Those MotoGP stars are like rock stars: they get paid millions to ride the trickest bikes on the planet, then they cruise home in their Porsches and jump in the swimming pool, their only concern that there might not be enough room to squeeze into the water alongside all the nubile female flesh.
Except it’s not like that anymore. About eighty per cent of the MotoGP paddock – that’s Moto3, Moto2 and the class of kings – don’t get paid to race, which means no salary and no prize money. Worse than that, most of them are actually paying for the privilege of competing in the world’s biggest bike racing championship and entertaining 300 million TV viewers every other weekend.
Pay-to-ride is nothing new, but in GP racing it used to be the exception, not the rule. It’s worst in Moto2, where only six or seven riders don’t pay to ride. The rest have to find between 300,000 and 700,000 euro to buy a ride with a team. It’s a similar story in the other classes. In MotoGP the top few riders are – quite rightly – getting rich, but even most satellite MotoGP riders are riding for nothing, or next to nothing. And some of them have to buy their parts if they want the latest upgrades for their bikes!
It’s not the way it should be. Grand Prix teams should choose riders for the genius in their right wrists, not for the depth of their pockets.
There are plenty of depressing stories of riders living lives of quiet desperation, properly struggling to make ends meet. Take Aussie Moto2 battler Ant West. A GP winner and still a real talent, Westy started the year trying to raise 300,000 euro to buy himself a MotoGP CRT ride. Not surprisingly he didn’t find the money. In the end he was lucky to land a job with one of the wealthier Moto2 teams (bankrolled by Qatari oil money) but he still doesn’t get a salary. He now lives in a tiny holiday cabin belonging to his Italian girlfriend’s family: no kitchen, sleeping on a fold-out sofa, eating with plastic cutlery and drinking out of plastic cups.
‘There’s no chance of getting into GPs unless you’ve got a bag full of money,’ says West. ‘It seems like it doesn’t matter about being talented. The first thing you need is a big sponsor or a rich parent, then you can think about going racing. These days I think more about trying to find money than I think about riding. I don’t want to sound like a victim but the conditions I’m living in aren’t great.’
It’s a grim story and yet it’s hard to feel really sorry for these racers when there are millions of families struggling to survive in today’s vicious economic climate. But West and the rest are players in a major global motorsport championship, so they shouldn’t be paying to entertain us and they certainly shouldn’t be sleeping on sofas.
The problem, of course, is that there’s very little sponsorship around, so teams look to riders to bring the cash, and some teams are taking advantage of this trend to boost profits, at the expense of the people risking life and limb. The story is the same in many other championships, though bizarrely it seems worst in MotoGP, considering that this is the richest bike race series of them all.
For all but the genius few, the days of getting rich by racing bikes seem to be over, for the time being at least. Most up-and-coming racers spend more than they will ever earn while trying to fight their way to the top. They buy rides and underwrite costs in the hope that there will be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. For most of them, there won’t be.
So we are heading back to the ‘good old’ days – 40 or 50 years ago – when most Grand Prix racers lived on their wits to make it through the season: nicking petrol to get to the next race, living on baked beans and (oh, horror of horrors!) getting a job in the winter. This merry band of racing paupers was called was called the Continental Circus because the racers were like circus performers: skint, scruffy travellers earning a few quid here and there with no real thought for ever getting rich.
As always, there is a solution. In Grand Prix racing the money needs to be spread more evenly – MotoGP has a turnover of almost £200 million for Chrissakes! The people at the top (that’s the people in charge, not the riders) need to start looking after their circus performers. For many years all prize monies have been paid directly to the teams, who mostly keep it all to themselves. Dorna need to rewrite the rules and start paying a percentage of that money direct to the riders.
Thankfully, someone is already on the case. ‘It’s crazy that so many riders are paying to race in the world championships,’ says Loris Capirossi, MotoGP’s new safety advisor. ‘We are now working to make sure that everyone gets paid something.’
Who’d have thought it? MotoGP needs a minimum wage.