Grand Prix motorcycle racing is the absolute best sport on the planet, and it starts its 2018 season tomorrow in Qatar.
I understand that “Grand Prix motorcycle racing is the absolute best sport on the planet” might be a controversial statement, so let me be clear: I have come to realize that Grand Prix motorcycle racing, or MotoGP as it is better known, is as close as a sport can come to being objectively perfect, an intoxicating combination of daredevil athleticism with tight, ferocious competition.
Here, in a few bullet points, is why it’s so great.
Just riding one of these bikes is a mind-boggling athletic spectacle
Speaking as a fan of car racing, the eternal problem with car racing is that it’s very easy to dismiss offhand as a non-sport. From the outside, you can’t see much of what the driver is doing (especially in closed-cockpit series like NASCAR, where you need a camera zoomed in at just the right angle to get any sort of look at what’s going on behind the windshield), so many people assume that it requires no more effort than driving your car on the street, as untrue as that is.
Motorcycle racing doesn’t suffer from this problem. That the riders are performing death-defying acts of absurd athleticism is immediately evident, and is a tremendous spectacle in its own right.
This is Marc Márquez literally hanging off his bike and scraping both his knee and his elbow against the pavement. This is standard practice. The insane, 60-plus-degree lean angles maximize cornering speeds, and the rider’s hang helps matters by shifting the center of gravity further down.
Hey, did I mention that the bikes themselves are 250-plus-horsepower crotch rockets with the weight-to-power ratio of a Formula 1 car, an infintesimal fraction of the grip, and no harnesses or restraints for the rider?
One more dramatic save, because oh my God.
The huge horsepower—an obscene figure for a bike that tips the scales at around 500 pounds with rider—means that these things are capable of close to 220 miles per hour, and braking down from that speed absolutely does not look safe or controlled:
The sticking-out-the-leg thing is for added… stability? aerodynamic drag? force of habit? because Valentino Rossi psyched everybody into doing it a decade ago? Nobody’s really sure, but it’s a thing, and it is utterly mental.
I mean, look at this.
That right there is Marc Márquez dragging his boot along the ground at such high speed that it’s literally smoking. That is God. Damn. Crazy.
That said, literally scraping your body along the ground at a hundred miles an hour hardly registers on the sport’s hierarchy of dangers, not when the bikes are capable of bucking their riders like an angry steer.
Crashes are so common that the riders train specifically to emerge from them unscathed. And they do remarkably often, considering that they’re being flung across the pavement at 100, 150, sometimes 200 miles an hour.
This is a routine occupational hazard, and that really underlines the matter. You have to be not just incredibly skilled to handle the speed and instability of these bikes, not just absurdly physically fit to wrestle them around while literally hanging off them: you have to be insane.
I should stress that MotoGP really is a relatively safe series. (Álvaro Bautista raced the day after that crash there.) It runs on tracks designed with hundreds of feet of runoff area to slow fallen riders before they run into anything solid. For the most obscenely dangerous version of this spectacle, you want the Isle of Man TT. But MotoGP is a demanding, dangerous spectacle—and that makes the next point all the more impressive.
These riders are doing all this while racing against each other
As I said a few paragraphs ago, you have to be a madman to pilot one of these bikes. There are 24 of these madmen on the grid for 2018, and they ensure that, on top of the crazy show that is riding these bikes, the actual competition matches or exceeds any other sport you care to name.
Some of the ways in which MotoGP differentiates itself from stick-and-ball sports are common to any form of motor racing: every venue is different in layout, character, and challenge from every other; even if there is a runaway leader, there’s always a battle further down the running order to keep your attention; no lead is safe when a single error is all it takes to go sliding out of contention. On top of this, it benefits from many aspects specific to motorcycles: their smaller size makes passing much easier than in a car, and allows for passes in corners where a four-wheeled car could never attempt to run side-by-side; with fewer aerodynamic accoutrements, turbulence is not a competition-killing factor like it is in F1; while MotoGP bikes match or exceed F1 cars in straight-line speed, they have far less grip and corner at vastly lower speeds than their four-tired counterparts. It’s far harder to push the limits of braking and cornering on a bike, and that means there’s more time to be gained by successfully pushing those limits, or by exploring the mistakes others make as they try to reach them.
For a single, five-minute example of the sort of racing this produces, observe this classic battle between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo from 2009. The riders stay practically nose-to-tail, turbulence not an issue. Both push themselves to the absolute limit seeking any advantage, making dramatic dives under braking and sometimes going too far and slipping. And the winning move comes from exploiting a bike-sized opening at a point on the track that would essentially be a pass-free zone in a car.
That the riders push themselves this hard is testament to a competitive spirit that borders on utter lunacy. In 2013, at the Assen circuit in the Netherlands, Jorge Lorenzo broke his collarbone in Thursday practice. He flew to Barcelona for surgery that same day, had a metal plate and some screws installed, and returned in time to be medically cleared to race.
He finished fifth. It wasn’t until the next round in Germany two weeks later, when he fell again in practice and bent the plate in his collarbone, that he decided it might be best to sit out the race.
Why did he try and push through all that pain in the first place? Simple: had he sat out the race in the Netherlands, he would have allowed his rival for the championship, Dani Pedrosa, to rack up points uncontested. Fortunately for him, Pedrosa also sat out the German round after also crashing in practice and also breaking his collarbone.
Naturally, both were back for the next race in Austria, only a week after that.
The very best are constantly facing each other
I love this aspect of motorsports in general: the field of competitors remains constant throughout a season, such that the same people race against each other week in, week out. To win a season championship, you must consistently outrun everyone else, rather than pounce on your opponents stumbling on the road against an unfavored team or whatever. What makes MotoGP specifically appealing over other forms of motorsport, though, is something it takes from tennis.
A small handful of names (recently Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) have dominated men’s tennis over the past decade, such that the final or semifinal of almost every tournament sees a clash of the titans between one of this two. That is, almost every title comes down to a bout between two of the most gifted players alive, a match at the absolute pinnacle of what is possible in the sport.
The cream similarly rises to the top in MotoGP. “The Doctor”, Valentino Rossi, arguably the greatest there ever was, unmatched at planning and strategizing his way to victory. Jorge Lorenzo, whose smoothness has already led him to three top-level titles. Marc Márquez, the kid taking huge risks at the ragged edge, shattering every record that comes his way. Combined, they have won the championship in fifteen of the last eighteen seasons. There are pretenders to the throne, but they almost invariably fall short, choking where the best stay calm, crashing where the best stay upright. That leaves these three to fight among themselves, and for the viewers to enjoy the sparks that fly.
Let me tell of one such fight. Late in 2015, Rossi publicly alleged that Márquez, who by then had fallen out of contention for the title, was working to help his countryman Lorenzo in the championship fight at Rossi’s expense. This was awkward in part because Márquez had won the previous race in Australia by taking the lead from Lorenzo in the penultimate corner, and in part because Rossi was sitting right next to Márquez when he said it.
On the track in Malaysia three days later, they found themselves battling for third place. This was the moment when I first realized how great MotoGP was. I had followed the sport at a distance for some time, checking in from time to time to see who was doing well, but it wasn’t until I idly tuned in late, late on that Saturday night that I seriously considered watching it regularly.
It was an incredible duel between two riders who clearly each had a point to prove. Even as their scrap allowed the front two to pull away, they refused to quit battling, to settle their differences, to work together to run the leaders down. Instead, they kept at it, lap after lap, diving inside each other under braking, each pouncing on any slip from the other. Sometimes there would be three passes in one corner: one would jump ahead of the other by braking late, slide wide and give the position back, then beat the other back to the throttle and jump back ahead as they exited the corner. It was an astonishing display of balls-to-the-wall racing all the more remarkable for the relative lack of stakes, and the only reason I am not linking an unedited ten-minute clip of the whole battle is that no good footage has escaped the copyright hammer.
You can find footage of how it ended, though.
Even without most of the battle, this clip is a shining example of the sheer, wild entertainment MotoGP offers at its pinnacle. To the very last moment, the duel continues apace—third place switches hands three times in thirty seconds, including an all-timer from Márquez as he comes out of nowhere to blow past Rossi on the outside. Rossi seems to look Márquez dead in the eye, as if to convey his ire one last time before literally kicking him to the pavement. And the commentators and the crowd go wild as one.
Rossi’s penalty for the incident, having to start last in the next and final race of the season, cost him the championship: he could not reach the front pack before they built an unassailable lead, and Lorenzo’s race win was enough to swing the points his way. I wonder if Rossi regrets this moment of foolishness. I do, but only so far as it potentially robbed us of a whole race’s worth of this incredible battle.
Not every race is quite this dramatic, of course. This is where the next point comes in.
There are three shows in one
Every Grand Prix race day actually consists of three separate races for the three different tiers of the championship. Before the MotoGP event itself, the biggest show with the best riders and the fastest bikes, young and aspiring riders duke it out in the lower tiers, Moto2 and Moto3.
You can skip the lower-tier races and go straight to the big boys, but why would you? Moto2 and Moto3 may be run on slower, smaller bikes, but they are still fantastic contests. Moto3 races in particular are guaranteed entertainment: with engines a quarter the size and producing a quarter the power of the top-level bikes, slipstreaming becomes a key factor, and races often feature huge packs of ten to twenty bikes duking out from start to finish:
Moto2 plays out more like the top tier, and the stakes increase to match. These riders are looking to earn themselves a ride in the big show, and that means they are always looking to impress. Before they’re race winners and world champions in MotoGP, they duke it out in Moto2—as Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaró, now both in the big leagues, so aptly demonstrated in this classic:
With the feeder categories, race day is a genuine show every time, ramping up in speed and prestige all the way to the headline event.
The television broadcast is fantastic
Sadly, Dorna Sports, the rights holders, place most footage and highlights online behind a paywall. That doesn’t favor them. I wish you could show you the dramatic last lap of last year’s Austrian Grand Prix, where Marc Márquez made a desperate dive for the lead on Andrea Dovizioso in the final corner only to lose in a drag race to the line. Or the last lap in Japan, where almost exactly the same thing happened. But they’re only available online as bombastic, confusingly edited highlight reels.
It is a testament to the wonders of the live television broadcast that I choose to mention the coverage despite this rather substantial sticking point. It really is without parallel, particularly in the United States, where local carrier beIN Sports presents every Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP race without commercial interruption from start to checkered flag, an absolute rarity in American sports broadcasting. And the pictures themselves are without peer, making remarkable racing as gorgeous as it is exciting. You’ve already seen the beautiful camerawork and remarkable slow-motion shots, but here are some more:
Even the graphics package, usually a minor point, is worthy of praise, packing an enormous amount of information into an economical, elegant design. The scoring ticker can present the running order, provide live lap times and intervals between riders, inform you when each rider crosses the start/finish line to give you sense of how the field is spread out, and even display one rider’s onboard camera in the corner while the bulk of the screen remains focused on action elsewhere. There’s nothing cooler, though, than these awesome, futuristic labels used to highlight key information:
They may not add a whole lot beyond looking really cool, but that’s all they need to do. They reinforce the singular, all-consuming truth behind MotoGP, a truth evident in the athletes hurtling themselves sideways at Mach 0.3 with no protection besides a helmet and padded firesuit, scraping their elbows and knees and feet on the asphalt, from thrilling as they dart and plunge past their competitors, a simple truth, to which nothing needs to be added:
This sport is so cool.
(Okay, one thing can be added: the 2018 MotoGP Season starts tomorrow, March 18, with the 2018 Qatar motorcycle Grand Prix, on beIN Sports at 1:30 PM Eastern, and live on the beIN Sports Connect streaming service, starting with the Moto3 race at 9:00 AM Eastern, with the big boys running at noon.)