The 2021 MotoGP season continues to be a fluid affair. With the Argentina and Austin rounds already canceled (technically postponed, but with no real chance of them actually taking place), it is now clear that Brno will not host a MotoGP round in 2021. And there are more signs of a shake up coming.
The biggest, and saddest news is that the Automotodrom Brno circuit today announced that they would not be hosting any world championship motorcycle racing for the foreseeable future. The cancellation had been expected, but still comes as a blow to MotoGP.
The issue is simply one of funding. During the 2020 Czech Grand Prix at the Brno circuit, the riders made it very clear that the track simply wasn't safe for MotoGP unless it was resurfaced. Aleix Espargaro was among the most outspoken of the track's critics. "I'm just a rider, but for me it’s unacceptable to race here," the Aprilia rider said. "It’s very far from being at the level of MotoGP. It’s a disaster this tarmac."
The problem is the number of bumps on the track. "It's kind of more easy to explain where the bumps aren't," Jack Miller told us that weekend. "We've been complaining about the bumps since I came here in MotoGP and yeah, they're just getting worse and worse year by year."
Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta told the MotoGP Safety Commission in Brno that he would ask the circuit to resurface the track before MotoGP returned, but even last year, it was understood that the circuit was unwilling to commit to new asphalt. "The situation in the last few years in Brno has been difficult, and you understand that to resurface everything you need a lot of money, so we speak about millions of Euros," Valentino Rossi said on the Grand Prix weekend. "And I understand because now there are no fans, the circuit does not work a lot so, I don't know if they will resurface."
The problem with resurfacing was who would be paying for new asphalt. Though the Automotodrom Brno circuit hosts the event, the promoter of the Grand Prix is a separate organization, Spolek pro GP ČR Brno, an association incorporated with support and funding from both the city of Brno and the South Moravia region.
Spolek rents the track from Automotodrom Brno management for a fee of around €1 million, according to a press release published on the MotoKari.cz. Spolek paid around €6 million for the MotoGP contract in previous years, with Dorna looking to raise the fee to €9 million a year from 2022, according to statements made by the mayor of Brno, Markéta Vaňková.
The dispute came down to who would pay for the circuit to be resurfaced. The circuit claimed that as the promoter, Spolek agreed to cover all costs related to the the MotoGP event, and consequently, Spolek should pay for the resurfacing. Spolek claimed that they leased the circuit from Automotodrom Brno, and so the circuit management should pay. Resurfacing a long track like Brno is an expensive affair: the 2019 resurfacing work at Silverstone, a 5.9km long track, as compared to Brno's 5.5km, cost £5 million. Resurfacing Brno was estimated to cost in the region of €4 million.
With one of the highest spectator attendances, raising the necessary funds should not have been impossible. Despite the high attendance, however, there were always underlying tensions between the circuit and the promoters. Those disputes between the circuit and the promoter were apparent in the claims of spectator numbers. Between 2007 and 2015, before Spolek took over the running of the event, the circuit claimed an attendance of between 130,000 and 150,000 on race day. After Spolek took over, the official tally fell to between 82,000 and 87,000.
To a journalist attending those events, it was hard to tell the difference in numbers. The circuit was always packed, one of the busiest of the season, the years with 87,000 fans looking just as busy as the years with 140,000. But as a journalist spending most of their time in the paddock, it was hard to make an accurate assessment of numbers in such a vast and sprawling complex, with trees and woods surrounding the track.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the issues to a head. Last year, even without fans, the promoter paid €1 million for the right to host the race. Facing another season without fans, the cost of hosting the event and resurfacing the track made it extremely difficult to recoup any investment made in the short term.
This is an issue for other circuits as well. There are circuits which are heavily subsidized and sponsored by local and regional governments, such as Jerez or Aragon. But tracks which must survive off ticket sales, such as Assen and Silverstone, would find it difficult to justify the expense of hosting a MotoGP round without income from fans.
Whatever the underlying issues with funding, the loss of MotoGP at Brno is a huge blow for all concerned. Even last year, the riders were sad at the possibility of losing the track. "I know it's a massive track, and it's a big big undertaking to resurface a track like this, but it's such a magical track," Jack Miller told us last August. "I mean, it's one of the favorites of everybody so it's a shame to see it like this."
Brno is what you might describe as a "real" MotoGP track. It is wide, fast, and challenging for a MotoGP machine, bikes able to use all of the horsepower they possess. It is a track which challenges both machine and rider, offering many ways to go fast, which is why there have been so many exciting races at the circuit. Losing Brno is akin to losing Mugello or Phillip Island from the calendar. The Automotodrom Brno circuit has been on the calendar since it was built in 1987, with only a brief hiatus in 1992, the year before the former Czechoslovakia split into two separate states.
With Brno out, that leaves a five-week gap in the middle of the season. There had been plans to hold a MotoGP round in Russia, at the Igora Drive circuit near St Petersburg. That idea has been dropped, however.
The 2021 MotoGP season is due to start at Qatar, but there are already signs that may not be possible. Dorna are doing all that they can to ensure it does happen, including move the planned Moto2 test from Jerez to Qatar, now set for March 19th to 21st.
MotoGP will be in Qatar for almost a month. Starting with the shakedown test on March 5th, followed by two days of MotoGP testing on March 6th and 7th. Three days of testing follows a few days later, from March 10th to 12th. The Moto2 and Moto3 classes follow a week later, from March 19th to 21st. The first races of the season happen the Sunday after that, on March 28th, with a second round of MotoGP at the Losail International Circuit the following weekend on April 4th.
Despite Qatar's good record on Covid-19, with case numbers relatively low, the second wave is also starting to hit the country. Case numbers have nearly tripled since the start of the year, and though officially reported deaths are very low, hospitalizations are up by 85%, albeit from a low base.
There have been several discussions on how to manage the influx of 1300 people from around the world – some from countries with very high rates of Covid-19 infection – including isolating everyone in a restricted number of hotels with no contact with the outside world. Procedures have been put in place to manage the situation, but even that is subject to change if the Qatari authorities decide it is too big a risk at the current time.
The Gulf state is due to hold the FIFA Club World Cup this week, with the Qatar Open tennis tournament at the start of March. Though those events will take place in front of spectators, they will still involve a smaller number of people than the 1300 riders, mechanics, team members, and Dorna staff needed to stage a MotoGP event.
There are doubts in the paddock that this will happen. Speaking to journalists last night, Suzuki Ecstar rider Alex Rins let slip that he believed the season would start in Europe, in Jerez. "We don't know exactly where we are going to start, looks like in Jerez, but let's see," he said. He later walked that back a little. "If we don't make Qatar I think we will start in Portimao, no? It's the next one after Qatar."
Rumors of Qatar being skipped have been circulating for a while among paddock insiders. But that has been foreseeable, given the fast-developing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. There are multiple factors at play, including new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus, and steady progress being made on vaccination, with different countries going at very different rates.
Like the situation at the beginning of the 2020 season, the coronavirus is in control of the MotoGP calendar, and much of human life. But with a year of experience, Dorna are better placed to manage the organization of MotoGP races. And thanks to some remarkable scientific breakthroughs, humanity is slowly winning the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus may be in control, but we at least have a finger on the wheel.
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