Why I’m a fan of motorcycle grand prix racing as well as a rider of my own sportsbikes on the road - why watch when you could be riding?
Watching motorcycle grand prix racing isn’t the same as riding, it’s true, but watching enlarges and inspires my own riding. I can’t ride as fast or as accurately as a racer and I wouldn’t want to: every time I’ve ridden in a track day I’ve gone with the experience to improve my skills but I’ve longed for the open road, the thrill of the scenery passing by and the challenge of dodging the obstacles a road throws at you.
More than forty years on from gaining my full motorcycle licence, several spells in plaster and walking on crutches then with the scars and aches you get left with, watching racers is a safer substitute for the real thing, but of course I still ride my own CBR600RR when I can. Watching with others has become possible even at home with online chat; GBMCC now has a WhatsApp watch group and I also enjoy a text-fest during a race with my French friends from time to time.
The television pictures have become fantastic; we are taking for granted live pictures from high definition cameras on the bikes moving at 200 km/hr and faster.. These on-board cameras are gyro-stabilised which reduces the roll on the picture as the bike cants on the corners. Online, you can follow just one rider should you wish, equally there’s the choice to get rid of the commentators’ prattle and go with the natural sound only. Very different to just ten BBC cameras on fixed bases covering all of Silverstone or Donnington with pictures fuzzy from long zoom lenses, as things were back in the Seventies.
The thrilling pictures aren’t the only reason to be a fan. There’s a lot of overtaking action during a race, even on a tight and twisty track the bike race is rarely processional like many a car grand prix.
The riders are obsessive, like all top sportsmen, but they are also characters; more than that, they are bikers. Maybe that’s obvious but they, even more than us, live to ride and ride to live. You can see and empathise with it, the clear joy at swinging a leg over a motorcycle that is the pinnacle of technical achievement by a great company such as Honda or KTM and the rider’s pride at bringing it home first above all others.
Like all sport, there is also the dejection at failing and in motorcycle racing the difference is so excruciatingly fine. As riders ourselves we all know only too well how unstable a motorcycle is to ride, the trick of physics which someone taught us at an early age: pedal harder and the bicycle stays upright. Then you have to learn to stop. And corner, and maybe control a wheelie, slide a corner etc. But it’s always on an edge, the late braking, the full throttle changes away from the lights are just a moment away from disaster, the ambulance, the slow ride in the scanner and the lengthy recovery are the same for any and every rider.
So watching and empathising with someone who can do it perfectly is amazing and thrilling. I know I can’t do that, I never want to be so single-minded and obsessed but it thrills and inspires me to see a group of people do it even more because I have some understanding of what they are doing, and even more so, as a rider myself I can and do share some of those thrills on a good day riding my own bike, especially over the Alpine cols.
It’s not always like that. I’ve found myself watching MotoGP on my laptop in a hotel bed after a day’s riding in the Alps myself. Maybe a couple or more two thousand metre plus Alpine passes, each with stacks of hairpins or long sweeping curves. My clutch hand is tired from changing, my brain fried from computing the trajectories and braking points and yet I still watch the Free Practice to see these guys do it better and compete for positions on the starting grid for the actual race. Then, on my own Sunday ride, ideally I’ll find a bikers bar showing Eurosport or some other channel with the race coverage, grab a place and watch with other bikers, us all out riding for our day but breaking for lunch. For me this is most likely to be with the French (because of where I ride most) but I’ve had this pleasure in Italy too. I can hardly understand their words but it’s clear what they are talking about. You can hear “Rossi” in any language! But you have to be very careful and mindful not yourself to ride on too fast from such a treat.
Race day at the track hasn’t been possible for a Grand Prix for me since the 1970s and 80s. The schedules and locations don’t work for me. French friends go to the races on their bike with a tent and live in leathers or shorts for the weekend. I tried that for the Bol d’Or, the 24-hour race at the Paul Ricard Circuit du Castellet just outside Marseille. The fantastic atmosphere of 50,000+ bikers camping in the pine forests around the track, barbecue smoke, music booming and toilets to have nightmares about for the rest of my life. And the race continuing on the track just over there: vroom, vroom, vroom everywhere in the background. But impossible to follow the competition in play in anything like the detail of television coverage: the mobile phone network saturated out so the web page was impossible to view and the event FM radio was unlistenable to on account of ignition interference.
Race bikes are the development test beds for the manufacturers and we are able to watch this work being tested week by week. The technical motorcycle press and specialist videos have tracked these developments which have enriched motor engineering from the days of two-stroke monsters like Suzuki’s RG500 with a such a super-narrow power band that they really did go like a rocket, through many re-imaginings of the bike including Honda’s five cylinder RC211V then the four cylinder RC213V ridden to win by Britain’s Cal Crutchlow, as well as Stoner and Marquez or Yamaha’s super smooth M1 ridden to win by Lorenzo and Rossi.
Those bikes are now challenged by new approaches from Suzuki and KTM which are now winning too. Electric race bikes have been around for some years now and can no longer be ignored either. No less important are the developments in the tyres, chassis and engine control unit: the data engineer received the manufacturer prize on the podium just now in Valencia for Petronas-Yamaha, giving credit for how crucial the software has become.
Maybe one of these days I’ll get to a MotoGP on a VIP ticket and enjoy the high life. Somehow not the same as in an Alpine bar having been out-ridden by Italian sportsbike riders but nonetheless welcomed in to their huddle to watch the race high on too many caffè espresso. Meanwhile, I will be again renewing my subscription to watch anywhere on the web on MotoGP dot com; the first MotoGP of 2021 is due on the last weekend of March.