By Ed Hocknull
I’ve been asked on many occasions – often by perplexed members of my family – how I managed to become so interested in motorsport. Motorcycle racing in particular.
Now, I could ramble on about the incredible noise that these machines make. I might hark on about any of my heroes who I supported religiously. Or talk about the buzz of going to a circuit on race day (seriously, if you ever get offered the chance to go to a live motor race meeting: take it), or splurt on about all the countless categories and classes that can be raced. But honestly, it was none of those which pulled me in to form an obsession with this sport…
I don’t actually remember being interested in any sport when I was a little kid. The closest thing I watched to a sporting event was Gladiators on a Saturday night (6pm, ITV, September to December…those were the days). Neither of my parents were into sport. I wasn’t discouraged from pursuing sport as a hobby or interest, however it certainly wasn’t put in front of me either. I did swimming lessons on a Saturday morning – every kid did – but that was it.
That all changed rather suddenly on a wet and miserable Sunday afternoon.
May 9th, 1998
FIM Motorcycle World Championship – Spanish Grand Prix, Jerez
I wasn’t aware of what this race was called, or that it was part of a huge multi-round series which visited all corners of the World. Hell, until I’d begun ‘channel-hopping’ I didn’t even know motorbike racing was even a thing.
I was hooked instantly.
The racing was fierce from first lap to last. These superhumans with distinctly coloured helmets, hauling these machines at stupidly insane speeds around the track. Some more successfully than others. It did not take long before I saw Alex Barros, Brazil’s hard charger, spearing off the circuit and end barrell rolling through a gravel trap. This would become an unfortunately regular occurrence for him over the next few seasons.
At the front of the race it was all about two men on the striking orange and black bikes. Being just a small six year-old, I didn’t know at the time that the same coloured bikes meant they were racing for the same team (Repsol-Honda in this case). The riders in question were Mick Doohan and Alex Criville. Doohan, as the commentators would keep reminding me every lap, was the reigning 5x World Champion. Criville was yet to win the championship. Crucially for my engagement in the sport, he was the crowd’s favourite. The riders fought to the limit over the race distance – 75 miles – at Jerez that equates to 26 laps. The circuit is magnificent for bike racing, with multiple long, sweeping corners, hairpins and straights which all encourage overtaking.
Doohan and Criville may have been team-mates, but neither wanted to finish in second place. At every opportunity one would pass the other for the lead of the race. As each lap was ticked off, so the overtaking attempts became increasingly more fierce and desperate. As mentioned, the commentators kept banging on about Doohan being a multiple champion – and probably wanted him to win. Every time Criville took the lead, the crowd would send up a roar so loud it shook the TV. Apparently my parents asked me to turn the volume down, but I couldn’t hear them.
The final lap was simply incredible. Both riders were locked wheel-to-wheel. Doohan shovelled his way in front of Criville at the Dry-Sack hairpin (approximately halfway around the lap). The old wiley Australian was seemingly glued to the racing line – an imaginary line on the track which competitors aim to follow as it’s the fastest way around the lap. If Criville wanted to win, he’d need to be ruthless. 5 corners to go….4….3…he couldn’t find a way through. Every time he’d try and slide up the inside of the corner or around the outside, Doohan would be anticipating it and blocking off his rival.
1 corner to go. The final corner on the track is a near 180 degree hairpin. There is ample gravel ‘run off’ on the outside of the corner should a rider muck up his braking. As such, it provides a golden opportunity for a desperate final overtaking lunge. Out of the previous corner, Criville has better acceleration than his rival. This is his chance. They’re almost side by side as both riders slam on the brakes and turn their steeds in towards the apex. Criville has slightly out braked himself and gone in too hot. The teammates make contact. The impact is enough to force Doohan to pull his bike upright, whilst Criville maintains optimum lean angle and momentum through the turn. The commentators cry foul play. The crowd go bananas. I go bananas! I’ve seen the race countless times since then, and I’m still blown away by it.
Personally, and this might be ever so slightly biased, I don’t think there could be a more thrilling introduction to any sport than that.