There’s Nothing Like the Fury of a MotoGP Race in Person
MotoGP is such an intense form of racing that even spectating feels extreme.
You don’t go to a MotoGP race weekend wondering if someone will crash. You wonder how many accidents there’ll be. And while you want your favorite rider to win on Sunday, you spend most of the preceding days praying that he’ll make it just to the start line. You’re diving into a pressure cooker, one of high adrenaline and severe consequences.
I’ve been riding motorbikes for 18 years. I grew up watching road racing in Ireland, which puts a fear in you like no other sport. But MotoGP hits differently. Here, at the pinnacle of competition on two wheels, the best circuit racers in the world push the most advanced bikes ever made to their limits. I finally got to experience MotoGP in person, and six weeks after the race, I’m still thinking about it. There are very few motorcycles I could push to their limits, so to see 22 people do that on the fastest bikes in existence left me speechless.
The Grand Prix of the Americas, hosted at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), was only the third MotoGP race of the 2023 calendar. Yet, the medical toll on the riders was already staggering: A fractured jaw, fractured dorsal vertebrae, pulmonary contusion, broken shoulder blade, broken first metacarpal, and right leg tendon injuries. Although 22 riders started the first race this year, just 17 would be fit to compete in the second leg in Argentina two weeks later. By the time I touched down at COTA, 22 riders would start, but three riders had to be replaced by their reserve teammates.
Because the odds of a rider making it through a race, never mind a season, unscathed are relatively slim, as a fan, you can’t really root for just one rider. My pick is usually Marc Márquez, who just so happens to be crowned the “COTA King” after winning seven out of the nine MotoGP events at the track. But Márquez was actually one of the riders replaced for the race. So my attention was fixed on my backup: Jorge Martin.
The COTA race, however, is easily one of the most chaotic races on the calendar, and it’s the only MotoGP event in North America. More than a few riders describe it as the toughest track in terms of physical endurance, and it’s notoriously bumpy due to the underlying shifting soils. That means riders need to relearn the nuances of the surface almost every year. It’s exciting, unpredictable, and at times, a thrillingly scary spectacle for fans.
Stefan Bradl filled in for the injured Marc Marquez at COTA after a seven-year absence from the track, and this is what he had to say, “Everything hurts… This is, of course, the most demanding track on the calendar, I would say... It's going to be physically really really hard."
Racers and fans barely get time to breathe between Friday and Sunday. On Friday, you find out who could hold the key to the track when free practice unfolds. It feels like everything is on the line as you walk through the entrance on Saturday. Two qualifying sessions determine the riders’ starting position for the sprint and main race. By Sunday, you’re hooked and as excited for the main race to end as you are for it to begin, so you can finally relieve yourself of pent-up tension.
All you need is a villain, and Francesco Bagnaia—the reigning champion—played that role for me in Texas. He’s a clinical rider, and his factory Ducati seems unstoppable. I bear no grudge against Bagnaia, but his seeming faultlessness doesn't endear me. The weekend’s end, however, hit home in a way I couldn't have imagined.
Each of the bikes expelling 130 dB, shaking the grandstands as they tore past, was my introduction to live MotoGP. The first lap left me feeling tense, nervous, and aggressive, almost like I was standing in front of someone who might want to fight me. But that soon passed, and my mood shifted to pure elation and giddy excitement as the roaring engines spat through the gears. But a broody overcast sky threatened rain, and as the day progressed, that threat would keep everyone on the edge of their seats.
Although free practice starts slowly, things heat up toward the end when riders lay it all on the line for their final couple of laps. You could see the bikes squirming and squatting harder and more violently than at any other point in the day. And the realities of pushing the limit at the top level became apparent when Johann Zarco fell from his Ducati toward the end of the session. By the time the rider behind, Joan Mir, caught up, the Ducati was still spinning on track and forced Mir down on the gravel. A yellow flag saw some riders miss out on their last opportunity to hit a fast free practice lap.
Meanwhile, Martin spent the session trading places between the top three riders. I got so caught up in watching names drop in and out of the top 10 that I forgot it was practice. I counted five top-spot lead changes in the final few seconds. It was tense, and Martin clinched the top spot from Bagnaia. The two riders were separated by just 0.063 seconds.
Saturday: Qualifying and Sprint Race
The weather was a mixture of blistering heat and dead air, and temperatures peaked at 91 degrees Fahrenheit. I was short of breath more than once just walking around the track, so I had tremendous sympathy for the riders who were expected to lay down qualifying laps in the morning and then saddle up for an all-or-nothing sprint race hours later.
Since the newly-introduced sprint race is half the length of the main race, it’s even more important to qualify in a good position, as there’s not much time to make moves. Essentially, qualifying has higher stakes than ever, and my favored rider was about to suffer from that reality.
As soon as qualifying started, my eyes flickered back and forth between a live timing app and the action in front of me, eagerly anticipating a hot lap from Martin. But, just minutes into the session, he crashed. My heart sank momentarily before seeing him run to a marshal for a ride back to the pits and a fresh bike. "Unstoppable," I thought.
Then he fell again, almost straight away.
Martin managed to complete just three qualifying laps, whereas most riders had seven. Although he finished as the fastest rider the previous day, he’d start in 12th position in the sprint and main race. Bagnaia, on the other hand, broke the lap record and would start in pole. The hero versus villain storyline I hoped for looked unlikely.
As I teetered back and forth, hoping my rider would stay upright during the race and get in the points, the lights went out. The sprint race had manic energy, as there was no time for game plans. If you have an opportunity, you take it. Three riders crashed during the sprint, one of which was Alex Márquez, Marc Márquez’s brother, who vomited in his helmet before crashing out. But Martin took off like a man possessed.
By the end of the first lap, he was in sixth place. Everything I love about Martin’s riding style shone in the sprint race as he fought his way to third in just ten laps. All the stress, pressure, and tension that built up throughout the day was released. It was cathartic. Until I remembered it was about to happen all over again the next day, but over 20 laps.
Bagnaia took what looked like an easy victory, but I was delighted by Martin’s charge. I left the circuit excited but totally unprepared for what the main event had in store.
Sunday: Main Event
Track temperatures were much cooler on Sunday, meaning the data collected from the sprint race was essentially useless. And as the riders lined up again waiting for the lights to go out, I held my breath, hoping Martin could use all 20 laps to fight his way to the front. Unbeknownst to me or the rest of the fans, nearly half the grid wouldn’t cross the finish line.
On the third corner of the first lap, Martin went down due to a mixture of hard braking and a cooler-than-anticipated track. He took out Alex Márquez when he crashed. Like that, two of the main players were gone, and Bagnaia roared ahead. The only person who could stick with him was Álex Rins, the second-fastest rider in qualifying and the sprint race.
I made the executive decision that I was now a Rins fan in the moment. Although Rins was staying with Bagnia through those first few laps, it seemed like the only person who could stop the reigning champion from taking the checkered flag was himself. And then he did.
On lap eight of 20, Bagnaia showed the world that even the best can falter. Under hard braking into turn two, the leader lost the front end of his motorcycle and let Rins take the lead, where he’d then stay for the rest of the race. The man behind me was apparently prepared for this, whipping off his Ducati shirt to reveal a Honda one underneath. This delighted the fans in the grandstand.
Although Rins was never on my radar, seeing the number 42 take the checkered flag hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Just three days prior, World Rally Championship driver Craig Breen, a fellow Irishman, lost his life in a pre-event test crash. It was a reality I found hard to shake or accept throughout the weekend. Breen had used the number 42 for the last four years, and when I saw Rin’s 42 take the win, I felt a private dedication to Breen.
I couldn’t have thought of a better race outcome.
In one weekend, I saw more accidents than I could count, a rider vomit in his helmet before going down, and essentially half of the best riders on the planet crash out of the main race. I’ve never been to any event that produced so much tension and simultaneously so much relief. It was a frantic pressure cooker.
Every two laps or so, the grandstands swayed with gasps and sometimes cheers, depending on which rider went down or who overtook who. Again I felt a tense, nervous, excited energy carried by all in attendance. But by the end, there was total relief. No more riders could fall, there were no more battles to be had, and the results were in.
And the final thought I had as I left Austin was that these riders, these two-wheel gladiators, were packing their bags to do it all over again in two weeks.
After following MotoGP from behind a screen for 16 years, I couldn’t have imagined how different it would be to attend an event in person. It's an immersive experience: Feeling the heat the riders had to endure, understanding how a simple breeze plays a part in taking out nearly half the pack and sharing my passion for racing with people from across the globe. Now I'm eyeballing what event I’ll go to next, and the year after that, and so on. Going to a MotoGP race will be on my calendar every year indefinitely.