‘There are things we have to do better’: How MotoGP plans to get back on track

Carlos Ezpeleta, chief sporting officer at Dorna Sports, discusses MotoGP’s recent travails and outlines how the global motorcycling series is looking to address its current issues.

‘There are things we have to do better’: How MotoGP plans to get back on track

It may not be dealing with its darkest days, but it is no secret that MotoGP is experiencing a stagnant period – especially when compared to the boom in popularity over in Formula One.

The global motorsport series has always been somewhat of an elder sibling to MotoGP, so contrasting their commercial and broadcast performances is an unfair comparison. But motorcycling’s premier competition is failing to show a similar upward trend, being left in the wake of Formula One’s resurgence under the ownership of Liberty Media.

That is not to say MotoGP is struggling. Travel back to 2010, for example. No MotoGP rider managed to finish a race outside the points and, moreover, a rider was classified 15th – the lowest available points position – on just five occasions. This was thanks to the largest starting grid of the season totalling just 17 drivers.

The series has not quite sunk to those depths, but its sights need to be set higher than its current standing. The on-track action delivers on the kind of consistent basis that Formula One can only dream of, yet viewership and race attendances are dwindling.

There was always going to be somewhat of a hangover for MotoGP coming to terms with life after Valentino Rossi, the legendary seven-time champion who retired in 2021 after 20 years of racing at the top level. His heir apparent Marc Márquez has struggled for fitness in recent years, so fans have also been robbed of a fitting replacement for the Italian great.

But Rossi was never going to race forever. Carlos Ezpeleta, chief sporting officer for Dorna Sports, the promoter of MotoGP, agrees that the series needs to accept the knock-on effect of losing a legendary rider. But he also believes it’s not as simple as blaming just one factor.

“Does Valentino [Rossi’s] retirement play a part of it? Yes, it does,” Ezpeleta says. “It’s something that we have to live with, we couldn’t ask him to race until he was 100 years old. I think it’s not only Valentino’s factors, but there’s also things what we have to do better as well.”

To know what MotoGP needs to do better, we first need to explore where it is currently coming up short.

Valentino Rossi, the seven-time MotoGP world champion, is widely considered to be one of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time

Attention seekers

Since MotoGP followed Formula One behind a paywall in 2014, the series has seen a dramatic decline in viewership. Until last season, for example, live MotoGP had not been shown on free-to-air (FTA) television in the UK since 2013.

BT Sport currently holds the rights to the global motorcycling series until 2024, but the French and British Grands Prix were shown on ITV in 2021. This season, the German Grand Prix swapped in for the event in France to keep two FTA races.

For context, Motorsport Broadcasting reports that MotoGP would regularly average one million viewers on BBC Two in 2013. The series’ return to FTA on ITV last season only saw a peak audience of 472,000 tune in. At 277,470 viewers, the average audience was just over a fifth of what it was in 2013.

Teams are certainly benefitting from the additional cash that comes with a pay-TV deal, but there are less eyes on the sport than ever before, which is also having an impact on race day attendances.

This season’s British Grand Prix reportedly recorded the smallest crowd in its history, with a total weekend attendance of 100,400. Not only was this the lowest ever turnout at Silverstone, lowering the previous record by 15,000 people, but it was also the third-worst crowd of the 2022 season.

“I think the UK is definitely a challenge that we want to work on,” explains Ezpeleta. “I’m confident that we can do things to improve in the UK. Part of it is making the championship itself more mainstream in normal media, to the fans, and hopefully British talent arriving to the top class will make a difference also.”

A pale imitation

Trying to position MotoGP as a mainstream motorsport is not without its challenges, as the series found out when it attempted to replicate the success of Formula One’s Drive to Survive. Launched for the first time in March this year, MotoGP Unlimited was produced by Spanish company Mediapro and aired on Amazon Prime.

Ezpeleta tells the BlackBook that MotoGP is currently regrouping having decided to discontinue the documentary after just one season, but that’s not to say it won’t revisit the idea at a later date. Thinking about what the series can do better for next time is the current goal, he says.


Making improvements should certainly be a focus, especially given the myriad issues that plagued the series at launch. English subtitles were initially unavailable, with only an English dub version offered to viewers.

The docuseries also failed to secure a distribution deal in Latin America and East Asia, the biggest markets for MotoGP. Oversights of that magnitude meant the series was doomed to failure, even though Mediapro was on site at the first few rounds of this season with a plan to run the series a second time in 2022.

Ezpeleta acknowledges that there are plenty of areas to improve before filming reportedly gets back underway in 2023.

“Having most of the show in a variety of languages isn’t helpful, especially for target markets like the UK and the USA,” he admits. “It’s challenging because our nationalities in the MotoGP paddock are predominantly Spanish and Italian. It’s something we have to work on and the level of English of the riders might not be Shakesperean, but it’s good enough to talk about their personal lives.”

Ironically, as MotoGP looks to replicate the mass engagement achieved by Formula One, the series actually finds itself in a similar position to that of its four-wheeled counterpart back when it was still under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One was stagnant and had failed to modernise with the rest of the world, and MotoGP currently faces a similar problem. A recent survey conducted by Dorna and Motorsport Network revealed that 66 per cent of respondents believed MotoGP needs to do more to attract new fans.

The results suggest MotoGP has a core loyal audience, with 82 per cent of fans having followed the motorcycling series for at least six years, the highest of any series studied in Motorsport Network’s programme of surveys. Ezpeleta praises the loyalty revealed by the survey, but notes that digital is something “we have to invest [in] to get to this new generation of fans”.

Despite promising growth among female fans – a third of whom have been following the sport for less than five years – the overriding feeling is that MotoGP’s audience growth has stagnated.

So what plans does the series have to mix things up?

Sprint finish

In a move confirmed at the end of August, MotoGP is continuing to take a leaf out of Formula One’s book by introducing sprint races from next season. However, it plans to run these special events at every single Grand Prix weekend, whereas Formula One only stages them on select weekends – confirmed to be six for 2023.

Sprint races will debut at every race weekend of the 2023 MotoGP season, replacing traditional qualifying on the Saturday

Another difference will be that the sprint races will have no bearing on the main Sunday race. “It was important for us for the sprint race to not set the grid for Sunday [like Formula One],” Ezpeleta outlines. “So the riders know it’s an actual sprint race, they’re free to race, they can race hard.”

The thinking is to drive excitement on both days of a race weekend, encouraging fans to get to the circuit earlier in the weekend to enjoy more consequential action.

Ezpeleta continues: “Next year, Saturdays will be completely action packed from the morning, with the qualifying for the MotoGP class, and then the sprint race plus qualifiers for the other sessions in the afternoon.”

There is a worry, though, that this could be seen as a sign of a series running out of ideas. But Ezpeleta points out that the reason for having sprint races at every Grand Prix is to ensure that every weekend follows the same format “from the first event to the last event on the calendar”.

Here and now

As MotoGP looks to the future, potential improvements will do little to change some of the current scepticism around the series. This was further fuelled by Japanese manufacturer Suzuki’s decision to leave the championship at the end of the 2022 season, four years before the end of its contract.

“Obviously we would have preferred them not to leave halfway through a term, but we have come to an agreement as to the terms of how they leave,” Ezpeleta says. “[Although] we have been saying that the MotoGP class is probably better off with 20 riders rather than 24.”

With the field dropping to 22 riders for next season, Ezpeleta may get his wish with the RNF Racing team currently facing an uncertain future. The Malaysian outfit has lost its second title sponsor in the space of two seasons after energy supplier WithU ran into financial difficulties caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

RNF Racing may have lost their second title sponsor in two seasons, but the team have a contract to become a satellite team for Aprilia Racing from 2023

Ezpeleta is confident that RNF will be on the grid next season, but there are no guarantees that the team will generate the required funds. He claims the team “will continue [as] they have a very solid agreement with Aprilia”, which will supply RNF with bikes from 2023.

Even if RNF were to run into serious problems, Ezpeleta reveals that MotoGP “has incredible demand from new people wanting to have an independent team”.

However, Suzuki’s decision to leave the premier class of motorcycle racing suggests his confidence is not universally shared. WithU is also continuing its sponsorship programme in volleyball despite its financial difficulties, perhaps highlighting a lack of faith in MotoGP’s ability to deliver for sponsors.

New horizons

None of this is stopping MotoGP from looking to expand into new locations. 2023 is set to feature at least two new tracks. In the space of just a few weeks, MotoGP recently announced separate deals with India, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan.

While these deals will inject much-needed funds into the series, some onlookers might still question whether the championship should be accepting money from countries with questionable human rights records.

Kazakhstan will be the first to feature on the calendar, with the purpose-built Sokol International Racetrack near Almaty signing a five-year deal to host MotoGP from 2023.

We have an incredibly competitive sport, with races that are decided without any external influence over the race itself. That’s what real motorsport, what real sport is. We’re happy with it and we’ll definitely work on how we can get more people to showcase what MotoGP is.

- Carlos Ezpeleta, Chief Sporting Officer, Dorna Sports

Saudi Arabia will debut on the calendar at an unspecified point following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), adding to the existing Middle East race in Qatar.

It’s good news to see a similar MoU signed with the Buddh International Circuit in India, which will also make its first appearance on the calendar in 2023, while Indonesia made its debut on the schedule this season.

Despite some questions over MotoGP, Ezpeleta rejects claims that the series is struggling.

“Everybody thinks there’s a problem when we don’t think there’s much to it right now,” he asserts. “Other motorsports might have a championship decided very, very early in the season with racing that doesn’t look very battled at all.

“We have an incredibly competitive sport, with races that are decided without any external influence over the race itself. That’s what real motorsport, what real sport is. We’re happy with it and we’ll definitely work on how we can get more people to showcase what MotoGP is.”