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.
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.
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