At the first World Championship race, the 1949 Isle of Man TT, Harold Daniell’s factory Norton beat Johnny Lockett’s by one minute and 33.8 seconds; at the Ulster GP first champion Les Graham’s AJS led Artie Bell (Norton) by almost one minute and 40 seconds. Substantial victories were the norm.
Twenty years on, the chequered-flag tension would slacken still further. A random choice of the fourth of Agostini’s seven titles on the dominant MV Agusta shows that out of an undefeated ten races, he won five by more than a full lap.
How different is modern MotoGP – where for the past couple of years ever-closer finishes have become the norm rather than the exception. In 2019, out of 19 races no less than eight had winning margins of less than a second, and three of them were inside one tenth. Nails were bitten to the quick.
It begs the question – is close racing better? It’s definitely more exciting to have to hold your breath. Yet there is a conundrum. It’s also natural to have special admiration for riders who are conspicuously more talented than their peers.
Think of Mick Doohan, who between 1994 and 1998 won 44 of 71 races, most by a humiliatingly large distance. Of Rossi in his glory years. When he won by small margins, it was almost always on purpose. Ever the showman, he was entertaining the crowd. The actual finishing order was never in doubt.
That racing is so much closer now reflects a sea change in the nature of not only motorcycle sport but almost all sports. Dominance is impressive from the grandstands and in the record books. But what counts commercially is close action that easily fits onto a living-room flat-screen.
So far, coronavirus interruptions permitting, 2020 looks set to offer more of the same. Pre-season tests at the putative first-round track of Qatar put the top 18 out of 22 riders inside the same second, over a relatively long lap of almost two minutes; while the current dominant rider Marc Marquez was struggling, not only recovering from surgery, but with a factory Honda that seemed to have missed the usual racing goal… what worked last year, plus a couple of percent.
Promise of a close opening round was subsequently thwarted when the premier class Qatar race was cancelled (the smaller classes, already there for their own final tests, would go ahead without them). But the point had been made.
This closeness again proved the effect of technical regulations. Ostensibly designed to control costs, the secondary effect of frozen engine development and aerodynamics along with control tyres and (most importantly) electronics has been to narrow the differences between the competing machines.
At the same time, electronic developments that tame power delivery also make it harder for the rider to make a difference. Marquez has often explained how he likes to reduce the interference of the anti-wheelie and wheelspin programs to the minimum. This enhances his own ability to play with tyre adhesion with the throttle, itself no longer directly connected to the throttle slides, thanks to fly-by-wire tech.
Honda’s discomfort (Marquez even switched back to earlier versions of the V4) was of course a comfort to everyone else.
While relative newcomers Aprilia (with an all-new V4) and KTM both demonstrated clear progress, and Suzuki’s pair of Spaniards Alex Rins and Joan Mir were right at the top of the pace, Ducati’s troops were enjoying yet another demonstration that creative thinking can help to overcome the equalising effect of the strict rules.
The latest novelty from Bologna cleverly circumvents the ban on active suspension. Instead of ICUs and stepper motors being employed to drop the centre of gravity and reduce the acceleration-limiting tendency to lift the front wheel, control has been handed to the rider. A new lever on the handlebar serves the effect of lowering the rear of the bike on demand.
And how about everybody’s favourite, Valentino Rossi?
News came in January that 2020 will be the 41-year-old’s last season in the factory team, but while his own test-session time-attack lap was thwarted by a slip-off, the good news is that Yamaha have clearly been able to address several of the issues that have held their riders back over the past couple of years. The top-speed deficit is smaller, the bike’s compensatory excellent balance has been preserved. Rossi’s team-mate Viñales topped the time sheets, closely challenged by rising satellite-team rider Fabio Quartararo.
Thanks to health scares, with round two in Thailand postponed indefinitely and the third in the USA also under threat, racing may not begin until the Argentine round on April 19th or even the first European race at Jerez on May 3rd.