It is terribly fashionable in some circles to regard Dorna as a blight on the face of motorcycle racing. Their alleged crimes are both heinous and manifold. They have dumbed down the sport by exerting an ever tighter grip over the technical regulations. They killed off the two strokes in favor of four strokes. They have aggressively pursued copyright and trademark claims, at the cost of broadening the appeal of the sport. They have been relentless in their pursuit of financial gain over the spirit of the sport. They have meddled in the sport to favor one rider, or one nationality over the rest.
Most of these complaints are either baseless, or an expression of anger at how the sport has changed over the years. Some points are valid: the death of the 250cc two strokes, however understandable from a financial point of view, was a tragedy, as a 250cc two stroke was perhaps the most perfect expression of a racing motorcycle. In the past, as I found myself on occasion, Dorna were slow to embrace change online, and wasted energy chasing down Youtube clips of MotoGP, rather than controlling them by providing them to fans in an easy-to-share way. (Fortunately for the fans, they have learned and bettered their ways in this regard.)
Yet it is hard to argue with results. This season, six factories – three Japanese, three European – will line up on the MotoGP grid. 23 riders from seven different countries will take the start, with a grand total of 31 world championship titles between them. The bikes they will ride are extremely close in performance, with technical differences limited. For the past two years, riders from three different countries have won the three Grand Prix titles. The MotoGP series has emerged from global financial crisis in rude health, despite some major challenges along the way.
Ending the Spanish Armada
There was, however, one glaring weakness in the championship. The series has been dominated by Spanish riders, Spanish circuits, and Spanish teams. Of the 30 champions the three classes have produced in the last 10 years, 16 have been Spanish. Spaniards have filled, and continue to fill, the bulk of the prime factory seats in MotoGP. While Valentino Rossi has helped buoy up the international popularity of the sport, the Spanish domination of the sport cannot continue indefinitely.
There are very good reasons for the Spanish stranglehold on MotoGP, of course. First and foremost, the popularity of the sport in the country, where even Moto3 riders are household names. That popularity is reflected in the number of circuits in Spain – in addition to the four tracks on the MotoGP calendar, there are several others – Alcarras, Cartagena, Jarama, Arcos (Navarra), Albacete, Castellolí – which could be brought up to FIM standard with a relatively small investment, at least in terms of the circuit layout and safety.
More importantly, as one senior Dorna staffer pointed out to me privately, the dry climate in Spain means that the circuits see a lot more use, with tracks often open all year round. This also means riders get a lot more time to explore the limits of their bikes, rather than the limit of grip in the wet. That is a distinct advantage over riders from wetter and more northerly climes.
The popularity of motorcycle racing in Spain gives Spanish riders another advantage. Motorcycle racing is a very expensive sport, at any level. Parents are hard pushed to pour thousands of euros/pounds/dollars into their child's hobby unless that child will have plenty of time to enjoy the sport. The popularity of racing also makes it easier for more successful youngsters to gather financial support from local businesses. Finding sponsors is much easier when the pool of enthusiastic followers of the sport is larger.
Playing the long talent game
To their credit, this is something which Dorna have long been aware of, and have been working on fixing for nearly twenty years. In the years after they took over the running of Grand Prix motorcycling in 1992, a time when the premier class was dominated by Americans and Australians, the number of Spaniards coming through the ranks started to grow.
To help widen the appeal of the sport, Dorna started to invest in finding and nurturing young talent. "We started this program of talent development in 1999 with the sponsorship of Movistar," Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta said. That led to the setting up of the Movistar Junior Cup, which quickly produced a huge array of talent. Much of that talent was Spanish – Dani Pedrosa, Alvaro Bautista, Toni Elias, Efren Vazquez, and many more – but there were plenty of non-Spaniards involved as well, including Casey Stoner.
The Movistar Junior Cup grew into the Grand Prix Academy, which became a stepping stone into MotoGP for Bradley Smith. "I don't want to forget Bradley Smith," Ezpeleta said. "Bradley was under our umbrella, and he has been successful, he is a factory rider, he was on the podium last year."
From Academy to Talent Cup
The Grand Prix Academy was expanded with support from Red Bull and KTM to become the Red Bull Rookies Cup. And the Red Bull Rookies Cup has been enormously successful at helping talented riders get in to Grand Prix racing. Former Red Bull Rookies fill the grid in Moto3 and Moto2 – Lorenzo Baldassarri, Jorge Martin, Joan Mir, Fabio Di Giannantonio, Ayumu Sasaki, Bo Bendsneyder, Jakub Kornfeil, and many more. It has also produced three world champions – Johann Zarco, Danny Kent, and Brad Binder – none of whom are Spanish.
Though the Red Bull Rookies Cup still falls short of perfect preparation for Moto3, it is a virtually unparalleled opportunity for young riders to showcase their talent and get themselves noticed. The most significant benefit of the Rookies Cup is that everything bar the travel and accommodation is covered. Young riders get to race what is basically a Grand Prix motorcycle at next to no cost. "For us, the difference between us and other motorsports is that we are trying to offer the riders the possibility to race for free," Carmelo Ezpeleta explained. "This is one of the key things for us."
Dorna is now also casting its net much wider, in order to expand the popularity of the sport worldwide. The MotoGP organizer's second major talent series was set up in Asia, as the Asia Talent Cup. It operates along similar lines as the Red Bull Rookies Cup: young riders from all over Asia, Australia, and New Zealand compete on identical Honda NSF250R machines, with the backing of Japanese oil giant Idemitsu. Asia Talent Cup riders are also starting to make their way through to the Grand Prix paddock: Ayumu Sasaki, Nakarin Atiratphuvapat, and Kaito Toba will all be racing in Moto3 this year, after getting their start in the series.
Beyond Spain and Asia
On a smaller scale, Dorna work with the ADAC on the Northern European Cup, a Moto3 series taking place in Germany, The Netherlands, Great Britain, and the Czech Republic, offering the chance of a wildcard at the final round of the FIM CEV Junior World Championship. In total, Dorna have over 100 riders in various youth programs around the world.
There have also been more informal collaborations. They have been working closely with MotoAmerica, both on the running of the American Superbike championship, and taking an interest in the support classes there, such as the KTM RC390 Cup. They have also collaborated with the Australian Superbike Championship on improving the Australian domestic series, in the hope of creating a better pathway into the WorldSBK championship for Australian riders.
British Talent Cup
In London last week, Dorna launched their next initiative, the British Talent Cup. The series will be similar to the Asia Talent Cup, and though details are yet to be finalized, the series will run roughly parallel to the BSB championship. The series will focus on Grand Prix standard tracks in the UK, with rounds at Silverstone and Donington, as well as probably at tracks like Assen, Brands Hatch, and possibly Snetterton. The British Talent Cup could also see rounds held at the British rounds of MotoGP and WorldSBK.
The series is to be opened to riders from the UK and Ireland born between 2001 and 2005, with the entry period open between May and July. Riders will be invited to a selection event at the Silverstone Stowe Circuit, contained inside the southern section of the larger Grand Prix circuit at the track. Rider selection will take place under the guidance of Alberto Puig, who has been involved in all of Dorna's talent programs since the beginning. Former British 250cc Grand Prix winner Jeremy McWilliams will also be involved, as a rider coach. The series will hold its first race in 2018.
Nostalgia backing Britain
Why has Dorna, a Spanish company, decided on creating a series nurturing talent in Britain? The answer to that question lies in the history of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. "I'm old, and I remember when things were completely different, all the riders were British, all the winners were British," Carmelo Ezpeleta said. That experience turned out to be a big influence when Dorna took over running Grand Prix motorcycle racing back in 1992. "For us, since 1992 when we started, Britain is the place where we feel there is more emotion for the culture of motorsport. All motorsport was invented here," he said.
I spoke to Carmelo Ezpeleta after the presentation of the British Talent Cup, and the associated British Talent Moto3 Team, featuring John McPhee as a rider. In that conversation, Ezpeleta explained some of the reasoning behind the choice of Britain as a host for a talent series. He also explained how there was a possible path to expand such series further abroad, to widen the net for capturing young talent, and what the prerequisites are for such a series.
Was it Dorna's plan to grow the MotoGP championship and expand its popularity through series like these? "Well, it has been our aim since the beginning," Ezpeleta said. "Really during the crisis, what we tried to do is to consolidate the MotoGP class with all the systems and the changes we made, especially in technical areas and helping the teams. This has worked very well, and the championship is growing a lot. And this allows us to have more resources to dedicate to these kinds of projects. This has always been in our minds, but we are now at the time to do it."
Britain is important, but the US was also important, Australia was important, South America too. Could these also be important markets in which to launch similar initiatives?
"Yes, but the thing is, we cannot do all these things together! We are going step by step. We are starting in Asia, because really, the demand in Asia is very big, not just from the manufacturers, but a lot of countries are requesting to host a MotoGP race. Then it's important that when we are there, we will be there in more presence than we have now, and to have enough Asian talent. The result of that is that they have started to have some talented riders in Malaysia, the popularity of the Malaysian Grand Prix is now much bigger than before."
"But especially, the UK has always been in our mind, because we think here is the place where motorsport was born. We need to do that [in other countries], and as soon as we can, we do it. Of course, it's necessary, this costs a lot of money, and we need to do it, and we do it when we are enough consolidated in other areas."
So it's an investment in the future? Grow the popularity of the sport in Asia, and that means more TV revenue in the future from Asia?
"It's all connected. Obviously, the world championship will be more popular if there are more people from more nationalities. The idea that many people have been talking about, that MotoGP is only about Italy and Spain or whatever, but there was a time when it was completely different. It was just Americans or Australians, etc. What we tried to do is to consolidate everything everywhere. But we need to have a base."
"For example, you mention Australia. We are looking a lot at Australia, but first, for us, it's not easy to do a championship on the other side of the world! But something we have been doing since 2015, in the Asian Talent Cup, we admit also Australians. Then it's something to reach first. Not many of them have been successful, but we will continue doing that."
"South America is also important, but they are not... you know, when we make a series and say, OK, you are interested to race for free, and you are British, please call us, we get a lot of response. But if you do this in South America, practically nobody will answer, except in Argentina. Everything is together, we need to have a good base, and then try to do things together. And also, the people collaborating with us, for example, we do a program in Germany Northern European Cup, in collaboration with the ADAC. But the goal is clear, we are trying different ways to do it."
It's finding the partnerships to do it?
"Exactly. For example, in the US, with MotoAmerica, it's something we are helping them as a championship a lot, and we will continue to do this. And if one day we see that this is the base to do this, we will come to an initiative like that, or something similar."
Six factories in MotoGP means the championship is on an upward curve. Are you also making plans for when things go down, if there's an economic crisis or whatever? Is MotoGP secure enough to survive with the changes which have already made?
"Yes, but it's never enough! We need to think what might happen, but today everything is OK. The best thing is that we have a great collaboration with all the manufacturers, and then we can do these things, make these changes. But we don't wake up trying to improve things in the three classes. Because also, we think one of the secrets of the MotoGP world championship is we can show the three categories together. So John McPhee will be racing with the top guys in the world. This is not possible in other motorsport disciplines, and it's possible in motorcycling."
The addition of the British Talent Cup is a positive step for motorcycle racing globally, and the support John McPhee has from Dorna in the British Talent Team also helps keep a young British rider in Moto3. It will also help take some of the strain off the Racing Steps Foundation, who have been a prime mover behind young British talent in recent years. The RSF has been a strong supporter of McPhee in the past, and are now backing two more youngsters, Rory Skinner and Dan Jones, in the FIM CEV Junior World Championship. Though Dorna have done much to support riders from around the world, national initiatives supporting young riders remain absolutely crucial.
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