When we will be able to go racing? That's the question everybody wants an answer to, as MotoGP and WorldSBK rounds are canceled seemingly every week. The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has cast a pall over the world that not even motorcycle racing can escape. This week, MotoGP was canceled at Mugello and Barcelona. Last week, it was MotoGP at Le Mans, the week before that, Jerez MotoGP and Assen WorldSBK. Each race is canceled as it heaves into view on the calendar.
So when will we be able to go racing again? I don't know. You don't know. The truth is, nobody knows, not even Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta or FIM president Jorge Viegas. Because it is out of their hands. Organizing a world championship motorcycle race is complicated, and requires large numbers of people and equipment to cross multiple national borders using various modes of transport.
Freedom of movement
A couple of examples: For the Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP team to get to the first MotoGP race which has not been canceled, at the Sachsenring in Germany, they need to drive trucks from Gerno di Lesmo, near Milan in Italy, through either Switzerland or Austria and up through Germany to Hohenstein-Ernstthal, where the Sachsenring is.
There is a mixture of nationalities among the drivers of those trucks, making just getting to the trucks a complicated affair. One driver, for example, is a Dutchman living in Norway. His journey would involve flying from central Norway to Milan, then driving up from Milan to the Sachsenring. On his return to Norway, he would face a 14-day quarantine before being allowed to go home.
Most of the team staff are Italians based in Northern Italy, but Valentino Rossi's crew includes an Australian, a New Zealander, an American based in Italy, and a Belgian. Maverick Viñales is Spanish, lives in Andorra, and has a largely Spanish crew. The factory bosses, all Japanese, have to fly from Japan to Germany, which in many cases necessitates a transfer at another airport in a third country. Team members flying in from Australia will definitely have to change flights along the way, there not being a direct route between Australia and Germany yet. Each of the stopover countries along they way have bans and restrictions in place, liable to change.
New hurdles to be crossed
Under normal circumstances, that trip to Germany would be routine. That is the magic of the modern world: it is so integrated that you barely notice international travel. But the COVID-19 outbreak has seen countries around the world impose a range of restrictions on travel and movement. Austria and Switzerland have imposed restrictions on border crossings, and are checking the temperatures of drivers at borders before letting them enter. Germany has similar measures in place, and as of early April, it is unclear whether a race truck would even be allowed to enter. Freight is permitted to enter Germany, but there would be arguments over whether the contents of a race truck constitute freight or not, or the driver be allowed to enter.
Riders face similar issues. Jack Miller would have to fly from Australia to race for the Pramac Ducati team: German travel restrictions currently permit him to do that (and only that, all tourism from outside the EU has been banned), but he would face a 14-day quarantine as soon as he returned to Australia. Red Bull KTM Factory rider Brad Binder cannot leave South Africa: international flights have been suspended until the end of May.
This complex tangle of rules and regulations renders international travel almost impossible at the current moment, with little chance of relief. Each country imposes its own rules, all of them different, and based on how the COVID-19 outbreak is developing domestically, on internal perceptions of the outbreak in third countries, and on domestic political priorities.
Some countries have imposed severe restrictions on movement, while others are much more liberal. Scandinavian neighbors Norway and Sweden are taking very different approaches, Norway in virtual lockdown while Sweden is still largely open for business. At first, Sweden seemed to be prospering, but they have now left Norway behind in terms of both cases and deaths. As of April 7th, Norway had suffered 88 deaths, or 16 per million inhabitants, while Sweden had 591 deaths, or 59 per million inhabitants, nearly 3.7 times as many.
The way the outbreak is developing varies wildly from country to country. Rates of new infections and deaths are in different phases in different countries. In Italy and Spain, the growth in fatalities and new cases appears to be past its peak. In Germany and The Netherlands, the authorities are hoping the outbreak is at its peak.
After a period of very slow growth, the Japanese government has declared a state of emergency over a spike in new cases. That applies to seven prefectures, including Tokyo and Chiba, where the Japanese capital's two airports sit. In Hong Kong, despite early signs the outbreak had been contained, a recent spike in numbers has caused the authorities to impose new restrictions.
In other words, the outbreak is all over the place, both literally and figuratively. The world is in the middle of a game of deadly whack-a-mole against the COVID-19 virus: as one region gets the disease under control, it flares up somewhere else, and the focus of prevention swings from one country to another.
Trying to count the numbers
The situation is complicated further by the fact that counting cases and deaths is a tricky business. The recorded number of deaths caused by the COVID-19 virus are only of cases confirmed by laboratory testing. But in many countries, there is a spike in overall deaths, much higher than normal for this time of the year.
In The Netherlands, for example, the National Institute for Public Health RIVM recorded 727 deaths as a result of the coronavirus in the week of March 23rd-29th. But the CBS, the Dutch office of national statistics, recorded 1168 more deaths than normal that week. That puts the actual number of deaths likely due to COVID-19 60% higher than the reported numbers. In the US, in New York city, some 200 people a day are dying at home, where usually, the authorities expect to see 20 to 25 deaths at home.
The pattern is similar in the UK: there, the ONS, the Office of National Statistics, estimates that COVID-19 deaths are being under-reported by around 80%. The reason for this under-reporting is simple: only deaths in hospitals, and confirmed by laboratory testing are directly attributed to the coronavirus. And COVID-19 deaths are being counted immediately, whereas there is usually a delay of a few days to a week between deaths outside of hospitals being recorded and then assimilated into official statistics. We won't know the full scale of the pandemic until it is over.
Impossible to predict
Which makes it difficult to organize the international travel needed to hold world championship motorcycle racing events. Without a clear view of the extent of the outbreak, it is hard to assess the risks of holding a large scale event such as a round of MotoGP or WorldSBK. Holding the race behind closed doors instead of in front of a large crowd does not reduce the risk as much as authorities might like. The MotoGP paddock comprises somewhere between 2500 and 3000 individuals, from countries all around the globe. Having a group of that size come together every two weeks, and then disperse to the four corners of the earth remains a major infection risk.
Even Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is pessimistic. "Before we have a vaccine to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it is going to be difficult, or even impossible to hold Grand Prix and other large-scale events," he told German-language publication Speedweek. "Even when the situation starts to become more normal, there will still be travel restrictions in some countries."
Waiting for a cure
With so much effort, both political and economic, having gone into restricting the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed, the authorities will only gradually ease their restrictions. Restrictions on travel and large events will only be lifted once governments are sure they can control the spread of the virus, either by a program of mass vaccination, or by a combination of treatment, monitoring, and contract tracing.
A vaccine is the holy grail and would allow most countries to reach widespread immunity relatively quickly. The issue is that most experts expect a vaccine to be at least 18 months away. Even that would be a minor miracle: the COVID-19 is a new organism, and though it is related to other coronaviruses such as the MERS and SARS from earlier in the century, or the common cold, under normal circumstances, developing a vaccine and getting it approved for use would take ten years or more.
The social and economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak mean that science and society are throwing the kitchen sink at finding a solution. There are approximately 35 groups working on a vaccine already, one of which has a candidate ready for human testing. A range of approaches are being tested, including taking lessons learned from previous outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola to try to speed up the search for a working vaccine.
Normally, facilities to mass produce a vaccine can only be built once a working vaccine has been found, but ex-Microsoft CEO and billionaire Bill Gates has promised to spend a significant amount of his own money to build factories to produce the seven most promising candidates, even though most of those factories will serve no purpose and have to be scrapped afterwards. But that investment will pay off in the long term, as the faster a vaccine can be introduced, the sooner the economy can return to full strength.
Even 18 months is outside of a viable time frame for world championship racing, and for the world in general. Ideally, we want to be able to kickstart the world again within a couple of months. The only way that can happen is through a combination of mitigation strategies – large-scale testing, monitoring, and contact tracing – and finding a treatment which can reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Mitigation strategies impose a social cost which may be highly unpalatable in open, democratic societies. No one will oppose widespread testing, but contract tracing poses challenges. One way of doing that is through mobile apps, such as the ones used in South Korea and China. But these have privacy, ethical, and civil liberties implications: having an app capable of tracing your whereabouts at all times, and of keeping a list of everyone you have come into contact with poses severe privacy concerns.
If the data isn't fully secured, it could also be open to abuse by hackers or other malicious actors. If hackers found out someone had attended the HR department of a rival firm to interview for a job, or spent the afternoon at the apartment with someone who is not their partner, they could use that information to try to blackmail them. Or they could use the data to track the movements of police officers, security personnel, or others who could pose a security risk.
Treatments look to be the best bet for a solution in the shorter term, but although many avenues are being explored, we are still a long way from finding a suitable drug or antibody treatment which could help stave off the disease. As of March 24th, 2020, there were 332 registered clinical trials for COVID-19, according to UK medical publication The Lancet. Of those, 188 trials were recruiting volunteer subjects.
A lot of effort is going into finding a treatment. The European Medical Agency is working with the developers of 40 different possible therapeutic medicines, and a range of approaches are being taken. Bloomberg News reports that over 100 therapies are being tested around the world.
But that expansive approach could also end up sowing more confusion than it clears up. With so many potential treatments, it is hard to carry out large-scale randomized double-blind trials. That can produce confusing data, and and cause scientists to choose treatments which are less effective than they seem at first. This happened with the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when ZMapp emerged as the most promising treatment from a rather haphazard testing process. Only five years later did scientists learn that other treatments, which had been initially overlooked, were more effective.
The danger of something similar happening for the COVID-19 virus is real. If the outbreak dies down over the summer, and with most patients with the coronavirus recovering of their own accord, it will be difficult to find the most effective treatments. That poses a huge risk if there is another outbreak of the disease later in the year, if sick patients are given a treatment which fails to either treat the symptoms or reduce the spread, leading to a second pandemic wave of COVID-19, with the same economic and social devastation.
No crystal balls
What does all this mean for racing? It means that the future is utterly unclear. There are many paths ahead of us, and each one would mean something completely different for racing. If restrictions start to ease sufficiently that Dorna could put together a new calendar starting in July or August, there are no guarantees that calendar will last more than a month or two. If the disease flares up again in Spain, or Italy, or one of the countries were a race is scheduled, the calendar would be up in the air again.
The greater worry is that if the disease does make a return in the second half of the year, governments will act much more quickly to clamp down again. The restrictions on travel and events, the imposition of social distancing, have been a success in containing the COVID-19 outbreak. Where governments previously hesitated to impose a lockdown, they are more likely to act preemptively to contain a new threat.
So even if racing does start again this summer – whether that be June, July, or August – it could easily be a brief reprieve, a few races before another lockdown is called. That lockdown might be shorter – a few weeks, instead of several months – which might allow for more races later in the year.
In short, we don't know what is going to happen. We don't know when the season will start, nor do we know how long a calendar might last even once racing starts, if it starts. Nobody knows anything at the moment.
2020 is not canceled yet
But Dorna hasn't given up on 2020 entirely. Although Carmelo Ezpeleta told Speedweek that he believed that it would be "very difficult, or perhaps even impossible to hold Grand Prix and other large-scale events," that doesn't mean they won't hold on until the last moment. "I am focused on trying to save as much of the 2020 championship as I can," Ezpeleta told Spanish sports daily AS.com.
Ezpeleta was at pains to point out that his words had been misinterpreted. He had said that not being able to race at all was undeniably a possibility, but that was not what Dorna were planning for. "They ask me what they want to ask me, then choose a headline to suit them, and others copy them," Ezpeleta grumbled. "Of course we won't race if we are not able to, but that is not what we are working towards, we are trying to work to achieve the opposite. We are working to try to do as many of the races as we can this year, so that means thinking about different calendars."
If there are races in 2020, how many would be needed to hold a championship? Jorge Viegas, FIM President, pointed out that Dorna's contract obliges them to hold at least 13 for it to be a World Championship. Ezpeleta does not see that as a problem. "We have a force majeure clause in the contract," he told Speedweek.
How many races make a championship?
History would be on Dorna's side. The total of 20 races planned for 2020 was an all-time high. The numbers have been going up for the past three decades. The championship has consisted of around 15 races since 1987, the number increasing this century.
But it wasn't always that way. When the Motorcycle Grand Prix championship started in 1949, it consisted of just 6 rounds, starting in June at the Isle of Man. From there, the Grand Prix circus went to Berne in Switzerland in July, followed by Assen and Spa-Francorchamps, all on consecutive weekends. Then a visit to the Ulster Grand Prix in August, finishing at Monza on September 4th.
It took over a decade to get to 10 races, that happening in 1961, and nearly another decade before they reached a total of 12, in 1969. It stayed that way for another couple of decades, before growing to 15 races in 1987.
So there is a precedent. Of course, the world was a very different place in the 1950s, the world just emerging from World War II, and most motorcycle racing was still happening at a national level. There were races all over Europe which attracted large international fields, but which were never a part of the Grand Prix circuit. So while riders may have only taken part in 6 or 7 Grand Prix, they would have spent most of the year racing almost every weekend.
Not in 2020. If there are races this year, then there will most probably be a champion declared, although they will always have an asterisk attached because of the devastating effect the coronavirus has had on the 2020 season.
Whatever we end up doing in 2020, the series is starting to think about what happens going forward. IRTA president and Tech3 team boss Hervé Poncharal told Peter McLaren of Crash.net that the factories had decided to freeze engine and aerodynamics development for the 2021 season, based on the development work done for 2020. That would save money, and given that the 2020 engines and aero packages are yet to be used in anger, the factories still can't be sure how they will respond when used in anger. Better to save the money for this year, and spend 2021 using data from actual racing to develop for 2022. It would also result in cheaper leasing costs for the satellite teams, who would be able to keep the same bikes for 2021.
The most important task at the moment is for the teams to survive. So far, Dorna have announced a support package for the teams in the Grand Prix package which should carry them through to July. What happens after that is open to debate, but Dorna are all too keenly aware that without the teams, there can be no racing.
We will also have to see how the economic downturn affects the motorcycle manufacturers. If the economy bounces back quickly, they may still have enough money to go racing. But if the decline is both deep and prolonged, they may not have the spare cash to spend on racing. The effect on the economy, like the path of the COVID-19 outbreak, is still a complete unknown.
The virus decides
Will we be racing in 2021? The odds for that look much better than for 2020, but even then, we don't really know. As the promoter of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans said, the virus is in charge. The COVID-19 outbreak, how it spreads through the world, how successful national governments are in containing it, what restrictions are put in place, and how quickly either a cure or a vaccine can be found.
No doubt in the period between then and now, you will read interviews with all sorts of prominent figures, from riders, to team managers, to factory bosses, to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. We have an interview with FIM president Jorge Viegas to be published on the website in the next day or so, in which he explains why the calendar is being altered one race at a time.
Bear in mind when you read those interviews that they are just opinions. Sure, they might come from people on the inside of the process, with much more of an understanding of how MotoGP works and how a calendar is put together than you do. But they have just as little control over how the COVID-19 outbreak plays out as you do.
The leverage which Dorna might ordinarily have with regional and national governments has gone. No government is going to risk an outbreak of the disease caused by holding a motorcycle race, or any other sporting event for that matter. The virus is in control.
When will we be racing again? When will the deafening roar of MotoGP or World Superbike engines echo around the grandstands of legendary racetracks?
The truth is, nobody knows.
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