Ahead of the British round of the 2016 MotoGP championship, I sat down with David Emmett (@MotoMatters), talking all things MotoGP.
The interview covered a vast array of subjects, including testing, social media, and what MotoGP may look like post Valentino Rossi.
F1B: Thank you for this interview, just give us a brief overview of yourself. How did you get into MotoGP?
DE: My name is David Emmett; I work for MotoMatters. I did all sorts of stuff when I was much younger. I spent five years working as a translator, then worked as a technical editor. In 2005, I wanted to start a blog. I wrote an entry saying “this is my blog” and I’m going to write my thoughts there, except I didn’t write anything at all for a year! Ahead of the 2006 season, I wrote a MotoGP preview and people were quite positive about it. Because it got so many positive responses, I continued writing about it. At the time I was working as a software developer looking at Content Management Systems and I did the two of them together for two years. In September 2008, I decided to quit my job as I was getting enough interest that I thought I could make a living from it. A few days after that the Lehman Brothers collapsed and the whole house of cards fell apart. I didn’t have a job, so had to make a go of it. I went to races, people read my stuff, liked my stuff. That’s how I ended up here. I grew up with motorcycles, my Uncle raced grass track in the 1970s and 1980s. When I was a teenage, I had a picture of a Yamaha RD350 hanging above my bed. So, that was it really.
F1B: You mentioned translating, it’s actually really important for a journalist to have some translator skills.
DE: It’s basically language skills. Just being able to make sense of stuff. You are trained as a writer, I also worked as a technical editor where you had to digest complicated technical information. It was the technical writers who were writing it, I was editing their copy so I had to make sure I could understand what they were trying to convey. You learnt a lot about communicating.
F1B: Interesting to know that you started blogging before blogging became popular.
DE: I don’t know; I would say blogging started to become a thing in the mid-2000s. I got in I wouldn’t say early, but I wouldn’t say late. One of the advantages of being old is that when you do things, quite often you’ve done things early just because you happen to be old enough to actually understand it.
F1B: Moving onto the current day, you guys are going to every race this season I assume.
DE: I’m going to about 12 of the 18 this season. I don’t go to the overseas races; I don’t go to Le Mans because it is shit. It’s a fantastic place to go for a 24-hour car race, I really want to go to that and I don’t like cars, I don’t own a car. The atmosphere at the track is awful, it is not a nice track. I don’t go to the Asian fly away races, I don’t go to Qatar because it is horrible, I don’t go to Argentina because it is almost impossible to get there.
F1B: Do you go to the pre-season tests as well?
DE: I go to at least one of the pre-season Sepang tests, especially the first one. The new bikes are being pulled out, riders have had the winter to go away and think. Immediately after Valencia, you have the post-season tests. You saw it at the end of the last year with [Valentino] Rossi, Rossi was so upset that his mind was not really on testing. What you see is that people are tired after 18 races, the season takes a lot out of them physically. The bike hasn’t really taken shape yet, the bike they roll out at Sepang is much closer to what they will actually be racing. It is about trying stuff, what works and what doesn’t. Testing is also boring. Those eight hours of track time, especially at Sepang because of the heat, they spend two hours on track. You’ve got a lot of time to talk to people which you don’t have at a race weekend because the race weekends are so intense.
F1B: There was a whole thing a few years ago where people wanted testing live.
DE: Testing is a bit like cricket, it is much more interesting when you listen to it on the radio or via the timing screens. You see much more of a story. The actual process of testing doesn’t have the intensity. It is much more difficult to understand because different people are doing different things. Testing highlights are really interesting, live coverage of testing is really, really boring. I remember in 2010 when Valentino Rossi switched to Ducati, they had live coverage of testing then and it rained in the morning. The track was wet, it was cold, nobody really wanted to go out. They sent one of the test riders out to go and circulate and to dry the track out. They were desperate for something to happen. I think they sent Rossi out for five laps and brought him back in again. There’s always pressure to create that content, but the content you are curating is not particularly memorable. There’s about seven hardcore MotoGP geeks that would sit there all day and watch it.
F1B: So, you’re going to 12 of the 18 races this season, tell us in a little bit more detail how you prepare for the races.
DE: To be perfectly honest, I don’t do a great deal of preparation. It is more of a continuous thing. You are thinking about what you are doing, and I try to watch the race from last year. I’ll go through the results of previous races, take a look at the race track, read a few press releases. This year Michelin have come in, new tyre manufacture, you read their press release to try and understand what they’re not telling you, what the story is, what they’re doing. For me, it is part of a larger narrative, it’s not a race weekend, it’s another chapter in the story of the season.
F1B: I’d assume it is a lot more intense for the TV guys considering they’re on air for seven hours.
DE: Oh yeah, absolutely. I wait for things to happen and then write about them afterwards.
F1B: I guess we can talk about Rossi and [Marc] Marquez, the approach [between TV and online] would be completely different.
DE: Exactly. I can go and talk to people. For example, the last race in Brno, all of the tyre issues. The TV guys are reacting immediately, they’re unprepared for it. They can do a certain amount of prep; they may have talked to people after warm-up, but I get the chance to talk to all of the riders first, talk to crew chiefs, talk to people from Michelin and then form an opinion. Because it is more reactive it requires less preparation, because I write 2,000 words in the evening, I have time to sit down and think about it.
F1B: How was Sepang last year?
DE: I wasn’t there. It was just really strange [the crash]. But I was talking to the rest of the media that were there, we were chatting via WhatsApp trying to figure out what was going on, what the atmosphere was like. It was very odd. Those are the times that you wish you were there, because then you can go around afterwards and actually talk to people. But then, being at home, it meant that I could watch that clip over and over. If I had been at the race, I would not have had time to sit down and watch it. So instead, I sat down and watched those two laps for two hours trying to figure out the whole story.
F1B: And then the championship went to Valencia, where I think there was crazy behaviour from what I remember.
DE: Amongst the fans it was fine, there was nothing there. The fans were booing [Jorge] Lorenzo and Marquez, but then they often boo them so it was not that much different. There was some oddness, not really craziness. The fact that they scrapped the press conference was a mistake. I think Dorna got caught unawares by that as well, they were not expecting it all to happen with the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) appeal against the penalty. That also made it a little bit more difficult as we were sitting around waiting for the outcome of this appeal.
F1B: This leads us nicely onto talking about MotoGP’s future. Part of that future is social media. Social media activity jumps when incidents like that happen, which can be a good thing.
DE: Absolutely. MotoGP and social media have a very long history. I’ve been on social media since 2009. At first, Dorna didn’t really know what to do with the internet. It has got slowly better and better, Dorna started to understand how the internet can help them. There’s lots of crap out on the internet, especially in the Spanish and Italian press writing any old thing, just to generate ‘hits’ and attraction. Dorna were very concerned and cautious about social media. That has changed over the years. In the last two or three years, Dorna have totally embraced it. For a long time, they spent most of their time chasing down video clips. Now what they’re doing, which I told them to do five years ago, is getting the content out their immediately. Using the Snappy.TV clips have been really, really good and they’ve been using those clips. If something dramatic happens, the first thing fans do at home is share that video clip. When MotoGP immediately shares that clip, everyone else shares that clip because it is in much better quality.
F1B: The Rossi and Marquez crash had 20 million views on Facebook, you can’t buy those numbers.
DE: It’s Donald Trump’s election strategy really, earned media instead of actually buying media. You just say something ridiculous and people report it.
F1B: What is the future post Valentino Rossi? What is going to happen to MotoGP?
DE: Quite honestly, it will be smaller. This is one of Dorna’s biggest concerns. One of the reasons they’ve changed a lot of the technical regulations is to try and create exciting racing and to create a structure where young riders come and grow their fans. You’re also seeing team structures, so the Marc VDS take young riders aged 12 or 13 from mini bikes all the way up to MotoGP, and that talent can be coached and helped along the way. There’s lots and lots of talent, the problem is: how do you replace an icon like Valentino Rossi? The honest answer is you don’t. What you have to do is mitigate the effect. So what you want when he goes is a stable, attractive product in place which will retain some of the existing fan base. The idea is people come and see Valentino Rossi, but they stay because they find MotoGP an interesting and exciting sport. Dorna are trying to figure out what the sport is. They’re not F1, they’re not champagne and glamour, but we are a little bit upmarket and a little bit edgy. It is trying to figure out what the brand of MotoGP is, what motor cycle racing is and how to sell it. One of the biggest problems they face is that MotoGP riders are now sportsmen or sportswomen. They’re professional athletes, which is a problem because they tend to be boring. They train, they race and they sleep, and that’s it. They’re not formed as humans. In the 1970s and 80s, Barry Sheene had a hole drilled on his helmet so he could have a cigarette through it. He could afford to do that because the sport was much less developed in terms of physical training. You can’t go out on a Saturday evening and get steaming drunk like the 80s. The boys and girls like to go out and have a party but it is much more controlled and restricted. Their partying is constrained by a strict training regime. This isn’t just MotoGP, it is also to an extent in F1 and a lot of other professional sports, they’re fairly dull. There’s the pressure of sponsors, the more money there is in the sport, the less freedom there is to be a maverick.
F1B: Where does pay-TV stand within all the MotoGP change and social media?
DE: Well pay-TV is the future of a lot of professional sports. Someone has to pay for it. Large public broadcasters are not prepared to pay large amounts of money; they can’t afford it. So, for example, it goes to BT Sport because BT are trying to flog broadband connections. So they can afford to spend money on the likes of football and MotoGP because they are linking their package together to sell broadband. That’s why it ends up on pay-TV, advertising revenues are changing. You can’t subsidise as much straight from advertising.
F1B: Is one of the concerns post-Rossi is that sponsors will leave, which will increase pay-TV deals exponentially again?
DE: To be frank, that’s going to be more of a problem for teams than for the sport and a lot of the sponsorship people are working very much on building relationships. So, for example, Phillip Morris, the tobacco people still sponsor Ducati. It’s just you don’t see Marlboro anywhere, but they use it as a way to build relationships. They’re doing it very differently. Sponsors are using teams to build relationships, making them less reliant on a particular figure to entertain their clients and to do business.
My thanks go to David Emmett for spending the time with me on the above interview.