Power Play

Thailand Tatler - - OCTOBER -

Some 300 mil­lion pairs of eyes around the world will be fo­cused on Thai­land in early Oc­to­ber as the coun­try hosts its first Mo­tor­cy­cle Grand Prix. The thrills, spills and sheer skills of the elite Mo­toGP rid­ers are bound to find a re­cep­tive lo­cal au­di­ence too, says Cameron Cooper

Pos­si­bly the big­gest in­ter­na­tional sport­ing event Thai­land has ever hosted will be mak­ing its de­but from Oc­to­ber 5-7, but few here seem to be aware of it or its im­por­tance to the coun­try as a player on the global stage, says Cameron Cooper. And yet, how­ever many Thai fans do or don’t turn up, 300 mil­lion pairs of eyes around the world will be trained on the Chang In­ter­na­tional Cir­cuit at Buri­ram and the first Thai­land Grand Prix mo­tor­cy­cle race. That’s right, mo­tor­cy­cles.

The Most Re­spectable Dis­re­spected Sport

Mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing has al­ways had it a bit tough. Per­ceived by many as a hooli­gan’s sport, where sui­ci­dal mad­men open the throt­tle and laugh ma­ni­a­cally in the face of death, it has been seen as the poor dirty cousin to car rac­ing, par­tic­u­larly the longheld-glam­orous For­mula One—a sport en­dorsed and in­dulged in by roy­alty.

Mo­toGP be­gan its life in 1949, with many changes and tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments over the decades (and a much re­duced death rate). As For­mula One and its end­less reg­u­la­tions, safety fea­tures and re­duced over­tak­ing loses some of its lus­tre, many are turn­ing to the more thrilling Mo­toGP—a sport that not only re­quires the men­tal skills of F1, but is also even more phys­i­cally de­mand­ing and fea­tures bat­tles be­tween rid­ers that the much wider F1 ve­hi­cles can­not pos­si­bly match.

The Mo­toGP rider is not caged in but out in the open, part of his ma­chine, un­til a crash sep­a­rates them, leav­ing him on his own, tum­bling along the gravel pit at hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres per hour with only his suit and his wits to min­imise the dam­age. It is a highly dis­ci­plined sport that is not for the faint hearted. Car rac­ers will be the first to ad­mit that they have enor­mous re­spect for the skills and nerve of mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ers. As former F1 cham­pion Nicky Lauder said re­cently, “Mo­toGP still has the glad­i­a­to­rial as­pect that For­mula One has lost.” And so over the past 15 years the top-class Mo­toGP has picked up steam and new fans, with rid­ers re­ceiv­ing mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar salaries and en­dorse­ment deals, putting some of them—most no­tably Mo­toGP vet­eran Valentino Rossi—among the high­est paid sports­men in the world.

The Mo­toGP race se­ries is now held from March through Novem­ber with 20 races in 15 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ar­gentina, Spain, Aus­tralia, UK, Ger­many, Nether­lands, Qatar, Malaysia, Ja­pan and the US. And now Thai­land is tak­ing its place in that dis­tin­guished com­pany. With 300 mil­lion fans watch­ing the event around the world, it is a very big deal for the Thai sport­ing world and the coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional im­age.

Thai­land Gains Trac­tion

Mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing is grow­ing in Thai­land, par­tic­u­larly as Thai street rid­ers dis­cover big

HARD TO BEat Rep­sol Honda’s reign­ing world cham­pion Marc Mar­quez takes the che­quered flag at the 2018 Amer­i­can Mo­toGP; Span­ish rider Jorge Lorenzo pushes to catch the front run­ners at the 2018 Amer­i­can Mo­toGP

bikes and the in­cred­i­ble things these twowheeled rock­ets are ca­pa­ble of (un­for­tu­nately test­ing out too much of this power and agility on pub­lic roads).

Races in the glob­ally pop­u­lar World Su­per­bike Cham­pi­onship—fea­tur­ing the world’s fastest road-le­gal mo­tor­cy­cles—have been held at the Buri­ram cir­cuit since 2015. Built in 2014 by former politi­cian-turned-sport­ing im­pre­sario Newin Chid­chob to the tune of more than 2 bil­lion baht, it is the only track in the coun­try with FIA Grade 1 clas­si­fi­ca­tion (ie it can host just about any level of car and bike rac­ing ex­cept For­mula One). At­ten­dance has been good with claimed crowds of more than 80,000 on race week­end, so hopes are high that the inau­gu­ral Thai­land Mo­toGP will at­tract even more. It helps that in 2015 Thai rider Rattha­park Wi­lairot won the World Su­per­sport race (a sub-cat­e­gory of the World Su­per­bike se­ries), while com­pa­triot Decha Krais­art was run­ner-up in the same race in 2017. At present only one Mo­toGP rider hails from South­east Asia—Malaysian Hafizh Syahrin, who be­came the first from the re­gion to race in the top bracket. He cur­rently rides for the Mon­ster Yamaha Tech 3 team. Time will tell if Rattha­park or Decha have the tal­ent to step up and join him among the world’s elite rid­ers. Cer­tainly Malaysia has caught the Mo­toGP bug in a big way, with more than 166,000 spec­ta­tors pack­ing the Sepang cir­cuit’s grand­stands for the big race there last year. (This year’s race is from Novem­ber 2-4). Thai­land is signed on for three sea­sons of Mo­toGP, giv­ing the sport a chance to build here, be­fore pos­si­bly hav­ing its host sta­tus ex­tended. So go buy your tick­ets now.

So What Are The Rid­ers Ac­tu­ally Do­ing out There?

There is more to rid­ing and rac­ing one of these in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful ma­chines than pin­ning the throt­tle and see­ing who is stupid enough to go fastest and win the race—a com­mon per­cep­tion among the gen­eral pub­lic. It starts with a suit that is not just a set of tai­lored leathers but is ar­moured and padded with space-age ma­te­ri­als and airbags. They are very con­strict­ing on move­ment but so ef­fec­tive that cur­rent world cham­pion Marc Mar­quez once crashed at a speed of around 300km/hr, and still rode in the next sched­uled race.

It looks beau­ti­fully grace­ful and ef­fort­less as the rid­ers lean over al­most level with the ground and arc through a turn. The re­al­ity for

the rider is much more bru­tal. 1. Po­si­tion the back­side off the seat to the same side as the di­rec­tion of the turn. 2. Brake hard and late, shift gears, hang en­tire body off the bike with the op­po­site leg, us­ing only the in­ner thigh mus­cle. 3. Drag knee (and some­times el­bow) along the tar­mac. 4. Ac­cel­er­ate through and out of the apex. 5. Shift gears, pull up­right, keep ac­cel­er­at­ing hard. 6. Af­ter a few sec­onds, re­peat steps 1 through 5 in the next cor­ner. And lord help you if an­other rider is try­ing to pass you while all this is hap­pen­ing.

The brake force com­ing into a turn in­volves de­cel­er­at­ing from up to 300+km/hr, which causes a G-force of 1.0-1.4g—the rider’s en­tire body weight and more chan­nelled through his arms and wrists just be­fore each of the more than 200 cor­ners he rounds in a sin­gle 45 minute race. That’s a cor­ner ev­ery 10-12 sec­onds and thou­sands of split sec­ond de­ci­sions—in a sport where tenths or even hun­dredths of a sec­ond can make the dif­fer­ence be­tween first and sec­ond place.

It will not come as a sur­prise then that a Mo­toGP rider burns as many calo­ries in a 45-minute race as a Premier League foot­baller burns in 90 min­utes run­ning around a foot­ball pitch. These guys are not just along for the ride. They are su­per­men. We are not wor­thy.

Just Go

The week­end of the Thai­land Mo­toGP on Oc­to­ber 5-7 starts with two days of qual­i­fy­ing runs on the Fri­day and Satur­day—time tri­als across Moto GP, Moto 2 and Moto 3 classes— which are spec­tac­u­lar in their own right. Sun­day is race day proper with three races cul­mi­nat­ing with the top GP class. Three full days of rac­ing ex­cite­ment…and big noise.

It is prob­a­bly not too late to get a ticket and make the drive out to Buri­ram. Do so and you will be treated to three days of ten­sion and ex­cite­ment the likes of which you have never known at a sport­ing event. By the time the che­quered flag comes down on the vic­tor, you’ll be hooked for life. And you will have the brag­ging rights among your less-in-the­know friends that you were there for the first his­tory-mak­ing mo­tor­cy­cle grand prix in Thai­land.

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Huge crowds, of­ten in ex­cess of 100,000 race fans, come out to cheer Mo­toGP he­roes such as nine-time world cham­pion Valentino Rossi, aka The Doc­tor

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