Riding the devil’s own motorcycle in MotoGP
Watching the leather-suited gladiators of MotoGP racing is thrilling enough. But howling around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on one of the world’s fastest motorcycles is much, much better.
With fans packing the stands prior to the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, that’s what I’m about to do. Fortunately, I’m sitting behind Randy Mamola, the retired MotoGP ace, for a once-in-a-lifetime, freak-show ride aboard Ducati’s latest MotoGP bike.
This red-and-white Italian devil generates 240 hp, more than the average automobile, from a mere 1-liter, V-4 engine. Yet the Ducati weighs just 340 pounds, or one-tenth as much as your basic family sedan. The result is an ear-numbing artillery shell that can hurtle to more than 210 mph, and corner with more force that you could imagine from something on two wheels.
That literal balancing act requires riders of singular talent, akin to Formula One superstars. Except that riding a MotoGP bike exacts a far greater physical toll, as demonstrated by the signature position of its riders: Hanging over the bike’s side through every turn, while dragging a polyurethane-protected knee, and sometimes an elbow, across the speeding pavement. In those corners, the motorcycle is pitched over at an angle that can exceed 60 degrees – flouting physics, fear and common sense. Then the rider shifts his weight, yanks the bike upright with a powerful move of arms and legs, and pitches into the next corner.
For the 2013 season, no one is performing those athletic feats as well as Marc Márquez. At a baby-faced age 20, the Spanish rider for Honda’s Repsol team is the youngest-ever to win a race in MotoGP’s top class, in a series that began in 1949. The rookie is also leading the championship point standings heading into the next race at August 18 at Indianapolis. And in what looks like an inevitable passing of the torch, Márquez is stretching a lead over Valentino Rossi, the 34-year-old Italian legend and seven-time world champion.
The typical Nascar or Indy fan might not know those names, with MotoGP running below the radar of many car enthusiasts. But the world’s oldest motorsports championship drew 2.2 million spectators to 18 races on four continents in 2012. Top riders are handsomely compensated, with Yamaha’s Rossi – the Michael Jordan of motorcycle racing -- making about $12 million in salary this season (taking a huge cut from the reported $30 million he earned at Ducati), followed by roughly 10 riders who pocket anywhere from $1 million to $9 million.