Talking Wheels - Edd Ellison
Thailand has just hosted not one, but two international level ‘world championship’ motorbike events a first for Thailand. First the Motocross World Championship came to Nakhon Pathom and that was followed a few weeks later by the World Superbike Championship’s visit to Buriram.
Bike racing is very popular in Pattaya and many local motorsport fans’ made the 200 km trip to watch the MXGP as well as the more than 400 km trek to see the Superbikes arrive in Thailand. It’s a fact of life now – unfortunately – that for Pattaya’s many motorsport fans that Bira Circuit is fading into its twilight years and they will have to get used to travelling much greater distances now.
World Superbike had been talked about for months and months and the anticipation had been growing. When it finally came to the Sunday races the vast main grandstand at Chang International Circuit was at bursting point while the sprawling car parking aprons were overflowing with bikes that had made the long journey eastwards.
In Superbike Jonathan Rea claimed both wins, the Kawasaki rider adding those victories to the P1 and P2 he bagged at the season opener in Australia back in February to leave the circuit in championship lead. The British rider in fact had more than six seconds in hand at the end of race one and almost five seconds in race two and made it look all too easy.
Runner up in both Superbike races was another Briton, this time factory Aprilia rider Leon Haslam. That adds up to a win and three second places from the four races held so far this year – and already with just the Australian and Thai rounds completed it looks like its going to be a two horse race for the championship.
The final podium step in the first race went to Rea’s teammate Tom Sykes while in the second race Alex Lowes nabbed the last spot on the rostrum for Suzuki. The other big brand names – Honda, Ducati and BMW – didn’t get a look in all weekend.
But that was Superbike. In truth for the spectators it all happened in Supersport, the hotly competitive support race that was sandwiched in between the two Superbike races on a baking hot Sunday afternoon in Buriram.
For Thai motorsport this is really a dream circuit, dreams were realised when Superbike rocked up here – and the final dream was played out as a rider, almost forgotten in recent years, Ratthapark Wilairot, swept to a superbly judged victory on the Core Motorsport Honda after beating off the challenge of some of the world best riders. The crowds in the grandstands went into a frenzy as this dream scenario played out lap by lap.
"Ratthapark Wilairot, swept to a superbly judged victory on the Core Motorsport Honda after beating off the challenge of some of the world best riders. "
One didn’t need to see a timing screen or even follow the bikes screaming around the high speed track as roaring of thousands of voices, the beating of drums and the blowing of horns began as soon as the lights went green and the crowds sensed victory could be on the cards.
It was a sensational result, even more so as Wilairot has become a bit player. After a promising early career he climbed as far as Moto2, but the results just didn’t come and he eventually faded away from the headlines – and the racetrack.
But there was to be a final roll of the dice. Last year the 27-year-old turned to Supersport for his racing comeback and he quickly started to hit the pace, improving his finishing positions race by race before ending the season with a podium in Qatar.
This year he started off with a solid fifth place in Australia – and that’s where it gets even sweeter. The first, second and fourth place finishers from round one all retired in Buriram while the third placed rider only managed P10 which not only gave Wilairot the win, but vaulted him into a six point lead in the championship, albeit after just two races.
There was more family joy to come too as Wilairot’s younger brother, Ratthapong, was given a ‘wildcard’ entry in Buriram, thanks mainly to his nationality and promise, and the promptly finished in a highly impressive fifth place.
It didn’t end there either. Thai youngsters, Nakarin Atiratphuvapat and Somkiat Chantra, shared the wins in the third supporting category, the Asia Talent Cup,
between them. The crowd was pretty hoarse by the end of the afternoon.
There is one thing in travelling hundreds of kilometers to see world class racing, but it’s a totally different thing altogether when you have ‘local’ heroes to cheer all the way to the top step of the podium. Thai motorcycle racing traditionally hasn’t been the strongest of sports here – but in Buriram it stood up, took on the world’s best and delivered – a very proud moment for the sport.
It was an afternoon that the sport must use as a foundation to build on. That starts with this world-class facility that’s looks set to provide a fantastic platform for local talent to learn their trade in the right environment.
And the circuit owners intend to develop that potential. “Now motorsport fans in Thailand all know about the track, they know about Chang International Circuit, that this is the best track we have the country,” said CIC Project Director Chanvittayarom. “I think the key for now is how to promote the events here, how to make motorsport fans decide to travel to Buriram to spend the weekend with the racing activities, and how to attract a new market, like someone who never goes to a track, who never watches any kind of motorsport, the key is how to get these people involved and how to get more new drivers, new racers.”
The same burning ambition had been on display a few weeks earlier when the Motocross World Championship had also come to Thailand.
Motocross can actually claim to be the first ‘world championship’ level motorsport event to come to Thailand. This was the third and final year of that first contract and there was a switch of venue as the event now solidifies itself not just on the world calendar but also on the local landscape.
For the first two years the event was held in Sriracha, a location that proved very popular with Pattaya fans that were able to make the short hop up to the stunning circuit, and which earned instant approval from the world-class riders.
For this year though maturity was the keyword and the emphasis has switched to ensuring viability and securing a long-term future for MXGP in Thailand. That saw the venue shifted to Thailand Circuit in Nakhon Pathom and in fact it was cleverly laid out ovr the infield of the permanent bike-racing course.
The promoters here of MXGP also own Thailand Circuit so bringing the two together was a logical step forward. The concept is to create a ‘motorsport complex’ dedicated to two wheeled sports so adding a motocross track into this racing environment kicks off that plan. Shifting from the sharply flowing contours of Sriracha to the flat of Nakhon Pathom was never going to be an easy trick to pull off, but doubts were laid to rest when the bikes took to the track and in fact it turned out that the promoters called in the same designer who created the acclaimed track in Sriracha to develop the new location – and he pulled the feat off again.
Importantly, the crowds kept coming, and the spectator entertainment zones were bigger than ever. Clearly, the MXGP organisers understand the need to keep the spectators fully occupied from dawn to dusk. A smaller sport always has the benefit that fans can get up-close with their heroes much more easily and feel a greater sense of inclusion.
Motocross is all about the bigger ‘show’, it’s like no other motorsports discipline as the bikes flying skywards and back down in a constant motion gives it more the feel of a ballet that’s played out on a muddy terrain. It’s artistry at its finest and the crowds are mesmerised by the bigger overall picture.
In the headlining MXGP the world superstars delivered a stunning performance of skills and the first race was won by Kawasaki’s American rider Ryan Villopoto while KTM’s Italian Antonio Cairoli took the other win. In the supporting MX2 race KTM’s Jeffery Herlings seems to have really perfected the art of winning this category and the Dutchman claimed both victories. There was also an MX ladies race and the local riders, given ‘wildcard’ entries into the main races dug deep and fought hard with the big stars.
This new all year round facility in Nakhon Pathom – just like for the Superbike riders in Buriram – is a world class facility on which they can climb to the standard that they will need to achieve in the future if they are to succeed internationally.
MXGP has built up a very solid fanbase since it arrived here a couple of years ago and the good news is that the event is set to continue into the future. Organiser Kraitos Wongsawan confirmed after the event that the contract will be extended and he has bigger ambitions to take the show to the next level.
Pattaya’s large contingent of big bike fans can be reassured that the world class events – both on an off the tarmac – are certainly here to stay, but they are going to have to get used to travelling.