On the day that practice was supposed to get underway for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, we are still a very long way from any racing happening. Instead of riders warming up for the fifth race of the season, they are preparing for the third eSports race of 2020, to be played on the brand new MotoGP 20 computer game. It is also the first Virtual Grand Prix, featuring riders from all three classes, instead of just MotoGP.
It's something, for many fans, but it's not the same. Seeing bikes battle it out for an hour so in a computer game, and enjoying the banter between the riders, is entertaining, but it misses the visceral pleasure of real racing. Three days of practice, the roar of engines, the squeal of rubber, the scraping of kneepads over asphalt, the smell of hot oil. The carpet of yellow flowers which line the grass around the Jerez circuit. The party in downtown Jerez, with bikes riding up and down, and fans crowding the bars and restaurants, their deafening chatter about the events of the day making conversation all but impossible.
When will those days return? Nine or so weeks into the global lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19, it is clear that a return to what we traditionally think of as a motorcycle race is still some way off. That's the bad news. But the good news is that it is looking increasingly likely that there will be some form of world championship motorcycle racing this year, as countries start to look at lifting restrictions on travel and events. There appears to be reason for cautious optimism, though the SARS-CoV2 virus is still very much in the driving seat. Plans are starting to be made, but they are at the mercy of the virus. If the disease flares up again, those plans get torn up and Dorna moves onto the next lot.
In a sign of just how seriously Dorna are working on finding a way to go racing again, CEO of the MotoGP and WorldSBK rights holder Carmelo Ezpeleta has done more media interviews in the past couple of weeks than he usually does in a year. In part because he is the person with the big picture, an overview of the many ways a 2020 racing season might play out. Once there is a way to actually go racing, Ezpeleta will be the first to know. And in part, because part of Carmelo Ezpeleta's job is to persuade us all that there will be racing as soon as possible.
In interviews with various outlets, including for Italian website GPOne.com and Israeli TV Sport 5, with Tammy Gorali, Ezpeleta has outlined the scenarios which Dorna are looking at. They range from optimistic to pessimistic, and starting sooner rather than later.
In the most optimistic scenario, racing starts in late July. But not in Austria, as some reports have it. There are rumors that MotoGP may head to Jerez in July, though neither Ezpeleta nor anyone else has mentioned this on the record. The Red Bull Ring, Ezpeleta told GPone.com, would take place on the original date, August 16th.
Ten races, no fans
The hope is then to be able to do at least ten races, in Europe at first, and once travel outside Europe becomes possible, then to move overseas. If necessary, to increase the number of races on the calendar, multiple races could be held at the same circuit on back-to-back weekends.
In this most optimistic scenario, however, there will be no fans present. This is the plan which Dorna are presenting to governments, to try to persuade them to allow races to be held. The plan is to have the smallest possible number of people in the paddock, but even with teams held to skeleton crews – 40 people for a factory MotoGP team, 25 for a satellite squad, 20 for Moto2 and 15 for Moto3 – that still amounts to a total of around 1500 people, including Dorna and FIM staff to be able to run and, most importantly, televise a race.
That is only a small part of it, however. Dorna's plans focus only on the needs of the paddock, which covers only the riders, team staff, Clinica Mobile, FIM officials, and essential Dorna staff. But to run a race successfully, each circuit recruits a small army of people, including circuit staff and volunteers. There are organizational staff to help the event run smoothly. Security staff, though in much smaller numbers if no fans are allowed.
The biggest problem will be the people who run the sporting side of the race, and the unsung heroes of all forms of motorsport: the marshals. The numbers involved are impressive. For example, the TT Circuit Assen, home of the Dutch round of MotoGP, needs to recruit 800 volunteers to fill all the various functions involved in running the sporting side of the race: marshals, medical staff, technical scrutineering, pit lane, starting grid, and various other positions. Even if you cut down on the relatively few positions not directly involved in on-track activity, you still end up with a group of between 400-600 people needed to run a race.
Impressive numbers, but in the post-coronavirus era, also extremely challenging. Finding that many volunteers is tough enough at the best of times; persuading those people to turn up after the lockdown may be much harder. Many will be under pressure from their employers not to take time off. A portion run their own businesses, and will need to focus on that before being able to spare the time to volunteer as a marshal.
Then there is the age factor. Any photo of marshals shows a surprisingly large number of gray heads, though more so in some countries than in others. This is hardly surprising: the people with the free time and disposable income to travel to races around the world have usually need a few decades to accumulate those luxuries. But with COVID-19 being much more dangerous for those over 60, that may dissuade some from volunteering.
The medical marshals are likely to pose an even more complicated problem, however. Numbers vary from track to track, but somewhere between 100 to 150 trained medical staff are going to be needed for each round. Even once the COVID-19 outbreak is under control, medical staff may not have the free time to attend races, and if they do, they may want to spend it at home with family, after having to put in long shifts during the pandemic.
These medical staff have in many cases also been exposed to the virus through their work in healthcare. They may fear being asymptomatic, and passing it on to others. They may fear catching it from one of their fellow marshals, who is asymptomatic.
Dorna has ordered 10,000 tests for the coronavirus, to test paddock personnel and trace them very closely. Everyone will be tested before they are allowed to travel to a circuit, and then tested every time they enter. But it is clear from Dorna's estimate of paddock numbers that they consider the marshals and circuit support staff the responsibility of the circuit, not Dorna. They overlook just how much interaction there is between marshals and riders/teams. There are at least 30 marshals in pit lane in various capacities, including scrutineering. They are passing through the pitboxes to examine the bikes, check that everything is being done according to the rules.
At track side, marshals are picking riders up out of the gravel if they crash, and then bike taxis are ferrying the riders back to the pits. It is hard to keep 2 meters apart as a motorcycle pillion. Crashed bikes are loaded onto trailers, and driven back to the pits, usually with a couple of marshals on board holding the bike upright.
All things considered, there is still a long way to go before this most optimistic scenario can become reality. Dorna may be able to persuade governments that they can run a race with 1500 people in the paddock. But the circuits will have to do the same for the 600-800 people (if they can find them) needed to run an event. Unlike the paddock regulars, those people will mostly not be flying in from another country, but they will be traveling from all over the country hosting the race.
It is self-evident that even races behind closed doors pose a significant risk to public health. And that poses an enormous challenge to anyone trying to organize them. Dorna have put a huge amount of effort into putting together plans to make racing possible. But the complexities are so vast, the dependencies so great, that it is easy to overlook factors which can thwart all your hard work.
If July is too early to start racing again, Dorna has other plans. The aim is to have ten or more races to have some semblance of a season, but if travel outside of Europe is impossible, then it is still possible to hold ten races before December starting at the end of September.
Given how quickly the situation has changed since the MotoGP race in Qatar was called off – we have gone from going ahead with the season as planned, to full lockdown, to the beginning of lifting restrictions, all in the space of nine or so weeks – that the situation is nothing if not unpredictable. Work continues on a vaccine, and though that is still probably at least a year away, there are also plenty of other trials going on. Preliminary results from a randomized test with antiviral drug Remdesivir look positive, the drug aiding in recovery. If an effective treatment can be found for the COVID-19 disease, then that may allow further loosening of restrictions.
So where are we now with racing and MotoGP? Dorna has been working to put plans in place for when we do go back to racing. If the current improvement in containing the SARS-CoV2 virus continues, then the prospects for racing this year are positive. Denmark, for example, has lifted some restrictions and still managed to keep the coronavirus reproduction rate (or R0) below 1. That is a promising indication for countries where the disease is under control, and where restrictions are lifted gradually and cautiously.
There may well be racing in 2020. Indeed, there seems a very good chance that there will be, at some point. But the situation is uncertain, due in no small part to the enormously unpredictable and uncertain nature of the disease. For the moment, the virus is still very much in control. But its iron grip on humanity has loosened, even if only a fraction. There is reason for hope.
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