On Being A Race Fan

Unlock your ability to see behind the drama

Valentino Rossi acknowledges his fans
Valentino Rossi acknowledges his fans.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Yer actual Aristotle told us that we enjoy drama because it brings us “catharsis.” In plain English, drama takes our emotions out for a gallop (of a kind they don’t get from waiting at the light, riding crowded elevators, or cleaning up the kitchen after dinner). By identifying with a sports team or hero, we enjoy by proxy “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

It was grand in 2004 to see fleets of buses approaching the racetrack at Valencia, filled with Valentino Rossi fans, decorated with yellow flags bearing the sacred number 46. They crowded into special sections in the viewing stands where their synchronized arm-waving made it seem that a single enormous living creature with one mind was covering whole acres.

There is also the pleasure of being among like-minded persons. When your hero rises to the heights, it is because of his or her unmatched qualities. If defeat comes, it is surely the treachery of envious lesser persons. We may lose a bet, but then comes the thrill of emotionally doubling it!

Occasionally comes a pinprick of reality, as when a fan asked the late Gary Nixon, “Hey, Gary, how come you didn’t win [at X event]?”

“ ’Cause them two other guys rode better ’n me, that’s why,” he growled.

The fan-balloon is burst and an ordinary truth enters: The hero can be beaten. But we can make even this into worship: “Look! He admits he’s not perfect! He’s human. Like us!”

THE NUMBER: Has there ever been a rider in the history of roadracing who has the passionate fan base of Valentino Rossi?Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

Or Graham Hill, winning the 1966 Indianapolis 500, saying equably, “I had no idea that I had won, but I am extremely pleased to have done so.”

Where’s the drama? Proper heroes prance and punch the air while hosing down the scene with champagne.

I spent years working with Yamaha production racers—the TZ250s and TZ750s of the 1970s and early '80s—so buried inside me is surely some Yamaha bias. I have emotions and they need a gallop as much as anyone's. Kenny Roberts was a great champion on Yamahas, breaking into the European GP scene, pushing aside Barry Sheene, forcing the FIM to act against needless track hazards. Strong stuff.

But I can’t let myself be a fan. Because being a fan blinds us to information we need to understand what is actually happening. Had I been a fan rather than a journalist in 2013 I might have missed the clear evidence in the lap times of Jorge Lorenzo, new kid Marc Marquez, and grand champion Valentino Rossi. I was scanning the race lap times from Germany (on motogp.com for all to see), which clearly showed “the step”—the point at which the rider’s tires lose a bit of their properties and his lap times take on average a fraction of a second longer. As I recall, Rossi’s step came on lap nine, Lorenzo’s on lap 12, and Marquez’s on lap 18.

Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo
TWO SPANIARDS: Jorge Lorenzo is an incredible rider, but what is it about him that fails to enlist the following of countryman Marc Marquez?Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

That clearly showed that Marquez, the newcomer, the rookie, the beginner, knew something about tire conservation that two-time MotoGP world champion Lorenzo did not, something that nine-time world champion Rossi did not. This taught me that the new Moto2 class, in which Marquez spent two years, and in which nearly everything of a technical nature is either spec or prohibited, had been Marquez's tire management university. Tire management in that class is one area that is 100 percent unregulated. That 2013 season would end with Marquez as champion, Lorenzo second, and Rossi fourth. What makes Rossi truly great is that he now applied himself to learning to do some of the things that were making Marquez so hard to beat. Rossi gave up his old, derivative Hailwood knee-down style and took up riding style elements clearly coming from Marquez. By 2015 he had so far succeeded in his studies that he came very close to taking the title from Marquez.

The traditional “fan view” of how races are won (also held by a disappointing number of journalists) proposes that “young guns,” who are “hungrier and without fear” fight their way, sliding and spinning, past worn-out former champions who have become complacent and risk-averse now that their trophy shelves groan under heavy loads of engraved silver pots.

What makes the top riders so remarkable—and perhaps Rossi most of all—is their ability to evolve their riding styles to realize the potential in the latest bikes and tires.

Then how was it, in 2004, that it was Rossi leading Valencia, and neither sliding nor spinning? He had found a way to lap at winning speed without drama. As I looked down field, the farther a rider was from the front, the more he was sliding and spinning. This taught a valuable lesson: Winning races requires a rider to maintain tire condition—not to kill his rubber in useless early-laps drama. Successful riders find a way to go fast without burning the only bridge that can possibly convey them to the podium: their tires.

What were the fans doing, meanwhile? They were roaring their approval of the huge slides and blackies being performed by the rider in last place: Garry McCoy. Drama, yes. Catharsis? Maybe. But race-winning talent? Maybe not. Certainly not that day.

If former champs are not defeated by youth and exuberance, then what does happen? What I have seen, over and again, is that as the nature of bikes and tires changes, most riders continue to ride the style that originally made them great. And it no longer works because it is incompatible with current equipment. What makes the top riders so remarkable—and perhaps Rossi most of all—is their ability to evolve their riding styles to realize the potential in the latest bikes and tires. The others just ride their old styles harder and harder until they scare themselves. Their skills are usually as good as ever, for when these men switch to World Superbike, they often have successful second careers.

Valentino Rossi signs autographs
Valentino Rossi signs autographs for his throngs of fans.Courtesy of Movistar Yamaha

In the present era, one-third of the grid is young guns—they pour forth from Moto2 every year—like the Espargaró brothers, Maverick Viñales, Scott Redding, Tito Rabat, Yonny Hernandez, Jack Miller (he was summoned straight from Moto3), Andrea Iannone, Bradley Smith, and others. Yet again and again, as races take shape five to 10 laps after the start, it is the usual names up front—Marquez, Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa. Yes, a few of these have won a race, and next year when Viñales has the full backing of Yamaha he may do better yet. But none of these “young guns” has stormed to an early lead in dry conditions and then pulled effortlessly away. They don’t know how. We can hope some will learn.

Oh, but another fan favorite is the idea that, “If my guy had a factory bike, he’d be champion.” Yet riders like Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista had top bikes, looked like they were getting it, but were unable to make the leap to consistent race-winning pace. And when a top bike is vacated by injury and someone else is put on it, nothing happens. The intimate mutual adaptation of bike and rider takes experienced creative thought to achieve. There is no golf club that can turn a duffer into a champion.

So here’s the bottom line: Any rider who can consistently finish in the lead group deserves the interest of sports-minded motorcyclists because such a rider has things to teach us, things we very much want to know. We may hope a particular rider will win, but anyone who can consistently get to the front and stay there deserves our interest.

Marc Marquez says hi
Marc Marquez with his legions of fans in Indonesia.Courtesy of Repsol Honda