MotoGP is looking eastward. As the involvement and interest from and in Asia has continued to grow in recent years, the importance of the region - beyond the historic role that Japan has played in the series, that is - to both the MotoGP series and the manufacturers has become increasingly evident. With Yamaha riders Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies visiting the region a couple of times over the winter, and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta hinting at more races in Asia in coming years, the Asian dimension in MotoGP is set to grow in the near future.
The addition of "Semakin di Depan", the slogan used by Yamaha's subsidiary in Indonesia, to the factory Yamaha M1s back in 2010 was the first sign of change, and Honda followed suit in 2011, with the addition of the "Satu Hati" slogan, used by Honda's Indonesian subsidiary, to the factory Repsol Honda machines. Meanwhile, Yamaha's factory riders have been making marketing trips to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries in the region on a regular basis since 2008.
Series owner Dorna also understands the necessity to look further abroad. At the recent Wrooom! event, where Ducati launched their 2012 MotoGP project, Carmelo Ezpeleta said that he expected to have races in India and in South Korea - both countries with F1-standard circuits, and a new track currently under construction in South Korea - in the near future. To make way for the new circuits, races are to be dropped in MotoGP's traditional heartland. Spain will not have four races from 2013 on, Ezpeleta told reporters, and the race at Estoril is also likely to disappear off the calendar. Although a MotoGP season without Mugello is unthinkable, the same could not be said for Misano. And while Brno is a firm favorite with the fans, pulling massive attendance numbers, a lack of support from regional government makes its continued existence uncertain. An extra race in Austin, Texas is to be added in 2013, along with a race in Argentina. And only a lack of suitable facilities prevents Dorna from looking at other racetracks in Indonesia and Thailand.
With Yamaha playing such a high-profile role in opening up markets in Southeast Asia, we contacted Yamaha's MotoGP team to ask them how important that region was to the Japanese manufacturer's marketing strategy, and whether they had switched their attention away from Europe and the US, especially with the sportsbike market in strong decline - a fact underlined by Yamaha Europe's withdrawal from the World Superbike series. Did Yamaha
It was not that Yamaha had stopped using their MotoGP team to promote the brand in Europe and the US, Yamaha told us, but that the MotoGP schedule itself dictated where Yamaha did its promotion. With the series spending so much of its time in Europe and visiting the US twice a year, promotional activities tended to be tied in with race events. With Assen, Laguna Seca, Misano and Mugello so close to Yamaha's European, US and racing headquarters respectively, PR work for Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo tended to be scheduled in around the races.
As MotoGP spends so little time in Yamaha's key Asian markets - Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam - promotion there had to be planned at other times of the year. The preseason tests at Sepang is an ideal time to organize PR events with the riders, as is the long winter break in December and January. That is why Jorge Lorenzo went to India earlier this month, and was joined by Ben Spies a few days later in Indonesia.
Yamaha's MotoGP boss Lin Jarvis was keen to emphasize the importance of Southeast Asia to the factory. He said that there were several reasons for Yamaha to be in MotoGP. "Racing at the top level in a prototype category helps us 'improve the breed,'" Jarvis said. "It gives us the platform to develop new technologies which can be applied both directly and indirectly to our future production bikes." MotoGP as a technology platform was also important as a part of Yamaha's training program, he added. "This same process also allows us to train our young engineers and to challenge and develop their engineering skills."
But brand exposure and marketing in key regions was also a major part of Yamaha's rationale for racing in MotoGP. "Another key reason to be involved in racing activities is to expose our brand name and promote our brand image around the world. In many of the developed and mature markets such as in Europe, the USA and Japan this process has been ongoing for many decades and our brand is firmly established and well known," Jarvis explained.
The future lay elsewhere, in some of the emerging markets in Asia and South America, Jarvis added. "The exposure of the Yamaha name and promotion of our brand image in the developing markets is a high priority for the future." While the current global recession meant that the mature motorcycle markets - particularly Europe and the US - were either flat or shrinking, emerging markets were different. "We still see significant growth opportunities in many developing markets," Jarvis said. "In the past years we have put a lot of effort into SE Asian markets and we have seen a very positive benefit to our business by exposing our MotoGP activities to these markets."
This promotional push in emerging markets would continue, Jarvis told MotoMatters.com, and was crucial to Yamaha's future in racing. "For the future we plan to continue these activities in SE Asia but we will also support other growth markets in South America and India etc. This is fundamental for the continuation of the MotoGP project within Yamaha."
Those emerging markets were not just important to Yamaha, Jarvis explained, but also to the sport as a whole. In the future, it would take more than just PR events in countries such as India or Chile to sell bikes. Races would have to be organized there as well. "In my opinion we must also look to these developing markets to continue to develop the sport of MotoGP and to attract new investment and new commercial partners to secure the future of the sport."
Formula 1 was an example that MotoGP needs to follow, Jarvis said, pointing to the fact that car racing's premier series had gone from a calendar dominated by European events to a series where just 8 of the 20 races were set in Europe, while the 12 other races including key markets such as Korea, Singapore, India and the Middle East. "I would like to see a similar development for the future calendar of MotoGP," Yamaha's MotoGP boss emphasized, "and I believe we should be present in South America, India and Indonesia too, while still retaining a strong presence in Europe and the other global venues where MotoGP has always been present."
The world was changing, Jarvis said, and MotoGP needs to change with it. "The development of the sport to move with the times and to be present in those markets and economies which are still evolving and expanding will be very important to secure its future prosperity."