History was made at Magny-Cours this weekend. Strictly speaking, history is made every time motorcycles go racing, but Magny-Cours will feature prominently in the history books. Jonathan Rea confirmed his status as arguably the best World Superbike rider of all time, taking his fourth title in succession with a win in Race 1 on Saturday, and matching Carl Fogarty's tally of four WorldSBK titles.
Impressive as Rea's achievement is – and it should not be underestimated, despite those who say that Fogarty faced tougher competition – what Magny-Cours will be remembered for above all is Ana Carrasco becoming the first woman rider to win an FIM-sanctioned world championship. For the first time ever, we have what the Spanish call a "campeona", rather than a "campeon".
It was a fitting end to the 2018 WorldSSP300 championship, and illustrative of just how fierce the series can be. Carrasco came into the final round of WorldSSP300 with a 10 point advantage, and hot favorite to lift the title. But two tough sessions of practice meant she missed out on Q2, and ended up starting from 25th on the grid.
Close, tense, tough
Carrasco fought her way through the field in the race, taking her Kawasaki Ninja 400 to within 2.5 seconds of the eventual winner, Dani Valle. But so close is the WorldSSP300 class that 2.5 seconds meant that she crossed the line in 13th position.
For a long time, it looked like Carrasco would see the title slip out of her hands. Her main title rival, Dutch rider Scott Deroue, led the race for a while, and was battling in the front group. Deroue needed to make good 10 points on Carrasco, but the Spaniard was still well outside the points in the early stages, and Deroue believed he was closing in on the championship. Until disaster struck on lap 5, that is, with a problem with the gear linkage ending the Dutchman's race.
Carrasco was still not out of the woods, however. Mika Perez¸third in the championship and trailing Carrasco by 18 points coming into Magny-Cours, was in among the leaders. As long as Carrasco was outside the points, Perez needed a win, or a second place to take the title. The Spaniard was engaged in a fierce battle in a big pack of riders, including, ironically, Maria Herrera, the other woman racing in WorldSSP300. (There was a third woman rider on the grid at Magny-Cours: French wildcard Steffie Naud.)
The championship was still wide open with three laps to go. Carrasco had fought her way into the points, and was in the midst of a huge group battling basically for the lead. Perez, meanwhile, was caught up in the fight at the front, swapping freely among the top five or six places, Magny-Cours' layout offering plenty of chances to overtake. Perez snuck into the lead with a brave pass with just a few corners to go, but Dani Valle had the measure of Perez into the final chicane. Valle won, edging out Perez, while Carrasco held on to 13th position to take 3 vital points, 1 more than Perez.
The race was archetypal for the WorldSSP300 class. Underpowered bikes subject to a strict monitoring regime is almost a cast-iron guarantee of close racing. Half of the series eight races were decided by fractions of a second, with large groups fighting for victory. In the other half, the margin of victory might have been larger, but the battle for the other podium places was just as close, and just as busy. WorldSSP300 has been an exciting series.
It has also been a tough series to manage. The idea behind the WorldSSP300 class is excellent. Manufacturers are selling more and more small capacity sports bikes, both in the East and in the West, so racing them is an obvious choice. But the approach of each manufacturer has been different, from Yamaha's 321cc twin, to KTM's 373cc single, to Kawasaki's 399cc twin, and Honda's 471cc twin. Each engine is in a very different state of tune, and weights vary enormously.
Balancing the performance of the various bikes has been hard. The Kawasaki, for example, has had 14kg of ballast added through the season, to slow the bike down. But the fact that three manufacturers – KTM, Kawasaki, and Yamaha – have won races shows that it can be done, and that doing so has provided close and entertaining racing.
That close and entertaining racing has meant that margins of victory have been slim. The fact that the championship was decided by a single point seems fitting. It reflects just how tough this class has been.
Team, bike, rider
But it is also fitting that Ana Carrasco should emerge victorious. The DS Junior Team Kawasaki rider won two of the eight WorldSSP300 races, and did so convincingly both times. She was competitive in the first half of the season, suffering the handicap of extra weight in the second half, but still finding the fortitude to do what was needed in the final race to carry the title.
This, perhaps, is why Carrasco's championship is so important. The fact that she became the first woman to win a world championship is significant. But more important is that she proved that on equal terms, in the right team, on the right bike, and with the right support, it is talent, not gender, which counts.
It seems obvious that talent is the most important factor in racing. But the gender debate had been skewed by the fact that both Ana Carrasco and Maria Herrera had raced in the Moto3 world championship. There they had been in the lower half of the championship, regularly scoring points, but outside the top ten. When they were in good teams, they were the second riders, clearly at a disadvantage to their teammates. When they were in mediocre teams, they were on a par with their teammates.
Women, it was said, would never be successful in motorcycle racing. It was a man's sport.
In Magny-Cours, Ana Carrasco proved that to be a shibboleth. Carrasco found herself in the DS Junior team, run by David Salom. A well-oiled team with the resources to be competitive, racing the Kawasaki Ninja 400, a bike which had proved its mettle. With all the elements in place, Carrasco took on all comers, and emerged triumphant.
The WorldSSP300 class is not the cream of the crop, nor is it meant to be. It is a developmental class, for rider on their way up, and those looking for a second chance. But the level is good, and the competition is fierce. Ana Carrasco was given a good chance in a good team on a good bike, and she capitalized on it. This title counts for something, not because of Carrasco's gender, but because of the level of competition she faced to win it.
Changing the face of racing?
Does Ana Carrasco becoming the first ever woman to win a motorcycle road racing world championship change the face of racing? The answer to that is complicated. The fact that three years ago, there were two woman racing in Moto3 was already a major step forward. Carrasco's WorldSSP300 title will not revolutionize racing, but it will give it another push in a more gender-equal direction. We won't suddenly see a spate of female champions in the next five years. But the long-term effects could be very significant indeed.
Success for any group, in any sport, is basically a numbers game. In the case of motorcycle racing, the more racers from a particular country, or a particular region, or of a particular gender, the greater the chance that one of them will eventually become successful at the highest level of racing.
Why are there so many successful Spanish and Italian racers in Grand Prix racing? Because tens of thousands of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on minibikes each weekend. And thousands of thousands of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on small wheel racing bikes each weekend. And hundreds of Spanish and Italian youngsters go racing on big wheel bikes each weekend. And eventually, a handful of them end up in the Grand Prix or WorldSBK paddocks.
Visit those minibike races, and you might see a couple of girls race at each meeting. If there is statistically a 1 in 10,000 chance of making it through to a world championship from the lowest level of racing, then you need 10,000 girls racing to be almost certain that one young woman will succeed at the highest level. If Ana Carrasco can encourage more young girls to go racing, and perhaps more importantly, persuade the parents of young girls that going motorcycle racing is a perfectly valid thing for a young girl to want to do, then eventually, more girls will make their way through the system to the top. It may take longer than five years, but in fifteen years, we may start to feel the real impact of Carrasco's achievement.
Ana Carrasco makes for a pretty good role model, too. The 21 year old from Murcia, in Eastern Spain, is studying for her law degree while she races. She works incredibly hard, as her social media profiles show. She trains hard, and she prepares thoroughly, all the while keeping a smile on her face and a professional demeanor. She is an intelligent interview partner, and presents herself well wherever she appears. Carrasco is someone who young riders, male and female, can look up to, and be inspired by.
On the shoulders of giants
Carrasco is the latest in a long line of female pioneers in motorcycle racing. Many women have preceded her, opening doors which the Spaniard has been able to pass through on her way to a world championship. Maria Herrera won a race in the FIM CEV Moto3 championship. Elena Myers won an AMA Supersport race, and became the highest-placed woman at Daytona. Melissa Paris became the first woman to qualify for a World Supersport race. Taru Rinne was the first woman to score points in Grand Prix racing, Katja Poensgen competed for two seasons in 250s, scoring points in 2001. Jenny Tinmouth took the record for the fastest lap of the Isle of Man TT circuit from Maria Costello, while Carolynn Sells was the first woman to win a race on the Mountain Course at the Isle of Man, winning the lightweight class at the Manx GP.
These modern racers probably owe a debt of gratitude to Beryl Swain, the original 'Girl Racer'. Swain finished 22nd in the 50cc class in the Isle of Man TT in 1962, and this caused such a panic that the organizers created a minimum weight limit to prevent women from competing. That ban would stand until 1978, when attitudes started slowly to change.
Ana Carrasco's world title is a logical stop on the way to equality in motorcycle racing. Weight and size are no limit to success, as Dani Pedrosa has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. Gender is no limit to success, as Carrasco's championship proves. A talented rider, with a strong team around them, on a competitive bike, can succeed in motorcycle racing.
Ana Carrasco has already left a lasting legacy in motorcycle racing. Her achievements are beyond question, her title deserved beyond doubt. Yet it is her slogan which may yet have the greatest effect. "Ride like a girl" may once have been perceived as an insult in the chauvinist and misogynistic world of motorcycle racing. Now, "Ride like a girl" means ride so fast that you become world champion. Millions of men and boys will be wishing that they could ride like a girl. Because if you can ride like a girl like Ana Carrasco, then you too can become a world champion.
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