They thrive on dicing with other riders and leaning their machines over until their elbows touch the ground. The MotoGP requires perfect bike setups and the right tyres. Six laps of the Island needs perfect lines and nerves of steel.
The Isle of Man TT is due to begin pretty soon (25th May-7th June actually), and therefore, people will start to dis the riders and claim that the MotoGP boys are better. Which is strange. It’s like saying Cyril Despres (five time Dakar Rally winner) is a better rider than Tony Cairoli (six time World Motocross Champion). They ride different bikes on different surfaces and need different skills.
So, back to the topic in hand. Why can’t we compare Isle of Man riders with their MotoGP counterparts? Well, you need to go away and learn a new discipline before you’re any good at it. Just like when Cal Crutchlow and Ben Spies came to MotoGP, they had to learn how to use the bikes, the tyres and brakes. They had to learn how to setup the bikes, what kind of lines to take, and of course, they had to learn the tracks. Marc Marquez said he had terrible trouble re-learning the lines of Jerez with a MotoGP bike as they were so different to a Moto2 machine. And just ask James Toseland about the difficulties of riding a MotoGP bike. He was a great superbike rider, but ultimately wasn’t successful in Grand Prix racing.
Yet, we’ve seen riders go from MotoGP to World Superbikes and be successful. Max Biaggi after all went into World Superbikes and won two titles. But then, how about from road racing to MotoGP. Many assume John McGuiness is a road racer only, when actually he has won the 250cc British Championship, and scored points at MotoGP. He’s smooth, great for current prototype racing, but in his interview with PistonHeads, says he wasn’t aggressive enough in circuit racing suit it. Put him on the island though, and things are different. How would a rider like, say, Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo fair? They are better track riders, of this there is little doubt, but how about as road racers?
The bikes. The fastest bikes that McGuiness races are Superbikes, akin to the bikes in World Superbikes. Thing is, the setup is wildly different. The bikes are setup for stability at speed. The more settled the bike, the longer you can keep it pinned and the faster you’ll go on the mega straights of road racing. Guy Martin even said technique comes into it. When you’re on the straights, the tiny bumps on the road no one notices at 40mph are like speed bumps at close to 200mph. To keep the bars straight you need to lock your arms against your knees. Would the safety conscious riders of MotoGP even be able to comprehend things like this? They would certainly have no experience of how they’d need the bike setup.
Then there’s track knowledge. The Isle of Man course has some 200+ corners. McGuiness for years wouldn’t let the organisers put a camera on the front of his bike so no one could learn his lines. He’s the fastest man round the island, not just because of his riding ability, but because of his ability to find the best line, consistently, on the roads. His ability to remember the tiny bumps in the tarmac that slow you down. It’s easy to look at a track and find the best line. Now try looking at the road. Not so easy aye, with that lamp post there? Now remember it for 200 bends. If you want to go faster round the island, you don’t lean over further, so your elbow scrapes on the floor. You find a better line.
Road racing on tracks like the Isle of Man are time trials. You’re not racing the guy ahead. You need focus. It’s you and the track. It’s nailing qualifying laps, but for over an hour and a half. You need to push yourself, as far as possible, and keep it up. Rossi is notoriously a poor qualifier, and it’s something he has had to work on in recent years. He loves the racing. He might lack the calculated speed of a road racer. Even if he doesn’t, road racers are stronger in this field.
Then there’s the changing conditions. Ever seen the North West 200? It’s a road circuit like the Isle of Man, but everyone races at once. Anyway, it sits in Northern Island, and runs near the cost, and typically under grey clouds. The corners can offer different grip every bend, you need to read the road, the conditions and adjust. The Isle of Man has sections covered by trees, and they can stay damp all day. Miss the damp, change your line, and you’re fast. Catch a wet patch, feel the real slide, and your confidence is gone for 25 miles.
How about traction control? Road racers can’t use in most championships, and at the Isle of Man it’s no different. There’s nothing there to save you, if you twist too much, it’ll sit you to the moon. Which brings us on to the next factor.
Lorenzo is a corner speed rider, that is what has won him two MotoGP titles. On a superbike, this isn’t such an important skill. Try nerve and confidence in your own abilities. Now, I’m not saying that Lorenzo doesn’t have either. He does, plenty. But there are few people in the world who’d trust themselves and the bike beneath them enough to match the speeds the top Isle of Man riders do. Hit a bump and pull a huge wheelie, but keep it pinned so as not to lose time. That needs bottle. Breaking the lap record on the first lap, on cold tyres, from a standing start. Trust it all the way. The best line through this bend means your shoulder just skims the wall of a barn. A word like ‘madness’ would come out of most of our lips. Words like ‘it’s the fastest way’ come from the road riders.
Of course any rider can learn a new discipline. Perhaps the current greats of MotoGP would be excellent Isle of Man racers. Show them the track tomorrow though, give them a month to learn it, and the top road racers would still win. MotoGP racers have gallons of the specific skills they need for their type of racing. Road racers have equal measures of the specific skills they need for their type of racing. Just because you’ve got skills for one type doesn’t mean they’ll be transferable to another, or that you’ll be able to get an equal amount of skill in the ones you’re missing.
So, next time you tell your buddies that Conor Cummins isn’t as good as Dani Pedrosa, remember that Cummins has the second fastest time ever round the Isle of Man TT, and races in a completely different discipline. You wouldn’t say Usain Bolt was a better runner than Mo Farah, would you?