If anyone needed any further proof that Indonesia is important to the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, the fact the Repsol Honda team chose Bali as the location to launch their 2015 MotoGP project should remove any doubt. In front of a crowd consisting of Indonesian media, regional sales teams,Honda dealers, and just a single journalist from the European media (and a very smart one at that), Repsol Honda unveiled their 2015 livery, and Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa met fans and engaged in a couple of photo ops.
A few days later, in Malaysia, Yamaha presented their 2015 racing program in front of a mass meeting of their Southeast Asian network, dealers and business partners flown in from Indonesia and neighboring countries. The Movistar Yamaha team had already been launched in Madrid – the Movistar TV millions ensured the location of that launch – but Yamaha took the time to introduce the three teams racing Yamahas in MotoGP, as well as present their activities in Asia. Frankly, the presence of the Movistar Yamaha, Tech 3 and Forward Yamaha teams were more of a crowd pleaser than actually imparting any new information.
But if Indonesia is so important to the manufacturers, and to MotoGP, why is there not a race there? Over the course of the MotoGP test at Sepang, I had a few conversations with people on the subject. On the record, the story was always the same: we need a suitable track, and as soon as one exists we will be happy to go there. Off the record, however, they were much less optimistic. Yes, a track was the most immediate obstacle to staging a race there, but it wasn't the biggest problem. One person – nobody wanted to be publicly quoted on this subject – summed up the general feeling. "Corruption. It's too expensive, and too difficult."
Corruption is not unique to Indonesia. Indeed, it is endemic in several of the countries MotoGP visits. Argentina, ostensibly a democracy, is rife with corruption, and with politicians selling influence. Malaysia has major problems with corruption, as every taxi driver who has ever driven me anywhere in the country has been at pains to tell me. Public corruption in Spain and Italy is widespread: in Spain, the ruling Partido Popular is embroiled in a particularly ugly scandal involving off-the-books payments to party members. Indeed, some of the anger in Spain at Marc Márquez' decision to move to Andorra was related to a scandal involving former Catalan leader Jordi Pujol and charges of tax evasion.
The difference between Indonesia and, say, Argentina, is not great in terms of corruption. Both countries rank an equal 107th in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. The problem is one of how corruption affects political power, and the ability to get things done. There is a race in Argentina because a powerful governor of a regional province decided they wanted to stage a race, to help promote tourism to the rather remote Santiago del Estero province. Those in power are able to get things done, to have obstacles removed and achieve their goals. Argentina has already felt the benefits of motorsports, the Dakar Rally providing both popular entertainment and bringing much needed economic activity to some of the country's more remote regions.
The problem for Indonesia is that they do not have a powerful political figure with an interest in staging a race. The impression I get from speaking to Indonesians is that MotoGP is very much a young person's sport. There are literally millions of MotoGP fans all throughout Indonesia, from all islands, and of all of its many faiths. But they are overwhelmingly young, and like the young throughout the world, bereft of much political influence. They may be desperate for a race, but they lack both the political and financial clout to make it happen.
That lack of clout expresses itself in the state of Indonesian race circuits. In its current state, Sentul is in no shape to stage an international motorcycle race, and would require major upgrades. Those upgrades would be expensive, and without either a major private investor or an enthusiastic local authority, the funds needed for such upgrades will not be forthcoming.
But it's not just money. In the case of Indonesia – and the same holds true for Brazil – it is about the influence to make something happen. In countries where corruption is common, everyone needs paying off, from the customs officials to the local police to local government. Paying such people off either requires a lot of money, or a local figure powerful enough that they already own the local police, customs and authorities, so they don't need to spend the extra money. Such a figure with an interest in MotoGP has yet to arise in Indonesia, leaving only the route of paying everyone off. That is beyond the means of MotoGP, however: Indonesian police are notoriously corrupt, so much so that members of the KPK, the anti-corruption agency set up to combat the corruption of the police, constantly find themselves being arrested on a range of trumped up charges.
Even having a powerful figure behind you is no guarantee of a long-term future in a country. The cancellation of the Moscow round of World Superbikes is a case in point. The race was organized and promoted by Alexander Yakhnich, a prominent and successful Russian businessman with strong connections to the Kremlin. So enamored of the sport was Yakhnich that he set up his own World Supersport team, then landed a ten-year contract with Infront Motor Sports to organize a WSBK round in Russia. In the past year or so, since the situation in the Ukraine caused tension between Russia and the West, business has become a lot more difficult for Yakhnich, and he has been forced both to pull out of World Supersport, and drop the Moscow WSBK race. "Without the support of the government, nothing gets done in Russia," Yakhnich team manager Nataliya Lyubimova told the German website Speedweek. Racing goes from being welcome to being impossible, almost in the blink of an eye.
This is a pattern which faces MotoGP and World Superbikes throughout all of Asia and South America. It is hard to express just how keen Dorna are to stage races in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Chile. Yet all through the region, they face similar problems. In India, customs regulations make it financially impossible to import equipment into the country, then get it back out again in the time between two races and at reasonable cost. Indian governments have not regarded motorsports as important enough to grant customs exceptions, leaving even the formidable Bernie Ecclestone incapable of staging an F1 race. In Indonesia, corruption makes doing business almost impossible: Dorna was close to signing an agreement with a new circuit to be built in the country, but in the four years since I first heard of that, there has been no progress on the track actually getting built. In Brazil, the aftermath of the FIFA soccer world cup and the preparations for the 2016 Olympics have raised popular unrest at large sums of money being spent for sport, rather than helping an impoverished urban population. If Brazilians are complaining about the cost of staging a soccer tournament, then funding the upgrades to a motorcycle racing circuit becomes a political impossibility.
And so we are stuck with four races in Spain, two in Italy, and none in Brazil, India, Indonesia. For both the factories and Dorna, the potential gains to staging races in these countries are huge. Sales of motorcycles in Indonesia are over 8 million units a year, in India, sales are around 10 million units a year, in Brazil, just under 2 million. For Dorna, too, the potential in terms of TV rights and merchandising sales is vast. But as big as the potential is, neither Dorna nor the manufacturers can afford to navigate the sea of corruption which engulfs those territories. Until there are major political changes in those countries, they will remain as the sirens of Greek mythology: ever alluring, but posing a mortal danger to those who answer the call.