GRR

Can MotoGP ever get over Valentino Rossi?

06th September 2022
Michael Scott

After two decades of healthy growth, MotoGP is feeling the pinch. A combination of circumstances has hit the series; the first response to potential crisis came late in August, with a surprise announcement at Austria’s GP. Starting next year, every grand prix is to have an extra race. Following in the footsteps of F1 and World Superbikes, a Saturday-afternoon Sprint Race is intended to whet the appetites and boost the numbers of fans, both at the track and watching on TV. This met with mixed reactions.

motogp-column-07092022-03.jpg

Australian hard-charger Jack Miller led the chorus in support. “It’ll throw a good element in,” he enthused. “All or nothing … risk more, not worry about [saving] the tyres, fuel or even physical condition.” Defending champion Fabio Quartararo took the opposite view, as well as leading complaints that the riders hadn’t been consulted. “In the end I think we all prefer to make a good race on Sunday. A sprint race is stupid,” was his first response.

See the 2023 MotoGP calendar

No matter. The decision was made. The races would run over half GP distance and earn half points. It only remained to be decided whether they would count in the statistics the same as a grand prix win. MotoGP’s Sprint differs slightly from F1 and World Superbikes. F1’s three 100km races per season and SBK’s Sunday morning “Superpole” all determine grid positions. MotoGP riders will qualify for both Sprint and main races as before.

Dorna, the commercial rights holder of MotoGP, has felt the need to make these kinds of changes after a variety of setbacks have affected the sport, starting with Covid. It did well to keep the series going, with several doubled-up races in a 14-round calendar in 2020, from a planned 20. That grew to 18 in 2021, in spite of lingering cancellations in (inter alia) Australia and Japan. But it was at a heavy cost.

motogp-column-07092022-02.jpg

More problems stem from putting live TV behind a paywall in every significant market except the burgeoning Indonesia. When UK coverage switched from the BBC to BT Sport in 2014, figures plummeted from an average of one million to a quarter of that, on a good day. Similar results are reported elsewhere. This affects sponsor interest, and hit the smaller classes especially hard. Another factor is clearly economic: race-day tickets can cost as much as £80, and with gloom-laden airwaves predicting an impending recession, that’s a major consideration.

Other weaknesses include often processional racing – blamed (for arcane reasons) on the control Michelin tyres not keeping pace with aerodynamic developments, and the prolonged absence for surgery of class superstar Marc Marquez. Riders disputing the title – defender Quartararo and challengers Aleix Espargaro and Pecco Bagnaia – have yet to develop the same star quality, and perhaps never will.

motogp-column-07092022-04.jpg

This last point underlines the deepest cut of all – the departure of Valentino Rossi. Long after he had stopped winning (his last victory was in 2017) Valentino remained the major drawcard. He just had to be there for the crowds to pour in. This is no idle assertion. Crowd figures for the Italian GP at Mugello at the end of May – a leading event at a glorious venue in a racing-mad country –really slumped this year. The official tally of 43,661 on race Sunday was 40,000 down on 2019, 55,000 less than in 2017. Ditto at the British GP at Silverstone on a gloriously sunny August weekend, with just 41,000 race-day fans – more than 25,000 fewer than showed up last year to share in Rossi’s last appearance.

To underline the point, at every race this year, in spite of his absence, armies of yellow-clad fans have meant his concession stands continue to do booming business. Rossi-mania has survived his departure – but as an inevitably wasting asset. Something clearly had to be done, and racing bosses promised that this major change was just the start. Further shake-ups will follow.

The reception by fans remains to be seen. But it is worth looking back at other major sea-changes in history, starting with the banning of supercharging for the first motorcycle world championship in 1949, a year before F1. There were few changes for almost 20 years, beyond a significant expansion of the calendar and revisions to a scoring system that at first counted only a rider’s best results.

motogp-column-07092022-05.jpg
motogp-column-07092022-01.jpg

The biggest shake-up came in 1967, with stringent technical restrictions (a maximum of two cylinders and six gears in the smaller classes, for example), to put a stop to runaway costs and technical mayhem led by the Japanese factories (Honda’s five-cylinder 125 and six-cylinder 250 just two examples). This was a real game changer. Motorcycle racing not only survived, but in some ways flourished, in an era when anyone with a modicum of money could buy a Yamaha production racer and have a chance of becoming world champion.

Racing will survive this new change. But will it flourish? Interestingly, Dorna’s major fan survey published this month, among much back-slapping, noted that the idea of a sprint race deciding grid positions was one of very few ideas eliciting a seriously negative response.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • MotoGP

  • Valentino Rossi

  • fos-2015-valentino-rossi-yamaha-sutton-motorsport-images-goodwood-25042020.jpg

    Festival of Speed

    Gallery: Valentino Rossi at the Festival of Speed

  • motogp-2021-styria-valentino-rossi-retirement-announcement-gold-and-goose-mi-main-goodwood-05082021.jpg

    Modern

    Valentino Rossi to retire after 2021 season

  • valentino-rossi-marc-marquez-motogp-04111906-lead.jpg

    Modern

    Rossi and Marquez – giants, and how to measure them