Elder of Grand Prix journalism, Editor of Motocourse and man on the inside of GP racing, laments the demise of the 250GP class in British racing
The new pure-bred racing prototype four-strokes will not take very long to sweep the current best-of-breed V4 two-stroke 500s off the track.
And the 250s? Well, the manufacturers association - to whom control of technical rules has been willingly conceded by GP racing bosses Dorna - are still singing the same tune. They will survive, at least until the end of the current contract period in 2006.
But the chorus of support is distinctly lacking, especially since the late-season news that, among a raft of other sweeping changes, the 250 class will be dropped in British racing from next year. It had already been dropped in Australia.
Is this a bad thing? Definitely so, in the GP context. The 250s currently serve a vital role as a feeder class for the 500s. The front of the grid and the top of the championship table is replete with former 250 champions - Rossi, Biaggi and Capirossi are the top three, all former 250 title-holders.
But surely this is about to change? When the big four-strokes take over, two-stroke skills will become redundant. The 990s (still yet to be named at the time of writing) will open a different route to the World Championships, with Superbikes paving the way, and 600 Supersports in turn feeding riders to them.
But not according to several people who should know. Like Aprilia's director of racing and IRTA chief Jan Witteveen, and Dorna's Race Director, Paul Butler. Not to mention Kevin Schwantz, and countless others. They share the belief that the new four-stroke prototypes will have more in common with current GP two-strokes than any race bike derived from a road bike ever will; and it is riders who have learned the crucial set-up skills and throttle control on two-strokes who will succeed in GPs.
In other words, ex-250 riders. If there are any...
It's not surprising Witteveen is an advocate, since Aprilia are currently the major suppliers of 250 racers. But this is not just his point of view. He insists the manufacturers all agree on the importance of the class. Big factories may take a step back from direct involvement, leaving the action to customer teams, and possibly for smaller manufacturers like Italjet and Derbi, as is the case now in the 125 class.
There are signs that this has started to happen, and that when the factories cut back, the privateers switch to other makes of motorcycle. Honda and Yamaha make the right noises officially, but their current level of involvement is not particularly encouraging.
Honda and Yamaha might both up the standards and the quantities of their production 250s - as long as there is a demand. Which will be as long as nobody else follows Britain and Australia in abandoning the class.
If not, then this classic World Championship class will either turn into an Aprilia Cup, or simply wither.
Why should this matter? And why shouldn't some form of Supersport 600 series come in to take its place? (Apart from the fact that a series already exists in SBK)
The Supersport class doesn't actually work out too well for young riders. Instead the front end is populated largely by seasoned veterans, who lay on superb close tactical racing. James Whitham is a prime example. It doesn't even work as a feeder class to the big-bore Superbikes, let alone to GP prototypes.
The reason lies in the machines - heavier and not that powerful. The way a 250 GP bike responds to the throttle and does so within a pure-bred racing chassis, makes all the difference, according to Witteveen. He cites Corser and Haga as examples of riders who had difficulty switching from Superbikes to GP machines. It's clearly easier to go from a two-stroke to a four-stroke than the other way round, and the new four-strokes will be more like two-strokes anyway.
Nobody knows what will happen next of course. But the 250 class is definitely under threat. And if it does die, it will be badly missed - by the riders more than anyone.
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