The Final Act

Graeme signs off from 2018 WorldSBK

I read the blog from Sienna Wedes on OTOR at the weekend ‘The Ideal Place: Phillip Island’ and chuckled to myself as I sat in the press room at the Losail Circuit in Qatar. Sienna waxed lyrically about everyone’s favourite race track: ‘take a pinch of charming scenery, edge a little closer to the fringe of the coast, stir in a handful of oceanic views and embellish it with a fast flowing circuit’. From where I sat I could not have been further away from that idiom.

Each time I go to Qatar I cast my mind back to my first visit in 2005 and the anticipation of visiting a new country and a new track. I was even excited about the prospect of shooting the first ever MotoGP race under the floodlights in 2007. At that time Doha and the surrounding suburbs were a reasonable size and there were a few new skyscrapers going in. In those first few years of WorldSBK at Losail we had the joy of staying in the Ritz Carlton Hotel through a deal struck with the organization at the time. The hotel was a long way from the city centre and isolated on a little archipelago that overlooked the Gulf. A small oasis of tranquility.

Since then, however, someone has hit Turbo Mode on the construction button and the place is just an endless sea of concrete and tarmac, with a few extra Power Pills added in anticipation of the FIFA World Cup in 2022. There is no charming scenery, the coast seems to be continually edging away as they fill in the sea for yet more development and at the track even in the day there is little or nothing of a view. Racing under the floodlights is a bonus as it actually masks the barren nature of the surroundings.

Can you tell yet that it is my least favourite venue on the calendar?

The tainted view I have of Losail was further blighted on Saturday when first a sandstorm roared across the desert towards us followed by a powerful and sustained thunderstorm. The resulting devastation delayed proceedings for a couple of hours and when track action finally got underway it was clear that it was dangerous. Whilst the WorldSSP race was underway the WorldSBK riders were meeting with race direction and the decision was taken to cancel the final outing of the season.

It reminded me of a discussion I had about the Silverstone MotoGP affair about the technical design of a motor racing circuit. The problem at the weekend was that surface water from the run off areas wasn’t draining away and instead running across the track creating small rivers on an otherwise dry surface. I appreciate that there was probably an unprecedented amount of rain in Qatar in the last week but it is not like it has never ever rained there. Indeed the first year we visited I remember a morning’s track action being cancelled because it rained and Pirelli had allegedly not brought any rain tyres. MotoGP had a similar weather related cancellation at the start of the year.

I find it astounding that given the amount of money that is invested by manufacturers, teams and organisers, that modern racetracks and those that have been modernized and resurfaced, have not been designed to prevent surface water gathering on the track and for it then to drain onto and not away from the racing surface. Having looked I cannot find any technical specifications in the FIM or FIA rule books about the make up of the asphalt or for the draining of surface water.

It meant that the 2018 WorldSBK season came to a premature end with Jonathan Rea equaling Doug Pollen’s 1991 record of 17 race wins in one season. I feel sorry for JR that he was denied the opportunity to break the record but I also feel sorry for everyone else as he will be equally determined to push for it again in 2019.

So all we have to look forward to now are a couple of winter tests before we prepare for 2019 and the first race in Phillip Island in February. There is still no confirmation of the final calendar for the year and my understanding is that, unexpectedly for me, there is more than one circuit vying for the prime time summer slots.

The British Superbike Championship has announced their schedule and there will be a race on the weekend traditionally reserved for Donington WorldSBK at the end of May. That means that if there is to be a UK round next year it will be held, most probably in July. However, that raises a clash potentially with Laguna Seca and Misano, who would want those dates as well. Throw Kyalami into that mix as a possible venue and there are too many circuits and not enough weekends: not something I thought I would say.

As we lost the final race on Saturday there were a few momentous occasions that, sadly, couldn’t be celebrated properly.

The Ducati Panigale raced for the last time. Truly the end of an era as it was the final outing for the venerable V-twin engine that, in it’s many forms, has won so many Superbike races and championships. I did some final photographs of the bike on Saturday before the weather set in and I didn’t realize that the homologation for the bike runs out on 31st December. So it really is the last we will see and hear of it. I still remember the first time I heard a 916 race at Donington Park more than 20 years ago and I have an abiding memory of photographing Troy Bayliss for the first time in 1998 in the British series and with his animated riding style, thinking that he and the bike were just the coolest things in motorcycle racing. Later this month we will see the new V4 in full race trim for the first time and I am sure I will feel the same as I did 20 years ago when I see and hear it.

It was also the last race at Kawasaki for Tom Sykes. I have been involved in Tom’s entire journey with Kawasaki and it has been a real pleasure working with him. There have been a few highs and lows over the years. Losing the title by half a point in 2012 after a tyre debacle at Monza, and then the whole episode with Loris Baz in 2014, without which I am convinced he would have been at least a three time world champion. 13 was however his lucky number and he has the distinguished honour of being the last Superbike World Champion to receive one of the hugely impressive and ridiculously heavy bronze trophies. They were phased out the following year which Sylvain Guintoli won.

Tom is now dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a contract with BMW for 2019. If the factory backs the team with the same level of commitment that KRT receive from Japan then I am sure Tom will be a serious title contender for next year. I hope to be able to catch him at his first test on the bike but nonetheless wish him all the best. It will be strange to be in the Kawasaki box and not enjoy his infectious personality. BMW might just see a little bit more of me next year.

I would also like to comment on a couple of other things that I found quite significant.

Argentina was the last race for one of the longest serving members of the press core. Kel Edge has photographed and written about the Superbike championship from the very first race in 1988. He has seen and done everything in World Superbikes for 30 years but has finally called time. It was touching that we had a presentation for him in San Juan I can only send him my best wishes for the future once more.

I also realised that TV producer Charlie Hiscott had been on the road since the start of September and was heading from Doha to Sepang before finally getting home for a week. Charlie produces both the WorldSBK show for Eurosport and the BT Sport show for MotoGP. He will cover 33 events this year and take over 70 flights. I remember doing the something similar in 2007 and 2008 and being destroyed at the end of each season. Charlie does an incredible job in both paddocks and deserves a huge tip of the hat for his effort and ability to generate high quality shows every weekend. He also has the wickedest sense of humour which keeps me smiling every weekend.

Whilst I have done less than half of Charlie’s travelling I am almost done for 2018. Physically, mentally and photographically. Maybe I am getting too old but for some reason I found this season to be a tough one. I have a few winter tests to cover but I am looking forward to a rest in December. I have a book to prepare and a couple of other new projects to start so I won’t be idle but it will be nice to have my wife complain that the biscuit tin is empty……again!

Words & photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages

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