MotoGP riders are forming a trade union. Why?


Many riders are concerned that MotoGP’s commercial interests are overtaking sporting interests, so they’re ganging together to improve safety and other aspects of the championship

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Pecco Bagnaia, Marco Bezzecchi and Brad Binder after a race-day morning riders’ parade

MotoGP riders have been talking about forming a riders’ trade union — to protect and advance their interests – for a while now. And finally it’s happening.

MotoGP is a long way behind Formula 1, its four-wheel equivalent, in this area. In one form or another F1 has had a drivers’ union since 1961. The late Stirling Moss was its first chairman!

Instead MotoGP has had its own system, introduced by Dorna in the 1990s. MotoGP’s safety commission meets on Friday evening at every grand prix, allowing riders to discuss their concerns with Dorna and the FIM safety officer.

Quite a few riders no longer attend the safety commission because they feel these meetings don’t achieve anything, because trying to get a group of riders to agree on anything during an open debate is a Herculean task. They do, however, produce the occasional moment of hilarity, like when Jack Miller and Jorge Lorenzo clashed over a tyre issue. Miller, tiring of Lorenzo’s attitude, told him, “Mate, opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one!”.

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The news of MotoGP new riders’ union broke during last weekend’s Indonesian Grand Prix, when we learned that former MotoGP rider, World Superbike and World Endurance champion Sylvain Guintoli will be the union’s rider representative. This is the first time since Dorna arrived that the riders have felt the need to appoint someone to fight for their rights.

Why is that?

There are several reasons: safety, contracts, the schedule, money and a general feeling among riders that they are losing power to the championship’s commercial forces. MotoGP is a business, of course, but if commercial interests get too far ahead of sporting interests it’s a problem, certainly for those who are risking life and limb, without whom there’d be no show for the series owners to profit from.

The turning point in this story was Dorna’s decision to make the biggest change to GP weekends since the championship started in 1949, without even consulting the riders and teams.

During last year’s Austrian GP, Dorna announced that Saturday sprint races would be feature at every 2023 GP. The fact that Dorna didn’t talk to riders or teams was disrespectful at best.

The pressures, stresses and increased risks of the new sprint format have caused a dramatic increase in accidents and injuries, with three times as many riders missing races through injury compared to last year alone. This is unacceptable and it’s a massive own goal for the championship too. MotoGP has yet to feature a full grid this season, which is a disaster for the series – because fans pay to see their heroes in action, not substitutes riding around at the back of the pack.

Moto2 Oxley

Moto2 team-owner and former 250cc world champion Pons (white shirt) celebrates Aron Canet’s podium at last month’s Catalan GP. He was the first riders’ rep in the 1980s

MotoGP’s first official rider representative was Spaniard Sito Pons, who assumed the role when teams association IRTA was created in 1986, shortly before he won his two 250cc world championships. This was a process started by the late Mike Trimby, who had been hired by top 500cc riders to campaign for better safety, pay and conditions in the early 1980s.

Pons agrees it was the autocratic sprint announcement that triggered the riders – suddenly they realised they needed someone to look after them.

“From that point they realised they need to do something,” Pons told me at Mandalika on Sunday. “The riders realised they’d lost their power, so they needed to organise.

“My opinion is that the way they [Dorna] approached this situation [the sprints] was completely wrong.”

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Obviously the sensible way to approach the introduction of sprint races would’ve been to listen to the riders and teams and make a plan accordingly. After all, these are the people that make the show, so it’s stupid to upset them. And right now there are a lot of disgruntled people in the paddock, from riders to mechanics and beyond, because they feel much more is being asked of them, with no recognition of the extra workload, financial or otherwise.

The last big F1 drivers’ controversy happened for similar reasons in 2016, when F1 changed its qualifying system. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association published an open letter accusing F1’s decision-making system as “obsolete” and “ill-structured”.

Many people in the MotoGP paddock admit they struggle with the pressure of the new format.

“Since the start of this season we have double the work, with the same number of staff,” one factory crew chief told me at the weekend.

“Now the stress is unbelievable”

From the outside, maybe this sounds a bit like the late rockstar Prince comparing his record contract to slavery.

After all, everyone working in MotoGP is surely living the dream, so why should they complain? But without doubt the ever-increasing intensity – on and off track – is a problem.

“It’s true that now the stress is unbelievable,” said VR46 rider Luca Marini at Mandalika. “Now MotoGP riders are in a difficult situation all weekend.”

Marini and other riders accept the need for sprints, to try and grow the championship, but some think the weekend format could be improved and sprints shouldn’t feature at every GP. F1 sprints only happen at a quarter of the races, which makes those events extra-special, something to be looked forward to by fans (and therefore auctioned to the highest bidders by F1’s promoters), rather than just a standard part of the weekend schedule.

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The aftermath of one of this year’s many Turn 1 pile-ups. Some riders think banning holeshot devices would reduce the frequency of these accidents

MotoGP riders are also concerned with the current contract situation, with contracts no longer worth the paper they are written on, especially in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes.

Thus the premier-class stars behind the riders’ union also want to help riders lower down the order.

“In every sport it’s necessary to have an athlete’s union,” said Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro. “It looks like the team bosses, especially in Moto2 and Moto3 can break contracts whenever they want. We have IRTA, but that’s the teams’ association, so nothing happens for the riders, so it’s good to have a riders’ union.”

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The reduction in Moto2 and Moto3 practice time is also a concern, as is the lack of race-day warm-up sessions for these categories. This is a basic safety issue: if a rider destroys his/her bike in qualifying, they don’t get to ride the bike again until minutes before the race. The original concept of warm-up sessions was for riders to make safety checks, after overnight rebuilds or whatever. This requirement hasn’t changed.

Some riders also want minimum salaries introduced, especially for MotoGP’s independent riders, most of whom race for a few hundred thousand Euros per season. That may sound like a lot of money to me and you, but it’s surely not enough for riders who have reached the pinnacle of a popular and very dangerous sport.

To underline the vicious demands of modern-day MotoGP, the Mandalika paddock was full of walking wounded, from Marini to Marco Bezzecchi and from Alex Márquez to Alex Rins. Meanwhile reigning champ and current points leader Pecco Bagnaia told us that the event was the first time he had been injury free since he crashed at Le Mans in May.

Some riders behind the union also want an end to riders paying to race in GPs, which has become something of an epidemic in the smaller classes.

“In the union we also have to think about Moto2 and Moto3 riders and maybe stopping having riders that pay to race,” said indie-team MotoGP rider Johann Zarco. “Also, next year we will do 44 races and with all the show we do for TV now [rider parades, signing sessions and so on] it would be good to get a minimum salary, at least for satellite riders. Because the riders make the show.

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Riders’ trade union representative Sylvain Guintoli and wife Caroline on the 2018 Catalan GP grid. He was Suzuki’s MotoGP test rider for six years

“Also, we can speak about technical regulations and bring better ideas to make the weekends better and safer, because this year we have had many accidents. Also, what happened at Silverstone, where in my opinion it was raining too much in Saturday morning practice and they didn’t stop the session. It was the same with the rain at Motegi, where they could have stopped the race earlier.”

There have been numerous Turn 1 pile-ups at recent races, due to a combination of increasing competition and holeshot devices, which allow the entire grid to make perfect starts, so everyone arrives at the first corner together. This could be the riders’ first technical intervention.

“We need to talk to find a solution because it’s in the interest of everybody to have a full grid,” added Marini, who broke a collarbone in a Turn 1 accident at Buddh, India, last month, forcing him to miss the Japanese GP. “Because we make the show, we are the key to this sport.

“Maybe one easy way to improve the start for everybody would be to remove the holeshot [device]. It’s difficult because now all the riders make a good start. And it’s difficult because you need to brake a lot to disengage the front device – you need to do unnatural moves, which can cause problems for riders behind.”

Keeping both the riders and Dorna happy won’t be easy for Guintoli, who last raced in MotoGP with Suzuki in 2022. And no one knows yet what power he will have and how Dorna will treat him. Will he be allowed to sit in Race Direction, so he can make his opinions known when he thinks races should be stopped due to excessive rain and so on?

And if Dorna and the trade union fall out, how will the riders try to impose their will? By going on strike, or what?

MotoGP Miguel Oliveira

Miguel Oliveira is stretchered away after a Turn 2 accident at Jerez earlier this year. As is usual now, there were too many riders together aiming for the same piece of road

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Pons has fond memories of his time as riders’ rep, making himself unpopular with promoters while he fought the good fight to improve safety. During the 1980s alone eleven riders died at grand prix events, so this job was a huge responsibility.

“Obviously safety was the most important thing – it always is,” added Pons. “At that time there was a lot of work to do.”

Pons’ first big job was to reduce the dangers of racing at Belgian GP venue Spa-Francorchamps, specifically the awesomely fast Blanchimont left-hander, which had claimed the life of British privateer Kevin Wrettom during practice for the 1984 Belgian 500cc GP.

At that time F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone was the Spa promoter and didn’t appreciate having to spend a significant amount of money to increase the run off at Blanchimont, which sits on a hillside.

“I remember meeting Bernie at Spa,” Pons continued. “He said, ‘You are the guy that makes me do all this work!’. And I said, ‘Yes, because we don’t want to die here’.

“This was the first time all the riders said, ‘If you don’t change the track we won’t race’. So Bernie was obliged to spend the money and he was very upset with me because it was me who told him we needed more run off at Blanchimont.”

“From that point everything started to change. Safety at all the circuits improved and IRTA started working with the FIM and with Dorna to keep making things better. Safety was always very important to Carmelo.”

These are early days for MotoGP’s new riders’ union, but its creation is a significant moment for MotoGP.