The flawed MotoGP sprint evolution that is a necessary evil

OPINION: MotoGP will introduce sprint races in 2023 as part of a major format revolution aimed at boosting interest in the series in a time of decline. While it has good intentions, it is a move which raises many questions yet to be answered.

The flawed MotoGP sprint evolution that is a necessary evil

MotoGP will introduce sprint races to its grand prix weekends from 2023, as first reported by Autosport almost 24 hours ahead of the official announcement, in a move that has caused quite a stir – but which was entirely predictable.

MotoGP, for all of its fire-fighting exercises in recent months, is facing a decline it is struggling to overturn. While Formula 1 has burst out of the niche bubble it once occupied with the rest of its motorsport counterparts, the once clear second-most-popular racing spectacle, MotoGP, has been left behind.

Largely, this has been blamed on the retirement of Valentino Rossi and the lengthy absence of an injured Marc Marquez. The guard has well and truly changed, following the likes of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa bowing out in recent years.

This was most highlighted at the Italian Grand Prix, where just over 43,000 people turned up to Mugello for an event that used to be one of the most popular stops on the MotoGP calendar. Not even an impromptu appearance from Rossi to celebrate the retirement of his famous #46 did much to boost the enthusiasm of fans to put their hands in their pockets and buy tickets that had gone up in price from previous years.

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That has been a familiar tale all year at a number of events. But F1’s soaring popularity has shown that people are willing to part with large swathes of hard-earned cash in the midst of a global financial squeeze if it means getting a front-row seat at one of the world’s hottest events.

Dyed-in-the-wool, long-time F1 fans have derided the ‘celebrification’ of the series as Martin Brundle spends most of his grid walks tripping over seemingly disinterested famous people. But even if Brundle doesn't know who they are, their millions of fans on social media do, and that engagement is a goldmine from which Liberty Media has been gleefully tapping into.

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In a press conference on Saturday morning at the Austrian Grand Prix that raised a number of questions, FIM president Jorge Viegas made an incredibly honest assessment of why MotoGP has been forced into making its first radical format change since 2013 and the introduction of the split qualifying system.

FIM President Jorge Viegas was flanked by Dorna Sports boss Carmelo Ezpeleta and IRTA President Herve Poncharal at the press conference on Saturday outlining MotoGP's plans

FIM President Jorge Viegas was flanked by Dorna Sports boss Carmelo Ezpeleta and IRTA President Herve Poncharal at the press conference on Saturday outlining MotoGP's plans

Photo by: Dorna

“After two years in COVID, we think that all of us have made incredible sacrifices to keep having this so important championship,” he said. “It’s time to give more exposure in the TV but also to the spectators, we need more spectators, we need a better show and we need to fulfil the Saturdays.”

The details of the sprint races that have been revealed so far are as follows:

  • Sprint races will be run on Saturdays at every grand prix in 2023
  • Sprint races will be run at half-distance and half-points awarded to the top nine
  • Sprint races will have no bearing on the grid order for the main grand prix on Sunday
  • Weekend mileage and track time will not change from what it is currently, though the format will be altered to accommodate the second race
  • Tyre allocation and engine allocation won’t change due to overall track time being kept the same
  • Friday will consist of two practice sessions of longer lengths
  • One 30-minute practice on Saturday
  • Q1 and Q2 will decide grid for both races

When discussions were first had about this during the summer break between the FIM, Dorna, the International Race Teams Association (IRTA) and the Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association (MSMA), the reaction was one of positive unanimity.

That didn’t extend to the riders, however. Opinion on sprint races were mixed when the riders were first asked about them on Friday, with reigning world champion Fabio Quartararo calling the idea “totally stupid”. He was unhappy that the physical strain of the riders had seemingly not been considered.

Most said they weren’t even aware sprint races were definitely happening, with some only hearing rumours from their teams. This was addressed in Saturday’s press conference. Carmelo Ezpeleta, Dorna’s CEO, said he'd confirmed MotoGP’s plans to the riders in Friday evening’s safety commission meeting, adding that he thought he was only rubber-stamping something they already knew.

Reigning MotoGP champion Quartararo wasn't impressed by the proposal when asked on Friday prior to the official announcement

Reigning MotoGP champion Quartararo wasn't impressed by the proposal when asked on Friday prior to the official announcement

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Ezpeleta did absolve himself by stating that responsibility was with the teams to inform their riders, though IRTA president and Tech3 boss Herve Poncharal said only so much “highly confidential” information could be shared to riders or else nothing would be secret. That doesn’t exactly tally when riders are notorious for looking the media in the eye and either concealing the facts or giving away half-truths.

“First, a lot of teams don’t have direct access to their riders because they are going to change riders,” Poncharal said. “Second, you cannot ask to keep highly confidential something and tell all the details before the official announcement, because then there is no official announcement. This is something you have to take into consideration. We have informed as much as possible that there will be some changes to the format.”

This has renewed calls from riders for a proper union to be formed so that they can be much more involved discussions of topics that have a significant impact on them. This was largely dismissed by those chairing the press conference, with Ezpeleta saying no riders had ever talked to him about this. All three then went to great lengths to point out that MotoGP is one of the few championships in motorsport where the competitors are massively involved in decision-making.

The introduction of sprint races has a simple aim: to improve the show and give fans, sponsors and race promoters better value for their money. That in turn should boost television

That, ultimately, is a debate that extends much wider than that of sprint races. But it also leads onto the matter of safety, with several riders concerned that an extra race in the ultra-competitive era of MotoGP will only add to the risk. Viegas was adamant that, should any genuine safety concerns be raised over the new proposal, then the organising body would act on it.

“We always have in our minds the limits of the riders,” Viegas said. “This is why we have this safety commission, so if the riders say we cannot go for all this so much time, so much laps on the limit, we will consider. You can be sure for us the safety of the riders comes first, of everything.

“We need to improve our show because we want to be on top of the audiences. When you have good races, when you have real excitement, the media sells much more. So, this is what we want. We are all in the same boat, we cannot stay behind. But always in mind we have the safety of the riders, this is for sure.”

Another matter raised was that of how an extra race per weekend – assuming a 20-round calendar, that would lead to 40 races – would impact rider contracts, many of which being signed before this proposal was put in place. Already this year riders have called for more support to come their way in dealing with contracts as salaries have dipped. This wasn’t something that could be answered and it will likely become the centre of debate in the ensuing months.

All of that aside, the introduction of sprint races has a simple aim: to improve the show and give fans, sponsors and race promoters better value for their money. That in turn should boost television – with Ezpeleta claiming that side of the business has taken well to the proposal – which in turn feeds back into serving fans and bringing in more sponsorship.

The FIM has promised to respond to any safety concerns

The FIM has promised to respond to any safety concerns

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

This is an entirely fair approach and has been driven largely by what has proven successful in F1 – which introduced sprint races at select events in 2021 – and World Superbikes, which introduced a Superpole sprint race in 2019 that decided the top nine grid slots for the main second race and counted as a race in its own right.

Ostensibly, the feedback gained from the Global MotoGP Fan Survey that was run by Dorna in conjunction with the Motorsport Network played a factor. According to Carmelo Ezpeleta, the reception by fans to the sprint race idea and the plans to have it stand as an individual race was positive for the majority of respondents: "We have made a research and we will have the first results [of the survey], and practically the majority of the people are in favour to have sprint races and the majority of people are in favour of the sprint races not counting towards the grid. This is a result of that."

However, Dorna's Sporting Manager Carlos Ezpeleta contradicts this by saying the format change idea came before the survey results were seen. 

"This project of changing, upgrading the format of the weekend started before we had the Fan Survey, so it’s something that we started before and fortunately the results of the Fan Survey confirm what we thought: our fans do not want the sprint race to result to decide the grid results for Sunday," he said. "They want the riders to be able to free to race. Other things from the survey we will be disclosing soon. But you know, in the end, the survey has been a huge success. We’re very happy about the response that we’ve had, and we thank our fans for taking such a lot of time to respond to our questions.”

However, what works elsewhere doesn’t necessarily mean it will transfer to MotoGP. Sprint racing works in Superbike racing because, from day one, WSBK events have had at least two races. In F1, it was a hugely controversial decision that has generated more interest – but the clunky designations by F1 in not calling the sprint race an actual race, while the polesitter in the qualifying for the sprint isn’t actually a historical pole winner is confusing.

Then there is the general idea of a sprint MotoGP race. MotoGP races aren’t that long to begin with. At around 45 minutes, a grand prix is pretty much a sprint. Yes, there are many strategical factors that constrict a rider during a race. However, a cut-down hell-for-leather sprint MotoGP seems like it will be robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the sprint race is just a race that has no bearing on what will happen in the main grand prix, you run the risk of the sprint race just being a lite version of what you have seen in the main contest.

And with calendars already swelling beyond 20 races, at what point will fans really care who the winner of race 18 was when you have so many more to come? Like anything, overconsumption leads to weariness and fans naturally disappear to do other things safe in the knowledge they can catch up later.

In the press conference, the IRTA/Dorna/FIM trio made the point that more racing on offer would create better excitement and translate into the media benefitting from more readership. In reality, interest in MotoGP has dropped off considerably since 2020, its loss of interest easily seen by the fact it makes no impact in the UK national newspapers anymore because none of them turn up to races.

Devaluing something that already has waning interest is counterintuitive. And ultimately, a second race will do this to MotoGP.

It's hoped that the introduction of sprint racing will give fans and TV companies more for their money

It's hoped that the introduction of sprint racing will give fans and TV companies more for their money

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Poncharal is absolutely correct in saying MotoGP would be “stupid” not to look at what is working elsewhere and try to adapt MotoGP’s own format, even if the racing right now is arguably the best on offer in the world.

However, simply copying what other series are doing well isn’t necessarily going to work. That is evident in MotoGP’s own Drive To Survive clone MotoGP Unlimited, which flopped when it was launched on Amazon Prime in March and led to the second series being shelved not long after.

The problem with MotoGP Unlimited was that it was aimed at existing MotoGP fans. The Global Fan Survey was aimed at existing MotoGP fans. Ultimately, these aren’t the fans you want to consider in efforts to grow the championship: it’s the ones still standing outside of the door. This is where F1 has succeeded with all of its efforts and what MotoGP is, to its credit, trying to do. But it must figure out how to do that in its own way, to have its own identity.

Introducing sprint races to grand prix weekends is a necessary revolution MotoGP needed to make to not get stuck in the mud

MotoGP is a fantastic product. Dorna has done an incredible job over the last 10 years to make it the ultra-competitive championship that it is now. The grid is littered with a young, fresh roster of characters that could so easily be marketed to bring in a new, young, diverse audience.

Introducing sprint races to grand prix weekends is a necessary revolution MotoGP needed to make to not get stuck in the mud. But its current proposal is inherently flawed by its lack of imagination.

F1 holds occasional sprint races - could making them part of every MotoGP weekend mean there is too much of a good thing?

F1 holds occasional sprint races - could making them part of every MotoGP weekend mean there is too much of a good thing?

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

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