The 2014 MotoGP calendar could see the first steps in a long process to transform Grand Prix motorcycle racing from a Eurocentric series to a truly international world championship. Today, Dorna CEO held a press conference in Brazil to announce that MotoGP could make a return to that South American country as early as late 2014. The event would be held at the Autodromo Nelson Piquet de Brasilia, the motorcycle circuit in the capital city of Brazil, and has been scheduled to take place in the second half of the 2014 season. That date is still very far from certain, however, as the track is still subject to safety homologation by the FIM for Grand Prix motorcycle racing.
If the race goes ahead - and the facilities at the circuit are believed to need a lot of work to bring them up to MotoGP standard, though there appear to be few physical obstacles to moving walls back and creating the necessary runoff required - then it will join the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina as the second South American race on the calendar, giving a much more international feel to the MotoGP series. The expansion into Central and South America is seen as crucial to the future of the sport, as all forms of motor sport are extremely popular in the region. The inclusion of Colombian rider Yonny Hernandez in the premier class provided a boost for the visibility of the series in the region, and the hope is that by adding Argentina and Brazil to the calendar, more local talent can be cultivated. The region is also a key market for the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers.
The addition of both Brazil and Argentina to the calendar creates a major headache for the schedule. While a 19 race calendar is just about acceptable to the riders and factories, having 20 races on the calendar would start to create severe logistical and technical challenges. Engine limits in all three Grand Prix classes mean that the reliability of the engines would be severely tested, especially for the MSMA entries in MotoGP, which are allowed just 5 engines to last an entire season. As a result, at least one event is likely to be cut from next year's schedule,
Prime candidate to be dropped is Laguna Seca, according to British publication MCN. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta said last year, when the contracts with the Austin circuit were signed, that three US rounds on the calendar was one too many. It had long been assumed that Indianapolis would be the race to be dropped, but a deal announced on Saturday secured the event for 2014, with talks ongoing about a long-term extension to that deal. The long-term contract with Austin leaves only Laguna Seca as the race which could be dropped.
Though the loss of Laguna Seca would be deeply unpopular - the circuit has gained an iconic status among motorcycle racing fans, and is a firm favorite with almost everyone in the paddock - it is the logical choice for a US race to be dropped. There have always been safety concerns about the circuit - the closeness of the wall at several points along the track from Turn 4 all the way up to the Corkscrew - and the facilities are severely lacking for a Grand Prix circuit. The lack of the Moto2 and Moto3 classes is also seen as a disadvantage, but Laguna Seca is not believed to be able to hike in sanctioning fee which would be necessary to cover the cost of flying the support classes to the circuit. Spectator numbers also dropped significantly between 2012 and 2013, falling from 52,677 on race day in 2012 to 46,256 in 2013, the three-day totals falling from 137,221 to 118,696. In contrast, the race day total at Indianapolis fell from 65,372 to 60,327, while throughout the European rounds held so far, attendance has generally increased by between 5 and 10%.
The biggest problem with dropping Laguna Seca would be its strategic location, right in the heart of West Coast motorcycle culture, situated as it is a couple of hours south of the Bay Area around San Francicso. But though the track enjoys an iconic status with existing bike fans, it is peripheral to mainstream US motor sports culture. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a household name among ordinary Americans, and Dorna believes that being linked to such an important venue will help them to expand the series' popularity in North America.
Of course, that still leaves MotoGP with four races in Spain. Jerez has a contract for 2014 and 2015, while Aragon, Barcelona and Valencia all have contracts until 2016. However, only funding for Aragon is completely secure, though the Junta de Andalucia is also keen to retain Jerez on the calendar. That leaves Barcelona and Valencia, with the latter the most likely to be dropped. Barcelona is the home base of Dorna, the Spanish owners of MotoGP, and the regional council is trying to find a way to retain the race. The financial situation of Valencia is much more perilous, and coupled with falling attendances for the final race of the season, it is becoming increasingly unsustainable as an event. There are no signs that any of the Spanish races will be dropped for 2014, but it is unlikely that the country will continue to have four races beyond next season.
With South America now much better catered for, Dorna's next target is Asia. Both the MotoGP organizers and the motorcycle manufacturers are very keen to race in the region, as it is a massive market both in terms of TV audiences and motorcycle sales. MotoGP is keen to make the trip to India, though the experience of both the World Superbike series and Formula One suggest it is very difficult to hold an international motor sports event in the country at the moment, as a range of bureaucratic difficults make it an expensive logistical challenge. Dorna is also looking at another circuit in Malaysia, a track in Thailand, and an as yet unnamed project in Indonesia as circuits to host an extra Asian round of MotoGP, but formidable financial and political difficulties still remain. Races will take place in the region in the near future, but it is not yet clear exactly where that will be.
Though the loss of Laguna Seca will be widely mourned, and any expansion into Asia will mean the loss of more venues in Europe, potentially at some of its more iconic circuits, the move to make MotoGP a more international series will be welcomed. It is, after all, supposed to be a World Championship.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Laguna Seca General Manager Gill Campbell denied to venerable US publication Cycle News that there was any question of Laguna Seca being dropped for 2014. "We have a contract through 2014 and we’ll be negotiating our future contract within the next year. It doesn’t affect us at all – we’re not going anywhere," she told Cycle News.