By Dan Moakes
December 14 2007
Can you compare Superbike racing with Formula One? Or what about Sidecar racing? Does even the MotoGP series compare with F1 for global interest? In Great Britain, which has produced the top competitor in one of the biggest motorcycle categories, that man’s recognition seems limited.
In motorcycle road racing, there have been a number of World Champions from Britain crowned in the last fifteen years. Thirteen seasons of Sidecar competition, since 1994, have seen only one year without a British winner; there were Endurance winners in the 1990s, before the title was awarded to the teams instead of the riders; and of course there is SBK. Three English riders have accounted for the Superbike World Championship, with a combined count of seven titles since 1993.
The last Grand Prix World Championship to be won by a Brit was the 1996 Sidecar title, before the series was downgraded to World Cup status. But of course Sidecar racing was hardly a well-supported or truly global series before that, regardless of the talents of its top exponents - and Steve Webster is by far the most successful pilot from the UK in this period, with his six titles, 1997-2004, added to four earlier ones.
British riders were dominant in the TT Formula series that ran in the 1980s, but the last truly major world title for a UK rider was the 500cc Grand Prix crown in 1977, the second in a row for superstar Barry Sheene. The last truly major world title for a UK rider - apart from in Superbikes. Lancashire rider Carl Fogarty was the WSB runner-up in 1993. He won the next two titles for Ducati, was fourth with Honda, then runner-up and double champion again for Ducati. Neil Hodgson (2003) and James Toseland (2004) followed him with further titles for the works Ducati team.
27-year-old Toseland won the series for a second time in 2007, taking eight races for Hannspree Ten Kate Honda. He beat the best in Superbikes to do so, including two double champions; the man who is now sixth in the WSB wins table; and a former GP star. James has had victories in each of the last five seasons, with sixteen of them putting him second only to Troy Bayliss in the same period. So, what recognition was there for James’ achievement? Not too much.
For a start, there was no British terrestrial television coverage of WSB in 2007. The BBC had provided mostly live races from 2000, but in 2003 had secured MotoGP rights from Channel 5, and ultimately dropped all Superbike programming, including their longer-standing work with the British series. Channel 4 took the WSB for 2005, but provided delayed coverage. The same thing happened in 2006, but only after the first two rounds had gone by. This writer did not see any of the 2007 races, and the success of Toseland was barely reported on the British terrestrial broadcast media.
The British motorsport-related headlines this year were all reserved for Formula One rookie Lewis Hamilton. The McLaren driver had an amazing season, and deserved all the accolades he received. Bike sport is the poor relation of its four-wheeled cousin, and although Superbike racing is for production-based machinery, surely it is some steps beyond being the equivalent of touring car racing. After all, for some years the top class in most motorcycle national championship series has been Superbikes. WSB is not MotoGP, but the speeds involved are not that different, and a touring car would not come close to an F1 car.
Lewis raced in the most widely recognised branch of the sport, and he was almost the top man despite his lack of top line experience. He is the real deal, and has done much to revive British interest in motor racing. James raced in a branch of the sport that doesn’t get too much public recognition, and he is one of the most experienced of the WSB front-runners. He is also the youngest of those front-runners, and he is the World Champion, for the second time. He made the shortlist, but was not in the final top three for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. You tell me if his public recognition is truly in proportion with his achievement.
Since Sheene, there have only been three solo Grand Prix race wins for British riders, and none in the top class. The last was in 2001, after a gap of fifteen years. James Toseland moves into the MotoGP series for the first time in 2008, on a customer Yamaha. He now has to step up and show the world whether he can be the successor to Barry Sheene, and put British motorcycle road racers back in the public consciousness.