Robin Miller: When F1 used to look at MotoGP with envy…

| | MotoGP

It was a mere five years ago that MotoGP was viewed enviously by the new owners of Formula One.

Of course we couldn’t believe it and it was only a chat which bikesportnews got with Chase Carey , the successor to Bernie Eccleston, which really convinced us that he really did admire what Dorna and Carmelo Ezpeleta had done to make MotoGP so exciting - and have a global star in Valentino Rossi.

The new owner was a giant US media business called Liberty and Carey, an Irish-born American, had spent most of his working life with News Corp, 21st Century Fox, etc. and therefore knew a lot about media and marketing.

But not a lot about F1 except that it had to change - a lot. Sporting events were hugely interrupted by the pandemic and Carey moved on but not before convincing his bosses and the teams that they were in the entertainment business and had to invest in getting new and bigger audiences.

It is ironic that it will now be MotoGP which is looking enviously at new audiences now being seduced by F1. But with an increase to 21 meetings for the coming year, including breaks into India and Kazakhstan, plus a new world champion there is every reason to be optimistic.

Except there is no Rossi which has had the effect that that the absence of Muhammad Ali had on boxing when he retired. And a lot of money is needed.

There is no doubt that Formula One has shown the rest of sport how to market their products via the deal with Netflix, the biggest live-streaming company in the world, in producing “Drive to Survive” and getting into huge new audiences of both sex and age.

But they also convinced themselves and the teams of the importance of media and a central hub of more than 20 people feed social media with anything of interest to their audience which might have some relation to racing.

The sponsors and teams are also ‘encouraged’ to put out as much as they can to increase interest potential audiences which are younger and male or female.

But the governing body, the FIA, perhaps offended by some of the content, which was not just about whizzing round corners, has decided that freedom of speech has its limits. It’s recently-published International Sporting Code states, according to The Times - “political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principal of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its statutes unless previously approved in writing by the FIA.”

A spokesman added that its code had been updated “in alignment with the political neutrality of sport as a universal, fundamental , ethical principal of the Olympic movement enshrined in the IOC code of ethics.”

It is wise to observe a growing number of rules in this increasingly risk averse world but requiring international drivers or riders who, we must assume, are reasonably aware of the delicacy of speech or even helmet decoration, to ask permission sounds rather like a school classroom.

One of the problems of modern sport is that it has great participants but lacks stars/characters often because what they say or do
is being judged. Let’s hope the FIM or ACU, while being aware of the dangers of social media, are also defenders of our greatest freedom - of speech)

The greatest advantage motorcycle racing has, whether it be MotoGP, TT, Superbikes and even Moto3 is that it is, in itself, spectacular. And what revived Formula One from being a procession of cars driven by, one had to assume, men but virtually invisible, was the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen with no love lost.

But more important was something called marketing, and this is where Netflix and the series “Drive to Survive” came in. The championship had been bought from Bernie Ecclestone by US giant Liberty Media and after getting it through tough seasons of the pandemic with a multi-million cash injection decided it needed some creativity to fire up a new audience.

Using its US experience Netflix decided that what was needed was exposure to what really went on not only behind closed pit doors but outside the circuit. This did not go down too well with all personnel, but they were firmly told that F1 was in the entertainment business. And with some return to travel normality audiences took off especially among females and youngsters who were getting a look at F1 as they’d never seen it before and in the US, the home of NASCAR, where F1 had never been taken seriously before.

The spectacle of motorcycle racing which, for some time, had been stealing their audience changed in 2021 when MotoGP’s big star Rossi retired and while there were some very good riders no one in the Rossi show biz category and, Cal Crutchlow having stepped back, no UK rider on the grid.

The result at Silverstone was a paid race day attendance of circa 35,000 and for F1, paid race day, something in the region of 125,000. Dorna did attempt the equivalent of the Netflix series, but it did not go well. The prospects for a great 2023 are good as there has been some terrific racing from World Superbikes to MotoGP, an increase in stars from outside Europe and an increase in manufacturer interest.

Marketing - product, price, place, promotion - remains the big challenge for motorcycle racing. It is the most spectacular of motorsport and it is encouraging that the Isle of Man, after many years thinking that the TT brand and its history was enough, have set up their own channel TT+ which last year attracted circa 58,000 of paying customers around the world who are simply gob-smacked as to how a country road of 37.73 miles on a beautiful island in the middle of the Irish sea can be lapped at 135mph. Backed by their government they are prepared to invest in seeking a new and younger audience.

But the older riders of a completely unique event, begun in 1907, are not forgotten through the TT Riders Association an amazing charity run by Frances Thorp. The annual lunch was held recently and raised many thousands of pounds to help riders who may have been injured competing in one of the most dangerous circuits in the
world.

One of the star attendees was Steve Mercer, still in a wheelchair following an injury sustained four years ago after being directed the wrong way and colliding with a course car. And a current star Davey Todd dipped his hand into his pocket for a jacket owned by the great US star Wayne Rainey and signed by other greats of the 70s and 80s like Kenny Roberts. Todd’s £300 went to the TTRA - he is not anticipating getting it back…