The outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has wreaked havoc on many things: public health, international transport, the global economy, and much more.
But as we are website about motorcycles and motorcycle road racing, we are primarily concerned on the effect it has had on the MotoGP and WorldSBK seasons.
As of Friday, March 13th 2020, Dorna and the FIM had postponed the Buriram, Austin, and Argentina rounds of MotoGP, and the Jerez round of WorldSBK, and were forced to cancel the MotoGP class at the season opener at Qatar.
Things have changed so fast over the past two weeks that it is almost impossible to keep up. As Twitter racing wit SofaRacer put it, “A month ago, the state of Marc Márquez’ shoulder was the big talking point of the season. Halcyon days.”
Since then, a small, contained outbreak of a new flu-like disease has gone from a curiosity in a remote location far from any traditional racetracks to a global pandemic, sweeping through the racing heartlands of Italy and Spain.
Pace of Change
In the space of two weeks, we have gone from WorldSBK kicking off its 2020 season at Phillip Island, and all racing set to go ahead as normal, to Qatar preventing Italian nationals from entering, forcing Dorna to cancel the MotoGP class but hold the Moto2 and Moto3 races.
Then to the Qatar WorldSBK round being postponed, then the Buriram MotoGP round being postponed, then Austin, the Argentina round of MotoGP at Termas De Rio Hondo being put back until November, and finally, the Jerez round of WorldSBK being delayed until the end of October. The situation is developing so rapidly it is impossible to keep up with.
Since then, there have been more developments. National federations have by and large canceled or postponed events in many European countries. The private MotoGP test to be held at Jerez for test riders next week has been canceled, a decision taken shortly before the Circuito de Jerez decided to shut down for the next 15 days, with the option to prolong.
Most dramatically, the F1 race was canceled on Friday morning, just minutes before practice was supposed to start. For an explanation of how that came about, see this video from new motorsports website The Race.
The next world championship event scheduled to take place is the WorldSBK round at Assen, from April 17th-19th. Will that race happen? I spoke to a source at Assen on Thursday, and they told me that planning for the event continues as normal.
They are assuming it will go ahead, unless circumstances – and by circumstances, they mean governmental restrictions on movement or on events – prevent them.
Since then, the situation has changed, just as it has almost every hour since the novel coronavirus started to spread outside of Wuhan.
On Thursday afternoon, the Dutch government banned all large-scale events with more than 100 people for a period until the end of March. On Friday, the government also banned incoming flights from Italy for a period of 14 days, until March 27th.
Those measures are set to expire well before the Assen WorldSBK round is due to take place. But we have no idea at the moment whether those measures will be scrapped or extended further at the end of March.
There is so much uncertainty at the moment, that it is impossible to say what is going to happen next.
Everything depends on the responses of governments. And not just the response of the government of the nation where a specific event is set to be held.
The MotoGP and WorldSBK paddocks are genuinely international affairs, involving people and companies from all around the world. Events might be affected because the host country imposes a ban on certain nationalities entering, just as Qatar did with Italy.
But Italy has also placed restrictions on movement inside Italy, creating the confusing situation where teams and factories were not certain whether they would be able to travel outside of Italy for the next race.
Restrictions are expanding and changing all the time. Spain is set to declare a state of emergency starting on Saturday, March 14th, for a period of 15 days.
Again, what happens when that period ends is completely unknown: if the situation is much better, it might be lifted. If the number of novel coronavirus cases continues to expand – currently over 4000 in the country – then the Spanish government is likely to extend it.
Why Not Cancel Everything?
Given all this uncertainty, would it not be better for Dorna to cancel everything, and start again once there is some clarity about the state of play with the COVID-19 outbreak? Why publish a calendar which they are far from certain they will be able to stick to if the situation doesn’t improve?
The answers to these questions fall roughly into two categories. And they apply to all of the sporting events around the world which have been suspended or postponed, rather than straight canceled.
First and foremost, arranging events on the scale of a MotoGP or WorldSBK round takes a lot of planning. Bikes and riders don’t just magically turn up at circuits ready to go.
The circuit has to hire temporary staff and recruit thousands of volunteers to perform a whole range of tasks, from scanning tickets, ensuring the security of the event, guiding traffic flows around the track, organizing parking, helping fans find their way around.
Local authorities have to be informed, and their help enlisted on all sorts of fronts. The police are needed to control traffic flows and enforce the law. Hospitals have to be informed and prepared for an influx of injuries, not just among the riders, but among the many fans who are taken ill, fall over, are involved in traffic accidents, etc.
Medevac helicopters have to be booked for the race, and clearance sought for the medevac helicopter and for the camera helicopters. Local authorities have to be prepared for an influx of tens of thousands of fans.
Canceling a race is easy. All of those plans merely need to be scrapped. Organizing a new race is much more difficult, with everything that needs to be put in place.
It is much easier to move the resources reserved for a planned race than to arrange everything from scratch.
No Crystal Ball
With so much uncertainty, there is no effective difference between canceling a race and postponing it. Canceling a race creates no more certainty than just postponing the race. The rate at which the situation around the coronavirus is changing is so rapid that events two months in the future are completely unpredictable.
It’s possible, for example, that the Jerez race can go ahead as normal. It may be possible to hold the race behind closed doors. Or it may be that the situation has gotten so much worse that there can be no racing until August, September, October.
Either way, Dorna will have no control over those events. No one at Dorna is an epidemiologist or an expert on the spread of infections diseases. No one in the paddock is, even the medical staff, most of whom specialize in trauma, a much more relevant skill in motorcycle racing.
Decisions on whether travel is possible and events can be held will be made by governments, hopefully on the basis of advice from medical experts. Dorna will be constrained by those decisions.
Which brings me to the second reason why Dorna, and so many other organizations are waiting for official word on whether they can proceed or not. Canceling an event is a very expensive affair. It is not just losing out on flight tickets and hotel rooms. It is also the various contractual obligations which a race brings with it.
The circuit pays Dorna for the right to organize a MotoGP or WorldSBK round, and if Dorna cancels, they will want their money back, plus damages for costs already incurred while organizing the event.
Dorna has contracts with TV broadcasters for a given number of races, and broadcasters will want a rebate or more for the loss of a race. Each race has a title sponsor, and many other sponsors, who also lose out on exposure. And Dorna has a contract with the FIM to organize a minimum of 13 MotoGP and 12 WorldSBK rounds.
If Dorna cancels independently, they are likely to be in breach of contract, and be forced to pay out to all of these partners. But if Dorna is forced to cancel because a government agency has effectively made organizing a race impossible, then Dorna can claim force majeure, and Dorna and the other parties can claim the losses against their insurance.
But insurance contracts for large events are always very carefully worded, with both parties trying to protect their interests. Dorna will have to be forced by some form of legal restriction to cancel an event to claim on insurance, which is why Ezpeleta told the press conference at Qatar that Dorna respected the laws of the various countries.
“If there are laws in place we can do nothing, if the law forbids us to go somewhere, we won’t continue,” the Dorna CEO said. “When the law permits it, we can think about it.”
Patience Is a Virtue
So there is nothing for MotoGP and WorldSBK fans to do but wait. The hands of everyone involved in motorcycle racing are tied, by events, and by the actions of governments around the world.
Right now, we have no idea how the situation with the COVID-19 outbreak is going to develop. The world is likely to look very different in a month or two. Though whether that is better or worse is completely open to question.
To ease the pain a little bit, Dorna have announced that their top ten MotoGP races will be available to view for free on the MotoGP.com website. Users will be asked to register, and then able to watch the races, either on the website or via various apps on Android, iOS, or SmartTV devices.
Resources I have found useful
For anyone wanting to keep up with the different policies across Europe, at least, the European website of Politico has collected the policies currently in place for each European country on this page. The page is updated as new restrictions are applied, and old ones are lifted.
For a global, at-a-glance overview of the current state of the COVID-19 outbreak, this page has everything collated in a single place, including advice and a country-by-country breakdown of case numbers.
For a US-centric view of the situation, read these notes summarizing a panel held by a group of experts at the University of California, San Francisco. It asks and answers a large number of basic questions in easy-to-understand language. It was held on March 10th, so the information is not current, but it is all still relevant in the wider scope of things, and extremely informative.
Finally, an older video on pandemics in general, from Professor Chris Whitty, a professor of physics. The video talks about the statistics of pandemics, how they spread, and strategies for managing them.