Ryder Notes: Heraldry
Continental Circus riders might identify their nationality with a small flag.
by Julian Ryder
Wednesday, August 23, 2023
Any visit to Twin Ring Motegi must involve a trip to Honda’s museum – it’s The Law. The Collection Halls, as the museum is properly known, has street machines on one floor and racers on another. There is a large black-and-white print on the wall behind a selection of late 1970s and early ‘80s 500cc strokers. The thing that struck me was that you could identify most of the grid despite the print, over a metre square, had obviously been blown up from an old 35mm film.
The identifying marks on the grid weren’t the bikes, and obviously not the colors. The shot was taken from slightly above and in front of the grid, at Le Mans if I remember correctly, so you had an unobscured view of only a couple of bikes. But you could tell who the majority of the men on the grid were because of their crash helmet designs. There was Roberts with his American eagle, Sheene with Mickey Mouse on the front of his helmet, the Dutch colors of Wil Hartog, Graziano Rossi’s lightning flash, and so on down most of the grid.
My day job involves commentating on MotoGP for UK television, which is better than having to work for a living, but if there’s one thing that has continually frustrated me it is the modern tendency for riders to use designs that have no personal relevance or that they change to match a new team or sponsor. As well as making me work for a living, along with the gradual erosion of racing numbers you can actually see and read,
Personally, if I’d spent several hundred Euros on a new replica helmet I’d be a bit pissed off it was obsolete a couple of months later.
But that’s not really the point. When Jorge Lorenzo wore Shoya Tomizawa’s helmet design in homage to the departed young star, a Japanese friend of mine approved whole-heartedly. “A samurai’s soul resides in his sword,” he said, “a racer’s in his crash helmet and particularly its design.” He’s right. It’s the reason, and forgive me for being a little morbid, the sight of a racer’s crash helmet on top of his coffin is so moving.
Can you imagine Hailwood without the gold banding? Nieto without the black dashes? Hartog without the Dutch tricolor? Doohan without the red, white and blue splashes? Joey Dunlop without that yellow that didn’t go with anything. Can you imagine anyone, sponsor or team management, telling any of those guys to change their colors. You couldn’t get Joey to wear team uniform, or if he did he reduced it to oily rags in hours.
There was something heraldic about those crash helmets, a badge carried into battle over the years of a rider’s career; the way the fans identify who’s who on track. It started with riders putting the badge of their home town or a simple stripe on their plain white helmets – like Surtees’ blue stripe. Continental Circus riders might identify their nationality with a small flag. One bit of history for you: Australian riders became superstitious about putting a kangaroo on their lids because of a rash of fatal crashes.
Can you imagine anyone, sponsor or team management, telling any of those guys to change their colors. You couldn’t get Joey to wear team uniform, or if he did he reduced it to oily rags in hours.
The aesthetics of crash helmet design took a turn for the worse when riders left it to other people to come up with ideas. Specifically, Japanese design departments who came up with several hundred variations on the theme of multi-colour swirls with a cartoon animal in a small panel on the back. They looked OK, sort of, close to, but bloody awful from any distance. Especially if you were viewing them via a small monitor in a TV commentary booth.
There are of course honorable exceptions to the modern trend of homogenized designs, and chief among them is Valentino Rossi. While the details change over the years, the sun-and-moon theme endures, and of course there are some stunning special designs. Like all things Valentino, the designs have a meaning, if only to him and his friends. Jorge’s Por-Fuera logo has become a trademark but his special designs, with the exception of the brilliant Apollo 11, have always been done at the behest of a sponsor. There aren’t many glimmers of hope in the smaller classes, although Romano Fenati’s predilection for a plain color gives one hope.
There is only one way to get riders to focus on this important issue, a matter of the aesthetics, nay the soul, of motorcycling. Tell them how much money Simon Crafar made from sales of replicas of his design.
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