For a few weeks, it looked like racing in 2020 might be impossible. But as the peak of the COVID-19 crisis appears to have passed in many parts of Europe, there are a few rays of hope that racing might resume before the end of the year. At the moment, Dorna have put plans in place to hold two races at Jerez, on July 19th and 26th, with more races to follow.
These plans see factories and teams start to slowly ramp up their preparations for racing in Jerez. At the same time, the factories are having to come to terms with the still-emerging post-coronavirus economic reality. Measures have already been put in place to cut costs, including a freeze on engine development and aerodynamics until 2021, while the factories and teams are considering further proposals to cut costs and secure the future of the sport.
On Monday, the Suzuki Ecstar MotoGP team organized a press teleconference with team manager Davide Brivio, in which he discussed this, and many other subjects. Brivio talked about starting the championship in Jerez, the impact of the coronavirus on Suzuki and on the MotoGP championship, and about Suzuki's plans for a satellite squad. He also talked about what life in the paddock could look like when racing resumes.
All in the same boat
"Everybody is in the same situation," Brivio started off by saying. "We are trying to be in contact with MotoGP, Dorna, IRTA and also with the other teams. We’ve had a few meetings altogether. We are also looking at other sports to see what is going on: what’s happening in football, everybody is taking different directions and positions. In Germany they are going to restart the football next week and Spain and Italy are still to decide."
This decision could help point the way for MotoGP and other sports, Brivio explained. "This is important in my opinion because it can trace a road, trace a way for other sports to follow. As has been said the target of Dorna is to start in July in Spain and of course we have to hope that the situation can improve by day. It is something that is not in our hands. It is in the hands of the local government where we are going to race."
The road toward restarting in Jerez was still filled with obstacles, though Brivio was confident Dorna could work with the authorities to make it work. "In order to start the championship in Spain I imagine the Spanish authority has to allow us to travel there and stay in Jerez and despite the number of people being as limited as possible in each team we are talking about over a thousand people in the paddock. The Jerez city, authority, government: everybody has to accept that. We have a couple of months and I am quite confident that we can solve and improve the situation."
It is still too early to be confident of any predictions, though. "For instance in Italy a couple of weeks ago we started phase two and if things are good in one week or ten days maybe we can look with more confidence to the future. We are all trying to study and understand the situation. Of course, as far as the MotoGP championship in this moment we are looking mainly at what is happening in Spain, Italy and also Austria where we will probably race. The championship will probably be limited to a few countries. In order to have everything going well we need to have the COVID situation, let’s say, OK," Brivio said.
There was no doubt that the current crisis would have a huge impact on the sport, both in cultural and in economic terms, the Suzuki boss told us. "Of course we talk about the 2020 championship from the sport and riders point of view. It will be strange because when we restart there will be no public and the paddock will be quite empty – but this is just something for us, we are working there – no public in the grandstands means a strange atmosphere. This is what it is. We know the situation and we have to be open to accept everything. It will be strange in many points of view but we hope we can have a championship and we can restart with races."
The economic question was the big unknown, Brivio said. "For the future this is a big question mark because I think everybody will have probably less resources. The championship is very much related to the manufacturers and in reality the manufacturers are the biggest ‘sponsors’ of every team."
With manufacturers paying, investment in racing depends heavily on how sales are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. "At Suzuki we don’t have so many commercial sponsors but everybody else has the factory behind that brings the main financial support and, of course, nobody is selling bikes and products," Brivio said. "Even at Suzuki we are a car manufacturer as well as motorcycle and marine engines but we are not selling those. All the companies will have to reduce the cost."
"It is difficult now to say what is the impact because within the company we try to make some estimation, some forecast every day or every week but then the next day or week you have to change. Or the next week you are not super-sure what you have calculated. We need to stabilise the situation and in some countries the businesses are restarting, the dealers are opening the shops. We will see the effect in a few weeks and if something is going to restart. I imagine that everybody will have less budget next year. We will probably have to reduce some cost and that is why freezing development is a good way to go."
Signs of confidence
Brivio did see glimmers of hope, however. The signing of Suzuki's two riders, Alex Rins and Joan Mir, to new two-year contracts was a sign that the factory was committed to the series for the long term. "That’s why I took it as fantastic news from our company the fact that we could renew the agreement of Alex and Joan in this period," Brivio explained. "This happened in the last two-three weeks/month – not more than a month when we signed the contract – and this went through the approval of our top management and to see them doing that in this delicate situation – to approve the contract for 2021-2022, I took as a very good sign. It makes us look to the future with confidence. It means that the company is committed to keep going and the MotoGP with the normal activity. To continue thinking in the normal way. This gives us a lot of hope but of course we have to see in the next month how the situation will be."
But any racing which does happen this year and next will look rather different to the years of plenty MotoGP has enjoyed in the past few seasons. "2021, I think, won’t be like the 18, 19 or 17 situation," Brivio opined. "We will probably have to go like we did ten years ago. I mean, this crisis seems to be much bigger but when we had the crisis in 2008-2009 we slowed down and then slowly, slowly got back. Probably here we slow down more than that and slowly try to get back. It is difficult to forecast but everybody now is thinking how to save money and budget for the next year. But I also see everybody is very much committed to keep going."
It was too early to say how the current crisis has impacted Suzuki's, however. "It's difficult to say now. I didn't hear from the company about a strategy, looking to the future. We are all working more or less day by day. I'm happy for the renewal of the agreements [with Rins and Mir], because it shows the commitment, they are willing to look at the future and to continue to do the business."
A view of the future?
"How Suzuki sees MotoGP at this moment is difficult for me to say," Brivio said. "But as I said, I received signs that there is the willingness to keep everything going. And we've been asked to save budget for this year, to try to reduce costs. From a certain point of view it's still – I won't say easy, but we can manage, because not travelling, not racing, we are automatically saving some budget. Whether this will be enough or not, we are in constant contact with our management and making calculations, reviewing budgets, reviewing costs, trying to make an estimation what the budget will look like and things like that."
"For sure, this year we will spend less, but of course the business is also much less for the company. So this is not a real benefit. But as I said, to renew the contracts with the riders gives me the hope that MotoGP is still considered important."
What does this mean in terms of the satellite team which Suzuki had been looking at for 2022 onwards? "Talking about a satellite team, this I don't know," Brivio said. "This is something that we had an idea to do for 2022, and this is still on the table. For the moment, we were concentrated on discussing the riders' agreements, now I think maybe we can try to calm a little bit down, to let the top management work a little bit on more important issues for the company, and maybe in a few weeks or a couple of months, we can maybe try to put the discussion back on the table and see how the situation, what their intentions are."
Brivio saw this as the satellite team being put on hold, but not shelved, he told the media. "For us it's still open, it's still a project we are working on, and our racing department still wants to do it, but of course we have to go through the approval of the top management. It's difficult to say now, we have to wait and see. But we are continuing to work on that, that's for sure."
Going racing in Jerez was no easy project, for Suzuki or anyone else. Davide Brivio outlined some of the challenges faced by Suzuki in getting everyone to the Jerez circuit for the race. The mechanics and engineers were spread over a number of countries, he said. "I don't remember the numbers exactly, but the majority are probably in Italy. We have Italy, Spain, we have a guy in England, one guy in France, and of course the Japanese staff, about six or seven people in Japan including SMC employees and a contract guy. So we are spread in five or six countries."
Getting those people to Jerez was complicated. "The situation is not clear at the moment, because also looking at the various regulations of the countries – for example if you want to enter Italy, you have to stay in quarantine for two weeks," Brivio said. "And also if you're not Italian or certain categories, if you are just a simple passenger you can only stay 72 hours in Italy. That's what I have understood from going through the various websites and regulations and everything. But then we have a long time to make sure."
That meant making sure that everyone got to Europe early, before heading to Jerez to prepare for the race. "In this moment, it looks like you have to come to Europe a little bit early, have a quarantine before going to Jerez, if you come from outside of Europe. If you are within Europe – so for Italians, French, Spanish, probably English, German, whatever, it doesn't matter. For working reasons, you can work in Spain, you should be allowed to reach Spain without quarantine, because you are a European resident."
"So probably the Japanese staff will have to come earlier to Europe, do the quarantine, and then go to Jerez. Or probably go to Jerez, stay in a hotel, do the quarantine, and then get out of the hotel and go to the circuit." But everyone was waiting for Dorna, and to hear what kind of protocols were to be put in place. "We are waiting for Dorna, they are defining a protocol, they are preparing a medical protocol with all these instructions for all this stuff. So this is the situation."
Once at the track, the situation won't be much different for most team members, Brivio explained. They will have exchanged lockdown with their families for lockdown with the team. "We have to try to stay together as much as possible. What I feel is like the team has to become a kind of a family. It's like now, we are all locked down with our family in our house, and you have contact with your family," Brivio said.
The confines of a garage made the social and physical distancing needed by the virus almost impossible. "Inside the team, it's difficult to keep social distancing," Brivio said. "It's difficult to keep mechanics 2 meters away from each other, or to keep the rider 2 meters away from his engineer, or whatever. Three mechanics have to work on the bike... I can stay 2 meters away from the mechanics probably, I can shout if I have to talk to them! But if they have to work on the bike, the bike is small. So there are some things..."
"That's why we are very interested to hear the medical protocol, and then we will discuss it, and we will have to adapt all our jobs. But I think that once the team arrives at the track, it's like a family. It looks like we have to do the tests before we arrive at the circuit, if everything is negative, we will go into the circuit. Once we're there, the team has to stay closed in the garage, or at least the garage and track, in that area, like they are in lockdown, like it's one family in lockdown, more or less."
Risk is inevitable
"Let's make clear, it's impossible to have zero risk, in my opinion," Brivio said. "It's impossible to not have a risk. The medical protocol will try to avoid risk. Because otherwise, if we want zero risks, I think we have to stay in lockdown until probably the vaccine arrives in 18 months. So probably by maybe the end of 2021 we can finally leave our house and start a normal life only after we get the vaccine."
Risk reduction is the name of the game, then. "Otherwise we have to try to reduce the risk. So that's what we will try to do. To get together, stay close to each other, to avoid as much as possible contact with the other people in the paddock. It won't be like you go around the paddock and have a chat and discuss, communicate, and in the evening relax and meet friends. That's probably not the life for this year. Work in the garage, take the lunch box, have lunch, have dinner, go to the hotel, go to sleep, and the next morning, come back to the circuit. That's the life for these days, I think."
Jerez in July is very much going to be a trial run for one possible future for MotoGP in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brivio said. "So let's say, now it looks like that we are going to Jerez in the middle of July, we have these couple of months to study these protocols, to adjust our behaviors, our way of acting, and to be ready for when it's time to get there."
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.