Interview carried out by Israeli journalist & TV commentator Tammy Gorali for Motomatters.com
The COVID-19 outbreak has thrown the world of motorcycling – and indeed, the world – into a state of chaos. Entire countries are in lockdown to try to prevent the spread of the virus, and avoid their healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. With the health of populations the utmost priority, motorcycle racing has taken a back seat. Event after event, in every discipline, has been postponed or canceled.
It has been a tough start for Jorge Viegas, in just his second year as FIM President. As head of motorcycling's governing body, the Portuguese former journalist has the task of coordinating with race and event promoters around the world, to try to find a way of salvaging as much as possible of the 2020 motorcycling season.
It is an unenviable position, as this interview carried out by Israeli journalist and TV commentator Tammy Gorali makes clear. Together, Gorali and Jorge Viegas cover a vast range of subjects, from how the FIM has responded to the developing outbreak of the coronavirus, to the measures being put in place to deal with it by the FIM and Dorna, and what will happen once the lockdowns are lifted.
Jorge Viegas explains how a MotoGP development freeze is to be implemented for the 2020 season, how many races will be needed for a world championship to be organized, and what options are under consideration as far as racing in January or combining MotoGP and WorldSBK weekends. The FIM president also emphasizes how important it will be for racing to happen once its possible, to give people some much-needed release after a long period of confinement and restrictions.
But Jorge Viegas starts off by telling Tammy Gorali about his first reactions to the outbreak of COVID-19, and how quickly the situation got out of control.
“Everybody in the world is wondering what has happened to us, the sky fell on our heads and we cannot see forward. The biggest problem is that we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, there is a light that did not show up yet. I think that, everybody is guessing now, even the epidemiologists don't know but I think we will have a lousy summer, that's my guess.”
When this started at the end of December, did you have a feeling that something is going to go terribly wrong?
When it started I was in Macau at the general assembly of FIM Asia (*held in the middle of January), there were a lot of people wearing masks, more than usual, but Macau was still crowded with tourists and travelers gambling. Only after I came back to Europe it started to sound more serious and I said to myself that this will not stop here. Because once it came out of China, it became a problem.
I had still been in Qatar for the opening round, without MotoGP, and while coming back to Lisbon, the airport in Doha felt like a ghost terminal, it was a huge difference from one week to the other, and we had to put everything on hold. By that time I already had asked our staff at the FIM headquarters to work from home. This was over a month ago when we were completely aware that this is not going to be a short-term crisis.
The local federation from China, were you in contact with them?
I was in contact with them already in January but there was nothing, only in the city of Wuhan where it started and they were confined. The Chinese delegates from their federation were in Macau with me, and nothing seemed to be happening and we had no alert. Only when they went back home they were confined for two months as all the Chinese were. And even in February at the commission meetings that we held in Geneva, all the delegations from around the world arrived and participated, everybody except for the Chinese. Only by that time it became a global matter.
When you realized something was going on, what did you do?
I spoke to all my staff, and I wrote to all the federations, and I recorded a video. And we have been in contact since by electronic means like any company in the world. The biggest task has been in regards to the promoters. I have been in contact daily with all the promoters, as we are still trying to save the season, we are still trying to save the championships, whenever they might take place. But I feel this will not happen before the summer.
If everything goes the best that it can and this pandemic can be stopped somehow, and we can race again, even without spectators if needed, we will have the minimum of races whenever we can. Now it's premature to say when or how, but for sure, if we have the minimum chance to organize some races - even if less than planned in a season which I am sure would happen - we would do all we can to save the championship at the moment.
When I say championship, I am talking about MotoGP, WSBK, MXG, Enduro, Speedway, trial, you name it. The only ones we already postponed to next year are the 6 days ISDE and the FIM Moto-Rally as these are two events that need long preparations and demand a lot of work in advance. The 6 days Enduro is planned to be run between Lombardy and Piedmont in Italy with more than 600 participants, and in order to let the Italian organizers recover the investment they already made, we agreed to let the same organizers do it next year, with the same plan, in the same location. This decision was very welcomed by all. So these two events, we are not going to it this year for sure.
Also because it's not just tracks, it's also infrastructure. There is still danger, you need hospitals and medical resources in case of injury?
Even though our sport is a lot less dangerous than it used to be in the past, we have to start working again only when things are back to normal, at this current situation it's completely impossible to even think of organizing races.
Same for national championships?
We have at the FIM our department for the national federations and this has been very helpful, as they are in contact with all of our members and we know exactly what is happening in each country. All the federations are closed and all the staff are at home, so we are in touch with all the local presidents. But everybody is waiting and hoping this will pass. All the national championships are currently canceled and if we restart with the races, we have then to comply with all the national and continental ones as best as we can. We will try to compress 12 months off championships in three, maybe five months. Even if we go into January, which is a possibility. But that's why we are here, we are here to try to find solutions, otherwise we should just have to get a computer running instead of us.
Carmelo Ezpeleta said that there are solutions to any possible problem, but he also said that if the championship is pushed until January it will affect 2021 also?
In case we need a minimum of races to have a championship, and there are not enough weekends this year, if we need to go one or two weekends into January, we will do it for sure, it's not a taboo. But it will happen only as a last resort, if we really need it. And then we will have to adapt the 2021 championship, because it is not only 2020 that will be harmed. Don't think 2021 will be a completely normal season, because it will not. We have to think two years ahead.
We are currently thinking of freezing the development of the MotoGP machines for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, not only to save costs, to help the manufacturers, to help the teams. Because we are talking about thousands of people who live from racing, and they are all not working at the moment. There is no sponsoring, there are no revenues from anywhere. So we have to save what we like, which is racing. So we will do whatever possible, there will be a lot of decisions taken in order to decrease cost, and to try to help the teams and manufacturers. The factories are also closed, we are talking about thousands of employees.
In a joint conference call with the European commissioner for the internal market and ACEM (Association of European Motorcycle Manufacturers) we had just a few days ago, and they need desperately some measures taken by the European union to survive, to keep employment, to keep manufacturing bikes in the future. And without this we have no sport, all is linked.
Do you think because of this the sport would lose some of its glamour?
For sure not, we will have same thrilling races as we had in the past, that we can be sure off. Even if we don't go for technological developments for one or two years, this does not mean the machines will be less performing. Motorcycle sport will remain the most exciting sport in the world, believe me!
I heard Mr. Ezpeleta might ask to have smaller number of races than 13 to be counted as a season...
Yes, sure. We spoke about this possibility and if we need to have a championship shorter than usual we would. We spoke about the option to have ten races a season, this is not a problem. This is a very exceptional year. It would be great, if we coud still organize ten races this year, it would be amazing, fantastic. And an important reason it would be fantastic is because people will NEED entertainment after this! The leisure industry is the best medicine to raise the morale of the seven billion who are currently being confined in a situation we never imagined, and I hope it is the first and last time we will have a situation like this.
This is quite a first year for you at this position...
When you are elected to a post like this, with that level of responsibility, you cannot assume everything will be roses and life will just be easy. We are here for the good times and for the bad times. And at this moment I feel a huge responsibility, not only to take the right decisions, but also to let all involved feel that I am here for them, to take decisions and to lead the way. And this is very important, to give confidence to everybody.
Have you considered having a mixed weekend of WSBK and MotoGP?
We are also looking into that, but it is not so easy because of commercial constraints, because of contracts, licensing, sponsoring, TV rights and so on. But I tell you, we will do whatever is necessary. Maybe we can run it together, maybe we can do longer weekends, double races, everything that we can do, will be done. Even if we need to change the regulations, we will change them.
The current economic situation must also affect the FIM itself, so how are you dealing with that?
We are currently on a crisis budget, so we cut everything which is not absolutely necessary. We are trying to preserve all the staff. So we are seeking help from the Swiss government to afford our employees, as we have no calendar fees, no license fees, no promoters revenues. But the FIM has always had some reserves, so nothing will happen to us, but obviously we are taking measures.
So the usual summer conference is off?
The board meeting in May will happen electronically. Then the next problem is the FIM Europe general assembly and congress that will take place at the end of June, the decision was not made yet whether to postpone or electronically as it will be difficult to have online all the national federations. In regards to our general assembly in December, we hope by then everything will be back to almost normal.
We have decided that the national federations don't pay any fees this year to the FIM, it would be free. For the big federations it's not a big thing, but for the majority of the small federations, this is a good help. It's a gesture we could do to help our national federations. Riders who already applied and got their license, and if we will not have races we will give a refund for sure and this will be done via the national federations as the licenses are not linked directly to us.
The economic situation is hitting the riders too...
Dorna are doing something that is really spectacular, they are paying their contracts as if the season is normal. This includes paying the teams, so they can keep their riders, maybe with some reductions as they are not racing and as they usually have a fixed fee and a variable fee depending on the races. But the fact that they are paying the teams, will allow the teams to survive, especially the independent teams during this long period. Dorna told me they will keep all commitments as regards the fixed fees, what was agreed with the teams, which is more than the minimum for them to survive.
Another aspect of this is that a lot of riders don't have an agreement for next season, and were going to use these months to show their talent...
The FIM does not have any jurisdictions over these kinds of contracts. It's an issue between Dorna and IRTA and the teams of course, but the FIM is not a part of those contracts. But we are talking with both bodies daily, and trying to ensure that nobody will be harmed because of this crisis, we are working on solutions. What I have proposed with our promoters, is for the ones that have their contract ending in 2020 or 2021, to extend the contract by a year. Because it's not the time now to negotiate new contracts or to finish contracts now, and I am sure Dorna would do the same.
There are championships which are already talking about canceling the whole season yet Dorna and the FIM are taking it race by race?
At this moment everything is postponed for the first half of the year. In other disciplines where we control the calendar, we have postponed all the racing we could from the first half of the year to the second. In everything concerned with MotoGP and WSBK, we are doing race by race because it has a lot of implications, for the circuits, the hosting cities, with the TV rights, etc. So at this moment we just postponed races, the last one was France, and the next one will be Mugello [Since this interview, Mugello and Barcelona have been postponed as well - Ed]. This has so many implications, so many contracts around it, that we have to be careful, we cannot just say, OK, everything is canceled. We are really trying to define a new calendar for MotoGP. I mean, we are being realistic and we hope it would be possible, but we are trying at least to have everything ready once this will be over.
Once everything comes back to normal, there will be a lot of sporting events on at the same time?
It would be fantastic! Motocross, Enduro, MotoGP, and there are not enough TV channels! You will have to record everything, you have to choose, you will start watching races Saturday morning and finish Sunday night, watching racing 48 hours! [Laughs]
But we are not considering races during the weekdays. Because people go to work, and we are talking about leisure time. And we must give good show to people, they will need these kind of things desperately. And if we can give an overdose of racing, why not? I cannot wait to have back motorcycle racing.
What is your message to the riders, the teams?
I spoke with someone I respect a lot, and I find to be an incredible person, Mr. Giacomo Agostini because he is living in Bergamo, the center of the virus and I was worried about him. We discussed current events and we agreed we need to keep optimistic and as any motorcyclist knows, we don't let anything defeat us. We will be back, stronger than ever, and for the time being please keep safe
Courtesy David Emmett - Motomatters.com