on the podium. It would probably have been three times, had his bike not failed at round four when he was a strong second.
Not to labour the Rossi comparison, but when Fabio was born, in Nice on April 20th, 1999, the Italian had already won his first 125cc title, six 250 races, and was on his way to the 250 crown.
The point is two-fold: firstly that a remarkable new talent has emerged; and secondly that he is just one of a swelling tide of youth that is already beginning to refresh MotoGP.
Quartararo’s run has been a little unexpected. Compared with such shining lights as Marquez and (yes) Rossi, his progress through the smaller classes was fairly undistinguished. While each of them won titles before moving on, Quartararo won only a single race in his four years, late last year.
He’d been drafted in under age as a concession for two consecutive wins in the Spanish national Moto3 championship, Dorna’s so-called “Junior World Championship”. Much was expected of the 15-year-old, but after an early pole position he played only a peripheral part at the front of Moto3 in two years; and much the same in Moto2. One win, one second, tenth in last year’s championship.
Even if he’d arrived in the MotoGP as champion, his performance would be raising eyebrows. Five-times consecutive 500-class champion Mick Doohan made a typically wry comment about him, at the Dutch TT. “He doesn’t really know what he’s doing or what the bike’s going to do. He’s just riding the wheels off it. We’ve all been there … but he’s doing it better than we did.”
Quartararo has already shown one sign of being a seasoned racer: he required surgery to address arm-pump problems … one of several Racer’s Wrist symptoms resulting from the stress of operating throttle and brake lever simultaneously while withstanding up to 1.5G braking force. (This is why Jorge Lorenzo and Jack Miller have “wings” fitted to their dummy fuel tanks, to hook their legs under to take some of the strain.)
He’s also shown another sign: toughness in dealing with injury. Pole and podium in Catalunya came less than two weeks after that surgery.
Fabulous Fabio’s not the only young gun; just the most impressive. Other MotoGP rookies are current Moto2 champion Pecco Bagnaia (22) and Joan Mir (21), though they haven’t astonished like him. Meanwhile Vinales is only 24 and Miller the same. Marquez at 26 is relatively ancient.
For some years now, we’ve been apprehensively wondering what MotoGP would do when Rossi finally went. Maybe now we know. It’ll be okay, after all.