Roadmap to a racing return?

by | May 18, 2020 | Expert Column, Latest News, MotoGP, WorldSBK | 0 comments

The return of live sports has now taken place. Football, Mixed Martial Arts, golf and motorsport have led the way. There’s been potential roadblocks aplenty but last weekend the Bundesliga came back in Germany and NASCAR roared back into action. It was a surreal experience to watch the best of the best go toe-to-toe infront of empty grandstands but it has given us a roadmap of what to expect moving forward…

Wasn’t it amazing! Football, motorsport and golf were all back on television. There is a God and His name is Live Sport In Your Living Room! Suddenly instead of endless re-runs and memories (I’m as guilty as everyone else) there was now new memories, new moments and a new norm was being constructed before our eyes.

The cost of not returning to football to finish the 2020 season could cost over €6bn worldwide. Whether it’s the Premier League having to pay out over €750m or the loss of gate receipts, the effect of the shutdown could be profound. The German Bundesliga at least shows that it is possible to host a game, and the TV coverage wasn’t noticeably different.

The lack of a crowd, substitutes evenly spaced along the sideline, and the muted celebrations are strange but you grow accustomed to it. Why can the Bundesliga return and other countries can’t? The German government took steps before other nations to limit the outbreak and now they’ll also act as a guinea pig for how football can return.

Strict guidelines are in place to ensure that social distancing is adhered to, by those off the pitch, and quarantining the entire squad is also in place. The extent to which this will take place was shown by suspending Heiko Herrlich, the Augsburg manager, for leaving his hotel to buy toothpaste. Was it an action of malicious intent? Of course not. It was a simple moment of brain-fade, but one that saw him banned from the match. His team lost 2-1 to Wolfsburg after an injury time winner.

Project Restart has false started on numerous occasions in England. Can football resume? It can’t until it’s safe to do so. The United Kingdom is splitting apart at the seams with conflict over the coronavirus. Government proposals for reopening the country have been rejected by the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, because they feel more people are being put at risk. The Bundesliga was facing a much surer footing for their decision to reopen than their English counterparts.

In the United States decisions are made on a Federal and local basis. Some states are enforcing stricter guidelines and others make it possible to host events behind closed doors. Florida was the first to do so by hosting a UFC fight. Major League Soccer are looking at ways to play their games at a neutral venue in Orlando where all teams will be quarantined. Lockdown is bad enough, but up to ten weeks away from their families and the possibility of a 50% pay cut is making the Florida option very unappealing to players.

While Florida could provide a refuge for fighting and football, the Carolinas will offer NASCAR the same. On Sunday night racing returned for the first time with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway. It was fitting that the first race back following a ten week shutdown forced by a virus running rampant was held at a track that’s proclaimed “too tough to tame.”

To allow the race to go ahead NASCAR limited personnel numbers significantly. There were 16 crew members permitted per car (bringing a total of 640 members of staff). Media was kept to a minimum, with one pool reporter from the Associated Press (Jenna Fryer) emailing updates from the venue. In addition to Fryer there were three other reporters on-site. Reporters were limited to the media centre and forbidden from pit road and talking to team members face to face. Their only contact was via telephone and zoom conferencing. The only interviews taking place face to face would be provided by Fox Sports for broadcast, and their reporter (former driver Regan Smith) was conducting these at a safe distance.

While media representation was kept to a minimum, NASCAR did go to lengths to ensure that media could cover the event. The pooled reports were an obvious example, but a virtual media centre was also set up with live timing and zoom calls arranged for the the aftermath of the race. Additional pooled content was also sent to reporters.

There were photographers at the venue to provide coverage that was pooled by NASCAR. This change actually had a bigger impact than you’d think. Typically during a race, teams will have their own photographer whose job is to spot damage on the car and remotely send the pictures to the team to analyse whether they need to stop or not.

For the broadcast Fox Sports had half their typical staff present. This meant that cameras options were limited, but the use of a drone was now a key benefit for the broadcaster. Regan Smith was on-site as their roaming pitlane reporter, but the ex-racer was now covering the job of four people! The gallery were based in Los Angeles and the commentators in North Carolina. The return for NASCAR came in the shape of three locations.

For the teams and drivers this weekend was very different. Rolling into the circuit at designated times for each team, all personnel were temperature screened and allowed to pass through. Once the trucks were in place a deep clean took place to sterilise everything and work could then begin. The wearing of masks was enforced at all times for everyone.

Contact between the team and their driver was limited to video conferencing, with the racers all self-quarantined in their motorhomes until the very last moment. The first time they saw their team was as they were strapped into the car. It was a surreal experience. With no practice or qualifying, the formation laps behind a pace car was their only experience of the track and the car before the start of the race. Inevitably there was a crash on lap one.

NASCAR’s return offers a map towards understanding what we can expect from other series when they make their step from the shadows. It’s easier for a domestic championship to return than a World Championship, but given the close links that MotoAmerica has with Dorna you can expect some protocols to be similar when MotoGP and WorldSBK return.

The American series will return in ten days at Road America. The Wisconsin track has a vast paddock that ensures social distancing is easier than at some venues. With the support classes also present there will be 1,000 people in the paddock, but the goal is to minimise any risk. For Wayne Rainey the goal was to “give hope to people.” It’s definitely something that’s needed in a country that suddenly has over 35m people on the unemployment line.

Marshals will be regularly tested throughout the weekend and forced to remain at their post throughout the day to minimise contact with other personnel. A quick-grid will take place for all races that will mimic the quick restart procedure, where riders will be met on the grid by one mechanic to check everything is OK and then sent on their warm-up lap. Afterwards, one mechanic will be present in Parc Ferme to put the bike on its paddock stand. The podium will be socially distanced with trophies cleaned before being handed to the riders.

AMA Supercross is to resume on May 31st, holding seven races in three weeks. Like NASCAR, the races are to be held behind closed doors, with the added measure of all taking place at the same location, the Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Containing the SX paddock in one place makes it much easier to test and monitor everyone involved.

Would similar protocols be put in place for MotoGP and WorldSBK? They certainly reduce the risks compared to having a grid thronging with people.

The Bundesliga, NASCAR, Supercross, and MotoAmerica give us a roadmap of what’s possible. They paint a picture of protocols in a time of uncertainty. Are they perfect? Only time will tell.

Pic Credits: NASCAR Media and Borussia Dortmund

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