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MotoGP Americas GP

Why MotoGP’s COTA thriller was just what Liberty wanted to see

OPINION: COTA’s thrill-packed Grand Prix of the Americas was exactly what MotoGP needed to showcase its racing product to new owners-in-waiting Liberty Media.

Marc Marquez, Gresini Racing

A staple of American sports is the ‘Make Some Noise Meter’ on Jumbotron TVs inside their stadiums – a clearly-faked decibel level monitor that encourages the excitable home fans to whoop even more loudly, which is usually employed to put off the opposition on a third down or a free throw.

But you can’t fake the noise of fans at an outdoor racetrack, and from my vantage point on the inside of Turn 1 during COTA’s MotoGP round on Sunday, I could clearly hear the buzzed crowd making some genuine noise in reaction to some thrilling on-track action, lots of overtaking moves, and a significant faller.

Watch: MotoGP: Vinales recovers from 11th to win | 2024 #AmericasGP

This was the first race following the news that F1 owner Liberty plans to acquire 86% of MotoGP owners Dorna Sports in a blockbuster deal worth €4.2 billion, which it hopes to finalise by the end of 2024.

The Liberty deal meant that MotoGP’s annual trip to Austin’s Circuit of the Americas felt way more important this year. Not just because it’s now the only round on the Liberty’s side of the Atlantic, following Argentina’s demise from the schedule, but the acquisition means America now has a major stake in the game.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the series has massive scope to grow in America – like an amusement park of possibility – and it can certainly learn from its F1 experience so far.

COTA is the only US race on the MotoGP schedule

COTA is the only US race on the MotoGP schedule

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

It might be a happy coincidence but NASCAR squad Trackhouse’s takeover of the former RNF Aprilia squad means it now has a team baring the Stars and Stripes, while Joe Roberts’ run to second in Moto2 on Sunday gives it the potential for a homespun big class star of the future once again.

Under Liberty, F1’s at-track attendance has sky-rocketed to the point that COTA owner Bobby Epstein was eyeing half a million people for its United States Grand Prix until last year’s surprise dip. Of course, COTA’s MotoGP crowd is way off its F1 attendance, so there’s much work to be done here.

Although this time Liberty doesn’t have its silver bullet of a docuseries lifting the lid of the exclusive world of F1 coinciding with a global pandemic and a captive audience that was in much need of entertainment, it knows the correct buttons to press elsewhere.

 “I’d like to think that some of the things we’ve done to show the world the value and power of Formula 1, we can bring to MotoGP,” says Liberty’s CEO Greg Maffei. “Let’s call it pattern recognition.

“MotoGP is a great, thrilling sport. Enormously exciting, I don’t think we need to change that at all. In fact, we don’t want to.

“What we want to do is show the world exactly how exciting this sport is.”

The MotoGP battle pack at COTA

The MotoGP battle pack at COTA

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

With a fanbase that’s primarily based in Spain, Italy and France, plus the far east and Australia, Maffei plans to bring Liberty’s F1 learnings to increase the sport’s awareness outside of its current bubble to a “broader audience” around the world.

The riders are genuinely heroic, with some epic stories behind them, and there are some great characters on the grid who need developing for the audience to get to know, so that more fans will attend and more viewers will tune in. Put simply, it needs different eyeballs on it.

MotoGP’s biggest current star Marc Marquez points out that targeting a younger generation would also make a “big difference”. For example, in Pedro Acosta, it has a remarkable young rookie who looks set to be the next big thing (he’s also an absolute chatterbox) who comes from a very humble background.

Pedro Acosta, Red Bull GASGAS Tech3

Pedro Acosta, Red Bull GASGAS Tech3

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

What it already boasts is a genuinely thrilling racing product, where (unlike F1) the identity of each event’s winner isn’t a near-certainty. Of course, MotoGP has had its periods of domination, and it can produce some processions and tire-defined races, but it’s hit on a relatively rich vein of unpredictability – with way more manufacturers and competitors in with a shot at winning races compared to F1.

That said, the five times I’d previously attended this race in person, the racing was dang ordinary! This was by far the best MotoGP race ever at COTA, with thrilling dicing throughout the field, and the fans who were there – oddly, COTA is one MotoGP venue that doesn’t give a crowd number but does for F1 – were richly entertained.

Maverick Vinales’ sensational charge from 11th to victory – before donning a Batman mask and cape on the podium – happened in front of a crowd that I’d estimate in the region of 75,000 – certainly a fraction of the 432,000 weekend number that F1 attracts.

Alex Marquez, Gresini Racing

Alex Marquez, Gresini Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

The majority of fans were clearly avid, with merchandise being worn wherever you looked, and lengthy, patient queues for turns on the video games in the fan activation zone. Judging by my flight from Miami, and the folks in the airport, there were plenty who had flown in from across America for the occasion as well as the team personnel from Europe.

But, in Austin itself, you wouldn’t know that a global racing series was in town – unlike when F1 arrives here. The only signage I saw across the weekend was for the whacky King of the Baggers support event. I attended a really cool hand-built bike exhibition in town, and I didn’t see one MotoGP bike on display – but there was a Red Bull F1 showcar!

You’d imagine that Liberty can raise the promotional game and will add extra races in the America – perhaps moving this date away from US Masters Sunday would be a wise move. Reviving events at Indianapolis or Laguna Seca would seem obvious avenues to explore – I heard Barber Motorsports Park and even Daytona’s road course being mentioned, which would be absolutely wild…

“When we took over Formula 1 it also only had one race in the United States,” adds Maffei on the subject. “I’m not suggesting that we’re going to get to three, but the opportunity to grow in the US, and other geographies, probably not increase the total race number but extend it elsewhere.”

Miguel Oliveira, Trackhouse Racing Team

Miguel Oliveira, Trackhouse Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

An unlikely hero who proves a point

The ‘King of COTA’ label is one that seems to get the locals really enthused, and with Marc Marquez being in the injury doldrums in recent years – the biggest groan of the day was when he fell from the lead on Sunday – it’s been Alex Rins who’s stepped up in the meantime and collected quite the fanbase in Austin.

When he made a guest appearance on Saturday evening for a meet and greet, the reaction was simply staggering – and he was absolutely mobbed for photos. The knowledgeable audience knew all about his Moto3 and Moto2 triumphs here too.

Last year at COTA, Rins became the eighth rider to win with two factory teams in the MotoGP era – along with Jack Miller, Andrea Dovizioso, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Maverick Vinales, Max Biaggi and Valentino Rossi. It was Honda’s most recent victory, an epic feat in itself given its troubles, but this year there would be no miracles – although he stormed up to eighth on the opening lap! – and he crashed out.

Alex Rins, Yamaha Factory Racing

Alex Rins, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

“It was frustrating, we are suffering with our bike,” Rins told his audience. “When you go out on the track and understand it’s going to be difficult and we need to accept what we have and what we’re doing.”

[Cue lots of whooping and hollers of encouragement]

“We will be back. It’s a process and it takes time. The last thing we need to lose is the faith.

“It was not easy with the Honda to get the victory here, still the last victory for them, and I’m very proud of that. So, it shows what can happen.”

While critics will point at MotoGP’s plethora of Spanish and Italian riders as a negative, I think this enthusiasm from an American crowd shows that doesn’t matter when an audience is convinced that these guys are the best riders on the planet.

Marc Marquez fans at COTA

Marc Marquez fans at COTA

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

And this is the crux: Liberty must tell that story in a way that gives wider appeal to more people. Get them hooked on it like these folks clearly are.

America also loves an underdog or rebound story, and MotoGP’s concession rules give Yamaha a chance to rebound to its former glories. And in this sense it feels like almost the flip of F1, which has its recently-extended audience enthralled by the personalities if not always a thrilling on-track race.

MotoGP doesn’t need reinventing, it needs promoting more effectively. It shouldn’t try to be Formula 1, but it should take notes and tell its stories in a more captivating manner.

The acquisition by a savvy company that understands how TV and digital media works, and which levers need to be pulled to do so, can absolutely take this sport to another level.

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