As someone who has been riding motorcycles since the mid-1960s, I’m embarrassed to admit that, until now, I’d never actually attended a full-on grand prix-style bike race. Sure, I’ve been to my share of semi-organized, hardscrabble contests where guys race in their spare time and compete for beer money, but never a properly organized, professional GP event, where the riders are the cream of the crop, the bikes the best money can buy, and people show up by the thousands to watch.
That changed when I attended the Red Bull Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
This particular get-together was the 10th race in an 18-race calendar and the main attraction was the Moto GP, which features the most powerful and sophisticated bikes on the planet with the best riders in the world atop them. Names like Valentino Rossi, Ben Spies, Casey Stoner, and Nicky Hayden may not mean much to four-wheel motorsport enthusiasts, but in the world of motorcycle fans, they’re walking legends. This is the Formula One of motorcycle racing.
It’s also the oldest form of organized motorcycle racing there is, having been around in one form or another, since 1949. Each bike represents millions of dollars and, although they may look like their production counterparts, they have virtually nothing in common with them. For example, just the instrument pod alone on a typical GP racer is worth $25,000.
Says Yamaha Factory Racing crew chief, Tom Houseworth: “Everything on the bike is hand-built and just about everything is adjustable or programmable.” That includes a traction control system, brakes, fuel injection mapping, ignition, and so on. Aside from a few nuts and bolts, the machines campaigned by Yamaha, Honda, Ducati and Suzuki share absolutely no components with street motorcycles.
For example, the bike of Yamaha’s Ben Spies weights a scant 155 kilograms, and develops at least 240 horsepower, “depending on the track.” It can accelerate from 0 to 100 km in about two seconds (that’s about the length of time it takes you to sneeze), can lift the front wheel in every gear, and has a top speed of – well, how much track do you have?
At least 120 functions on the bike are monitored electronically: fuel consumption, track gradient, yaw, g-forces, and on and on. Although there is no telemetry sent back to the pits during the race, everything is analyzed afterward and the bikes are tuned to within an inch of their lives. Nor is there any communication between rider and crew chief during the race, but there are several video cameras and a couple of kilograms of electronic equipment on-board for TV and internet production. “That’s where the money is,” adds Tom Houseworth. In the world of grand prix motorcycle racing, broadcast revenue is everything.
When you see the bikes at speed on the track, it’s almost an optical illusion. An apparition that hurtles by so quickly, your eyes can barely keep up with it. Your brain struggles to grasp the bike’s velocity; no sooner has it come into view than it’s gone again, preceded and followed by an ear-piercing shriek (especially the Ducatis) and lightning-quick gear changes almost imperceptible to the ear. Formula One race cars are equally quick, true, but they’re large enough to register on your brain. A GP motorcycle at full song is a will o’ the wisp, there and gone in a nano-second.
This is also very much a young man’s game. Few riders are older than 30. Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo, for example, is a mere 25 years old – he’s also one of the fastest riders in the series and set a lap record of one minute, 20.3 seconds at Laguna Seca. To put that in perspective, I have driven a 500-horsepower Mercedes on this course and thought I was doing pretty well to make it around in less than two minutes.
These bikes are a handful. With 240-plus horsepower beneath you, it’s like attempting to control a motorized tornado. The bike is trying to throw its rider off at every opportunity (and frequently does), and you can see the bikes twitching and bucking when they apex a high-speed corner or undergo hard braking. Former GP racing superstar Kenny Roberts actually used this to his advantage and mastered the art of drifting through the corners and leaning his body over until his knees hit the track – common manoeuvres today.
Comparisons with Formula One auto racing are inevitable. Having attended more than a few of these, I have to say that Moto GP is more fun.
For one thing, where F1 drivers are inaccessible, semi-divine beings that helicopter in, drive for an hour or so and then leave again, Moto GP riders are in the thick of it; signing autographs, shaking people’s hands, working the crowd, and sometimes, taking lucky fans for a quick lap around the track on the back of one of the bikes.
There is also much more of a party atmosphere at the event, with “umbrella girls” in abundance and lots of vendors and barbecue stands. I have always found F1 to be sombre and serious; a grim, take-no-prisoners championship bout with opposing camps cheering for their own particular hero – I once saw a group of Italian Ferrari tifosi burst into tears when Michele Alboreto crashed at Monaco. Motorcycle enthusiasts are notoriously obsessed with their own brand of bike, it’s true, but all are united in their love of the sport – Harley guys will root for Honda Repsol, Kawasaki buffs will cheer for Ducati.
Unfortunately, you have to leave Canada to catch any of this. There are no Moto GP events in our country, despite the fact that they’re held in places like Qatar, Spain, Japan, and even the Czech Republic.
Why? Well, for one thing, there are no tracks in Canada that conform to the rigorous safety protocols of Moto GP. For example, all participating tracks need copious amounts of run-off space, and, aside from perhaps Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (the former Mosport) in Ontario, none of the tracks in Canada are big enough to allow the bikes and riders to really flex their muscles.
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