Outside our office the sun is shining on a beautiful, English autumn day. The last of this season’s fruit is fully ripened in our little orchard and the warm weather has brought a cacophony of color to the trees. A cock thrush marks out his territory with melodious song, as our pet sheep amble contentedly around their paddock. It’s a perfect, English, rural scene – and I sit at my desk with a deep, black depression enveloping me.
Carol looks at me with a wisdom which only racers’ wives possess. “You need to go to Valencia.”
Note the words, “…need to go.” Not want to go, or should go, or it would be nice if you could go – but the absolute imperative of meeting my need to be at Valencia for one the greatest motorcycle races of this century. Okay, officer, put the ‘cuffs on me. I confess. I am a race junkie. I have never had any interest in illegal narcotic substances but my craving for a race fix is as strong that felt by any junkie. I NEED Valencia.
Act 1: Wanting to watch MotoGP at Valencia is not the same as being able to watch MotoGP Valencia.
The problem is that every motorcycle race junkie in the world wants the same fix. We want to see Marc Márquez, perhaps the most remarkable talent in the history of motorcycle racing, take the MotoGP title at his first attempt.
Marc Márquez who is just 20 years old. Marc Márquez who began GP racing aged 15 years and 56 days and who already has two World Championships to his name.
Marc Márquez, who has not so much broken every record in the annals of motorcycle racing history but has re-written everything which has ever been said about bike sport.
Last year tour organizers were walking through the crowds trying to off-load their ticket allocations, there was so little interest in attending the Valencia GP merely to see the already crowned World Champion, Jorge Lorenzo, ride. This year, tickets are changing hands in the car parks for $400 and $500. Yes, I am a MotoGP junkie – but this is outside our price range.
Then the Cavalry comes over the hill and we are saved. If you ever want to visit a MotoGP round anywhere in the world then save yourself endless pain, frustration and disappointment and go straight to Gordon Howell of Pole Position Travel. Gordon is an amiable American who seems to live permanently in airport lounges and hotel rooms and who has an utterly encyclopedic knowledge of GP racing. Gordon personally knows every seat in every stadium in every country in the world and, with some form of magic beyond our comprehension, conjures up two of the best seats in Valencia’s stadium.
Act 2: Valencia is not going to be just an ordinary race
We catch a plane to Alicante, a large tourist airport about 120 miles from Valencia and it’s like being on a Pole Position tour bus. The aircraft is packed to capacity with English and Irish fans, as might be expected, but Britain has also been emptied of every nationality with a passion for motorcycle racing. There are Aussies, New Zealanders and British based Americans and Canadians and goodness knows who else. This plane needs re-branding as the MotoGP special and we should have a picture of Vale on the tail fin.
Act 3: Qualifying is always a quiet day…
Only hard core fans attend qualifying on the day before a GP. It’s a day for the aficionados, the race geeks who understand the most esoteric nuances of racing. The Hoi Polloi will come tomorrow but Saturday is for us purists to have serious conversations about the subtleties of motorcycle sport.
I have ample time to consider how wrong is my analysis – after sitting in the car for two hours in a queue trying to get into the circuit.
It’s not being discourteous to say that Valencia is not one of the great GP circuits in the world. The 2.5-mile track twists and turns to and fro in what is not unlike a big football or baseball stadium and, like a sports stadium, the viewing is excellent. If the track isn’t stunning, the location right next to the Interstate Highway, and the billions of acres of parking lots, ought to make for a delightful customer experience. Except…
The exception being that the police officer controlling the four-way access road allows only three vehicles at a time through and then discusses the traffic congestion with his two colleagues before blowing his whistle, checking his watch and waving through three further customers.
Things improve when the parking attendants just give up and walk away. Then everyone wriggles into the free spaces and we’re in the stadium and know that this is the only place in the world to be this weekend. To describe the atmosphere as electric is like saying that a tiger shark has a mild interest in eating fish! I have rarely experienced anything like it in a lifetime of motorcycle racing.
The customer make up is very interesting. Go to a British or German bike race and the majority of the spectators are motorcyclists who know a lot about racing. At Valencia, the cult of personality rules. For example, the vendors largely sell rider merchandise. There are dozens of booths for T-shirts, coffee mugs, flags and scarves but not a single one selling anything for a bike. There is no clothing, parts, oils or anything else bike related on sale and this is reflected in how few, comparatively, bikes there are on site.
The only non-motorcycling items are men’s perfume, the ubiquitous Red Bull, a smidgen of food and drink and riders’ sponsors.
This is a show of rock stars on motorcycles and the fans are, largely, concert fans too.
I have to add the caveat “largely” because we sit in a group of Irish, Australian and British race addicts all of whom could comfortably run any GP team present at Valencia. The conversation flows to and fro about asymmetric tires, the impact of the 24-liter fuel rule next year, control ECU’s and software and a dozen more wonderfully esoteric subjects in which we wallow like university professors at an international seminar.
Meanwhile, one row down, the Spanish contingent chant, “Márquez! Márquez! Márquez!” and wave their red flags and kiss and squeeze their girlfriends’ bottoms and giggle and shout to their friends ten rows down and drag us, knowledge and all, into the party.
Qualifying for MotoGP is electric. If I could be any GP racer it would be Jorge Lorenzo. He is truly the racers’ racer. To see Lorenzo in action is to see the brain surgeon of motorcycle racers in all his glory. His precision and elegance is breathtaking. He rides the monstrously fast, and dangerous, Yamaha YZR-M1 like a Prima Ballerina dancing in Swan Lake. He is precise, elegant and the complete master of his craft.
By contrast, Márquez arrives at the end of Valencia’s main straight utterly certain to crash. His back wheel is in the air, the front wheel sliding and bucking and it’s only a matter of time before the corner workers are collecting him from the gravel.
Then, as if by magic, he slams the bike into the corner with his elbow dragging on the rumble strip and the back end of the bike hanging out like an AMA Pro flat tracker.
Crash after crash, corner after corner, lap after lap after lap follows. Except that he doesn’t fall. Snaking, sliding, hanging off the bike at ludicrously silly angles Márquez is not only re-writing the history books, he is also changing motorcycle racing forever. From now on, to win MotoGP you will have to ride like this amazing young Spaniard.
Anyone who races, or who has raced, feels deeply embarrassed and humiliated watching Márquez. These deities are not the same as we who once thought that we could ride a motorcycle. They brake impossibly, unimaginably late and, in a flash, lay the bike on its side so hard that they must crash. Then they are flat out, right elbow down with the throttle against its stop, head in the tank, front wheel pattering over the tarmac and the rear scrabbling for grip. How dare we mortals think that we have a single molecule of riding ability?
Act 4 – Show me the size of your merchandise booth
You can tell the importance of the rider by the size, and number, of their merchandise booths. Still at the top of the marketing tree is Vale – but only just. Márquez is now running a close second, not only in terms of the amount of merchandise sold but the prices too.
Vale still leads the pack with coffee mugs at $27 while Marc chases hard at a mere $15. Meanwhile you can have a Cal Crutchlow mug for $13 – the same price as a souvenir Bridgestone drinking receptacle.
Not only is Vale still in the lead in terms of the sheer quantity of merchandise on sale but the cunning Italian has also addressed a key problem: market saturation. When our daughter was in her Vale phase we probably single handedly bought Rossi’s house in Urbino she had so many T-shirts, hats, key rings and scarves. However, even she became sated simply because she had everything. The answer? Bring on impossibly esoteric new products that no one has yet. Fancy a Vale doll for that Rossi shrine in your workshop? $53 will buy you a tasteful plastic icon to watch over your bike preparation.
Act 5 – It can’t get any better
I am not going to comment on the chaos of getting to our seats because it is irrelevant. Your local Scout group can organize traffic management better than the Spanish Police but none of this matters because we left our hotel before dawn and now we are sat in some of the finest seats in the stadium, for a day of the very best GP racing.
Moto 2 is fantastic racing but processional. Even in this atmosphere, you can’t make such a tightly regulated formula exciting. The riders are superb but almost identical bikes, travelling at the same speed, inevitably leads to a dull experience.
But the support acts are not what we are here to see. All 104,000 fans are at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo to participate in the final scene of a Shakespearian drama. Lorenzo – the king: Márquez – the young pretender. Lorenzo with the most wins ought to be rewarded with the crown. Márquez deserves victory on the grounds of natural justice, having had the prize torn from his hand in Phillip Island by his pit crew’s mistake.
Lorenzo must win. Márquez can finish fourth or better. Either way, one of the two will take center stage in a tragedy and the other the final bow in a majestic history.
MotoGP riders are treated like deities but sometimes my heart goes out to them in sympathy. The big screen – actually about the size of a television in some trailer homes – shows Márquez glad handing some super suit executive from Repsol exactly 23 minutes before the start of the most important race of his life. What can that young man be thinking? When his mind wants, and desperately needs, to be totally concentrated on racing there he is making some polite, vacuous comment to an oil company executive. How insensitive, how utterly banal and narcissistic must that executive be not to stand respectfully away and give Marc the space he needs? Racing needs money to survive but the price the teams and riders pay is high.
It is difficult to describe the intensity of MotoGP. The noise sweeps over us like a tidal wave. It is all enveloping, all consuming, boring into your racing soul.
There are no words to adequately describe the fierceness of the battle. Lorenzo with an aggression hitherto unseen in this most elegant of riders. Pedrosa with all the finesse of a bar room brawler and the 20-year-old Márquez exhibiting the self-discipline, and maturity, of a veteran twice his age.
MotoGP, for all its manifold faults and problems, has provided a spectacle unequalled in any other form of sport.
Márquez wheelies and grins and hurls his gloves into the hands of fans because he is, deservedly, Champion of the World.
For us, we stand and cheer and think not of technicalities or the politics of the sport but of the privilege we shared in being present at a race which will be remembered for as long as motorcycle racing exists.