It is looking increasingly like the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand will be added to the MotoGP calendar for the 2018 season. (I understand from sources that there was a significant hurdle to be overcome: circuit title sponsor Chang is a major beer brand in Thailand, and a rival to the Official MotoGP Beer Singha, also a major beer brand in Thailand and further abroad. The race can only happen if a compromise has been found to accommodate this conflict.)
This is good news for Thailand, and good news for fans in Asia. The World Superbike round at the circuit is always packed, and MotoGP should be even more popular. It is hard to overstate just how massive MotoGP is in that part of the world. From India, through Southeast Asia, motorcycle racing in general and MotoGP in particular has a huge following. But the only country in the region which has a race is Malaysia, hosting its Grand Prix at Sepang.
So expanding the calendar to include Thailand is a welcome addition for fans in the region. If the financial and logistical problems with organizing a race in Indonesia ever get sorted, then there might even be a third race in the region, at the Palembang circuit in South Sumatra. Given the massive interest in MotoGP from that country, it is a racing certainty that any race there will be a complete sell out.
More is not always better
If Thailand is added to the calendar in 2018, that would bring the number of rounds to 19. While that would be a popular move with the fans, it would not necessarily be a good thing for the riders. And it would be almost impossible to do without making changes to the season opener at Qatar. Adding any further rounds to the calendar would place a huge strain on the riders and teams, and require serious rejigging of the schedule.
Valentino Rossi has long been an opponent of expanding the number of races on the calendar, with good reason. Even with 18 races, there are three pairs of races on back-to-back weekends (Mugello - Barcelona, Assen - Sachsenring, and Brno - Spielberg), and then the three flyaways (Motegi – Phillip Island – Sepang) all on consecutive weekends. That gives riders precious little time to recover from crashes, before having to ride the next weekend.
More injury time, less recovery time
Crashing is part of racing, of course, but it takes its toll on riders. Last year, there were 288 crashes in the MotoGP class all season (not counting testing crashes), an average of 16 per weekend. Admittedly, 2016 was an outlier: the average is usually between 10 and 12 crashes per weekend. Every single rider crashed multiple times last year, with Valentino Rossi crashing the least (4 times), ahead of Maverick Viñales (5 times).
That's not counting the crashes in testing, or training on a motocross or flat track bike, or even on a mountain bike or racing bicycle. Motorcycle racing, and preparing for motorcycle racing, is incredibly physically punishing. Every rider carries their scars with them. By their late twenties, most have some form of arthritis in their joints, especially hands, wrists, and ankles, where repeated falls have damaged the joints. There isn't an ex-racer who can skip through the paddock in their forties the way they did in their twenties. Most limp, or have a rolling gait to spare aching joints. Few like spending much time crouching, despite most still keep themselves in very good physical shape.
Expanding the calendar means putting more stress on the riders, and giving them less time to recover. It means either losing another free weekend somewhere, or shortening the summer break – a very welcome interruption for the riders, giving them a chance to catch their breath and recover from injury. Expanding to 19 races would be just about manageable – especially as an extra race would mean cutting the number of winter tests from three to two – but any expansion beyond that starts to become deeply problematic.
What about the rest of us?
It's not just the riders who suffer. It is also the army of followers who move around with the circus. The team managers, crew chiefs, mechanics, personal assistants, Dorna staff, journalists, photographers, TV crews, technical support staff, IRTA officials, cable pullers, physiotherapists, doctors and others. More races mean more time away from home for them, and that places a strain on home life for many who have already settled down and started families.
Walk through the media center in the evening, and you can hear the quietly whispered conversations of journalists and photographers saying goodnight to husbands, wives, and children. The same conversations go on in the back of race trucks, as mechanics try to maintain some semblance of family life. This can place a horrendous strain on relationships and marriages. Though I have not taken a poll, I get a very strong sense that divorce is much higher among those who work in the paddock than it is among those whose job keeps them closer to home. Unlike riders, who have the financial means to bring their spouses with them, mechanics are not paid enough to afford to fly their partners out to every race.
The strain on such relationships translates to stress and distraction at work. Though every mechanic does their absolute utmost to maintain concentration and ensure that they prepare the bike perfectly for their riders, stress at home (the illness of a child or spouse, marital disputes, money problems) can make life hard. And that can translate into mistakes. And mistakes can mean riders going out with wrong settings, or something working itself loose, and perhaps even crashing.
More races means more time away from home. And more time away from home translates to more strain on relationships. And that is a heavy burden to bear for people who, for the most part, are not particularly well paid.
Education is important, but racing is … not forever
Then there's the Moto3 riders. Most of them enter the series at 16 years of age. Most of them have not finished their schooling (many having abandoned it even earlier). But most of them won't make it as professional motorcycle racers either. They will prove to lack that final ingredient that distinguishes the merely talented from the truly great. Or they will be unlucky/ill-advised in their choice of team. Or they will crash, damage themselves permanently, and never manage to be competitive again. They will end up owing some team or other a lot of money, and have to find another way to make a living.
The education of these young men and women – girls and boys would be more accurate – already suffers in an 18 race schedule. Trying to trace 20 rounds while also completing high school becomes almost impossible. Sure, they can complete their education after they finish racing. But a packed racing calendar leaves them woefully ill-prepared for life outside racing.
So for all these reasons, and many I haven't even addressed, expanding the schedule is not a good idea. Adding one more race, to bring the total to 19, would be manageable if a winter test is dropped. Increasing the calendar to 20 or even 21 races (if Finland and Indonesia join in 2019) would simply be too much. It would place too great a strain on riders, on mechanics, on everyone involved in the sport.
More races = more money
For Dorna, expanding the calendar is very attractive. Especially if a test is dropped in favor of a race. An extra race means extra income from the sanctioning fee (anywhere between €3 and €6 million, depending on the venue), extra income from TV rights (more races means Dorna can charge broadcasters more) and more money from sponsorship. Financially, it is a far more appealing prospect, especially for a company which has been burdened with a lot of debt by its owners Bridgepoint Capital.
The problem is the current schedule cannot stand with extra races. If the season is to start in Qatar with a night race, as the Losail International Circuit wants, and end in Valencia, as Dorna want, then there is just not enough time to fit in all those races. There are 34 weeks between the first race at the end of March and the final race in mid-November, and 18 races to fit in between. That's more than one every two weeks.
Moving the season start earlier is impossible if Qatar is to remain a night race. As the MotoGP season opener showed, February and March is the Qatari spring, the rainy season (or what passes for it in the desert). There is a greater chance of rain, and the cooler temperatures and raised humidity mean that dew forms at night. The earlier in the year the race is held, the earlier the dew starts to form. That was clear at the test, two weeks before the race, when the track became treacherous after 10pm.
Moving the season finale is also impossible. The Valencia weekend is about as late as racing is possible at the circuit. Track temperatures are already low, and grip is sketchy. The sun disappears behind the hills after 6pm, but large parts of the track are already in the shade a long time before then, causing big temperature differences. Again, this is most notable at the test, when the riders are on track for longer. And often suffer the consequences. Private testing at Valencia for Moto2 and Moto3 often sees serious injuries, precisely because the conditions become critical.
Time for radical change
If Dorna want the season to start earlier – and the end of February would be ideal – they will have to drop at least one winter test, and negotiate a solution with Qatar. If the Losail circuit wants to remain the season opener, the best solution would be to have the race during the day. Track and ambient temperatures are pretty normal in February, so it would be like racing at Jerez or Austin.
The question is whether Qatar wants to give up its unique status as a night race, and the spectacle of the floodlights. If they do not, then Dorna have a problem on their hands.
At the other end of the season, a better solution would be to have the last race of the year at Phillip Island, when the weather is at its best and we are much further into the Antipodean summer. But Dorna wants to hold the final round of the season in Europe, for some very good reasons. More media attend the last race in Europe, and organizing the awards ceremony in Valencia is a lot easier than trying to do it in Melbourne, and getting everyone to attend.
There is also an unspoken desire by everyone involved to go home after a very long and arduous season. Having spent nine months looking at the same old faces, people are glad to see the back of each other for a while. The overwhelming sense of fatigue after eighteen races is a lot easier to bear when you have a short trip home to Barcelona or Riccione than it is if you have to go halfway around the world trapped in a tin tube.
Some things really are impossible
So though, as a devotee of the sport, I would love to see MotoGP racing every single weekend, the way that soccer clubs seem to, I do not believe it would be good for the sport. Better to keep the calendar at 18 races, and winnow out the weaker rounds, with fewer fans and less support. It is clear that the future of MotoGP lies in Southeast Asia. That, after all, is where the fanbase is growing fastest, and where rising incomes offer a stable financial future for MotoGP. But the sport has to remain sustainable for the people involved.
In the end, MotoGP, like all sporting endeavors, is about people, about human beings. Humans ride the bikes, humans prepare the bikes, humans do all of the bits and pieces which are required to bring the astonishing entertainment which is MotoGP to the fans at home. Humans are, well, only human after all.
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