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9 days ago
By Matthew Birt

Racing Together: From A and E to Pizza

Matthew Birt explores the life of the traveling city that is the MotoGP™ paddock

Tags 2018
Following the release of Dorna Sports’ Racing Together book dedicated to the history of the MotoGP™ World Championship, motogp.com is running some extra features contributed by some of the paddock top journalists this week. For more, check out Racing Together, which is available at Evro Publishing.

 

For 18 weekends a year, over 3000 people gather from the four corners of the globe to play their part in staging the greatest motorsport show on earth.

And I’m privileged to say that since 1996 I have been fortunate to be part of the unique travelling circus that is the MotoGP™ World Championship paddock.

With stopovers in five of the world’s seven continents, the MotoGP™ paddock is a portable city that never sleeps for one week.

And it boasts a truly international flavour, with people from all walks of life united in their passion for the pinnacle of World Championship motorcycle racing.

A 30,000 square metre stretch of tarmac is transformed into a place to eat, a place to sleep, a place to meet and greet and a place to relax and party.

The paddock is the vibrant and diverse heartbeat of MotoGP™ where you can get your hands on anything from pizza to plaster cast.

From surgeons to chefs, tyre fitters to timekeepers and superstar riders to the countless unsung heroes behind the scenes, the MotoGP™ paddock is an incredibly close-knit family.

And it doesn’t matter if you clean wheels or negotiate multi-million dollar contracts for a rider or the circuit promoter, every single person is made to feel they make a valued contribution to the sport.

Monster Yamaha Tech 3 owner and International Race Teams Association President Herve Poncharal said: “The guy in my hospitality who has to clean plates is just as important to my organisation as my crew chief in MotoGP because without them we can’t be visible to the fans and our sponsors and we can’t survive.”

Covering an area of close to five football pitches, the paddock never fails to generate an incomparable atmosphere that is hard to replicate in any other sport.
It is an explosion of colour, cultures and camaraderie.

Even after all my years of being part of the paddock, I still feel like it is an attack on the senses when you walk inside. There’s the noise of the bikes being warmed-up, the smell of sumptuous food drifting out of hospitality unit, and the sight of fans swarming around praying to catch a glimpse of their idols.

The paddock is a place packed full of gleaming race transporters, lavish hospitalities serving Michelin star standard food and palatial motorhomes that are like luxurious seven-star hotels on wheels. It even has its own mobile hospital in the shape of the essential and acclaimed Clinica Mobile.

From broken bones to common colds, the door is always open.

Long gone are the pre-Dorna days of riders and teams frantically dashing from one race to the next just to claim a pit box or secure things taken for granted now like an electricity and water supply. There are no small vans and compact caravans battling for space on grassy fields.

Nowadays, as many as 200 articulated trucks are required to keep the show on the road in Europe, and if you parked them nose to tail they would cover a distance of almost three miles!

Close to 50,000 guests pack into the paddock in a single season. You can see Hollywood A-list celebrities like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves indulging in their two-wheeled passion.

But the aspect I love about the paddock, which is a unique selling point for MotoGP, is that the inner sanctum is not an exclusive playground reserved just for the rich and famous.

I recall bike-mad Reeves visiting the Circuit of the Americas in Texas in 2015 and inevitably there was a huge clamour from fans to get an autograph or photograph.

Keanu Reeves visits the #AmericasGP

No more than 60 seconds later, I turned round to see two young fans stopping Scott Redding and getting permission from the British rider to tear a knee slider off his leathers.

And that’s what the paddock is about. In the space of a few metres you can have lucrative sponsorship deals being signed in top secret behind closed doors, and then see a delirious young fan beaming from ear to eat just because they caught a glimpse of Valentino Rossi or Marc Marquez.

The paddock creates memories to cherish for a lifetime and the look on their faces of those two boys when they finally prised that knee slider off Redding’s leg took me back to my childhood when I used to tear around on a bicycle at my parents’ home in the heart of England dreaming I was Barry Sheene or Ron Haslam. I was exceptionally lucky when fantasy became reality in my professional life and I got to work with both in the paddock.

Day of Champions auction returns to Silverstone

The paddock is such an enchanting place to be because you can’t walk more than 10 meters without being reminded how weird and wonderful people can be.

A personal favourite is one annual visitor to Germany’s Sachsenring, who attends every year with a different themed hat that features moving riders and bikes!

Sometimes he starts working on his millinery masterpieces three months in advance of the race.

That’s commitment that extends way beyond just buying a ticket to the race.

And there is an eccentric Spanish fan in Jerez who spends all of his time in the paddock dressed in bright orange overalls making loud engine noises through a megaphone strapped to his back.

Poncharal believes it is vital for the future of MotoGP™ that a balance is maintained between corporate professionalism for sponsors and VIP guest and offering fans the chance to get up close and personal with their idols.

“A huge part of a race weekend is the good atmosphere that is created in the paddock and we don’t want to lose this. We can see with events like Day of Champions at the British Grand Prix how important it is to keep the fans as close to the teams and riders as possible. They want to meet their heroes and see the bike and it is great to be associated with MotoGP when you see the reaction of people when they meet the stars. They have sparkle in their eyes and it is vital we keep that accessibility because without their support we wouldn’t have the great sport we have now,“ said Poncharal.

I recall not so long ago that the factories requested restricted access to the hospitality area to try and make it more exclusive.

It didn’t work. The feel good factor vanished and the atmosphere felt flat. It was then you realised how essential it was to ensure the paddock remained accessible. There is nothing better than being in the hospitality area in the evening. Throngs of people are drinking and joking outside as the sun is setting and it feels like 20 parties have converged to create one big carnival atmosphere.

One fond memory in the paddock was on one scorching hot day in August in Brno. ‘Ferragosto’ is a religious national holiday in Italy, and a tradition to mark the occasion is to throw buckets of water over unsuspecting victims. Rossi was one of the biggest ringleaders and nobody escaped. Rivals, senior management, and fans all got soaked.

I think it is in times of great adversity you really get an understanding of how big the sense of community inside the MotoGP™ paddock is.

How the paddock responded to the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli perfectly demonstrated how rivalry quickly evaporates in times of grief.

I remember standing outside the media centre at the Ricardo Tormo track in Valencia watching Kevin Schwantz ride Simoncelli’s Honda around the circuit, with every single rider from all three classes behind him.

I had a lump in my throat. Partially in mourning the loss of such a bright talent and charismatic person as Simoncelli. But partly because the MotoGP paddock
had come together in one of its darkest hours to show to the world what unity, respect and dignity is all about.

Even after more than two decades spent in the paddock, I still feel like a kid on Christmas morning when I arrive for race day on Sunday.

You feel part of something momentous, you feel the tension, you feel the anticipation, and you feel honoured to be so intimately involved.

There’s a famous saying about there being no place like home. Since 1996, the MotoGP™ paddock has been my second home. I’ve loved every second I’ve spent there and there truly is no place like it on earth.