After a few false starts, the 2023 MotoGP calendar is finally out.
While everyone knew that the 21-race schedule, bigger than ever, would mean a long, tough year for the paddock, few expected a schedule as grueling as that which finally emerged at the Thai Grand Prix on Friday afternoon.
Since then, the word most often uttered in the paddock (at least so far mainly as a joke) has been “divorce”.
With sprint races set to double the number of actual races anyway, some of the transfers and connections in the new calendar will be made not only by the drivers but also by the mechanics, press officers, cameramen, photographers, engineers and others it takes to make the show each to get on the road at the weekend.
On the face of it, it’s only one lap longer than 2022, but that doesn’t really cover how significantly different the season will be, starting with the later start thanks to the need to move the opening lap from Qatar’s extensive construction work to refurbish the circuit of Lusail in progress.
Started in Portugal at the end of March but headed straight to another race in Argentina 6000 miles away the following weekend, it’s all downhill from there. Three triple headers, two new rounds and an unprecedented block of seven straight overseas races, that’s a big change from the 16 rounds that were mostly held in Europe in the early 2000s.
When I first got into MotoGP, the big annual trip was the three-week Asia tour that brought the year to a close. This will expand as the season progresses, with four rounds this year. But next year it will swell to an absolutely massive seven as India and Japan are followed by three races in three weeks in Indonesia, Australia and Thailand before a further three races in three more weeks in Malaysia, Qatar and back to Spain for the finals.
According to MotoGP, this was done for environmental and financial reasons, essentially to keep the paddock in one part of the world for a long period of time, rather than making multiple long-haul flights to and from Europe.
“One of the most important points for us is of course sustainability,” said Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta.
“We have concentrated all races in Asia towards the end of the year with the goal of traveling less and contributing less to our carbon footprint.
“It was very important for this year, in the situation that we have with the freight costs and the sustainability, it was very important to have everything [Asian] Races were concentrated for part of the year.”
That position is undermined by the fact that the series starts in Europe only to fly straight to South America, and the Asian leg is followed by another race in Europe (while of course the entire MotoGP grid also flies to Malaysia for pre-season testing at the February before returning to Europe for the first round).
Consolidating the races in Asia will of course save on air freight emissions – but given the significant time involved being away from home, this will not necessarily reduce the number of air trips by paddock staff – and could even increase them in light of the Catch-22 that many will be put into it.
Does paddock staff approach the journey as a whole, knowing it means being 10 weeks away from home but saving significant airfare (and that’s a key consideration for the paddock’s many freelancers), or try you to fly home three times? Costs and the associated jet lag as well as the environmental aspect?
That’s one of the reasons the riders insisted it was right on the edge of what’s even feasible for the paddock, especially in these sprint races.
“My wife will be changing the locks on the house,” joked Suzuki rider Alex Rins when The Race asked him about it.
“Jokes aside, it’s nice to discover new tracks, but it sure gets harder. 21 is already at the limit for me. 42 races with the sprints. Yes, sure that is the limit.”
And these two new races? There is real paddock enthusiasm for traveling to India, a country that has been calling for MotoGP for years. A huge bicycle market (the largest domestic one in the world) with lots of fans, it’s going to be quite a riotous event (especially given the Indian passion for almost every sport), just a short drive from the center of one of the world’s big cities, New Delhi.
But Kazakhstan? A country with no history in motorcycle racing and where the size of its MotoGP fan base is questionable. Added to this is the political situation in the country. Civilians died during protests against rising gas prices in a January riot. It’s hard to see a reason why there aren’t any € signs on the calendar.
The reality, of course, is that despite the whining, everyone just wants to get on with the job. Some will choose not to and will walk away from their dream jobs as a result.
The well-being and performance of the drivers are not the priority. With more races in less space than ever before, that means fewer opportunities for injury recovery and a propensity to rush back as you may miss more races than before. Ultimately, this means that championships are sometimes decided not by skill and speed, but by the schedule.
There’s almost certainly a better way of doing things, a racing schedule that’s not tied to a myriad of influences ranging from when F1 wants to race to relationships with countries that may have questionable targets to have. But the paddock will, by and large, do as it is told.