MotoGP 2020: ‘It’s definitely intense, seems like every race is Sepang 2015!’

MotoGP

MotoGP commentators Matt Birt and Steve Day on how paddock life has changed dramatically this year but the racing is as crazy as ever

MotoGP commentary team

Matt Birt and Steve Day – separated by Covid screen – in their Red Bull Ring commentary box

Matt Birt

The MotoGP paddock has changed beyond all recognition since the global pandemic arrived. What used to be a bustling global village of several thousand riders, engineers and team members and hundreds of lucky guests and fans is now a ghost town, inhabited only by skeleton race teams and TV crews. It’s even worse outside the paddock, where the grandstands and spectator areas that were once crammed with fans, buzzing with excitement and making a glorious racket, are abandoned.

All this makes little difference to riders, engineers and mechanics going about their business. They are so focused on their work that they barely notice how things have changed outside their field of vision.

But that’s not case for Dorna’s lead MotoGP commentators Matt Birt and Steve Day, whose job is to communicate the buzz of the paddock and pit lane to fans around the world. Now there is no buzz beyond the racetrack.

“We noticed it most at Jerez, where our commentary box is right above the grandstand opposite the pits,” says Birt. “Usually it’s rammed with fans and there’s a really cool atmosphere, a really cool vibe of everyone getting into it. It’s strange now, because we used to feed off the energy of the crowd, with everyone going nuts outside our commentary box. Usually there’s fans right in front of us with airhorns. We’ve even been halfway through a session and some guy’s come up and started cleaning our window! So there’s none of that stuff going on.

“It’s a challenge for Dorna as well, because there’s zero atmosphere shots they can use as part of the programme. Usually you’ve got Rossi fans or fans of whoever going crazy in the crowd, but not now.”

Life has also changed for Birt and Day inside the commentary box, according to MotoGP’s Covid protocols.

“The set-up of the box is quite different because we now have a Perspex screen between the two of us,” says Day. “And whereas before we had one timing monitor and a TV screen between us we’ve now got a timing monitor and a TV each.

“Normally there’s two headsets and mics that we share with Matt Dunn and Neil Morrison [Dorna’s Moto2 and Moto3 commentators] but now we each have our own microphone and headsets. And when we swap between sessions there’s a technician who comes into the box to sanitise everything.”

Jack Miller leading, MotoGP Aut GP 2020

One thing Covid hasn’t changed is the racing – it’s as close as ever

Red Bull

Most different of all though is paddock life.

“It’s changed completely,” says Day. “Obviously we don’t get to enjoy the delights of a Ducati breakfast, or lunch in any of the hospitalities, which aren’t there anymore. And we’re not allowed to hover around in the paddock, we’re not allowed down the back of the garages and we’re not allowed in the garages.

“We are lucky in that when some of the riders do their Zoom media conferences in the media centre they walk past us and from a distance we can have a chat with them, but it’s not relaxed like it was before, so you’re not getting a lot of gold out of it. Paddock life is very empty. We took what we had before for granted. We love being here, but a lot of the enjoyment of paddock life has gone.

“Our jobs, so to speak, haven’t changed at all because we’re still commentating on the same number of sessions and races. In fact in some ways our jobs are easier because we can do our research in the peace and quiet of the empty press room. But you don’t get that same buzz of excitement coming into the paddock.”

Related article

There’s no doubt that the empty paddock does make life easier for MotoGP riders, teams and workers, because they can do what they’ve got to do without fighting their way through crowds of people.

“I saw Valentino [Rossi] riding a scooter through the paddock at Jerez and he looked ecstatic because normally he’d never be able to do that without getting mobbed,” says Birt. “But we definitely miss that human contact with other people in the paddock. When you used to arrive in the morning you’d probably speak to 25 people before you even got to the press room – just a quick hello or whatever – but that’s all gone now.”

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the racing.

“It’s definitely intense – it seems like every race is Sepang 2015,” says Day. “I really thought the absence of Marc Márquez would affect things but it 100 per cent hasn’t. No disrespect to the guy, because he’s a genius, but so much has happened that I’ve barely noticed he’s not out there.”

MotoGP commentary team equipment

Covid protocols means each commentator gets his own mic/headphone set

Matt Birt

“There’s only been four races but there’s been 40 races worth of talking points – it’s been nuts!” agrees Birt. “A lot of fans are worried about what will happen when Rossi goes and Márquez goes, but with Márquez not being here and the way it’s gone for Rossi over the last few years we’ve already had the answer – the racing has been awesome.

“One thing I’ve realised in this period is how different MotoGP is off the track but how it’s exactly the same on the track. When you watch football now it’s a totally different sport – it’s not so quick, because the players aren’t reacting to the crowd.”

The logistics of getting to races have also changed for paddock workers. Travelling through Europe is no longer straightforward, with fewer flights, Covid spikes and quarantine rules changing all the time.

“Initially we weren’t going to be allowed to go home after Jerez, they wanted us to stay over,” says Birt. “But then we were told that we could go home and travel again within the 14-day quarantine, so long as we self-isolated when we got home after Jerez. So we both went home and didn’t leave our houses for nine days before we went to Brno. Then we came straight to Austria, so it’s been a lot of time away from our families. And a lot of Covid tests!”

Birt and Day have been commentating together since 2018. Birt – 47-years-old from Lincolnshire – has been working in MotoGP since 1996, first with Motor Cycle News, then with Dorna. Day – 36 from Suffolk – used to race in Superteens and the British championship. He started commentating on Thundersport club events in 2008.