Nick went for a ride with Ana Carrasco in Spain, ever nearer in her quest to become motorcycle racing’s first female track world champion….
You’re a motorcycle racer within touching distance of a world title. You’re supposed to think twice before getting on the bike and setting off on an unnecessary road journey. Especially carting a pillion a lot bigger than you are: as it is your feet barely touch down on your Z900 street bike. And this will be the first time you’ve ever carried a passenger on the road. But you also carry something else, a priceless commodity: confidence. You go to the desk and get the keys.
Your pillion knows that a mishap under such dubious circumstances would bring down at least seven shades of shit on the pair of you, and that isn’t the worst of it. Because the title in question isn’t just any title. What you’re doing is potentially sabotaging your pilot’s realistic prospect of becoming motorcycling’s first female track world champion. Which doesn’t really bear thinking about. So you stop thinking. And get on with it.
Because today Ana Carrasco is going for it, as she has been all year, and I’ll have some of that – perched on the 900’s high chair, reservations sidelined. Let’s do it anyway.
Cehegin (pronounced Theyerheen) is an ancient Spanish hill town with winding narrow streets, but within moments of setting off I can feel the confidence flow through the pilot. The machine may have an unwieldily lump on the back, but it is still a motorcycle, and Ana has been riding those round here since she was a nipper. Her dad owns the local bike workshop and worked in the pit-lane for David de Gea. The virus was in her blood from the start. Her brother and sister rode, but not in the same way….
Before heading for the hills we met up at the workshop for a chat. Two things emerged from the off. One was Ana’s determination to do the business. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was never able to buy a ride via a family bank account or indulgent sponsor – she got her current spot by crowdfunding it.
Maybe partly because of the democracy that confers, or maybe because there are no big sponsors to protect, or maybe because it’s juts the way she is, Ana gets right down to it. And that was the other striking thing. Your typical Dorna groomed clone, well versed in PR speak, she is not – as evidenced by (among other things) a frank critique of the technical regulations which continue to bedevil motorcycle racing at different levels, and the flawed rationale behind them. But our pre ride conversation at the workshop started with more immediate concerns.
NB Two races to go. 16 point lead. Play safe? Or go for it?
AC You could play safe and still get wiped out. It’s happened before. You have to treat each race as its own championship. You have to ride from the start with the aim of winning them all.
NB You’re a young woman and you’re beating the guys without any gender based concession. That fact alone is going to attract attention in this day and age.
AC It’s true – I do get a lot of support on social media which is down to the gender thing. But at work I am a racer first. When the red lights goes out, there is no gender. Only racer.
NB But there is a role model thing going on here, and it’s a pretty positive one compared to some of the alternatives…
AC I happen to be a woman, but I don’t race because of that. I race for me. There’s a difference. It’s great if people appreciate what I’m doing, for whatever reason, but that perception comes after the fact of me being a racer.
NB How did your competitors react when you started racing?
AC At first some of them saw me as being in the way. But you soon earn respect…
She’s earned that alright. Ana may only be 20 but she’s packed a lot in. She started racing as a kid in regional championships and worked her way up to FIM events. In 2013 she became the first woman to score Moto 3 points since Katja Poensgen, twelve years previously. The junior GP class was a tough ask for a young teenager, and after top ten finishes, breaking bones, surgery and chronic under funding she decided to leave the series at the end of 2015. She had learned an important lesson: in the top classes, under resourced teams struggle, pretty much irrespective of rider. Despite offers, she walked away from the GP circus.
But 2016 proved to be something of a hiatus. Prolonged negotiations resulted in a ride in the FIM European Moto 2 series. Halfway through the season, the team changed bikes to no one’s apparent benefit, and the whole experience proved to be a crushing disappointment. The following year she signed a one year deal to ride in the WSBK Supersport 300 class, with a small but tightly run team representing a Spanish engineering school. Carrasco made history on September 17th, 2017 at Portimao, becoming the first woman to win an individual world championship race. She finished the season in a creditable eighth place.
It wasn’t enough to guarantee her a ride this year: no dough, no show. Without the crowdfunding, she wouldn’t have found a seat on a Ninja 400 in David Salom’s Junior Team. (The 300 class encompasses R3s, RC 390s, Ninja 3 and 400s, and CBR 500s. A weight handicap system operates, of which more later……)
NB You changed teams again for 2018. What is the level of support like?
AC You have to have the right people and resources around you, because the margins are that tight. Everything has to work together. At this level there are going to be riders with ability as well as money. Winning is hard enough anyway, but without credible support you will struggle. A big plus this year has been training with David (Salom) on track and some help from Kawasaki, although we aren’t a factory team.
NB What part of your riding has benefitted from the track training? How have you improved?
AC I’ve learned a lot about mass corner entry, when there are six or seven riders all trying to hit an apex together.
NB For ordinary riders that’s the miraculous bit. Most of us can do a tidy lap on our own, in our own time, but throw in a few other bikes as you get on the brakes….
AC (smiling) … forget the rest of them! You can not let the peripheral field dominate your vision. You have to absolutely concentrate on not loosing time getting round the corner, no matter what is going on around you. This was a weakness for me. Ride as though you are alone, aiming for pole. I’m working on it. Shall we do some pictures?
And about ten minutes later we’re negotiating the climb to the top of the town, a plaza overlooking the surrounding baked countryside. Cehegin is inland enough to feel like proper Spain, with little or no concession to the English language and plenty of interesting empty roads. On the bike Anna tells me she has to keep her road riding under wraps – although Kawasaki in Spain gave her the 900, everyone prefers he to keep her riding to the track. Nevertheless, she does slip out from time to time – it’s important to acknowledge your own freedom in a world where everything you eat is recorded, and five hours a day are spent in the gym. And that’s before a racer’s office work begins: emails, interviews, contractual matters, and the endless quest for more support and fresh horizons. I offer Ana some tempting advice through her Pink Warrior helmet: once we get some speed up, a pillion wont stop you chucking it into a few corners… and get a thumbs up in reply. Suddenly we’re at the top of the hill.
We get some pictures overlooking the baking countryside (it was 37c) before heading to a bar of Ana’s choosing.
NB So how much time is left for relaxation?
AC There’s not a lot left in the day after training and office work, but it’s important to have down time from the day job.
I tend to go for meals with friends, just hanging out, we have similar interests. Racing isn’t on the agenda.
NB Everything has changed for people like you, in quite a short space of time. When Valentino started racing, some of the guys still had a big lifestyle away from the track. They trained less and partied hard. They were less owned. They said what they thought, unmediated by corporate interests. Those days are gone, but it strikes me that you don’t pull punches.
AC We are contractually limited in what we can say about tyres and so on. But some things need to be discussed.
NB Such as?
AC Dorna want close racing. We all get that. But as a result, a whole bunch of variables are introduced to level the playing field, and these vary from rev limits to weight carrying, meeting by meeting. What actually happens is, the best bike is handicapped to the point where it is likely to get beaten.
NB And yet the whole point of production racing is to find out which bike is the best…
AC At our level we’re very close to the standard bikes. We change the pads, the suspension (within a strictly defined budget) and the exhaust. Control tyres, standard engine. That’s pretty much it. With no handicap, you’d have a pretty good idea of which was likely to be a decent bike in the showroom, and which riders were getting the most out of their bikes.
NB Chuck in concessions, and no one is any the wiser. Yamaha released a statement openly criticial of the FIM / Dorna handicap system regarding their own bikes.
AC Last year Yamaha dominated, changes were made, and Yamaha weren’t happy. So more changes get made. It isn’t an easy situation.
As a result of this conversation, I downloaded the FIM rule book for WSBK. Regulations make it crystal clear that among other things, rider performance is to be taken into account when allocating the handicap. Successful riders are thus effectively sanctioned – for being good. (FIM Superbike Regulations, section 126.96.36.199, para 2, subsection D. To be precise.)
AC We have no idea until we turn up exactly how much extra weight we’re going to be carrying, above our allocated minimum. Which in itself is handicapped.
NB But in the end you can’t control this scenario. You just have to get the race face on and go for it.
AC I can’t control it, but I can discuss it.
NB And long may that continue. There’s one more thing. Who’s the best you’ve ever seen, Ana? Who is your special one?
AC (no hesitation) Casey.
NB For sure.
AC Casey was a rear wheel genius, for me more so than Marquez, because there was more control with Casey. There had to be, riding that Ducati. But he was also superb at 250 type front end cornering. He just had it all. A complete natural on any bike.
Even if she takes the title, it is impossible to say with any certainty how Ana’s career will progress, not least courtesy of the bizarre handicap system, which makes performance hard to evaluate. But riders can only work with what they are given, and anyway such speculation misses the point. Which is that she has demonstrated for once and for all that women can cut it on the grid (and hit the podium) without any gender based positive discrimination. That is significant in its own right, and the fresh dynamic makes the sport more interesting. On a different level, her success may help encourage more women to simply ride – at a time when motorcycling badly needs all the fresh constituencies it can get.
No sane person would want to be cited as a role model, and Ana is no exception. Nevertheless, it is important to have credible alternatives to a seemingly endless torrent of dubious celebrities and little princesses. It may well be that her success remains the exception rather than the rule, but at least the world now knows that gender is not an impenetrable barrier to the podium – and beyond.
I liked Ana Carrasco for being such a straight shooter, and an engaging young woman. That the demands of her profession threaten to completely dominate her life is in the nature of the beast, forever hungry. There is very little down time when you know everyone else is in the gym or at the track, or raising sponsorship (rather than hell). It is that pressure which has given us a generation of anonymised competitors with formulaic sound bites serving as speech, and in that context – she’s a gem. The more successful she becomes, the less easy it will be to speak frankly. Long may she shine.
So she did it, despite struggling in the last three races. This was largely down to the ludicrous penalty system referred to above – 14 extra kilos was insane. A lot needs re-thinking in WSBK, and the concessions debate will not go away. In the meantime, by one point, we have the track’s first ever world motorcycling champion. That is a massive achievement.