There can be little doubt that the cancellation of the British Grand Prix was a disaster for MotoGP commercial rights holder Dorna Sports.
Losing a marquee race in any series calendar is something to be avoided at all costs, but a relayed track at Silverstone and a second year in Thailand means the organisers are able to undertake a full, expanded 19-event season with the benefit of experience in 2019.
This is motorsport, so the first thing to do is the race. You have to organise the race before everything else
Dorna is running the same events in the same order as last year, with the 2019 season having begun in Qatar in March before finishing in Valencia in the autumn, and MotoGP’s managing director Pau Serracanta (right) is confident everything will run smoothly off the track.
With MotoGP’s trademark unpredictability remaining well intact it is elsewhere that Dorna will be hoping for some much-needed steady ground, not least as it relates to the British Grand Prix. With respect to last season’s nadir, Silverstone, not Dorna, was largely at fault for the debacle and the onus remains on the circuit’s management to deliver - especially with its hosting contract set to expire in 2020.
Serracanta is sure the tough lessons learned last year will be applied this time round and that the British event, which the Spaniard describes as the only blotch on the 2018 campaign, will go to plan.
“When we arrive to a track it is their duty that it is ready,” he tells the Black Book. “When we are working with partners and all the other parts we did as much as possible to make the race possible.
“We tried to rearrange it for the next day but it wasn’t possible so we had to cancel it. So for us this is very sad. This is motorsport, so the first thing to do is the race. You have to organise the race before everything else. We hope that something like this won’t happen again.
“The word from [Slverstone] is that everything will be okay and that we will have a good race. The safety conditions as a promoter are very important; we want the races to happen but it is safety first. Every Friday we discuss how to improve the safety of riders and we hope that we will have races in the UK and all the other circuits.”
MotoGP's organisers are hoping for more luck at this year's British Grand Prix after the race was called off due to a flodded track
If the British Grand Prix was a low point last year, MotoGP’s first trip to the Chang International Circuit in Thailand has been chalked up in the positive column. The race weekend at Buriram drew the year’s biggest attendance and was voted by the paddock as the best Grand Prix of the season on its calendar debut.
The Sports Authority of Thailand’s three-year hosting contract with Dorna is worth a reported Bt100 million (US$3 million) but it is safe to presume the deal will be extended if the second edition, to be held in early October, proves as popular as the first.
More than 220,000 people came through the gates over the course of the event’s three days, with Dorna chief executive Carmelo Ezpeleta describing it as the “perfect blueprint” for future races. International visitors accounted for 20 per cent of all spectators and the event generated an estimated Bt3.1 billion (US$97 million) for the Thai economy, according to local reports.
For Dorna, those kind of attendance figures create an impressive selling point for new partners. Oil and gas company PTT is reputedly paying Bt80 million (US$2.4 million) for its title sponsorship of the race and more can be expected in the commercial department going forward.
“We know that the Southeast Asia MotoGP is very popular,” adds Serracanta, speaking during a pre-season interview. “Firstly, there are a lot of motorcycles there and motorcycles are a means of transportation. Also the European races fit well with the time difference in Southeast Asia. It works well on Sunday evenings so we get big TV audiences.
“There was a big expectation that MotoGP would arrive in Southeast Asia and it was a great success. It was sold out, on all the grandstands, all the hospitality, all the public activities were sold out. Lots of other motorcycle brands were involved and other companies also. BMW were very active out there so it was a great success. We thought it would be a success but it was even better than our expectations.”
With the Southeast Asia experiment having surpassed Dorna’s pre-event hopes, MotoGP’s race schedule could be about to grow again. Serracanta confirms that discussions over extending the calendar by as many as two more events in future are ongoing.
“We have a lot of interest from other countries - from Finland, Mexico, Indonesia, and there is interest to return back to Brazil,” he says. “So we will see in maybe one or two years if we will put some more events onto the calendar.
“We are covering the whole world, we are in the Americas, we are strong in Europe, and we are in Southeast Asia, Japan, Australia. The only place we aren’t covering is Africa from an events point of view, but from a TV point of view, the timings they have are similar to Europe, so we have some avenues there.”
If new events are one way for MotoGP to grow profits and expand its reach then the other side of the coin is broadcast. With a comparatively young audience, at least by motorsport standards, and a popular esports series, Dorna continues to actively target fans in lower age brackets by tailoring its media output in that direction.
Serracanta explains that Dorna has a global media strategy centred on the unpredictability of MotoGP’s short races, which retain the interest of millennial audiences through high production values and broadcast integrations designed to provide constant points of interest.
Additionally, when DAZN, the multi-territory over-the-top (OTT) streaming service, launched in Spain earlier this year, it did so with an offer including freshly acquired rights to MotoGP. The decision to transfer the series’ broadcasts to a nascent streaming service in such a key region for the sport shows remarkable faith in the product, but Dorna has every confidence in its strategy.
“We are always being on top of product development,” says Serracanta. “We have over 100 TV cameras at the races, we try to do as many graphics as possible to give us as much info as we can. We have moved from free-to-air to paid TV in some cases.
“Now in Spain we are going with the OTT that we think looks good and is promising, looking on their track record in other countries. It is a global strategy that, with great content, we can use the social networks to warm up for the races during the whole week. With all the content we put in all the social networks, where we have over 22 million followers, we had over 100 billion downloads. All this content is a call to action to watch the live race on the Sunday.”
So Serracanta does not see any risk in partnering with a new entrant in what is an important market for MotoGP?
“It is the contrary,” he insists. “I don’t see any risk at all - I see it as an opportunity. Looking at what DAZN has done in other countries and markets they show us that they are able to deliver a good product. For us we think that DAZN and MotoGP in Spain is a good partnership. We see a great, great opportunity.”
Another year into MotoGP’s esports venture and the format, a balance of offline and online events, is being tweaked for its third season. Unlike Formula One, which has still yet to convince Ferrari of the merits of participation in its gaming series, the MotoGP Esport Championship has entrants from all of its traditional teams, not to mention buy-in from the series’ partners. It is a headstrong approach that is different to other esports crossovers from traditional sport, but then MotoGP has a different goal to some of its contemporaries.
Whilst rivals in other sports might be tapping into competitive gaming as a means to attract younger eyes, for MotoGP and its youthful fanbase it is simply about growing the reach of a motorsport where only a select few can really aspire to compete because of the finances involved.
“It was something we had to do and we wanted to do it,” says Serracanta. “It is something we wanted to learn and we will improve year by year and the figures show that this is true.
“This new era of esports isn’t about bringing in new fans, it is about new forms of engagement. It is also a matter of democratisation of motorcycle racing because unlike competitors in swimming or cycling, motorcycle sport is very expensive.
“Maybe people don’t have all the means to go and race and make a living from it. But with esports, we talk to some of the gamers and they say to us: ‘Wow! Thanks for the Esport Championship because we now feel like racers’. They have this feeling so it is really a way to democratise and make people feel like riders and racers and you have to train and improve and have the nerve to compete.
“Esports will never be stronger than real MotoGP but it is a good compliment, no doubt.”
Will MotoE Rise from the ashes?
The unfortunate fire that destroyed MotoE’s entire stock of bikes earlier this year and delayed the electric series’ debut has dominated the discourse, but Dorna remains optimistic about its prospects.
The organisers were forced to postpone MotoE’s inaugural six-race, four-stage season when a fire caused by a faulty charging station ripped through a newly built E-paddock at the Circuito de Jerez, 90km south of Seville, following the first day of pre-season testing in March.
The series’ opening weekend, which was due to take place in Jerez on 5th May, was subsequently moved to the Sachsenring circuit in Germany on 7th July, with testing taking place a couple of weeks later at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia. Following last season’s demonstrations, MotoE races will now run just prior to the Moto3 support category in order to build profile.
Speaking prior to the blaze, Dorna managing director Pau Serracanta insisted that MotoE will be an integral part of the company’s future, and explained why he believes the hardcore motorcycling community will warm to electrification in time.
“The event is open to everybody,” he said. “When we started doing promotional laps during the Grands Prix, we realised that five per cent are against - maybe they are 50-plus and they are pure motorsport fans and they don’t want to change – 30 per cent were in favour, and 65 per cent had no idea yet.
“I think that the majority will be in favour and not against because the races will be eight or nine laps and this is very attractive. The experience on the circuit is not the same but if there is a lot of action on track and a lot of overtaking, to watch it on TV will be a good programme. The TV commentator also adds extra emotion so maybe we will forget about the sound of the engines.”
With environmental sustainability now a key focus within the global sports industry, not just in motorsport, Serracanta said Dorna had little option but to explore alternatives.
“It is important for us to have this category as it is another option to say maybe this could be the future,” he added. “No one knows the future. I don’t know what bikes we will have on the street and on the track. People don’t use horses anymore but we still have horse racing so we will see.
“We know that electrical racing is becoming more and more popular. This is a trend for the future so we would like to explore this. We don’t claim that this will be the future because no one knows the future. But it is another experience of racing. How we can transport the batteries, how the marshals should behave when there is a crash: we want to learn and we want to show that motorcycle racing is possible using EV.”