Motorcycle racing in Asia is growing at unrivaled pace

By January 22, 2020General Posts

by Renato Marques from https://macaudailytimes.com.mo

The first-ever person of Portuguese nationality to hold the position, Jorge Viegas has served as president of the global governing and sanctioning body of motorcycle racing, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), for just over a year now.

In an exclusive interview with the Times last week, Viegas shared his opinions on the development of the sport in Asia and worldwide, speaking also about the ambitions of his presidency. He also offered some advice to Macau motorcycling event organizers, while stressing again that his organization has no jurisdiction over the annual event, part of the Macau Grand Prix.

After one year at the helm of the FIM, Viegas remarked on his success in making the organization more democratic and more transparent. He also claimed victory in his goal to give more importance to the constituent FIM committees, which he said had been “totally left out of decisions” in the past.

“I am very pleased that I [accomplished] a small ‘revolution’ at the FIM at the internal level,” he said. “That was one of my goals and it was achieved.”

Opening the FIM to the world had debunked the impression that the FIM was just “a bunch of old guys that liked to travel.”
“I have been opening the doors of the FIM to the outside and have started to collaborate a lot more with the promoters. Next month, we will, for the first time, host a plenary meeting with all the committees with the presence of journalists. This has never happened before. I want to show what the FIM does.”

“One of the first measures I took was to hold a press conference that took place at Losail during Qatar GP last year, in which I presented everyone from the FIM side that works in a Grand Prix, asking them to explain who they are and what their job duties are.”
“Without going into too much detail, I would say that I managed to bring the FIM closer to the national federations,” said Viegas.
Coming up, more reform is expected, especially in the categories of “Superbikes” and “Endurance”. The president promised that new measures to improve these categories will be announced soon, even as early as this year.

His ultimate goal remains greater engagement of the youth in motorcycle racing, all while ensuring the safety of the sport. Building on his mandate, Viegas reiterated that “every youngster, independent of gender and financial capacity, if they have the talent, passion, and motivation, [ought to be able to] compete in motorcycle racing.” At the same time, the sport must be “as safe as possible,” because only in this way can we “convince parents to let the youth participate in the sport.”

‘Unrivaled’ growth in Asia

For Viegas, “the development of motorcycling in Asia is unrivaled worldwide.”

The Asian continent is the fastest-growing region of the world when it comes to motorcycle racing, and yet its popularity is still far from peaking, he said. The FIM president recalled how the organization began with 16 national and regional federations across Asia. Today, that number has almost doubled, with 28 already accounted for and another three joining the FIM soon.

This trend is perhaps unsurprising given that, in the words of Viegas, “Asia is the most popular continent for motorcycles and where the most are circulating in the streets.”

The president is also impressed with how upbeat everyone in Asia is about the sport.

Addressing the inclusion of a new race in the MotoGP to be held on the island of Lombok, Indonesia in March 2021, Viegas remarked, “the works to build this circuit have just started and [the promoters] have already sold about 30,000 seats for the event.”
The sport is also popular elsewhere in Asia, where circuit racing championships are well-entrenched, according to the FIM president.
However, the continent suffers from a major drawback: its size. As a large and diverse continent, Asia presents a challenge in high traveling costs.

“For example, a rider going racing from China to Japan faces very high expenses,” offered Viegas, referring to transportation and logistics costs. For this reason, FIM tries to financially support the Asian Federation, so that it is possible to maintain competitive championships.

Return to China only a ‘matter of time’

Notably absent from the countries hosting major motorcycle racing events is China, leading some to speculate about disagreement between the organizers and the Chinese government. Viegas was quick to dismiss the idea of any ill feeling between the FIM, the promoters and the Chinese government.

“There is no problem with China,” he told the Times. “I believe that if they want to host an event, they can do it.”

Although there is currently no circuit in China homologated to the standards of hosting any major competitions, “if they want to, they can do that easily,” said Viegas. “It is just a matter of will and making a few works on the [existing] circuits or even building a new one.”

“I was with the Chinese authorities a few months ago and they told me that they wanted to have MotoGP back in China,” he continued. This comes as China has been pursuing other kinds of motorcycle racing categories, such as Motocross. The debut of the FIM Motocross World Championship took place in Shanghai last year, and is set to return this year.

But a return of the MotoGP is not likely within the next few years, according to the FIM president.

“We have a lot more demand than we can satisfy,” explained Viegas. “There are a lot of countries wanting to host MotoGP. This year we already expanded the championship to 20 races, and in upcoming years we can likely grow to [a maximum of] 22, which is enormous.”

Macau Grand Prix needs to review safety

Although the FIM has no jurisdiction over the motorcycle race held during the Macau Grand Prix event, the Times solicited Viegas’s views and insights on the race.

The FIM veteran, who served a number of roles at the organization prior to becoming its president, immediately suggested two logistical improvements that local organizers could adopt.

“There is one thing that the organizers can do to improve the race, which is not running motorcycle events after car events,” he said, highlighting that after a series of car races, track surface conditions may not be ideal. He also mentioned that the light and visibility conditions late in the afternoon can also be challenging for racers and present added logistical complications with race restarts.

“I think this is the minimum that organizers could do because this will improve a lot of the conditions,” said Viegas.

On a more positive note, the FIM president remarked on the “good choices” made by local organizers in “bringing in riders with a lot of experience and progressively investing in the active safety systems.”

“In the future, we hope the riders will all wear racing suits with an airbag system incorporated as well as FIM homologated helmets,” said Viegas, adding that these additional safety features have been designed to minimize the risk to racers.

For the president of FIM, the only safety issue with the Guia Circuit is the lack of run-off areas.

“The problem of Macau [street circuit] is very simple; there are no run-off areas, that’s all. There are no other problems. This is a circuit designed to host car races, the motorcycles are a complementary race that the spectators enjoy. I just think we should do all that is possible to increase the safety of the event,” he said.

A solution commonly used by the FIM on permanent racing circuits that do not possess enough run-off space is so-called “air fences”- soft-wall safety barriers, which are inflated to cushion impact from riders on otherwise rigid structures.

“When we cannot have run-off areas with the length we need, the circuit must install an air fence and we have seen riders reaching them even in areas with a lot of space,” he explained.

“Here in Macau, it would be needed obviously but again, we are not the entity that controls the safety conditions in Macau. What I wish is that there will be no more serious incidents here.”

Several recent incidents in the motorcycle racing component of the Macau Grand Prix have raised safety concerns once again among race organizers and the general population of the city. In 2017, motorcyclist Daniel Hegarty died in a crash at the Fisherman’s Bend after losing control of his bike. A major crash last year left three riders hospitalized and saw the race red flagged.

“We understand that there are riders specialized in this type of race [road racing] and they are highly experienced as well as highly aware of the risks they are taking. But what I can say is that it’s not this kind of race that the FIM encourages,” Viegas said. “This is not a circuit homologated by the FIM and it can never be, because it cannot fully meet optimal safety conditions.”

Nevertheless, the official recognizes that events like the Macau Grand Prix and the Isle of Manx TT have a long tradition with some races going back to over a century.

“It’s not under FIM competences to say anything against them,” he said. “As for the [Macau] race, it’s great entertainment and the people love it and the riders love it too.”

The global energy problem

Globally, another major challenge is the need to follow the world trend in “energy transition,” according to Viegas, which will necessitate swapping petrol-powered engines to electricity-powered motors.

“This is something that concerns us and that we are working on together with the promoters and manufacturers,” Viegas said, explaining that on motorcycles this swap will be more difficult than on cars as the current batteries are very heavy and very big, making the batteries appropriate for a racing motorcycle not capable of managing great distances.

For the time being, the Moto-E category part of the complementary program of MotoGP in some European circuits only can feature six-lap racing events.

“But as we know, this technology is developing very fast. When the batteries can be of a longer range and become lighter, I am sure we will see some great leaps forward.”