With the recent news that the UK will bin production of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and Moto GP announcing plans of a support championship for electric bikes by 2019, we’ve been pondering the effect on the future of motor racing.
Currently, there is no real electric series in motorcycle racing. Nothing to match the Formula E over on four wheels. The IOM TT has had a TT Zero support race since 2010, but as for BSB, WSBK and MotoGP electric doesn’t feature.
Racing for us is a sensory pleasure. It is all about what we see, hear, smell and feel. Regardless of whether you are into road racing, circuit, two wheels or four, it is the atmosphere that keeps us going back. The noise punches you in the chest, and you simply cannot get this from the TV. This weekend Peter Hickman took his first win for Smith’s Racing at the British Superbikes Thruxton round. One of the stand out moments was the smell that slowly embraced the circuit after his celebratory burnout. We didn’t see him battle at every corner, we didn’t see his fantastic start, we didn’t watch him cross the line. Instead, we waited, staring at an empty track for at least one minute every single lap. It doesn’t matter, because we went home and watched it all on the TV on Tuesday.
Most spectators at the Northwest or Ulster won’t leave their house without the trusty radio, why? Because there is very little to watch. It’s all about noise.
It didn’t ruin the experience for us. The noise of down shifting, which sounds remarkably like a military firing range, up shifting, engine bouncing off the rev limiter, the crowds gasping or cheers from the other end of the track, walking around the paddock to hear engines running, tested and the dyno guys doing their job, these things are what bring us back to our favourite track-side spots time and time again.
Watching circuit side your hairs stand up on the back of your neck and your heart pumps a little faster. However, it is often not the visual senses that cause this. With tracks such as Silverstone making standard entry viewing almost impossible, you rarely see much of the wheel on wheel racing. Perhaps, like us at Thruxton, you will be lucky to catch an overtake or see a race leader make a mistake that dictates the rest of the race. However, mostly the visual senses aren’t as stimulated track side as they might be on TV. Most spectators at the Northwest or Ulster won’t leave their house without the trusty radio, why? Because there is very little to watch. It’s all about noise.
At this year’s Isle of Man TT race, we were sitting by the road at Quarterbridge hours ahead of the first practice. We could hear the noise of the Norton as it took off from the start line, and as it got louder, you could sense the anticipation and excitement in the crowd build. Suddenly there it was, a blur of chrome followed by a knockout blow in your chest. Blink and you miss it but, it doesn’t matter if you don’t see the chrome blur. You got the 3 minutes of deep, building roar before it arrived and then listened as long as you could until it was gone and you were left only with the smell. Rubber, oil, fuel.
It was when the TT Zero bikes came out that most people started to leave. We decided to stay, although after four bikes had gone past, we were done. They lacked everything we love about racing when you are trackside. The sound, the smell, the excitement. We were bored.
It’s a shame to say that because the riders are no less exciting. The racing is no less exciting. How can it be? With riders such as Guy Martin and Bruce Anstey, the quality of competition is as good as it is in the Superbike race. In fact if you turn your attention to Formula E then you will see the field is made up of more former Formula One drivers than we can list. Some of the best racing drivers in the world are battling it out on some of the best circuits in the world. The visuals are no less impressive. Unfortunately, the rest of the atmosphere is.
Formula E has already made changes to encourage fan interaction with the race
This is where we start to worry about the future of our beloved racing, and with it, the future of smaller race circuits such as Croft, Mallory Park, Goodwood, Thruxton.
If you remove the elements that bring the fans trackside and, perhaps more importantly, keep them coming back, then why would they continue to pay for something they can get more excited about through visual stimulation?
Formula E has already made changes to encourage fan interaction with the race. With their clever Fanboost system, spectators can influence the ePrix online. Voting opens one month before each race. Everyone can cast one vote however you can change this at any point up to an hour before the start of the race.
Using an official app or the formulaE website, winners of fanboost are announced 30 minutes before the start of the race. Three drivers then receive a power boost of 30kw increasing the standard from 200 to 240 bhp. This boost lasts for five seconds and is activated by the driver. It is in both cars – that’s right, due to battery life the drivers have to change cars half way through the race, giving the drivers two shots to make a critical overtake.
Is this a sign of how future racing will work to engage fans? Taking them away from the circuit and adding the excitement online? It feels a little like X Factor voting, however it is a clever way of engaging fans at home when there is little to attend the circuits for.
Will this also mean a Pay Per View style of TV race show, like with the big boxing matches? If fans aren’t paying ticket prices to the circuit because it’s lost the atmosphere, will we be forced to pay ticket price to view on the TV?
If the future of racing is electric, the future of circuits will change. Instead of fans being catered for, the people who save all year for a weekend of MotoGP or who wait a lifetime to head out to the IOM TT, circuits will cater only for corporate and sponsors. It will become a track full of pink shirts and plum trousers, of over-weight, new-money lords who gorge on ‘free’ food and booze and rarely look outside the VIP suite to embrace the quality of racing around them. Bigger circuits will thrive, smaller ones will fail.
The real fans? We’ll watch it at home. On the TV.