In the English University City of Oxford they have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr Roger Bannister running one mile in under four minutes.

It was an achievement that made headlines throughout the world in 1954. Many people thought the record could never be beaten but, 50 years on, those times that made the headlines have long been eclipsed and consigned to the archives.

It's the same story in all sports that race against the clock and especially in grand prix motorcycle racing. As speeds increase and laps record are decimated many are asking the question - where will it end?

The MotoGP teams and riders arrive at Assen this week to pit their technical skills and riding ability against both the fastest and longest circuit in the 2004 MotoGP calendar knowing, weather permitting, that the lap times will continue to plummet in dramatic style. Already this season the likes of Valentino Rossi and Sete Gibernau have smashed old lap and pole setting records set just last year, with contemptuous ease.

The magnificent day's racing in Barcelona was the perfect example of just how much progress has been made in such a short space of time. The weather may have been perfect but the Circuit de Catalunya was certainly bumpier than the previous year, thanks to the constant pounding it gets from Formula One cars testing throughout the year. It made little difference to the MotoGP boys.

In qualifying, Sete Gibernau simply obliterated Rossi's pole time from the previous year by an incredible 1.331secs, while the first 12 riders also lapped inside last year's pole time.

It was the same story in the 23 lap race: Once again it was Gibernau destroying Rossi's old lap record by 0.856secs, while Rossi's race winning time was 18.503secs faster than Loris Capirossi's winning pace the previous year - not far from a second a lap quicker.

So is it down to sheer extra top speed or a combination of improved four-stroke technology, tyre wear and the riders' ability to get more and more out of the four-strokes?

The top speeds have increased with Repsol Honda's Alex Barros closely followed by the Camel Hondas of Max Biaggi and Makoto Tamada toping the speed charts in Barcelona at 339.4 km/h last weekend. Last year Ducati's Loris Capirossi was fastest through the speed trap, but at a now rather modest sounding 325.9 km/h.

However, sheer top speed, unlike size, really does not matter as much as you might imagine when it comes to actually crossing the finish line first. For various reasons, not one of that fastest leading trio through the speed trap in Barcelona actually finished on Sunday's podium, while race winner Rossi could only muster a mere 329 km/h and was 14th fastest. The answer is a lot more complex than just top speed.

Getting the complete package of suspension, gearbox ratios and of course tyre selection is generally how races are won. Grabbing pole position in the last couple of minutes of the final qualifying session may get you a new watch but it doesn't automatically win you races.

In that marvellous Master Class of the Nineties press conference at Barcelona - with Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan and Alex Criville - the four world 500cc champions were asked for their opinions on modern day stars and Valentino Rossi in particular.

They all agreed that the riders that stood out were those who could ride the 990cc four-strokes when the tyres had gone off and the bike was slipping and sliding in every bend.

They suggested that any rider good enough to earn a MotoGP berth should be able to qualify well on special sticky tyres. What sorted the men from the boys was the ability of the top riders to get quicker and quicker the more the bike started to slide underneath them. Results this season would certainly support the experts' theory.

While technology continues to push the parameters further and further, those lap times will continue to drop. Two factors might just slow down or even bring a halt to the record breaking; the manufacturers and the circuits.

The builders of these modern day four-stroke machines are concerned about the speed and consequently safety of their products. It looks certain that the capacity will be reduced during the next couple of years, which may bring a temporary halt to the record breaking - but for how long? Give those engineers around two years to find the solution to both match and then destroy the existing lap times established by bigger capacity machines.

But just how much faster can the bikes go on circuits that are pushing their safety considerations to the limit of their budgets? Surely there will come a time when the bikes will outgrow existing circuits that will just not be able to cope with more and more top speed.

With crowds averaging over 110,000 for every race, no circuit will want to lose their biggest pay day of the season - but money will have to be spent on more and more safety considerations as the bikes get faster and faster and consequently something will be done.

So where will MotoGP be in 50 years time. People would have intimated you'd been out in the sun too long if you'd suggested to them 50 years ago that bikes were touching 339 km/h down the Barcelona straight...

So in 2054 could we witness 200 km/h lap speeds, 400 km/h top speeds and a mile run in under three minutes? It may sound complete nonsense but 50 years is a long time in the modern world.

Just ask Roger Bannister.

 

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