War, politics and coronavirus: When the real world catches up with MotoGP

MotoGP

The Qatar and Thai MotoGP Grands Prix have been cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak but this isn't the first time when MotoGP has been affected by world events

KRoberts

King’ Kenny Roberts and the rest of the paddock started the 1980 season weeks late when politics and bad weather cancelled the first two GPs

Motorcycle racing and other sports are bubbles – microcosms of life that allow competitors and fans to invest themselves in something wonderful but ultimately trivial.

When working in the paddock during a MotoGP weekend it’s possible to forget that the rest of the world exists. All that matters is who steps onto the box and pops the prosecco at 3pm on Sunday afternoon.

But of course the rest of world does exist. In the 1960s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what’s most likely to derail a government. “Events, dear boy, events,” he replied. And that’s exactly what’s happening to the 2020 MotoGP world championship – it is being overtaken by events.

It’s remarkable it’s taken this long. Over the decades MotoGP has done remarkably well in dodging the slings and arrows of the real world. War, terrorism, politics and economics affect everything around them, but until now the championship has been lucky enough to dodge those bullets.

The cancellation of all premier-class activity at this weekend’s season-opening Qatar GP and the postponement of round two in Thailand, originally scheduled for March 22, may only be the start of the MotoGP/coronavirus story.

The season is now expected to start at COTA, USA, on April 5, but how will U.S. immigration feel about allowing several thousand paddock people – many of them travelling from areas badly affected by coronavirus – into Texas? We don’t know yet but we will find out soon enough.

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In fact this isn’t the first time the world championships have lost their opening two rounds. This time 30 years ago, the 1980 season-opening Venezuelan round was called off for political reasons – uncertainties created by a change of national government. And round two fell victim to bad weather.

In early April 1980 the paddock travelled to Salzburgring in Austria, where they found the circuit covered in three feet of snow. Thus the season started at Misano on May 11.

In 1939 the grand prix season ended one race early, for more serious reasons. The 250, 350 and 500cc championships were due to finish at Monza on September 4 but one day prior, Britain declared war on Germany and the Second World War began.

It’s worth adding here that the Nazis took motorcycle and car racing very seriously. National motorisation was a vital component of Adolf Hitler’s plans for war, so he backed German riders and manufacturers in grand prix racing on two wheels and four. In the late 1930s, BMW’s GP riders and bikes proudly displayed their sponsorship logo – the swastika – and won TTs, grands prix and the 1938 500cc championship.

Racing was an important Nazi tool for technological development and for political propaganda, supposedly proving that Aryan engineers and riders were superior to all others.

The Nazis were so keen to contest and also to control motorcycle racing that they sent Joseph Goebbels, their Reich Minister of Propaganda, to attend a 1935 meeting of the FICM (forerunner of the FIM, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme).

Goebbels turned up to meet bike-racing representatives from Britain and a dozen other nations along with Adolf Hühnlein, chief of the Nazi Motor Corps, who spent much of the 1930s at race meetings throughout Europe, greeting each Nazi victory with a Sieg Heil.

Goebbels

Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (fourth from left) and Nazi Motor Corps chief Adolf Hühnlein attend a meeting of motorcycle racing’s governing body in 1935

FIM

During the decades following the Second World War, there have been numerous wars, political showdowns and other grave dangers, but somehow motorcycle grand prix racing mostly kept going.

During the summer of 1961, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, the paddock travelled into East Germany for the Sachsenring GP, just weeks after the Berlin Wall went up.

The paddock will be missing its star performers; a bit like the headline act dropping out of a gig, leaving fans to be entertained by support bands.

In 1972 the Troubles in Northern Ireland caused the cancellation of the Ulster GP at Dundrod, which had gone ahead the previous few years, despite chaos and violence erupting in and around Belfast. In 1971, weeks after the GP, the circuit’s main building was reduced to rubble by a terrorist bomb.

The 1982 world championships came very close to being overtaken by events. The season-opening Argentine GP went ahead just in time, four days before the host country invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands, triggering the Falklands War. The paddock only just got out of Buenos Aires in time, although those who departed aboard an Aerolinas Argentinas flight to London didn’t make it all the way. The airline was worried the plane would be impounded in Britain, so it only flew as far as Madrid.

The most common reason for grands prix dropping out of the championships is finance. A cancelled race is the same for everyone, but not always. When the penultimate 1998 world round, in Brazil, was cancelled at the last minute – because the circuit owners hadn’t bothered to resurface the track – Valentino Rossi lost the chance of winning the 250cc world championship in his rookie year.

Worst hit in recent years has been the Japanese GP. Both the 2010 and 2011 events were hit by real-world events: the 2010 Motegi round was postponed for six months due to flight chaos caused by volcanic eruptions in Iceland and the 2011 event was delayed for a similar period of time following the Fukushima nuclear-plant disaster.

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This weekend’s Qatar GP will have a surreal feel, because the paddock will be missing its star performers; a bit like the headline act dropping out of a gig, leaving fans to be entertained by support bands.

MotoGP is used to operating the other way around, with the headline act performing without support. For several years the premier class raced at Laguna without its support acts, because the U.S. promoter wasn’t interested in the smaller classes.

Several decades ago it wasn’t unusual for the 500cc riders to be excused racing at the more dangerous circuits, while riders in the smaller classes were expected to compete as usual; as if it hurts less crashing a 250 into a wall at 120mph than it would having the same accident on a 500 at 130mph.

In the late 1970s Brno’s wall-lined street circuit, which had been part of the world championships since 1965, hosted 350, 250 and 125 races, while the 500s enjoyed a weekend off. The promoters even tried to charge riders to take part in the GP event because, like all Communist Bloc operations, they were desperate for foreign currency. Those that refused to cough up missed Friday practice.

Different times, but further evidence that what goes on in the real world will always affect what goes on in the paddock and on the racetrack.

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