The MotoGP world championship may be on its summer break, but there is still plenty of intrigue and rumour to get us through July. Last week we chatted to Gavin Emmett, BT Sport’s lead MotoGP commentator, about the shock news of Maverick Viñales’ divorce from Yamaha and Valentino Rossi’s retirement dilemma, among other things. Now, in the second edition of our three part interview, we talk about British involvement in MotoGP.
The retirements of Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith meant that 2021 has been the first season since 2010 where there has been no British participation in the premier motorcycle class. With championship promoters Dorna keen to get a Brit back on the grid, there’s much speculation as to whether or not a Rossi retirement would leave space for Jake Dixon or Sam Lowes to move up from Moto2 and take his slot at the Petronas SRT Yamaha squad.
While BT Sport’s Gavin Emmett doesn’t know whether or not we’ll see a Brit in MotoGP next season, he certainly hopes so. “We are desperate for a Brit,” he told Inside Bikes. “We love to champion the Brits on our channel. Some viewers don’t like it if we go on too much about John McPhee, Sam Lowes or Jake Dixon, but we like to follow their stories. We did the same with Cal Crutchlow, because we know many fans like to have a home hero you can identify with – that’s part of sport.”
Having had an unsuccessful shot at MotoGP with Aprilia in 2017, not many people are bandying Lowes’ name around for a return to the top class, although Gavin feels that the popular Lincolnshire rider shouldn’t be overlooked.
The multilingual commentator continues: “Sam has shown last year, and this, that he has the talent to cut it in MotoGP. I really believe that. Yes, he has had some issues with crashes in the past, but I would say that he has turned things around. I think he is young enough, but I also think he’s going to have to win the Moto2 championship to make any move to MotoGP happen. He’s 30, but people want a longer term project and even though I believe that Sam still has three, four or even five years at the top level, Jake will be the one they are looking at.”
At 25, Carole Nash backed Dixon is seen by many as the natural candidate to move to MotoGP, although things haven’t gone according to plan for the likeable Kent lad, who currently lies 21st in the championship to Lowes’ fourth.
“The question is whether or not Jake has done enough this year, or indeed last year, to warrant a move to MotoGP,” he continues. “Last year he made a massive step forward when he got on that Kalex bike. He didn’t win a race but almost did, which made you think ‘yep, he’s got the talent’ and that he could make the same move Fabio Quartararo did.
“The problem is what has happened this year. He’s been hampered at the start of the season by injury (a badly broken wrist sustained towards the end of the 2020 season). He won’t see that as an issue, but it is all preparation and he was a little behind the eight ball at the start of the year. He wasn’t able to test at Portimao and Jerez at the start of the year, when others were, for example.
“He had a great start to the year but crashed at round two and has never seemed able to recover.
“He may have been thrown a lifeline into MotoGP by Maverick Viñales leaving Yamaha but I believe that, for Jake’s confidence, he needs a result after the summer break. The break has come at the right time for him. He’s had a change of crew chief and it looks like, with Mark Woodage beside him, he has someone who has helped get his trust back. I think with a couple of results he can get the ride. The season restarts with two rounds in Austria and then at home in Silverstone, where I know he will shine.
“He doesn’t want a ride simply because he’s got a British passport but, of course, he’ll take it if it comes. If the chance does come, then there couldn’t be a better place than with his Petronas team. They absolutely love him and he feels comfortable in that team. There are a lot of Brits around in that squad and it would be a great environment for him to MotoGP with – and on a Yamaha, which is a bike on which rookies have performed well on in the past. The likelihood also is that he would be on a year old bike and that takes a bit of pressure away too.”
Having started his career working as an inhouse journalist for Dorna over two decades ago, Emmett has followed the path of many of the world’s best racers from rookies through to retirement, yet he remains frustrated at the lack of opportunities for Brits to make it to the GP paddock, the pinnacle of racing.
“I have worked in the Grand Prix paddock for 20 years and seen many initiatives over the years, which have helped the likes of Bradley Smith, Danny Webb and Scott Redding,” he continues. “It’s frustrating because I’ve always felt that with British riders it’s all directed towards the British superbike championship. That in itself is completely normal (because it is where the British teams and sponsors are) but that then sends riders to world superbike. Look at the front of world superbike.
“There’s a glut of British riders who are immensely fast and who could cut it in Grand Prix. Every single one of them could have cut it, and they did, in their own different ways. Chaz Davies did some impressive things in 250 Grands Prix. Jonny (Rea) did some stand in rides for Casey Stoner on the Repsol Honda and I thought he was absolutely brilliant. I really don’t get it when I hear people say ‘ah, he didn’t really cut it’! I feel like all the British talent is in world superbikes. They could be in the Grand Prix paddock, but they’ve gone the superbike route.”
Dorna’s latest talent programme is the British Talent Cup, which was launched in 2018 with a view to giving youngsters a path to MotoGP, and Gavin singled out that series’ first champion, young Scot Rory Skinner, as the one that got away. The now 19-year-old had spent three seasons in the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup competing against current Moto2 stars like Raul Fernandez, Ai Ogura and Fabio Di Giannantonio, but dropped back to compete in the first talent cup when sponsorship dried up. Now he’s ended up in British superbikes for 2021.
Gavin continued: “I always felt that Rory was the one that would do it. Right at the beginning, Neil Hodgson and Niall Mackenzie told me to keep an eye on him, and every time I saw him riding he looked right on the bike. As a kid he was excellent in the Red Bull Rookies. Look at the names he’s battled with and beaten, all doing the business in Moto2 now.
“Ultimately Rory was probably not at the right place at the right time. He was backed by Racing Steps Foundation, but they closed as he turned 16. I always thought that the reason he didn’t get the shot (at Moto3) was because he was too tall, and (Alberto) Puig (Honda Racing boss and head of Dorna’s Talent Promotion programme) didn’t like that.”
Despite the Scot missing out, his successor as British Talent Cup champion – Doncaster’s Scott Ogden – could well be a full-time fixture in the Moto3 world championship next season. His reward for winning the title was a spot in the fabled Red Bull Rookies and a supported ride for the Junior Talent Team in the Moto3 Junior World Championship, the feeder class deemed almost compulsory for any young rider with world championship aspirations, but which is reported to cost around £250k a year to compete in.
Ogden, who now races for the Aspar squad in the Spanish-based junior series, finished third in Barcelona last month and could well be in line to step up to the world series next year. “I was so pleased that he got that podium,” Emmett adds. “That possibly gets him a Moto3 ride next year. Just by doing that, and through his involvement with the Junior Talent Team. Dorna will look at that and say ‘we want to have more Brits come through. He’s got a podium and that’s good enough.’”
Despite having a busy life as a MotoGP journalist and a new father, Gavin still manages to keep an eye on the riders he hopes to be commenting on in years to come. He continues: “I watched the British Talent Cup at the weekend and from what I saw, and what I am hearing, Casey O’Gorman looks like he’s got something. I don’t know what flag he’ll go under, as he was born in Ireland, but he’s got good people supporting him in Shane Byrne, and my former colleague Matt Roberts.
"The idea of the Talent Cup is that it allows people to shine at a young age, like Casey who is 13, and get them over to the Spanish championships to spend a few years learning before going into the world championships, because you can’t make the step across (from British racing) as the level simply isn’t there.”
In recent years we’ve seen Asian sponsors backing their home riders, while the United States – another proud racing nation facing similar dilemmas to Britain – has even created its own Moto2 team, American Racing, to bring riders through from their national superbike championships.
Right now any aspiring young Brits have to earn the backing of Dorna or find a six-figure sum of personal sponsorship to take with them and, despite there being plenty of young talent on our islands, Emmett doesn’t really see too many opportunities opening up for Brits in Grand Prix racing in the coming years unless there is a British run team coming into a paddock dominated by Spanish and Italian outfits.
“It would be great if we could have a team or two, like Ajo or Aspar, who have a set-up at all these different levels, from the Junior world championship through to Moto3 and Moto2. It would help give a home for young riders. It would be great to be able to move riders across, like Jake’s done (from British superbikes), but I don’t think that’s going to happen until we have a British team. Petronas is actually the closest we have, because there are a lot of Brits involved in it, but it is not a British outfit. I’ve always felt like a British team, with a British team manager, is what is needed to bring riders through.”
In the final instalment of our interview with Gavin Emmett, we look at how he got his dream job with MotoGP, and what it’s like commentating on the sport during the pandemic.
Read the first part of our interview here.
BT Sport is the home of MotoGP in the UK. Catch all the race action exclusively live on BT Sport including practice and qualifying. For more info visit btsport.com/motogp
Carole Nash is the proud sponsor of MotoGP on BT Sport.
Phot credits: British Talent Cup, Petronas SRT, Red Bull and Silverstone