Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - Homage to Catalunya is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

Homage to Catalunya

In September Scotland will decide whether it wants to split from Great Britain, after three centuries together. Two months later the Catalan people will vote in a referendum to decide whether Catalunya will split from Spain, also after 300 years together, following the conquest of the region by the Bourbon kings.

This is a huge political issue, much bigger than anything to do with motorcycling, but if Catalunya does gain the independence it craves it will become the greatest bike racing nation on earth, even greater than Spain.

All three current Word Champions – Marc Márquez, Pol Espargaró and Maverick Viñales – are Catalans. On Sunday all three races were won by Catalans – Márquez the elder and the younger and Tito Rabat. And each time the Spanish national anthem played as the winners stood atop the podium the grandstand crowd loudly booed and whistled its disapproval. They want to listen to a Catalan national anthem, not Spain’s Marcha Real.

Catalunya and motorcycling go together like fish and chips in Britain. “Bikes are in the character of the people in and around Barcelona,” top Spanish bike journalist Juan Pedro de la Torre told me. “It’s not quite the same in Madrid.”

Pol Espargaró, one of four Catalans in the top seven in the current MotoGP points standings, was born and bred in Granollers, just three miles from the Catalunya track, which hosted its first GP in May 1992, 11 months after he was born. Ever since he was a toddler he can remember hearing bikes warming up for the Grand Prix. Like most Catalan riders, Espargaró usually does his post-race interviews in two languages: Spanish and Catalan, because the locals don’t want to hear their riders speaking in a foreign tongue.

The home of Spanish motorcycling

The question, of course, is why are Catalans so damn good at riding motorcycles? To answer that question, just like any other, you need to look at history.

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

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I understand the point of Matt’s Blog is to pay homage to a region where many great motorcyclists have originated, however the matter of independence is really quite delicate and should not be touched upon lightly.

Judging from the comments, I don’t think there are many readers and contributors from Spain on this site (and in that I include Catalonia), so you shouldn’t get many inflammatory posts defending either position, but I must warn you that the article contains some misguided comments and generalizations that could achieve just that. I will try and avoid being the one who sparks that debate off, but I just wanted to warn you of the sensitivities around the topic.

And just to illustrate that please take Márquez’s comment. He can’t express his real feelings for fear of upsetting either of the camps. This is not new. When Spain won the World Cup 4 years ago Jorge Lorenzo (who isn’t Catalan although he lives in Barcelona) was asked a few days before the Montmeló race if he would wear the Spanish jersey on the podium if he won. He said he wouldn’t because he thought it could be a sensitive issue…Ironically, Pedrosa (who is from Barcelona), did wear jersey standing on the number 1 step on the podium when he won the race.

For me the message is that it is best to depoliticize sport. Sport is a universal currency, and its root is in human endeavor, transcending nationality. If issues of nationality can taint the sport, then we should leave them aside.

And just a correction, Angel Nieto is actually not from Madrid, but from Zamora in the north west of Spain. His family moved to Madrid when he was still a baby. Angel Nieto is also the 2nd most successful rider ever (by world championships) or 3rd (by race victories 90). He is the true center of motorcycling in Spain but his name hardly comes up on this blog, as small categories seem to be of little significance to much of the reader base. Interestingly, as Venancio Nieto pointed out a few months back on this site, one of the reasons why he could never move to the higher classes was because the Japanese facttories boycotted him in response to the Spanish limits on imports to protect our the local industry (as Matt pointed out).

I have lived in Spain mostly since 1966, with my time and friendships divided between Madrid and Barcelona. The Catalan question is not something you can even begin to understand from superficial observations. Some of the Catalan riders are very fiercely against independence and there are some paddock members from Madrid who believe Spain hold a referendum and then abide by the decision. My own country had a civil war that ended in 1865 and even now there are some hot cinders that can burst into flame if exposed. Imagine what the period from the Second Republic until today…the very day that Juan Carlos I is replaced by Felipe VI…has been like. Mixing politics with sport in Spain (or anywhere) is to risk treading in a third rail.
To ask Spanish riders about their opinions on these matters is insensitive. Lorenzo´s decision not to carry the flag was a personal one made in order not to introduce politics into sport. My wife and I have walked the tightrope in Spain for four decades. We once had a neighbor who spent years in a concentration camp because of his affiliation with the Republic and a very close friend who, before his death a few years back, was an officer in the Blue Division (fighting for the Third Reich in the Siege of Stalingrad). When circumstances found us all together at a dinner we talked exclusively about bikes…about who would win in 1988 between Sito Pons and Joan Garriga. It was a very pleasant meal with some dark looks across the table. As Fawlty said, "Try not to mention the war!"

Me too! I've enjoyed Dennis' wonderful journalistic work since the mid 1970s ... and have fond memories of watching him race at the Montjuic 24 hours in the late 70s-early 80s ... good old days.
By the way, I smiled at Noyes' reference to Fawlty Towers. If I remember correctly, Manuel--the waiter--came from Barcelona, of all places ...

I have always liked the commentating style of Mr. Dennis Noyes and I remember some of the technical inputs he would give when Mr. Nick Harris was at a loss for words (no disrespect for Mr. Harris). Good to read your post Mr. Noyes. Certainly a pleasure.

This is a very delicate question and I don't want to flame up a debate either. I have quite a few friends in Tarragona, but still I don't feel like I can completely grasp what they feel about this issue.

Most of the people in Europe (and South America, for that matter) are probably watching the Soccer (or football as we call it) World Cup at the moment. The thing I always loved about GP compared to football: Other than for marketing reasons and winning more spectators in a given country, I don't feel anybody cares too much about the riders nationalities. At least I don't. Nobody would ever bring hundreds of national flags or paint themselves like tribal warriors to watch a race. I've never heard of different groups of fans beating each other up after a race, out of frustration because "their" rider didn't win.

Of course, nationality might still be a reason why you're feeling sympathy towards a certain rider. But for me at least, I don't care too much about it. I'm not italian nor am I spanish (or catalonian). I don't care if Catalunya is clearly dominating this sport at the moment. I love to see every single one of them ride. They way I see it, Catalunya is dominating because they're supporting their young talents in the most clever way. They're running the best racing series for youngsters and, as a consequence, they probably have the highest number of devoted fans. As long as other countries or regions in Europe don't step it up a notch, riders from all over Europe (and the world) will have to keep moving to Catalunya, if they wan't to make it in GP. Just like Miller did and just like Stoner and many others have done before him.

Thank you for the great post and excellent comments. As a native Barcelonian (as well as a historian and a life-long student of Spanish culture) I agree that the issue of Catalan independence is a most complex and delicate one, so I won't even try to enter that discussion here. My contribution is much more modest: Matt's list of Catalan GP winners (that is, GP winners born in Catalonia) should also include the great Benjamin Grau, who (in addition to being a multiple endurance and Spanish championship winner) won the 125cc race at the Spanish GP at Montjuic in 1974 (same year as Víctor Palomo won the 250 cc race).

Yes, Grau belongs on that list. Just had dinner at "Min´" pizza restaurants with Jaime Alguersuari, Eduardo Giró and other friends. We talked about everything from Santi Herrero´s steering head dampener to the RC213V gearbox…four hours of steady race talk and no mention of politics, independence and none of us was paying much attention to the football game in Brazil…good thing too. It was depressing. Jaime´s theory…the players were burned out from la liga and the European. Eduardo´s theory---Yamaha are into the whole bike as a flow and Honda perfect details…and they now have so many details right that the balanced and graceful Yamaha wins the corner beauty contest but not the race.

"So it all comes down to uniting local hardware and humans. During the first four seasons of World Championship racing from 1949 to 1952, all 16 world titles were won by British and Italian riders, because those were the countries making the best motorcycles."

Clearly, the Japanese motorcycles have been the best for some decades now. Which begs the question - where are all the Japanese champions?