Scotland's John McPhee is taking big racing steps

It's not everyday you write your own page in Scottish sporting history, and after becoming the first Scot to win a motorcycling grand prix for 54 years last month, John McPhee admits he's still getting to grips with the achievement.
John McPhees awe-inspiring bike handling on a wet track in Brno gave the Oban rider a Grand Prix win. Picture: Mirco Lazzari gp/GettyJohn McPhees awe-inspiring bike handling on a wet track in Brno gave the Oban rider a Grand Prix win. Picture: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty
John McPhees awe-inspiring bike handling on a wet track in Brno gave the Oban rider a Grand Prix win. Picture: Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty

That success included being congratulated by the sport’s greatest two-wheel world champion, Valentino Rossi, an act which McPhee says left him “just slightly starstruck”, despite having previously trained with the legendary Italian at his private ranch.

Two weeks ago McPhee, the quietly-spoken, articulate 22-year-old from Oban, splashed his way to a dominant Moto3 World Championship win in the Czech Republic Grand Prix at Brno.

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While many of the other riders – including runaway championship leader, South African Brad Binder – struggled to keep their bikes upright and on the rain-lashed, sodden circuit, McPhee demonstrated a level of bike control which left the rest in awe.

And while victory on his Mahindra-powered Peugeot Saxoprint race bike catapulted him into the headlines, the Scot – who today will be racing in the British Moto3 Grand Prix at Silverstone – is still pinching himself.

“It’s been great, and I’ve really enjoyed the moment,” he said. “Every now and again I remind myself of what we achieved, and it’s been a great feeling. But it doesn’t quite feel real yet.

“The level of interest following the win has surprised me. I didn’t get back home till late on Monday, and it’s taken me the bulk of the week to get up-to-date with all the messages I’ve received on my phone, Twitter, Facebook and by e-mail.

“It’s been great reading them. There’s been much more than I ever thought they’d be. I never realised I had so much support.”

Support is, in truth, something McPhee has never been short of. Since he jumped on his first motorbike aged five, mum Maggie, and dad Alasdair – who was a competitive motocross rider – have committed everything to their son’s potential.

But just as that potential was moving into the competitive arena, riding a 125cc in the Scottish Championship as a 12-year-old, McPhee suffered a major blow when he was diagnosed with meningitis.

“It was a tough battle for all the family,” he said. “I got a few races in, then caught meningitis. It really put us on the back foot. I wasn’t able to look at the bike for more than six months. I spent a long time in hospital in Glasgow and my racing was put to the side before I managed to get back and do the last two races of the season.”

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In 2008, and 20 months after being diagnosed with meningitis, he was Scottish champion.

Three years later, having been taken under the wings of the Racing Steps Foundation (RSF) – a not-for-profit fund that provides and finances competition and performance development programmes for young British racing drivers and motorcycle racers – McPhee contested three 125cc grands prix, including Silverstone where he finished 15th and scored his first World Championship point.

“Without the support of the Racing Steps Foundation, and my mum and dad, I wouldn’t be anywhere like where I am now,” he said.

“The problem is, in the UK there’s no way of getting into world championships without having significant backing from the likes of Racing Steps, because you basically need to go through Europe.

“The cost of trying to do that without their support is nearly impossible for a normal family like mine. The money they’ve put in over the years is scary to think of.

“RSF know what, and how, to do it. They have the support and funding in place. They took me from the British Championship, put me into Spain, where I raced for two years, then they brought me into Grand Prix racing. I’m really grateful for how loyal they’ve been to me.”

Pivotal to McPhee’s career development has been Peter Ball, the man responsible for the two-wheel division of RSF.

“Peter’s role has been massive,” the Scot stated. “It’s as simple as that. He’s been involved with me right from the start of my relationship with Racing Steps, and always goes the extra mile to ensure I have the best opportunities.”

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While those opportunities may, ultimately, result in McPhee racing wheel-to-wheel with Rossi in the pinnacle of the sport, MotoGP, he’s content to return to the 250cc Moto3 next season to push for the championship.

“I feel I still have a point to prove in Moto3,” he said. “We’ve had so many up and down seasons that have been outwith my control – team issues, money issues – that I don’t feel we’ve had one season where we could look back at the end and say ‘yeah, we did the absolute maximum we could possibly do’.

“The dream is obviously to make our way up to MotoGP.

“There have been some guys who have managed to make the step straight from Moto3, so that’s not out of the equation, though I do believe that stepping up through Moto2 is still the best way to do it.

“We really need to have a championship-winning team, and that has to be the target for next year.”