Are MotoGP riders revolting?


Twenty years ago there were two high-stress moments per MotoGP weekend, now there are six, starting from FP1. No wonder there are major rumblings of discontent among riders and teams

Group shot of 2023 MotoGP riders at Portimao

MotoGP’s class of 2023 at Portimao – only 18 of the 22 will race in Argentina this weekend and many are disgruntled


I’m no seismologist but I’m predicting a small-to-medium sized earthquake in a northerly province of Argentina this Friday.

MotoGP’s tectonic plates have been on the move for some years now; a ‘moaning and a ‘groaning and a ‘grinding against each another, the pressure building and building. Eventually something must go pop.

This eruption of energy will take place during a safety commission meeting in a portable building near the town of Termas de Río Hondo, where a bunch of MotoGP riders will loudly proclaim their dissatisfaction with this and that on the eve of the weekend’s Argentine GP.

Riders lay their lives and limbs on the line as they chase a hundredth here and a thousandth there

The discontent has been building, especially during the last year or so, with riders wondering if they actually have any control over their own destinies.

Twenty years ago there were two high-stress points during a grand prix weekend. The first came during the last 15 minutes or so of Saturday afternoon’s final practice session, when riders fitted soft tyres and did their qualifying time attacks. The second came the following afternoon, when the race started. All was well with the world.

Now there are six high-stress points during each weekend, when the riders must gird their loins to lay their lives and limbs on the line as they chase a hundredth of a second here and a thousandth of a second there.

If they could sell their grandmothers for a spot on the first or second rows of the grid, most of them probably would.

FP1 – the very first outing of each grand prix – is the first high-stress point. In the old days riders eased themselves into the weekend on Friday morning: they cleaned the track, tried this and that on the bike and generally didn’t worry about their lap times, because they counted for nothing.

Marc Marquez leads at the start of 2023 MotoGP Portuguese sprint race

The start of Saturday’s 12-lap sprint race, which thrilled the crowd but had some riders concerned for their safety


Now FP1 is essentially a qualifying session, because FP2 is the only other outing that decides who goes directly into Saturday’s Q2 qualifier and who must fight their way through Q1. So riders must risk everything in FP1, in case something goes wrong in FP2, or the track is slower, even though their bikes may not be ready for a time attack and even though they may not have tried their bikes on soft tyres.

FP2 is the next high-stress point, because whatever your time in FP1 you will always need to try and go faster to make sure you stay in the top ten to guarantee your place in Q2, so once again the final minutes are like a qualifying session, when you must throw caution to the wind and hope you don’t end up in the Clinica Mobile.

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FP1 and FP2 at Portimao proved the point. By the end of Friday afternoon the top 20 riders were covered by 1.2 seconds. That was tighter than the top 20 in both Moto2 and Moto3!

Not only are there fewer practice sessions now, the sessions are shorter, at a time when the bikes have never been more complex or tyre choices more critical. Engineers tell me they are now so focused on Q2 from Friday morning that they have no time to try anything but the tiniest tweaks to their motorcycles. And some of them tell me they can barely watch the TV in their garages when their riders are doing time attacks, because they know the huge risks they take at every corner.

“Riders tell you that a qualifying lap is like losing one of their lives,” says one engineer.

FP3 isn’t a pressure point. It’s like the old FP4 session, except it’s largely useless because it takes place in the morning, so the track is cooler than it will be during both the sprint and GP races.

Alex Espargaro in MotoGP press conference at 2023 Portuguese GP

Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaró makes his point after the sprint race

Q1 is a huge stress point for the 12 riders that didn’t go straight to Q2. Once again, they must roll the dice in the hope of ending Q1 fastest or second-fastest, which wins them a chance in Q2, so they can fight for a start on the first four rows of the grid.

And if they don’t make it into Q2 they know their weekend is essentially over.

“If you miss Q2 you get angry,” Danilo Petrucci told me a couple of years ago. “It means you are in trouble, so you cannot say you will fight for the podium.”

“I saw five crashes in front of me, it was crazy”

Q2 is another massive stress point. Overtaking in MotoGP is so difficult now – because all the bikes are essentially the same, with spec tyres, spec software, downforce aerodynamics, ride-height devices and tyre-pressure problems – that you stand little chance of fighting for victory unless you start from the front two rows. At Portimao the front two rows were covered by three-tenths of a second, so you need say your prayers and to let it all hang out. Lord, forgive me for my sins…

“Qualifying is painful,” one crew chief told me recently.

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Obviously the sprint is another huge stress point. You really don’t need me to tell you that, do you? Half the points, half the laps and twice the risk, because there’s no time to do anything but attack, attack, attack. Of course, it’s easier for the riders out front. That fight tends to be less frantic and less dangerous than in the deeper, darker parts of the jungle.

And then there’s Sunday afternoon, the original pressure point, the moment that every racer lives for.

Motorcycle racing isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be difficult. And it’s dangerous too, because you’ll never be able to protect a bike racer like you can protect a car racer.

MotoGP pack leans into Turn 11 at 2023 Portuguese GP

Deep in the jungle: 11 riders jostle for position at Portimao’s Turn 3, where Marc Márquez took out Miguel Oliveira


Speaking to MotoGP riders, mechanics and engineers there’s a feeling that the championship is overheating, so it’s not just the riders complaining. All these people are already giving everything they’ve got. They’re under massive, unrelenting pressure from first thing Friday morning to last thing Sunday afternoon.

The stress doesn’t only happen on the track. Riders spend much more time in tense technical meetings each day than they do on the bike, because that’s how it is now. And then the riders have hours of corporate, TV and press duties. They’re stressed and exhausted, which is when mistakes happen. MotoGP has never been like this before.

And this year there are 21 races in eight months, with the last six taking place over seven weekends in Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar and Valencia.

When you watch MotoGP on television you see the glitz and the glamour, the shiny tip of the racing iceberg. You never get to glimpse the sport’s deep, dark, dirty secrets of blood, sweat and tears, because blood, sweat and tears doesn’t sell.

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Riders are so on the edge that they crash more than ever. In 2010 there was an average of seven premier-class accidents per weekend. Last year there were almost 17 per weekend – an increase of almost 250%!

Those simple numbers hide a lot of pain and suffering. And the threat of injury, or worse, as well as the pressure to succeed and the ever-increasing pressures of MotoGP’s ever-busier format place an immense psychological burden on the riders.

Aleix Espargaró, who always speaks his mind, is one of the louder critics of MotoGP’s latest stress point, the sprint race, likening the 12 laps at Portimao to a battle in Rome’s Coliseum.

“My favourite movie is Gladiator!” he said. “Do you think the gladiators wanted to be there? Do you think they liked it? I don’t think so. I saw five crashes in front of me, it was crazy. The tension is very high, this is what I’m saying. Maybe we have to get used to it, I don’t know.”

In other words, Espargaró – who no-one of any intelligence would dare call anything else but insanely brave – thinks that MotoGP is forcing the riders to take bigger and bigger risks in the name of entertainment.

Riders on MotoGP sprint race podium at the end of Portuguese GP

The sprint race ‘podium’: winner Pecco Bagnaia, runner-up Jorge Martin and Marc Márquez


Former world champion Fabio Quartararo agrees. “It’s the same for everybody, so I don’t want to complain but at the end of the day it’s a matter of safety, because we are on bikes that react in a way that you cannot control them,” he said at Portimao. “I think it’s quite dangerous.”

This process of upping the entertainment value of MotoGP has been in motion for more than a decade, always with the same aim: to increase excitement, which increases TV viewing figures, which increases income, not only for Dorna, but also for the riders and teams.

It started with Dorna’s efforts to shrink the performance gap between the front and the back of the grid. This was an excellent idea and worked well, but it increases stress on the riders and everyone else because they are fighting over the tiniest differences.

“We don’t have the power. We ask for many things but there’s no change”

And now it’s got to the point where this process has run headlong into the law of unintended consequence. If all the best bikes can extract 100% from the tyres, how do you overtake? Because when the rider ahead is using 100% of the front tyre during braking and entering and 100% of the rear tyre on the exit, you can’t use 110% of your tyres. It’s not possible. This is another reason why there are more and more mistakes and crashes.

I suspect most of these subjects will be up for discussion during the riders’ safety commission meeting at Termas de Rio Hondo. These meetings are private, so we won’t know exactly what was said. But there’s no doubt that the riders are revolting, or at least thinking about it, even though, or possibly because, many think that what they say in the safety commission has no effect on the people in charge.

“We don’t have the power,” added Quartararo. “Who decides? Them. We ask for many things but there’s no change, so in the end it [the safety commission] makes no sense.”

In my opinion, MotoGP needs to change its technical rules and its weekend format. Apart from that everything is perfect and it’s still the world’s greatest motor sport.