Currently, this question has been applied to many kinds of racing as a way to justify removing the use of engineering to make racing machines faster.
Why not apply it to riders, as well? Differences in riders tend to make racing one-sided, and it is not always the popular riders up there on the podium. Quite often, riders with the concentration to win races have little left to give to spectators, despite terms in their contracts requiring so many minutes of autograph signing and so many appearances in press briefings. Frequently, the best-loved of riders have not been those with the most championships. Rather, the hugely popular ones have been those who obviously, grandly, gamble everything in every corner and fall too frequently to win championships.
Some highly effective riders—Roberts himself, Eddie Lawson, Mat Mladin and Mick Doohan—have been criticized as “robots.” Could it be that the qualities required to win championships are not, in fact, admired by the public? The great champion of our era, Valentino Rossi, has worked hard to avoid this, presenting to his public a great deal more than his durable ability to win races. Who can forget the blow-up dolls, crazy post-race stunts and quotable quotes from his off-track activity? And today, Jorge Lorenzo, a prince aspiring to Valentino’s throne, finds it necessary to plan similar kinds of stunts, such as jumping in a lake (and needing to be rescued) after his recent win at Jerez, Spain.
Perhaps we should broaden the scope of Roberts’ question, “Is racing about lap times?” and see what it is that spectators really want. What if they really want entertainers? What if they want “nice guys” who spout professionally written “aw, shucks” one-liners while cheerfully signing endless autographs? What if they really prefer desperate triers who lack the boring concentration necessary to win and so fail gloriously in dramatic off-track dust clouds?
It’s fashionable now to eliminate machine variables from racing. Why not eliminate rider skill, as well, with its ability to put what many spectators consider “robots” on the podium? Let’s put comedians, musicians and performance artists in their place. Sure, we’ll train them to ride (and crash) after a fashion, but they will understand that their duty to their fans has little connection to winning—or even to racing. It’s about entertainment.