Over the weekend I found myself watching Bike/Moto GP highlights from the 1980’s, 1990’s and the latest race from Jerez, and I was impressed by just how effectively the brand and the series had been developed.
Moto GP has learned some tough lessons over the past decade – and it’s high time F1 took a few of them on board.
As in F1 the mid-late 1980/early 1990s of bike racing are heralded as a golden era. The racing was ultra competitive with several great riders doing battle – Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Wayne Gardner and Kevin Schwantz leading the pack.
This was also the era when big corporate money first hit motorbike racing, with most machines serving as high speed mobile billboards for tobacco companies. However, even in the late-1980’s bike GPs were dangerous affairs.
Racing at tracks like Rijeka in Yugoslavia and Anderstorp in Sweden with only straw bales protecting the riders from Armco barriers and concrete walls was no small matter. Together with the vicious 500cc machines it is no surprise that when riders crashed they often sustained injuries.
In contrast by the late 1990s Bike GP was in a bad way.
Aside from the traditional strongholds of Italy and Spain, race crowds were way down (there were barely 15,000 at the 1999 British GP) and the racing was let down by the absence of superstar riders.
Mick Doohan was the star of the era, winning 5 titles in a row, but his taciturn personality and weathered looks meant that he was not marketable in the way Nicky Hayden is today. And the calendar was often bizarre, European races were combined with visits to the likes of Sentul in Indonesia and Shah Alam in Malaysia.
It was still clearly a dangerous sport and many of the stars of the era all were forced into retirement by injury rather than old age. Throughout the 1999 season at least one third of the grid was missing through injury at at least one race.
In the present day Moto GP is in a very strong position – a grid full of at least 15 potential race winners (although rising budgets are a huge concern), terrestrial TV coverage across Europe, and good racing (although not as good as 2001 – the last year of the 500 CC bikes).
Race day crowds are gigantic, partly the result of an excellent support package, but also largely down to attractive ticket prices and a welcoming atmosphere.
In the 1980s it was clear that motorbike racing was learning four-wheeled sports, but now I think it should be the other way round. Both series have got an intensely marketable core product but the way this is being presented is vastly different.
F1 pitches itself directly to big business and high rollers, as a prestige sport for the privileged. In contrast Moto GP has the crowd and is able to attract the big bucks by providing corporations with a captive audience.
This is probably due to the fallow period Bike GP experienced in the mid-late 1990s, when it faced direct competition from World Superbikes dividing audiences and forcing the tough decisions.
As a result Moto GP and promoters Dorna know what has to be done to appeal to manufacturers, sponsors and crowds alike. The resurgence of Moto GP compared to the relative decline of WSBK shows just how effective this has been.
F1 hasn’t experienced this low yet and as a result has been able to defer some tough decisions in favour of rolling along. Consequently whilst Moto GP knows what it is selling and how to sell it, F1 is unsure of its strategic direction – it is a fan friendly, sponsor friendly or industry friendly (or environmentally friendly) series?
Bike racing has long produced closer racing than cars and now it has the package to go with it. But is F1 too proud to learn from its illustrious two-wheeled cousin?