Is Spanish domination Good For Grand Prix racing?

Coming into the last lap of 2012 Czech Republic Grand Prix many fans fell back in love with MotoGP series. It does not happen very often, but victory at Brno was still to be decided with just a single lap to go. Spaniards Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo were pushing each other using not just every MotoGP riding trick they had, but also everything they learnt since the pair were still young and wild 125 class riders.

If you are a true road racing enthusiast and love the action on the track, whatever the national flag a race winner may be carrying on the lap of honor, I am sure you really enjoined the battle at Brno between Pedrosa and Lorenzo. After all, if watching a MotoGP bike and rider perform at their maximum is a pleasure on its own, watching two fighting for victory on the last lap definitely brings some glorious memories back, including Roberts-Spencer, Gardner-Lawson, Rainey-Schwantz, Doohan-Crivillé or Rossi-Biaggi as some of the toughest encounters on the track.

The battle between Pedrosa and Lorenzo at Brno was great racing but, with the unfortunate absence of Casey Stoner and the Aussie’s plans to retire at the end of 2012 season, this battle left the pinnacle of road racing in the hands of Spanish riders too, as has been happening with Moto2, 125 or Moto3 series in the last few years.

The domination of Spanish riders in every class of the World Championship may be boring for some fans outside Spain. If you add the fact of up to four events in Spain and the strong influence of a Spanish company as organizer of the championship, it may definitely create an excessive aggregation of Spanish interests on the track.

However, it is easy to distract ourselves with national feelings and guess whether the domination of Spanish riders is good for the championship or not, which has for sure its own answer, and not pay attention to the real question; which is "Why do Spanish riders enjoy such a dominant position in the World Championship?" An early answer to this question could arguably be found at the Brno racetrack on the afternoon of August 27, back in the 1989 season.

The End Of A Generation

Two years before the country became the separate Czech and Slovak republics, the 1989 Czechoslovak Grand Prix at Brno saw the last ever race of the 80cc class on Saturday afternoon and crowned Spanish rider Manuel «Champi» Herreros as last ever world champion of the smallest class.

On Sunday morning Álex Crivillé won the 125 title after a great rookie season against Italian Ezio Gianola, Spaniard Jorge Martínez and Dutchman Hans Spaan. In the 250 class Sito Pons had already won his second title in a row some weeks before at British Grand Prix, and only Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey were still in the fight for the 500 class title, to be decided in Brazil three weeks later at Goiania.

That was three of the four classes won but, as a kind of tradition in Grand Prix racing, Spanish riders never had any chances in the top class clearly dominated then by Japanese manufactures with no interest in them. The reason for this could be easily found in quite a bizarre political decision some decades back, with the restrictive laws introduced by General Franco on imports of Japanese motorcycles into the Spanish market. The idea seemed to be to protect the Spanish manufacturers like Bultaco, Ossa, Derbi or Montesa against Japanese international domination, but in fact most of those companies were already in bankruptcy.

During the eighties things started to change, as restrictive business laws were slowly modified. Honda officially entered the Spanish market buying Montesa, Suzuki did so with Spanish subsidiary of the Austrian manufacturer Puch, Kawasaki joined with Derbi and Yamaha did so with a company called Semsa, that later became Yamaha Motor España.

Spanish riders became more interesting in matters of marketing and at the end of the decade Sito Pons, Juan Garriga and Carlos Cardús secured the best leased 250 bikes from Honda and Yamaha but, as Pons confessed to this writer on the flight back from the Japanese Grand Prix in 2011; «Honda had Gardner and Doohan in the 500’s at the time and did not want me to move up to the top class yet. I had already won two 250 crowns in 88’ and 89’ and they want me to stay at the 250 class in order to win a third one, but I finally got an agreement to lease 500’s for the 1990 season. And then we opened the door for Spaniards in the top class with Álex Crivillé, Alberto Puig and Carlos Checa in the following years».

Coming back to the end of 1989 season for 80 and 125 classes, we see that day at Brno as an important date because after that, there was no other Spanish road racing world champion for the following ten seasons. Even having three of four champions, the Spanish national championship was at a very low level. The 125 class was dominated by experienced riders, the 250 class was almost non-existent, and the best Superbike and Supersport –or F2 class at the time- riders and teams were far behind the best in the then recently created World Superbike Championship.

A New Plan

The nineties was the time there for the Italians Luca Cadalora, Loris Capirossi, Alessandro Gramigni, Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi, and also for Japanese riders like Noboru Ueda, Tetsuya Harada, Kazuto Sakata or the Aoki brothers, while Spanish wins were very few and very far between. Production racing for youngsters was the base of the Italian and Japanese successes, and world championship Spanish promoter Dorna clearly saw the future of racing in promotional young talent cups combined with a strong national road racing championship.

A new era started in 1993 with Open Ducados international championship, what was basically the old sub-par Spanish national road racing championship with a strong sponsor behind it, a growing number of racetracks in the country and also a series open to riders from all countries. In the years that followed, promotional racing was the big deal for the future. Aprilia Bancaja and Caja Madrid cups were some of the first few, and Jorge Lorenzo is maybe the best knowm name from those grids, followed by the Movistar Activa Cup at the end of the nineties, with Dani Pedrosa, Alvaro Bautista and some other important names who were just starting racing then.

As time went by the Open Ducados became the CEV Spanish National Championship. Still open to foreign riders and with new racetracks everywhere in the country in the following years, the CEV became the biggest rider contributor -up to 75% of them- to world championship grids today in every class.

If we focus our attention on the sport, you do not find too many countries doing anything similar in recent years. The Spanish passion for road racing –the country's climate makes it a paradise for motorcycling riding-, the strong support from sponsorship and the number of racetracks available can explain today’s Spanish domination at the world championship.

So, as it happened with American and Australian riders in the 500 class, Italian and Japanese riders in the 90’s or the heritage of Italian god Valentino Rossi in the first decade of this century, we are living now in an era of Spanish domination. Being a Spaniard road racing enthusiast of more than 25 years now, I feel road racing has always had its heroes and villains, no matter what their nationalities were. Of course, I became a bit bored watching Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan, Max Biaggi or Valentino Rossi winning race after race with no chances for any Spaniard, but I also knew they were the best riders of their generation, and the truly sad thing then would have been watching them being beaten by riders with better machinery. It did not happen then, as it does not happen today.

Maybe it’s time for some other countries to give more support their own riders because many of them still come to CEV championship –including MotoGP reigning champion Casey Stoner-, to find their own way in road racing.

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What a great article, thank you.

The state of Australian road racing leaves me in despair...

The widespread beige-cardiganism isn't helping. We're rapidly becoming, if we haven't yet, a nanny nation of sheltered cowards that poo-poo anything remotely dangerous or interesting. TAC in Victoria is actively trying to kill motorcycling, for example. With attitudes like that, how can we expect to have a generation of kids growing up around bikes and racing them?

I know there is still VR next year, (and poor ol Ianone can only get a Duc Satalite), but adding another spaniard to premier class next year will addup to a more "boring" champaionsip. this is why SBK is getting more interesting. besides, it's commng to my country!

Sure, another Spaniard (Márquez) is coming, but two are leaving (Barberá--staying in MotoGP but on a CRT--and most likely Bautista) so in the end there will be fewer Spaniards aiming at the top positions, not more. Also, the assertion that Márquez's arrival will make the championship more boring is, at the very least, debatable ...

I ran into him about a year ago at the local maccers, we grew up using the same dirt tracks in Wollongong (we're not friends so as to speak, simply know each other by sight), he was quite open that Spain is where you must be if you wish to be fast enough to race at the elite level. He has since sold his family farm (as he said he would) and has relocated to Spain indefinitely to give his sons the best chance possible - I think he might be giving his boys a little easier than ride into the sport than he had... Good on him.

You're point is valid in terms of rider development (the story is a fabulous read and thanks for that - more of this informed retrospective view would be brilliant), however its the overall market appeal which will see the sport grow and develop, or fade slowly away. Just because Spain is the current centre does not mean it will remain so. England was the home of cricket, now its India, there are many examples of sports diverging from their current stronghold only to be surpassed by the new adopter, particularly if that new adopter is also growing its economy rapidly.

I do not begrudge the Spanish riders their success, in fact more power to them, they are sublimely skilled and I yes I loved that last lap you reference but it does not mean that Dorna is doing the right by continuing to focus and refocus its product, being a WORLD championship, in a domestic market. Most entreprunerial run sports realise that to expand they have to take a few losses and run rounds where there is no particular interest at the moment, they build momentum in countries this way. They will subsidise teams for these rounds, not for simply competing, Dorna should consider China as WSBK has done with Russia.

The biggest problem with Aus road racing is the vastness of the country and its small population, to run a national championship our riders may need to traval up to 3000ks between venues, most cannot and wont do that.

The pendulum will swing again and, as you noticed in that pivotal moment of 1989, you might also see the next shift as well. What will be the driver? Rules, Money, Technology, Environmental concerns? Who knows but its coming, it always is.

re: "I do not begrudge the Spanish riders their success"

you, me... but nobody else.

re: "Most entreprunerial run sports realise that to expand they have to take a few losses and run rounds where there is no particular interest at the moment, they build momentum in countries this way."

do they...? says what economic force...?

re: "Dorna should consider China"

ooops, been there, tried that.

Perhaps you're right? Maybe all sports move via migration flows, or the indigenous holidaying abroad, or maybe they expand into other markets via twitter.

Why does any business try new markets? Is that not an economic opportunity? (Not sure about "force", sounds to certain)

China? So one go is enough? A quarter or so of the world's population and its written off.

Oops? try, again, and again...

'Dorna should consider China and Russia'. I couldn't agree more. And the rest of Asia, and more in South America. It's great having most of the rounds within easy flying distance and feasible riding distance of home - UK for me. But what does that do for sponsorship? The market sponsors can reach is drastically reduced - hence Repsol being Honda's title sponsor. Where are the global brands that could inject the sponsorship the sport so badly needs. They are not interested because it is a minority sport in a mature and currently distressed market. If we had the sponsorship we would not need all the rule changing to try and get more riders on the grid. MotoGP should be about the very best riders from the world on the very best prototype machinery - just as F1 manages.

There is a big tendency from the commentor to bash Spain in the GP sport.
I am a German that lives in Spain for a few years now and I think they deserve every Rider and every Race they have in Spain right now. Why?
Because they are cracy about MotoGP, they just love it and they pay for this with the little money they have.
The articel mentions race tracks. Comming for Germany where there is a total of 4 reasonable race tracks, Spain is paradise. Lots of them build in recent years, up to a world class standard. Most of them with the support or even completly in the name of the local region. I have been to a track day in Motorland some weeks ago and it's fantastic, and build by the region of Aragon. Let's not forget Motorland jumped on the calender at short notice when the alternative could have been cancelation, because the race track in Hungary (? I believe) was not ready.

Than there are the sponsors, where would MotoGP and more importantly Moto3 and Moto2 teams be without spanish sponsorship money?

The author didn't mention the Moto2 class in the CEV championship. Almost all other national championships prefer racing Supersport instead of Moto2. Understandibly, because there is more national sponsorship for the bikes closer to the once that get sold to the public. However a Supersport doesn't prepare you for a Moto2 ride as well as a Moto2 ride! So Spain will continue to dominate here to, and very rightly so.

News coverage: In Spain you can watch almost all free practices live in free TV and you definetley can watch Qualifiing and the Race live wherever the race is. On top of that there is an extra one or two hours background information and discussions.
The next day you will find about a page or two in the national newpapers, covering the races. Up to last year MotoGP has been for 30 years on the state TV, e.g. no advertising breaks, unfortunatley this years it went to Tele5 with picture in picture breaks.

Yes there might be 4 races in Spain and Spain is only a small country with 40M people, but nevertheless the 4 races are full with people. I find nothing more sad than seeing races with completly empty stands, like at so many rounds that apparently are soo important that MotoGP goes there.

What I am saying is. Spain is MotoGP and even the people that don't care about bikes, still care about the sport. That's how you sell sponsorship and that's how you get people to the track and spend their money there.

So unless you can convince your local politition to take tax payers money to build a world class race track, have the tax payer financed TV station to buy MotoGP rights for 30 years, have some regions to take the tax payers money from the tourism board to sponsor a team, have your national companies to sponsor tracks as well as teams in the CEV national championship as well as Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP I guess Spain just deserves more races in the moment.

I'm nuts about the history of all types of motorcycle racing, and I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of information. I love to hear where the sport came from, which also gives a hint about where it's going. Personally, I'm a huge fan of Spanish riders [Especially Alvaro Bautista and Dani Pedrosa (even in 2006)]. I admire their graceful style compared to the fiery aggression of the Italians, which I also enjoy. Spain is the dominant force behind grand prix racing right now, and I think there's discussion to be had about whether the corporate influence is due to rider domination or vice versa. However, the lower ranks of the Italian series are seeing a resurgence just as Spain saw a decade ago. So, Spanish riders, sponsors and fans shouldn't get too comfortable at the top.

Would I prefer to see an American win?.... yeah, sure

Do I get turned off if a rider from another country wins?.... not in the slightest

What do I really really care about?... That the best riders in the world are going at each other. If Spain or Italy has honed and cultivated the best riders at the moment and then tend to dominate, so be it. It is the other countries job to react and go and beat them. That's part of the excitement.

Thanks for a great article.

Thanks to Mr Nieto for the very interesting perspective on the current state of GP racing.

As any spaniard who was unfortunate enough to live on the wrong side of the fence under Franco will certainly attest, domination is not desirable. In the long run, things will always be worse than they were before the dominant force established it's power.

In the case of motorcycle GP, there are so many fundamental problems currently preparing it's collapse that spanish riders domination appears very trivial to me. Just like for any other professional sport (and that includes the "non-professional" olympics), low-level commercialism is slowly but surely destroying the very roots of what made said sports so interesting in the first place.

For the most part, Casey Stoner is right in his badmouthing of the sport that made him rich. Unfortunately, and typically, he offers no solution. For GP racing to go back to the riders, it would need to get rid of the mega-buck sponsors, which in turn would mean going back to lower tech and much less costly machinery, along with much lower salaries for the top riders. On the other hand, that would probably provide vastly more interesting racing. After all, if there is one thing that the recent years have proven, it's that higher technology does not necessarily provide better racing.

For a reality check, get a copy of Pierre-William Glenn's fantastic "Cheval de Fer" (literally, "Iron Horse"), a movie about GP racing shot in 1973. Quite an eye opener for someone who has been raised in the energy drink period...

the Spanish have generated the ideal environment to develop riders with their circuits and race series, open to all nationalities too, whilst they have a circus, oops, ......" promoter ", such as Dorna that are doing their utmost ( very successfully too !! ) to destroy the very premier series that their proteges from the race series aspire to compete in.

Gracias, Senor Luis Nieto, terrific article. Here in the USA roadracing's top series is dominated not by Spaniards but by greedy businessmen. There is no renewed groundswell of world caliber talent and the prospects are discouraging. Like many of the observers of motorcycle roadracing I would encourage young talented Americans to go East young man go East!
As for MotoGP being dominated by Spaniards, so what? The best have to come from someplace, right?

Great article, but I do expect always more from this website :) ... anyway, the end of this championship is passionating, spanish or not (I reaaaaally don't care), I love Pedrosa's "come back", and I respect so much Lorenzo's talent and intelligence.

The better will win.

I love spanish "way of winning" these days, work, humility, intelligence, talent, work, work work and talent ... Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Nadal, Alonso, Iniesta, Xavi, Gasol ... wow!

From a french point of view, we have so much young talents, great meteo in the south, good tracks, lots of passion too ... but very very few money for promote this sport, almost no TV, ecology lobbying bullshit, it's a shame ... Zarco could be the one...

But honnestly, Rossi gave me the interest and passion for this sport, Stoner showed me what a true alien is, I rided a lot with spanish, holland, belgium, germany guys at a crap level... nationality doesn't matter

will chip away at the Spaniards next year , Redding , Smith & Rea will be on a learning curve.. 2014 could possibly see a genuine British title contender or 2

I'm one of the anti-Spaniard fans. It's not that I have any problem with that country or the people that live there (far from it). It's just that I've always been the type to root for the underdog. With all of the advantages that Spanish riders have in MotoGP (and good for them and all), rooting for a Spanish rider is like rooting for the Yankees in baseball: they SHOULD win, as the deck is always stacked in their favor.

So, since there hasn't been a competitive American in some time, I usually watch race weekends with these priorities in mind:
1.) Close racing.
2.) Close championship.
3.) Winners from anywhere but Spain--poorly funded (i.e. CRT), incompetent (i.e. Ducati), or otherwise disadvantaged riders: even better.

Spanish winners or not, MotoGP has largely become a sideshow to me, anyway, taking a backseat to the awesome displays in Moto2 and Moto3.

*Sorry, this was not meant to be a reply to the above comment.