Auto #30 - Getting motor sport back on track


Motor sport calendars have been decimated by the pandemic and while the long-term impact of the disruption to competitions is hard to forecast, FIA Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker says ASNs, promoters and stakeholders must come together with a sense of purpose to get racing back on track when the crisis eases

We’ve seen an almost complete shutdown of motor sport in many countries. How severe do you think the impact on motor sport will be and in particular how diicult might the coming months be for the national sporting authorities (ASNs)? 

It’s very diicult to forecast, as the situation is enormously volatile, but what is certain is that in economic terms it’s not easy for anyone. At the top level you have OEMs and manufacturers whose factories are silent and
whose sales are visibly taking an enormous hit – and for motor sport that’s troubling. When they emerge from the pandemic, their priority is going to be to re-start manufacturing, to sell cars and to managecosts. That could have a range of impacts and one of those might be on motor sport. So, to my mind, we could well be looking at restarting motor sport from the grassroots up. Grassroots motor sport has always been the lifeblood of competition and we should reconnect with that, whilst demonstrating that the sport has an important place in modern society. I think it will be vital in re-establishing a sense of normality before we start trying to tap into sponsorship money and suchlike. If you go through the history of motor sport there are lessons to be learned. If you look at what happened following the world wars, the re-emergence of motor sport was driven by a grassroots desire to compete and I think that might again be the case. In that regard our ASNs are hugely important. I’m determined to do all we can to help those ASNs through this difficult period.

What kind of support structures are you thinking about?

The FIA and many ASNs work on the basis having at least one year’s reserves, but when you’re talking about 145 ASNs, that’s not the case for many of them. In that light, I think we’ve got to be flexible with the Sport Funding Commission and the Innovation Fund. We need to look at formulating a rescue package and the mechanisms that go with that sort of support so that we are able to help those in trouble. 

You mentioned re-building. The scale of the shutdown means that when sporting events do start again, we could see a lot of competition for crowds and for backing. How can we smoothly manage a re-start? 

It will be an enormously competitive and potentially very crowded environment – and in one way that’s what we’ve got to hope for. We want to see the return of the enormously vibrant and diverse motor sport environment we are used to. However, it will need very careful management. When we look at things such as the International Sporting Code and international sporting calendar, the approach has to be flexible. It’s crucial that we prioritise the staging of events. What would be counter-productive would be to get involved in turf wars. Let’s not get involved in disputes about who has got which slot and what prior agreements might specify – that approach will not work. The main priority is get motor sport going again and if that means some ‘super weekends’ with multiple events happening, in co-operation and with flexibility, well, why not? Just getting grassroots events or medium-level national events up and running, so that the confidence comes back, is very important. Motor sport has got to pull together, and we’ve got to have flexibility in terms of events and venues and thinking outside the box in order to get things going again in a spectacular way that will obviously attract public interest. We should also demonstrate that motor sport remains relevant and a positive influence, through its messaging and actions. 

Speaking of confidence, do you believe that demand will exist? Will people feel secure in attending large events? 

I think there will be pent-up demand. People will have a huge desire to get back to normal. There will be a reaction against being artificially constrained, because the lockdowns we are seeing are an artificial restriction; the contraction of economic activity and normal life haven’t been caused by a recession, though that may yet come. However, I do believe people will want to get out, they will want to go to events and they will want to get back to normal.

With ‘real world’ motor sport largely shut down, there has been a huge surge in digital racing competition. While the circumstances in which it is happening are obviously unfortunate, is this the moment that virtual motor sport crosses over into the mainstream?

People will become incredibly familiar with and start to really like digital racing and simulators of sporting activity. After a few months, this kind of competition will be quite familiar to us and I think a wider audience
will begin to have confidence in it as a competitive pursuit. Then, beyond the confines of the pandemic, I don’t feel we will drop digital racing. I think it will continue to grow as part of what we’re used to as competition and as part of the way we want to run our sport. That’s one of the benefits that will come out of this – we will have a real familiarity with this new technology and embrace it.
You spoke about careful management of sport’s return to normality. Do you think we will still face restrictions on social gatherings even after periods of lockdown, and how might that affect motor sport events? 

It’s my feeling that there will a period of transition as we attempt to move back towards normality, avoiding an outbreak until immunisation starts. That period will have to be carefully managed, in concert with other international federations and their national representatives, with governments and with international and national health authorities. It will not be easy but we have to be mindful of all of the guidance being offered, because we’ve got to do it right. If we do that, then I think the confidence starts to grow. Those are the things in my inbox at he moment. How do we get the sport going practically with the clubs? How do we help those clubs to remain vital, how do we get grassroots sport moving and restore confidence? And finally, how do we do that in such a way that we do it responsibly and with the interests and safety of the public at the core of what we do?

Are you envisaging events taking place behind closed doors?

Not necessarily. Our sport, for the most part, does not occur inside stadiums. We are an open-air activity. So, it might be perfectly possible to run motor sport in a responsible way, but having regard to the public health advice. It’s just a matter of how you organise it. Having said that, we can’t of course rule that option out in the early stages of transition.

Finally, we’ve seen some remarkable action in the fight against COVID-19 by motor sport teams, ASNs and stakeholders. How do you feel about that response?

I’m enormously proud of what the clubs are doing and motor sport in general. For example, the engineering and manufacturing response of the teams in Formula One has been remarkable. And that willingness to turn R&D and manufacturing centres towards actions to fight this disease has been mirrored throughout the industry. Motor Sport is a fabulous industry and utterly unique in its ability to engage in the sort of response we are seeing. It is a wonderful, hugely positive thing to see and I’m full of admiration for the skill and ingenuity we can bring to fighting this disease and to saving lives.