The FIM MotoGP World Championship announced that there will be a Saturday afternoon sprint race at every Grand Prix weekend starting in 2023. The press conference announcing the radical format change last Saturday surprised many, including the championship riders. The riders were only formally informed of the change by MotoGP the day prior during a meeting of the series’ Safety Commission. Many of the riders first became aware of the change when asked about it by journalists. A few of them brought up unionization as a way to prevent the additional races.
The yet-to-be-released 2023 MotoGP schedule could feature up to 22 Grand Prix rounds, and every one will feature a new sprint race. The sprint race will take place on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. local time, replacing the fourth free practice session. The sprint races will be half the distance of Sunday’s traditional race and also award half points.
For example, the sprint race winner will receive 12 points compared to the Grand Prix winner’s 25 points. The qualifying session, moved to Saturday morning, will set the starting order for both the sprint race and the Grand Prix. Also, the wins and podiums accrued in sprint races will be statistically separate in the MotoGP’s 72-year-old record books.
Saturday’s press conference was seemingly intended to be a triumphant announcement that signaled a revolution for sport’s direction going forward. The conference featured the sport’s three most influential figures, Carmelo Ezpeleta, Jorge Viegas and Hervé Poncharal, fielding questions from the press. Ezpeleta is CEO of Dorna, MotoGP’s commercial rights holder. Viegas is the President of the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), the international governing body of motorcycle racing. Poncharal is Tech3 KTM’s team principal and President of the International Road-Racing Teams Association (IRTA), the teams’ association.
The press conference quickly devolved when the sport’s ruling triumvirate was questioned about how the riders were informed about the sprint race proposal. Ezpeleta stated that it was up to the teams to tell their riders about the plan or not. Poncharal gave a shaky answer that teams don’t have direct contact with some of their riders because they won’t be racing for their teams in the next season. He also added that there were concerns that the riders could have leaked the announcement to the press.
The line of question to Poncharal turned toward a potential riders’ union, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta added:
“The Safety Commission is a riders’ union… This is something maybe you take from the opinions of some of the riders and you create a necessity to talk about unions, but I didn’t see any rider talking to me about any necessity to create a union. The conversation yesterday was very good. We talk a lot, spoke frankly. We decided what we were to do and we will consult. But, this idea about a union, of course, I have not any opinion against that, but the reality today is the close relationship of the riders with the championship is better than in any other association in any other sport or similar sport in the world. This is something; honestly, it’s an argument for the press, but it’s not a reality.”
When pressed further about the riders’ feelings on the matter, Ezpeleta exclaimed, “If the riders need something, they will talk to me. Not to you.” The riders have told the press their concerns. Gresini’s rookie rider Fabio Di Giannantonio told The Race, “As we go forward more, the more we need a federation for the riders.”
He cited the physical toll of the increase in racing. A 21-round championship is already grueling enough for some riders. An additional 21 sprint races could lead to a significant rise in rider injuries. Some riders are in favor of the idea solely because of the implied financial benefit, ignoring the chance of injury.
The introduction of sprint races is meant to increase MotoGP’s commercial value in the wake of plummeting race attendance and television viewing figures. Many factors are behind MotoGP’s decline, but most cite two key influences: There’s a lack of popular star riders to attract fans after the retirement of Valentino Rossi and the long-term absence of Marc Márquez. The racing itself is becoming stale, with passing coming at a premium as MotoGP bikes grow increasingly aerodynamically and technologically dependent. MotoGP is seemingly willing to risk rider health to plaster over the championship’s core issues.
It should be clarified that the MotoGP Safety Commission is not a union. The riders cannot collectively bargain and are not formally included alongside the teams and manufacturers in the sport’s decision-making mechanisms. Similarly to Formula 1’s Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, the Safety Commission is solely an advisory body to present concerns to those in power. There is no active competitors’ union in any motorsport competition. This is a stark contrast to the unions that are commonplace across every other major professional sport.