MotoGP, the pioneering road-racing world championship, turns 75 this year, one year in advance of F1. And it’s still ahead in many other aspects… at least in the minds of the admittedly much smaller number of devotees.
For the faithful, the absence of race-complicating pit-stops, tyre strategies, intermittent-power-boosts and the like make for a purer motorsport. The role of team managers and technical staff stops the moment the start lights go out. As we in the bike grand prix paddock have always liked to call it, “real racing”.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Bernie Ecclestone once famously said: “After you have seen them all overtaking one another for the first few laps, it becomes boring.” But if you are reading this, there is a chance you might have at least a toe in this camp. Yet comparison between F1 and MotoGP is both invidious and pointless. The bikes are senior in terms of age, by just one year, as if it matters. It is best to appreciate both premier road-racing series, for their differences as much as anything else.
One negative difference touches national pride. In its early years – indeed for the first third of its three quarters of a century – motorcycle grand prix racing was very British. The machines and the riders disputed top honours with Italy, and at first frequently came out on top. But things were to change. The advent of eventually superior Japanese machines in the 1960s seemed to trigger a waning of interest in Britain. By the time Barry Sheene won his second and last title in 1976 the next-best British riders were John Newbold in a distant fifth, and John Williams ninth. Phil Read, second only to Mike Hailwood in titles, had quit mid-season; it was another four decades before a lone Cal Crutchlow became the next Briton to win a premier-class GP. After his retirement at the end of 2020 there’s not been a single full-time British rider in the class.
It will take time for any change, for while young-rider feeder programmes in Europe and recently also Asia have been fruitful in developing new talent (a process that nowadays needs to start long before a rider’s age reaches double figures) attempts at similar programmes in the UK have lagged. The same thing has happened in the USA, the nation whose riders took over for a spell after Sheene, where they don’t even have the excuse of unfriendly weather.
But there are tides in the affairs of nations as well as riders, and a small but determined effort led by former racer Michael Laverty, the Vision Track academy, is making the right steps in nurturing young British riders. Still baby steps by comparison with the Spanish, and Valentino Rossi’s VR46 Academy, which was rewarded with Pecco Bagnaia’s MotoGP title with Ducati last year.
In the meantime, there is much racing to be done, starting in Portugal on 26th March – the first of a longest-ever 22-race calendar. New rounds in India and Kazakhstan await circuit homologation, but should they miss the boat, the unexpectedly deposed Aragon circuit in Spain is one waiting to pick up the pieces. There will also be more than double the number of races, with half-distance Saturday sprint races introduced for the first time, at every round.
The appearance of boom is at odds with falling crowd numbers, especially in Italy – but series rights-holders Dorna expect to make up for that with the expansion last year to Indonesia and this year to India, the world’s largest motorcycle markets. Indonesia is also the only major country to offer free-to-view live TV coverage.
There are other questions to be answered. The biggest concerns Honda, a MotoGP mainstay since returning at the end of the 1970s. Honda has won the most races and constructors’ championships in the class, but didn’t win a single race last year, nor in 2020. This reflects more than just the absence injured of Marc Marquez, underlining a lost direction in machine development. Marquez, now at last fully fit, was disappointed with the redesigned prototype that arrived at post-season tests last November. He will be striving to add a seventh top-class title to equal Rossi, but with the relentless dominance of Ducati he needs help from the engineers.
Yamaha also need notable improvement in speed and horsepower; and with the departure of Suzuki many are wondering if the era of Japanese control might be ending, and these two last bastions might follow their cousin out of the sport.
Then there’s the matter of seniority within the massed ranks of Ducati riders – eight of them, at least double the number fielded by the other manufacturers. Bagnaia won it last year under severe pressure from satellite rider Enea Bastianini, who now joins him in the factory team. Their rivalry could cost both dear.
Aprilia adds a year of maturity to its unexpectedly strong challenge last year, with Maverick Vinales now accustomed to the bike and possibly ready to outrank team-mate Aleix Espargaro. And third European constructor KTM (and the satellite-team’s renamed GasGas bikes) also finished 2022 on a rising trajectory.
MotoGP’s 75th year might prove pivotal. It is likely also to be compelling.