Formula 1’s love affair with MotoGP


Why most F1 drivers love MotoGP. And why talk of F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton buying a MotoGP team may have something to do with Liberty Media’s buying the championship

Lewis Hamilton with Valentino Rossi

Hamilton, in a bike-racing tuck, with Rossi during their machine swap at Valencia in 2019

Monster Energy

Each summer, during the hugely popular Goodwood Festival of Speed, the great and good of Formula 1 and motorcycle racing gather in the holding area before blasting up the hill to entertain the crowds.

Dozens of newish and old F1 cars and dozens of newish and old MotoGP bikes sit facing each other, tended by mechanics and drivers and riders, waiting for the green light. There’s always a fair amount of waiting to be done at the Festival and during this downtime the flow of F1 drivers and mechanics looking at the bikes and chatting to their riders is always greater than the other way around.

Why is this? Many people in F1 look at MotoGP and bike racing in general as a purer, older-school kind of motor sport, where there’s less politics and bullshit and bigger balls and bigger risks, just like F1 in the old days. A few years ago, when the racing in MotoGP was at a thrilling peak, F1 people always wanted to talk to bike people like me about the racing – they were awed by the skill, the action, the OVERTAKING!

And after all, car racing and bike racing have the same spirit and soul: speed, risk, danger, bravery, engines, chassis, aerodynamics and tyres. Their only core difference is the number of wheels. That’s why car racers and car-racing people are frequent visitors to MotoGP and other bike events, because they get it and they love to discuss the similarities and differences between their sports with the world’s fastest bike racers. You don’t see the same crossover between football and rugby, or cricket and baseball, even though those sports are also related.

Fernando Alonso and Marc Marquez ride Honda motorbikes on track

Alonso and Marc Márquez aboard RC213V MotoGP bikes during the 2016 Honda Thanks Day at Motegi


Therefore it’s no great surprise that seven-time F1 king Lewis Hamilton is rumoured to be considering a move into MotoGP team ownership. Hamilton loves motorcycles. He rides on the road and has ridden factory Yamaha superbikes in secret track days — no media allowed — and had a wobble on Valentino Rossi’s YZR-M1 in a heavily-publicised Monster Energy media event.

He’s not alone. The F1 paddock has always been populated by racers and engineers who ride motorcycles for the thrills and love motorcycles for the technology. Riding a motorcycle is a more visceral experience than driving a car – always more adrenaline, which is what racing people live for.

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Reigning F1 champ Max Verstappen raced bikes when he was a kid, Fernando Alonso has ridden a Honda RC213V MotoGP bike at Motegi, Kimi Räikkönen runs a factory Kawasaki motocross team, Sebastian Vettel is a keen collector and rider of classic motorcycles, Red Bull engineering genius Adrian Newey got his first job in F1 because he turned up for the interview aboard a 1970s Ducati 900SS and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has spectated at the Isle of Man TT.

The first seven-time F1 king Michael Schumacher got seriously into bikes during his sabbatical from F1, racing a Honda Fireblade in the German superbike championship, with some success. He was forced to stop due to a neck injury.

Damon Hill, 1996 F1 champion with Williams and son of twice 1960s F1 champ Graham Hill, grew up wanting to emulate his hero Barry Sheene on motorcycles. He started out racing in a one-make Kawasaki series and graduated onto a Yamaha TZ350, winning the 1984 King of Brands title, but he struggled to get sponsorship and had little choice but to switch to four wheels.

Ayrton Senna polishes Ducati

Senna looking after his Ducati 851 at home in Brazil

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

John Surtees moved seamlessly from winning motorcycle world titles with MV Agusta to winning the F1 crown with Ferrari. He saw the similarities in his job as a rider and a driver. “The relationship you create with a piece of machinery is something very special,” he told me. “In a way it talks to you, so the important thing is to understand what it’s telling you.”

Mike Hailwood graduated from bikes to cars, just like Hill and Surtees, but with less success – Mike the Bike won nine motorcycle world titles and scored two podiums in F1. Funnily enough, he believed F1 to be more dangerous than bikes, but that was in the era when F1 cars too often turned into fiery death traps.

The great Ayrton Senna was a big fan of motorcycles and was close to Claudio Castiglioni, who, with his brother, saved Ducati from bankruptcy in the 1980s. Senna owned several big red v-twins, most famously an 851, Ducati’s first world Superbike machine.

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Tazio Nuvolari, one of car racing’s all-time greats, was a factory Bianchi bike racer in the 1920s before winning car grands prix with Alfa Romeo in the 1930s.

Then there’s Charles Leclerc, Mark Webber, Kevin Magnussen, Jacky Ickx, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Emerson Fittipaldi, Patrick Depailler, Gerhard Berger, Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell. The list goes on and on and on…

So, what about the Hamilton rumours? And, firstly, why now?

Perhaps it’s part of Liberty Media’s move into MotoGP. The American sports-marketing company knows that MotoGP is woefully underrepresented on the global media scene and the best and quickest way to tackle that is by bringing big names like Hamilton into the championship, so perhaps this was Liberty talking with Hamilton: why don’t you buy a MotoGP team and we will help you do it?

Stefano Domenicali with Giacomo Agostini and Gerhard Berger

Liberty F1 president Domenicali, 15-time motorcycle champion Giacomo Agostini, former F1 driver Gerhard Berger and (far right) Pramac team owner Paolo Campinoti at the Isle of Man TT


Liberty’s F1 president and former Ferrari F1 boss Stefano Domenicali is another keen motorcyclist, who has spectated at the TT. He attended last month’s Italian MotoGP round at Mugello and you can be sure he wasn’t there just to watch the racing. He would’ve been laying the groundwork for Liberty’s (still to be approved) takeover of the championship.

Hamilton is said to be considering buying the Gresini MotoGP team, although there’s no firm evidence of this and it’s not even sure that Gresini wants to sell. Teams own their grid slots as part of a franchise system established by current rights-holder Dorna some years ago. If Liberty does get the go ahead to assume control of MotoGP it will most likely raise the championship’s profile, which will increase the value of teams, so why would Gresini want to cash in its chips now?

How much would Hamilton have to pay if he does want to buy a MotoGP team?

By F1 standards, very little. The cost difference between the two sports is vast. A MotoGP team’s value would be formed from its infrastructure and the perceived value of its grid slots. A look at sponsorship values might give us some idea: title sponsorship of a competitive F1 team can cost around £40 million per season, whereas you can be title sponsor of a factory MotoGP team for around £4 million.

That’s where Liberty may be able to help MotoGP, because the paddock needs more money. Most indie MotoGP riders are earning no more than a few hundred thousand, which isn’t a just reward for competing at the top of a global sport and taking bigger risks than just about any other sportsperson competing at that level.

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