Welcome To The Multiverse, Or When Will Racing Start Again?

Humans have a deep-seated need for certainty. Though the human experience runs the full gamut from an excess of spontaneity to rigid and unbending routine, a need for some kind of certainty, some handholds to grasp on to as we make our way through the world. Motorcycle racing fans, as humans, are no different.

So it is unsurprising that people – fans, journalists, team managers, mechanics, etc – have responded to every piece of news about the COVID-19 outbreak by making more or less bold predictions about when racing might resume. The latest news – that Germany has extended its ban on large-scale events until August 31st, meaning that the MotoGP round at the Sachsenring set for June 21st, and the WorldSBK round at Oschersleben, due to take place on the weekend of August 2nd will both have to be either rescheduled or canceled – has been no different. Everyone seems keen to make bold predictions of exactly what will happen next.

If there is a lesson to be taken from all of this, from the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and all of the repercussions, surprising and unsurprising, it has had around the world, it is that bold predictions rarely last beyond a few hours. The pandemic has exposed the massive complexity of the modern world, and how tightly all of it is intertwined. Decisions and events have huge and unsuspected knock-on effects which echo around the world.

An example: here in The Netherlands, the pandemic caused long traffic jams at recycling centers. When people were told to either work at home, or stay at home if their work was considered non-essential, they embarked upon all those odd jobs they had been putting off for so long, including tidying out old closets, sheds, garages, and various DIY tasks around the home. The end product of all this activity was a pile of various types of waste, which needed to be disposed of. Which meant everyone headed to their local recycling center, only to run into half the population, who had had exactly the same idea.

All hands on deck

In reality, we still have no idea of what will happen next, and as I set out last week, nor does anyone else. There are so many complications to organizing a world championship motorcycle race that it is a challenging task at the best of times. Right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, the task has become positively Herculean.

If there is an upside to the unprecedented scale of the COVID-19 outbreak (and you really do have to be the most outrageously glass-half-full positivist to view it as an upside) it is that it has generated a similarly unprecedented response. The fact that open, liberal societies such as the US and European nations would willingly submit to an almost total lockdown of economic activity and freedom of movement illustrates the flexibility with which this is being approached.

Similarly, the medical and scientific world has responded en masse. Medical resources are being thrown at research into the virus on a vast and unimaginable scale. There are currently at least 78 serious programs aimed at finding a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus, and 139 treatments currently at the clinical trial stage against the disease.

Many hands

Never have so many resources been thrown at a disease. And never has the need been greater to find a solution. There are far more dangerous diseases, but few have the horrific combination of exceptional ease of transmission and potential for serious, even fatal, consequences that COVID-19 does. The fate of the global economy, and the health of the global population, hangs on medical science finding a treatment, or possibly a cure.

Normally, vaccines taken years to develop. But given the urgency of the coronavirus outbreak and the resources being invested, there is reason to hope that a vaccine will be found sooner than, say, the five years it took for a vaccine for the Ebola virus to be found.

That vaccine holds the current record for speed of development. But that record looks set to be broken for a coronavirus vaccine. The collaboration between Pfizer and BioNTech has announced that they expect a vaccine to be ready in the second half of 2021, and Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline have announced that their vaccine could be ready on a similar timescale. More optimistically, Johnson+Johnson are working on a vaccine which could be ready for emergency use from the first quarter of 2021.

More than medicine

And that is just the strictly medical approach. In modeling the outbreak, and methods of containing it, scientists at London's Imperial College suggested that a system of alternating lockdowns and easing of restrictions may offer a way of opening up society for a period of weeks or months while we wait for a vaccine. South Korea has been successful in containing the virus using a process of massive testing and rigorous contact tracing, to identify people with the disease at an early stage and isolate them from the rest of society. The European Commission has issued a roadmap for lifting restrictions while containing the virus.

What does all this mean for the resumption of world championship motorcycle racing? It means that we, like the rest of the world, don't really know how this will play out. There are a wide range of possible futures for the spread and containment of the coronavirus, and each of them has a different effect on how possible it will be to organize a round of MotoGP or WorldSBK. Dorna has to draw up plans to deal with all of those possible futures, and take account of other factors they haven't even considered yet.

While we can't say what WILL happen next, we can lay out the possible scenarios, and how that might affect what remains of the MotoGP and WorldSBK calendars. Each of these scenarios exists within a wide range of probability, i.e. somewhere between a 0% chance and a 100% chance of happening. It is hard to accurately put upper and lower boundaries on probabilities for each scenario, but we can compare the relative likelihood of each scenario playing out. For example, the chance that we find a miracle cure this weekend and the calendar can continue as originally scheduled starting from Jerez is pretty much zero. Similarly, the chance that the coronavirus will be under control by the start of the 2023 MotoGP season is pretty much 100%.

Those two extremes are not particularly useful, other than as illustrations. But between them, there are a range of possibilities. As loath as I am to make predictions, here are my cautious guesses as to what might happen.

1. The most optimistic scenario

With bans on travel and events still in place throughout Europe, the chances of any racing before July look negligible. But with infection rates falling and health services managing, some restrictions could be lifted in the next month or so. If medical research turns up a treatment which reduces the number of cases becoming severe (and consequently a burden on healthcare systems), and testing and contact tracing systems are quickly and successfully implemented, then there is a chance that racing could resume as normal in August. Brno would then be the first race on the MotoGP calendar, though both the MotoGP and WorldSBK schedules would be subject to some revisions.

The probability of this happening is relatively small. Too many things have to go right, and on a nearly global scale. The paddock consists of people from across the globe, and people and parts have to moved across a lot of borders. That would need restrictions to be lifted across most of the world for it to play out.

2. Cautiously optimistic

This might be regarded as a slightly more realistic version of the first scenario. A treatment is found, but it is slightly less effective, and takes longer to find. Social approaches take longer to implement, with contact tracing proving more complicated than hoped. Travel restrictions are lifted piecemeal, with different countries acting at different time.

In this scenario, a more severely curtailed calendar could take place starting some time in September, or possibly October. A maximum of eight or ten rounds would be possible, with several iconic races being dropped completely. Dorna finds a way to hold races behind closed doors, without fans, or media, and an absolute skeleton staff for teams and TV production.

This scenario is much more likely than the first one. It has more flexibility, but it still requires things to go well, and doesn't factor in complications making things difficult.

3. A minimal 2020

A slightly more pessimistic version. Treatments are found, but are relatively ineffective. Early ends to lockdowns in some countries cause the disease to flare up again, causing them to reimpose restrictions.

In this scenario, only a few rounds would be possible. Perhaps four races would be possible at the end of the year, in November, and perhaps into December, in countries or locations with climates that allow racing that late in the year.

An alternative scenario might be that racing resumes relatively early, in September, but a system of rolling lockdowns is put in place, with movement permitted for two months, followed by a month of lockdown. That might allow four or five races to take place in September and October, than another couple in November and December.

Although such a shortened championship would technically be a breach of the commercial contract which Dorna has with the FIM, FIM president Jorge Viegas has already said that this would not matter. These are clearly exceptional circumstances, where force majeure applies. However many rounds can be held, this will still be a world championship, for both WorldSBK and MotoGP.

How likely is this scenario? I would guess at least as likely as scenario 2, possibly a little more likely. It is a little more in line with the chaotic way the disease has developed, and has been dealt with.

4. The pessimistic option – racing resumes in 2021

If treatments are not particularly effective, and recovery from the coronavirus is patchy geographically, then that could end up preventing any racing from happening in 2020. Governments might lift restrictions on most of the economy, but keep travel closed to certain key countries, or restrict events or gatherings of numbers of people. Testing programs may prove to be ineffective, meaning governments decide they have to limit the numbers of people gathering to contain the outbreak. Restrictions are only lifted once the prospect of a vaccine comes into view.

In this scenario, there would be no racing this year, testing starting in the early part of 2021. Whether that would be the start of February, or a little later in March or April, is open to question. But enough of a semblance of normality would have returned to allow pretty much a full season of racing next year.

The chances of racing happening next year look pretty good at the moment, although there are still reasons for concern. The only reason this scenario would be less likely than scenario 2 or 3 is that the chances of racing happening this year are still reasonable.

5. The bleakest scenario – minimal racing in 2021

If treatments are ineffective, and death counts are unacceptably high, and a vaccine takes longer than hoped, then it is entirely feasible that restrictions are only lifted some time in the second half of next year. If governments decide that international travel is only possible once a vaccine has been found and proved effective, then motorcycle racing will be difficult. As a minority sport in most countries (bar Spain, perhaps), there will be little room for leverage.

In this scenario, racing would not be possible until the end of 2021 at the earliest, and possibly only by 2022.

Should this look like being the case, however, Dorna is likely to take action to ensure that some racing is possible in 2021. If needs be, a reduced calendar held in just a few countries with minimal staff. Dorna has the means to ride out the year in 2020. Riding out 2021 would put it in grave financial danger. Then again, such a scenario would endanger the motorcycle manufacturers and the rest of the world just as much.

This scenario is not unthinkable, but still unlikely. A lot of things would have to go wrong for this scenario to play out. And given the resources being leveled at the problem of the COVID-19 outbreak, there is reason for optimism that we can avoid this.

Alternate realities

These are just some of the ways the next 18 months or so could play out. The vagueness of each scenario is deliberate: I do not pretend to know what will happen, and expect I have overlooked a million details which could see things play out in any number of different ways. My best guess is that there will probably be some racing this year, though I have no idea when and where.

Pity the poor souls at Dorna, IRTA, the FIM, and the MSMA. They have to spend every day trying to come up with a plan for all of these scenarios, and coordinate with circuits, national and international motorcycling federations, and local, regional, and national governments. They have to have a plan in place for when racing might be able to happen, and alternative plans for every other possible scenario. They are even more dependent on the decisions of any number of different governments, and have to come up with plans for handling situations where each of those governments take a different approach.

Dorna and IRTA have to come up with an almost endless combination of plans for dealing with what might be possible. And they have no control over when and where any of those plans might finally be put into practice.

In the end, the virus decides.


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Comments

Let's assume that 2020 season will not happen and there is some racing in 2021. Does it mean that rider contracts will be "as signed today for 2021" or there's an option to freeze current state of contracts and let, for example, Quartararo actually race his second season for Yamaha SRT? Is that legally possible?

With the rider's contracts being for specific years it's unlikely that anything signed for the 2020 season will carry over into 2021, unless the contract as written allows it (riders on 1+1 deals for example). In Fabio's case he is signed to the factory Yamaha squad for 2021, so he will be riding the factory Yam in 2021 whether there are races this year or not. It's a much more fraught situation for rider who don't have a contract for next year. Teams will be guessing what to do or who to sign, I expect to see a lot of 1 year extensions getting signed by teams wishing to avoid arguments and gambles around sponsors.

In the range of options you present in your excellent analysis David, I probably land in the #4 range, so I'm somewhat pessimistic. But you have focused on supply, i.e., will Dorna be able to supply us with racing. My humble opinion is that demand will wind up being the bigger issue.

Even if the world somehow opens up completely in a few months, do we really expect the same 98,000 fans at Mugello? The effects of a lingering fear of group events combined with massive unemployment and resulting loss of income will be dramatic.

Also, demand for vehicles has fallen off a cliff. Honda, for example, isn't just not selling bikes right now, there is no demand for cars either. It's hard for me to imagine a return to a pre-virus motogp world, where the factory teams are all in with $10 to $50M USD budgets.

Finally, although we may see some races this year, at what point do you stop saying it's a championship? 

 

When you mention races that could be held in November/December this means the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia the government locked down firmly and quickly, we have managed to avoid the European experience (<70 deaths in a population of 25 million) but all air travel into the country is closed. We have three tracks that can meet FIM standards (Phillip Island in Victoria, Eastern Creek in NSW and Tailem Bend in SA) but in an environment where interstate travel is closed for Australian citizens and the government is talking of no international travel before Christmas with all arrivals quarantined for a mandatory two weeks this poses its own difficulties even if three rounds in Oz to replace the norm of 3 rounds in Spain appeals to Dorna. For Australia the risk is coronavirus from the MotoGP circus, in Thailand the situation may well be the reverse. Figures of infection rates and mortality are difficult to come by. Malaysia is an unknown too, we are talking of emerging societies here with great disparities in living standards. As for an Indonesian round with little information flowing out of the country the risks are immeasurable. Sadly I think 2020 is toast and 2021 is where we should look too.  

Speaking of multiverse, anyone else notice that AFTER the weight of the Higgs Boson particle came in light, everything went a bit wonky?

Is it because we had observed the tether if the you-know-what particle?

(Never too late for hard scientists to become superstitious, eh?)
;)