Words: Navroze Contractor
Rick Broadbent is a sports writer for The Times, for whom he covers MotoGP, among other things. He has written books on football, boxing, athletics as well as collaborating with motorcycle legend Ron Haslam on his autobiography Rocket Men, also published by Bantam Books. In Ring of Fire, the first book to cover the whole of the MotoGP era till 2009, Rick Broadbent gives a breathless behind-the-scenes account of the acclaim, heroism, pressures and danger of life at over 300kmph. At its centre is Valentino Rossi. Brilliant, eccentric, ruthless, brave and above all, fast. The Italian megastar who has left motorcycling records trailing in his wake.
Ring Of Fire looks back at the sport’s tradition of romance, reprobates and debauchery, interweaving the story of Rossi’s hero Mike Hailwood, a legend who launched a mesmerising comeback of his own. By turns funny, sad, shocking and uplifting, it brings us face to face like never before, with an extraordinary cast of characters that make up the white knuckle sport. It is one of those really rare books that from the word ‘go’ puts you onto the hot seat of a MotoGP bike and into the mind of a MotoGP rider. I can think of only one other book in auto racing written by Damon Hill on Formula 1, that comes a close second. Damon Hill was an F1 driver himself who wrote honestly about the ruthlessness of the sport, but Broadbent has never put his leg over a MotoGP machine, and yet he gives us an insight into the sport as if you are trailing the winner till the last corner.
The book revolves around Valentino Rossi and a cast of characters from Max Biaggi, Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden, Lorenzo, Capirossi to Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini, Barry Sheen, Kenny Roberts; all whom we know about today, coming and going, in and out of the story woven brilliantly with many things we the ‘outsider’ don’t know and never notice. Whether we like him or not, Rossi is single-handedly responsible for debunking the myths of motorcycle racing and dragging the sport out of the ranks of the working-class petrolheads into the mainstream. He is very much a modern sports hero, made of several shades of grey, yet a hero MotoGP has never witnessed before in its history.
Why is it that there are only around twenty riders on MotoGP bikes. They are special people. At 300kmph, they are at ease on their machines, being able to read every pit sign, every pulse of their engines, the tiniest throttle movement of their opponents. They ride so fast, the outer world is like a washed out watercolour. They know the limit, they touch it, back off, touch it again and constantly bargain with bravery and reason. The book starts with a bang at the Suzaka track in Japan. It is 2003, the home race for Daijiro Kato. In the middle of the race Kato slides, broken bones and frayed skin all over and hits a wall. Much later it is announced that his heart was revived at the trackside, but in transit to the hospital it stops. Everything happened in a split second. Pit boards said Kato is out, only while climbing to the podium do the rest know he is dead. This happens, this is racing. The riders are angry, they form a Safety Commission but at the next race in South Africa, it is racing again. You don’t chew on yesterday’s breakfast.
The book goes on, at a relentless pace. Young riders come, ragged and teased by the older ones, as if coming into the MotoGP class is not tough enough. We come to know stuff like Pedrosa does 800 sit ups everyday. 800! Yes, he is a small man and MotoGP bikes need to be steered by legs more than by hands. That Rossi loves his Yamaha and is often seen sneaking into the garage past midnight, just patting his bike, admiring it with gentle strokes, all alone. That Lorenzo enters the big leagues from his 250cc class, focused like a Zen Master. It doesn’t matter he is a rookie, screw him or at least try to distract him. Every champion is aware of one thing, that there is someone going to dislodge him, that being a champion is more difficult than chasing one.
The book takes you into every nook and corner of MotoGP, from the insight into Dorna the organisers, the riders to medical aids, doctors who repair riders so hurt it is unimaginable for an ordinary person, track marshals, media rooms and TV broadcasts, to the riders’ culinary instincts, to their heady partying, to their parents, coaches and training methods, deaths and the reactions… everything that you ever wanted to know about MotoGP racing written brilliantly.