Motorcycle racing is a vicious and occasionally deadly sport, but it’s also beautiful, if you care to see the beauty.
It’s a fight and at the same time, it’s a ballet. There’s anger and ugliness in the fight, but there’s also courage, bravery and a little madness. Although I’d contend that the real world is much, much madder.
Fans of boxing say there’s beauty in two boxers dancing around the ring, using their skill and strength to beat the hell out of each other. I can’t see it myself, but I do see the beauty in bike racing.
There is joy in controlling a piece of machinery at ridiculous speeds and there is grace and magic in the way the rider’s body moves to make the motorcycle carve the desired line through corners, sometimes making the impossible possible.
And there is grandeur in the rider’s acceptance of the danger, of the risks that he or she happily faces as they do what they want with their lives. In my mind, this elevates bike racing to a higher plane, beyond most other sports.
Anyone who has raced at any level will know all about the aggression and malevolence that grips many racers. Some club racers that race for nothing more than a plastic gold trophy seem ready to die in its pursuit. So how can you even begin to imagine what’s going on in the heads of riders competing for untold riches and the biggest gong of them all?
“When you’ve been chasing a rider for several laps and he crashes right in front of you, you scream inside your helmet, “Serves him right – one less idiot to overtake!”
Riders spend each race weekend sharpening their weapons, ready for Sunday afternoon when you see them pumping themselves up for the battle, like Jack Miller punching himself in the chest as he awaits lights-out on the grid. He’s a fighter climbing into the ring.
Nicky Hayden used to talk about switching into “beast mode” on Sundays. Even in the pits it can get nasty – legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess’s favourite race-day slogan was, “Crush the c**ts!”.
All riders have scores to settle with rivals, and they’re ready to serve up revenge, hot or cold, whenever they get the chance.
This is what Miller said after this year’s season-opening race at Jerez, where Marc Márquez overtook him while fighting back from his off-track excursion before he fell. “When Marc came past I tried to f*** with him a little bit and I think it worked.”
Maybe people fail to see the viciousness because it’s lacquered with too many layers of glitz and glamour. The riders look so neat and sweet in their multi-coloured lids and leathers, wearing the logos of respected global corporations, that surely there can’t be anything down and dirty about this sport.
“During the race you want to kill the other riders,” said Marco Simoncelli in the summer of 2011. The Italian didn’t mean that literally; he was merely summoning up the strength of emotions that racers feel when the visor goes down and the lights go out: it’s a war out there.
Riders sometimes wore their emotions more openly back in the day. Twice World Superbike champion Fred Merkel had the words “If you want blood, you got it!” (an AC/DC album) painted in large capital letters on the back of his Arai. My brother Julian had the words “Death is God’s way of telling you to slow down!” on the back of his race helmet.
No rider actually wishes death upon their rivals (well…) but perhaps just a flesh wound or two. Like those moments when you’ve been chasing a rider for several laps and he crashes right in front of you. “Yessss!” you scream inside your helmet. “Serves him right – one less idiot to overtake!”
That’s just the way it is. Of course you don’t (usually) want to crash into your rivals or hurt them. But when you pull a close move on another rider you are nearly always bullying them, showing them a wheel, hoping they’ll back off before you do. Each time you go out on track you risk your own life and the lives of others, which is why it’s important that you don’t allow your aggression to all-consume you; not only for their sake but also for your own.
“He started shouting that I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘Yeah, and next time you do that I’ll knock you down again’.”
All riders have an arsenal of dirty tricks they can deploy whenever they feel like it – either to make a pass that can’t be done the nice way or to dish out some revenge. Most you’ll never even notice because they’re committed in a way that makes them invisible to most eyes.
And be sure that all riders are basically the same – there’s not one top rider that hasn’t pulled a dodgy move or ten to make their way to the front.
There are the everyday tricks, like gently moving a rival off-line when braking into a corner or easing an opponent away from the grippy line mid-turn. Then there are the nastier manoeuvres, like shutting the throttle halfway through a corner to force someone into taking avoiding action, thus costing them time. And then there’s the really mean stuff, like running a rival onto the grass at high speed, or deliberately colliding with them, or hitting their kill switch, or shutting their throttle or punching or kicking them. It all goes on, but these days in MotoGP it isn’t easy to get away with the bigger crimes, because there are cameras everywhere.