The 2023 MotoGP season, four races in, has been a thriller. Three different winners, varied podiums, and quite a lot of overtaking. Plus the variety of the all-new Saturday Sprint races adding to the show.
All in line with Dorna’s plans to bring back fans, that at some (though not all) venues have been dwindling in numbers – a legacy perhaps of Covid, but more clearly of the departure of Valentino Rossi at the end of 2021.
Success is not guaranteed. As Rossi himself said in a recent interview with major Italian daily La Stampa: “Motorcycling has returned to what it was before me, a sport for enthusiasts. I, for some reason, managed to introduce it to grandmothers and small children. I honestly don't know why.”
Motorcycle racing is showbusiness. It must be, if rights-holders Dorna are to make a commercial go of it. But it is also a high-risk activity for a rare breed of sportsmen, combining athleticism, mechanical aptitude and sporting tactics with a special level of daring and dedication. And showmanship? At what point does the tail start wagging the dog?
Rossi remains influential in MotoGP, if negatively by his absence. The great man has been mourning another loss to racing. Sincerity. For the new generation, there is a syrupy public cordiality between competitors, all chummy under the spotlight and on social media. Valentino is not fooled.
“There is a fake ‘political correctness’ – they are all friends. They hug each other,” he continued. “It’s nice?
“I liked it better before, when you said what you thought. It’s human to resent those who do the same things as you. It’s better to say it. Having to hide it makes everything more fake.”
Rossi never hid it. He was famous (and much admired) for his sustained hate campaign against compatriot Max Biaggi. Later attacks on Marc Marquez were notable; he also comprehensively buried Sete Gibernau, among others. Anyone who had the temerity to be fast. There is little of that to be seen today.
Rossi’s remarks serve as a backdrop to a change in racing and in the perception of racers, for it is not just social media that has turned the current generation of MotoGP riders into vanilla. It is also a determined marketing campaign by Dorna.
And there is growing disquiet among their ranks, that being treated as show ponies not only undermines their dignity, but also detracts from their ability to perform. A recent spectacle at the US GP spoke volumes. As part of their new duties, riders are obliged to assemble in full leathers on race morning, and climb aboard a trailer, to be taken round the full circuit at jogging speed. In a cold wind, many looked bemused as they waved dutifully at grassy hillsides empty of fans, all the while submitting to lame on-camera interviews more suited to feeble-minded reality TV than the pinnacle of motorcycle racing.
More articulate still was Ducati rider Johann Zarco, speaking at a prerace press conference. “Of course we understand this is a show,” he said. But having to spend time performing fan-pleasing stand-ups shortly before going into action, when he’d rather be getting mentally and physically prepared “for racing at 300 km/h” was thoughtless, and potentially dangerous. “But it is mandatory. We must do it, otherwise we will be penalised.”
‘Fan Zone’ obligations include two hours on Saturday with selected riders on stage, ramping up still further on Sunday with the motorised ‘riders’ parade’ followed by another 20 minutes meeting and greeting fans in the pit lane. These activities take up most of the time between the morning warm-up (this year for MotoGP only) and the start of track action, time that they would rather be spending with their crew chiefs, mentally and physically preparing for the race.
The resentment is all the more acute because the whole weekend programme has been squeezed, with time to work on race set-up in short supply, even non-existent, should it for example be rainy in the 30 minutes of the sole remaining “free practice” on Saturday morning.
Until last year there was one extra timed practice on Saturday, giving at least a little more time to work on endurance and tyre choice, instead of just focusing on a fast single lap to secure a good grid position. With the bikes so close in performance and with aerodynamics making overtaking even more difficult, a bad grid position can ruin your weekend. As it has at every race so far for 2021’s dominant champion Fabio Quartararo, languishing eleventh overall after just one strong result.
This year there are just two practice sessions, both on Friday, and lap time is everything, with any focus on race endurance taking a back seat. The grand prix proper has been further dumbed down to make space for the new-this-year half-points and half-distance Sprint race on Saturday afternoon.
The target is to pull in more paying customers, and to reverse the falling crowd numbers in the post-Rossi era. It remains to be seen how successful this will be. And to be fair, whether the riders like it or not is basically irrelevant. The racing may be less considered, less intelligent. But it’s been plenty of fun.