MotoGP Unlimited review: motorcycling's answer to Drive to Survive

Racing Movies

Amazon's MotoGP Unlimited documentary series goes behind the scenes to show what riders are really like – and you may be surprised

rc Marquez in MotoGP Unlimited

Marc Márquez during motocross training last summer – he still doesn’t know if his career is finished

Amazon Prime

There’s not much point in me writing a review for MotoGP Unlimited because the documentary series wasn’t made for me, just like Drive To Survive wasn’t made for the Formula 1 cognoscenti.

The series was commissioned to do for MotoGP what DtS has done to F1: create a more human picture of the championship that will attract your boyfriend or your girlfriend to get into the racing, thereby increasing TV audiences, which (in theory) brings more money into the championship. Yes, of course, it’s ultimately all about money.

So, instead of a review, here’s a few thoughts about the eight-part series, which was released – with a few hiccups – earlier this week.

Who knew riders get scared before races? Of course they bloody well get scared!

MotoGP’s Friday-to-Sunday TV coverage has never been better but it’s necessarily focused on what happens on track and in pitlane. MotoGP Unlimited’s job is to go deeper – sneaking into the riders’ private lives to shoot them at home in the kitchen, watching them torture themselves in the gym, catching them so far away from the glare of a hundred TV camera spotlights that they’ve left their race faces somewhere else, so you see the doubts, the worries and the fear creep across their everyday faces.

There’s Marc Márquez out motocrossing with his brother last summer, when he still didn’t know what was going on with his injured right arm. He parks his bike, sits back in a chair and heaves a big sigh, because he’s scared, scared that it might be all over.

There’s a lot of fear in MotoGP Unlimited and perhaps that’s its greatest success in transmitting this reality to fans.

People call MotoGP riders warriors, superheroes, aliens, but this series reveals that these warriors, superheroes, aliens are just like the rest of us: they get frightened, they get depressed, they get worried.

Jorge Martin in MotoGP Unlimited

Jorge Martin fighting back from his horrendous Portimao injuries

Amazon Prime

What separates them from us is that they can process their fear, depression and worry in ways that we cannot. They feel it and they sense it threatening to overwhelm them, so they do some psychic gymnastics and lock it away in some dark recess of their brain, where they can’t hear it banging on the door, trying to get out.

There’s Jorge Martin, sat in his garage, shortly before the start of the Styrian GP at Red Bull Ring, which he won. He doesn’t look right. He’s got an uneasy smile on his face.

“I’m freaking scared,” he says.

Who know riders get scared before races? Of course they bloody well get scared!

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Martin puts his head in his hands, exhales heavily, raises his head and grins.

“Full throttle all the way,” he says. “Until the end.”

Psychic gymnastics completed, in 20 seconds or so.

There’s Jack Miller helping out Aussie youngster Billy van Eerde, who’s struggling with arm pump at a CEV race. Van Eerde is so upset with the problem that he’s crying. Do racers cry? Of course they do.

Maverick Viñales admits that he cried night after night when his Yamaha ride was falling to pieces. We get to see a remarkable clip from inside the Yamaha garage in which Viñales tells Yamaha race boss Lin Jarvis to release him from his contract, so he can ride another motorcycle.

The Viñales Yamaha/Aprilia story enthralled MotoGP fans last year because everyone loves a good bust-up. MU (that’s what we’ll call MotoGP Unlimited from now on) loves it too but covers the sorry tale with respect.

Nonetheless we get a glimpse into the darkness within Viñales, a super-talented rider and apparently a sweet man, whose mind seems to be stalked by paranoia.

The event that brought an immediate end to his Yamaha contract was his behaviour at the end of the Styrian GP, when he abused his M1 engine. That followed a botched start, when the engine stalled on the grid.

Valentino Rossi in MotoGP Unlimited

Rossi discusses MotoGP intensity – shame about the botched sub-titles

Amazon Prime

After the race Viñales accuses Jarvis of stalling the engine from the Yamaha garage. “You stalled the bike!” he shouts.

All kinds of remote machine control are banned in MotoGP, so to achieve this goal of screwing over probably its best-paid rider Yamaha would’ve had to break all the rules.

Several years ago I had a chat about Viñales and his mercurial character with a Spanish former world champion, who knows his countrymen well. He tried to explain to Viñales that why would Yamaha pay him many millions a year and provide him with motorcycles that cost many millions more, with the express intention of making sure he fails as miserably as possible? It simply does not add up, in any way at all.

MU nicely paints the red mist that overwhelms many riders when they are racing, sometimes until they see nothing else. Never mind the technology overload, MotoGP isn’t all about technique, strategies and data, it’s also about the cave-man aggression that the riders must control and channel, because if they don’t that red mist will become blood, either their own or someone else’s.

There are few more emotional riders in the paddock than Aleix Espargaró, who seems to view much of his racing life through a red-tinted visor but has his own way of soothing his cave-man aggression – he fires it out of his mouth.

One of the later episodes of MU 2021 focuses on the Spaniard’s historic British GP, when he scored Aprilia’s first four-stroke MotoGP podium. Although that Sunday went perfectly for Espargaró the preceding two days were more complicated. MU shows four or five quick-fire clips of him returning to his garage, firing F bombs in all directions, including at his younger brother, who had badly baulked him on a fast lap.

Aleix Espargaro in MotoGP Unlimited

Aleix Espargaró launches another salvo of F bombs

Amazon Prime

“Motherf****r!” he screams, possibly without considering the exact meaning of that term.

That salvo of F words is followed by a studio interview with Espargaró’s long-time crew chief Antonio Jimenez, who has heard his rider drop many thousands of F bombs over the years and knows to deal with them. He ignores it all, waits for his man to calm down and then goes to work.

That same weekend Espargaró’s younger brother Pol took pole at Silverstone, his first decent day on Honda’s RC213V after months of trying. Still wearing his leathers and still buzzing with excitement he FaceTimes his wife Carlota.

Their daughter Alex is eating a doughnut.

“She’s earned it,” says Carlota. “She suffered a lot with that bad temper of yours.”

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So now you know that MotoGP riders take their work home with them. A rider that’s happy with his bike will be happy at home, a rider that’s unhappy with his bike will be unhappy at home. How could it be otherwise?

Few MotoGP riders risk as much as Pol Espargaró. He simply doesn’t know how to ride at less than 100%. That pole position followed plenty of crashes, including many corner-entry highsides, just about the worst way you can fall off a motorcycle.

One second he’s laughing and joking with Carlota and the next his face changes. The emotion of the moment – and all that’s gone before – ambushes him.

“Shit, it took so much,” he says, sounding like he’s not far from tears. “Blood, sweat and tears. F***in hell!”

The pressure these riders are under has never been this bad, so minor eruptions are to be expected. Even Marc Márquez, now a veteran of the pack, explains how things have changed during his time in MotoGP.

Jack Miller in MotoGP Unlimited

Miller in the depths of despair after his grim start to 2021

Amazon Prime

“You could be an idiot in the races – now it’s full throttle all the way,” he says.

Valentino Rossi, who only just made the first series of MU before leaving the paddock, sums it up thus. “Racing used to be a matter of courage and heart,” he says. “Now I see it more like a regular job.”

In other words, MotoGP riders now inhabit their own nine-to-five world, working five, six, seven days a week, all year round. Grand prix racing is no longer a romantic adventure. It’s just bloody hard work: training, travelling, racing, risking life and limb every lap, because you’ll be nowhere if you don’t.

MU does an excellent job of educating fans about the blood, sweat and tears behind the glamour.

The people who put the series together did a great job, only to be horribly let down by whoever thought it a good idea to dub the riders and everyone else, at a single stroke killing the drama, the emotion and the intensity.

Amazon – who financed the series and broadcast sit across its Prime Video platform – reacted swiftly to the outcry, providing an original audio version with subtitles; the way it should be.

And yet the version I watched on the plane from London to Indonesia featured two sets of subtitles, one over the other, so you felt like Marc Márquez suffering from a bout of double vision. And then the last episode – of eight – was still dubbed, with no option to switch to the original audio.

I manfully struggled through, wincing each time any of the riders opened their mouths, sounding like middle-class Englishmen at a management planning meeting, not the world’s fastest, wildest motorcycle racers.

Hopefully these glitches will be fixed soon because MU deserves better, much better. It’s a must watch for fans and everyone else.