WorldSBK: Gordon Ritchie – Racing In The Time Of Covid
Sometimes your luck is in – and out – at the same time.
I greeted the news that I really could go to the restart of the Covid-interrupted 2020 season to ply my normal freelance journalist trade by snatcing the chance with both my QWERTY deprived hands.
Then the realisation dawned… The new normal for racing all was going to be far from the already insane normal of a WorldSBK weekend.
The last race before the two just gone in Iberia in August was the season opener in Australia – in Feb/March. Before we had even had the chance to go to round two in Qatar, two weekends later, they had canned the follow-up. And my previously cheap combined flight to two distant continents now came with a sting in the tail of costing at least as much to change as I had thought I had saved by cancelling my Qatar hotel booking for no charge.
OK, fine… win some, lose some. I am a freelancer and take a freelancer’s chances.
After several months of kind of working during the lockdown I had slowly lost some of my 2020 season clients to Covid budget cuts – although I had also been doing a couple of smaller but welcome extra history-based jobs. The WorldSBK journo green light came back on for the rounds at Jerez and Portimao.
It would be five months, give or take, since I had been at a WorldSBK race when I headed to Spain. That is, without question, the longest I have been away from a working racetrack since… maybe… 1998? Maybe even before that?
After such a long break my enthusiasm was high to go back to work on the road, and my wife and adult son seemed every bit as pleased that I would be going away right through from Thursday before Jerez to Tuesday after Portimao.
Travel, in time of Covid, is not straightforward. And the outbound cabin crew did little to ensure ideals of social distancing, which I did myself.
Maybe they were too busy practicing their harps?
I left my paid-for extra legroom seat (£200UK all in to go one way on a budget carrier, on a flight with maybe 40 people on it) to find a free row of three seats.
I was, and am, fine – thanks for asking.
On arrival at Malaga airport, a two-hour spirited drive distant from Jerez (best location I could find for getting close to the track on the right day) I was ripped off for another 270 Euros of extra car hire fees, that they said were required under the new rules – unless I wanted my global excess insurance cover to pay for only the excess, and not the whole cost of the damaged or nicked car. They said that since Covid came along, there was no insurance cover built-in. I’ve hired a million cars over the years but this was a new extra charge for even the hardened traveller. After waiting an hour to be given this good news (it is usually minutes to pick up a car even at busy times, and the place was pretty empty for late July) I eventually coughed up and looked to sort it all out later.
So, late for my first day back at work, I drove to Jerez to experience the new Covid protocols put in place by teams, track owners and organisers. Good job all round. Really, it was herculean effort and truly appreciated, most of all by people like me who need WorldSBK to keep making a living.
At the track there were temperature checks on the way in, masks to be worn everywhere at all times you are near the circuit, a profusion of sanitizing stations, soap in all the toilets all the time and social distancing for all.
Some teams had got all of their members tested and were inside their own bubbles, masks on/gloves on, every single time I spoke to them from a more than required distance. Some bods were better at social distancing than others but at least one factory team had someone come in at night to spray their entire workshops and paddock set-up with disinfectant fumes, on top of all the hand sanitising and mask regimes.
It was, basically, reassuring that pretty much everybody took it all so seriously. It was the price we all paid for the ability to go back to working, earning, and doing the thing we all love in the two-wheeled world.
Only those deemed essential workers or safe to be there, or simply few enough in number to get inside the maximum number allowed at the whole event by local authorities, were allowed in. Hence the handful of regular WorldSBK media like me who were permitted, when the MotoGP media hordes were repelled by regulation.
I told you I felt fortunate.
Weirdness was there all the time. No fans at all at Jerez, and only 250 per day at Portimao, in what turned out to be a practice session for when they host the final MotoGP and F1 rounds of the year – with fans, it seems.
There were new things to get used to. Garages were no go zones even more than normal for everybody not wearing the relevant uniform, pitlane security staff were obviously confused after two Jerez MotoGPs the weeks before WorldSBK got there and threw me out of pitlane during the Superbike sessions, even though I have the right pass.
Wearing a mask all the time in what proved to be up to 40°C temperatures almost the whole time in Spain was challenging, but once you got a proper ones (KN95 ones work well, BTW) and a little extra rubber strap to stop the elasticised straps from giving you wing-nut ears for life, it was weird how you could get used to it. A small price to pay to be working again, although an obvious discomfort in many ways. Anybody raging against it or rebelling against it is officially a snowflake in my book. Grow a set and stop super-spreading.
For us print/web media types, they brought the riders to us in the media centre, to save us all collecting too closely around the back of garages like usual in the media scrums, and moving around even more. Largely, this whole system was a vast improvement on any previous attempts. Once they get a proper system to bring the riders through one at a time to stop them hanging around (as some had to at times, thanks all for the patience shown), it should be a better system for absolutely everybody.
It was one thing the Covid situation actually improved.
At Jerez, it was work, work and more work for all involved, especially with big hitters like the FIM President Jorge Viegas and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta in town, and then we moved on to Portimao, for more work, only slightly reduced heat and more racing.
After the almost all-red rampage of the excellent Redding at Jerez, Rea turned Portimao green and took a narrow championship lead, while Yamaha have got three actual podium riders on their books now, all of whom made the action extra exciting.
When the racing was actually on, Covid was almost a banished spectre, and the action was often top notch. We were all reminded that the fun we all have has an obvious downside when Sandro Cortese was very lucky to escape from a fast crash (in a slightly strange place) and smash his T7 vertebra. No neurological damage, miraculously and thankfully; get well soon mate.
After an incredibly lucky end to the MotoGP and Moto2 incidents at Spielberg one week later the lesson we may have forgotten in lockdown was double underlined. This sport is inherently dangerous, no matter how safe the venues are compared to the bad old days.
Sunday nights in particular were weird for yours truly. Having lost some work I had on the books as recently as Australia, I was finished in record time. I made it back to my mountaintop ‘Portimao’ hotel after just one last rentacar rallye de Portugal nighttime special section quite a few minutes before midnight. I mean, actually on Sunday, same day as the final race. I cannot remember when I last put in a mere 14.5 hour flat out Sunday at a WorldSBK race.
Exit Portimao on Monday, after more morning work, head home, for the first time in 12 days.
Not so fast Gordo.
My plan to suspend work at lunchtime then dash back the five hours to my original Spanish airport (to save the 380 Euro EXTRA fee they wanted from me to leave the car in Portugal and fly back from Faro) was a tactic that had worked perfectly, but the Covid demons had another few surprises.
My return airline had cancelled my flight and never told me.
No call, e-mail text or anything whatever.
I checked my messages at the time, I checked again just now to be sure. No message of any kind, and I had checked-in online long before I even left Scotland.
Maybe they were too busy peeling oranges
Customer services at the airport… Nothing to do with us (despite the corporate branding) but the airline must have told me?
No they didn’t. Yes they must have. No they didn’t. Can you picture the mid-summer pantomime scene?
My new options were limited and, important to remember this point, I was not really supposed to be in Spain or Portugal at all. My government put them on the red lists just days before I was supposed to fly there. Essential travel only. Well, working at the only job I have seems essential, to me and my national economy.
So I went. I was not on holiday.
Because of the new reality I had no regular travel insurance in general and all the new normal Covid-19 reasons would negate the cancelled flight insurance claim, but I have been assured I will get my money back. And I can at least claim for the extras as well. Wish my wallet luck.
A quick check at the departure boards and the people who had so memorably flew me out had a flight going to a different city in Scotland that same night, if a little earlier than my not-cancelled-but-still-cancelled one. Another £150 lighter I got a seat on a mercifully quiet flight with a slightly better stab at social distancing and pretty immaculate mask protocols.
My original get home plan on Monday night in tatters, I had to book a hotel via my phone app while queuing to enter the plane – I would get back too late/too far for the tram/train system to get me home. And I was not about spend another £150-200 locked in a steel box of a taxi that god-knows-who had been all day. That seemed a risk too far. So I locked myself away in a perfectly sanitised and safe hotel for £66.60, including breakfast.
Appropriate after such a beastly day, no?
Two almost empty off-peak daytime trains back home – that is why I got home on Tuesday, not Monday – and the season restart was finally finished. The work wasn’t, even with less to do after Covid called time on a few of my clients. Thanks goodness.
I have been enduring/enjoying ensuite bedroom quarantine ever since I got through my own front door. And will for every single day until I head to the next rounds in Motorland Aragon at the end of August.
I am taking this whole pandemic thing entirely seriously.
So how was the WorldSBK return under Covid rules, in general? A lot better than having no WorldSBK at all, and the racing side itself was actually more familiar than alien – double WorldSSP and WorldSSP300 races aside. It was just the whistles and bells around it all that were muted or missing. And some extra rules and regulations in place that we are going to have to get used to.
It was wonderful to go racing again, and equally wonderful to get back to the happy home surroundings I have left very infrequently in the past few months.
Long may this record short season continue, especially as Rea v Redding is clearly not the only game in town.