There was a period during the previous decade where Formula 1 was steadily losing ground to MotoGP.
While Bernie Ecclestone had made four-wheeled grand prix racing successful in the era of TV and print media, his dismissal of social media, combined with processional racing, saw the ratings of the sport decline.
Dorna, after a similarly difficult start, finally embraced social media in the middle of the last decade, and that attention to the benefits of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram helped build the profile of the sport.
That was helped in no small part by the technical regulations conceived in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and put into place between 2012 and 2016 having their intended effect and making the racing much closer and more exciting. MotoGP grew while F1 lagged behind.
The arrival of Liberty Media changed the face of F1, dragging the sport kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
Liberty took a radically different view of the media aspects of the sport, pushing hard into social media, and giving the teams far more leeway and freedom to create and promote their own content online.
Unscripted Reality TV
Realizing that perhaps the most important aspect of promoting a sport in which so little of the athletes involved is actually on view, Liberty also teamed up with Netflix to create a documentary series showing the background of F1.
Drive to Survive, as the series was called, has been a massive hit for the series since its launch in early 2019. It has grown the popularity of F1, and more importantly, attracted a huge audience among the under 30s.
For a series that was cruising on its popularity among the over 40s, opening up that new audience has been vital.
It has been an open secret that Dorna had teamed up with Amazon to create its own version of the F1 Drive to Survive series. Amazon cameras have been following various riders and team members around all year.
The official announcement in November that the series would be broadcast in 2022 merely confirmed something we all knew.
Yet the press release did contain some useful tidbits of information. The series, provisionally titled Life At Speed, though that is not mentioned in the press release, will consist of eight episodes of 50 minutes each.
It is expected to debut ahead of the 2022 season, and show what goes on behind closed doors inside MotoGP. There is footage with riders, teams, engineers, and managers.
Follow the Leader
Will Life At Speed match the success of Drive To Survive? The MotoGP series faces challenges which F1 doesn’t, and go beyond the comparative popularity of the two sports.
The first, and perhaps biggest, is language. The lingua franca of F1 is English. Most of the teams are based in the UK, F1 itself has its headquarters in London, a large proportion of the engineers in F1 are English-speakers, and six of F1’s 21 drivers have English as their primary language.
English is the language most people inside the F1 paddock use to communicate, whatever their own languages happen to be.
That makes it much easier for a global audience to follow. Apart from the massive media market in the US, many nations around the world are used to watching TV series and movies in English, often with subtitles.
English is the language with the most speakers in the world, as either first or second language, while many, many more have a strong passive understanding of the language.
Thanks to the power of Hollywood, English is the default language of cultural exchange for a large part of the world.
By contrast, Spanish and Italian dominate the MotoGP paddock. Of the 22 riders on the grid for the season, nine were Spanish, and seven were Italian.
There was also a Portuguese rider in Miguel Oliveira, and Fabio Quartararo, for whom Spanish is his second tongue, having spent his childhood racing in Spain.
Team bosses and staff are also predominantly Spanish or Italian, with most teams based in one of the two countries (or the Spanish-speaking tax haven of Andorra).
Spanish has the fourth largest number of speakers in the world, but capitalizing on that is not easy for MotoGP either. For though a large part of the grid has a Spanish passport, their mother tongue is Catalan.
Dorna is based in Barcelona, and most of the staff speak Catalan among themselves.
Non-Spaniards who go to work for Dorna find themselves having to learn Catalan as well as Spanish to survive. Much of the business of MotoGP is done not in Spanish, but in Catalan.
What this means is that Amazon’s Life At Speed series will need a lot of subtitles. There were efforts made at first to force some riders and team members to speak English to each other, but that was quickly dropped.
Here, though, the shift from TV to streaming platforms may also help. The arrival of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and other streaming services has seen an explosion of content in the form of series and movies.
Unlike series broadcast on terrestrial TV and shown in cinemas, these have mostly not been dubbed into English or other languages.
Series shot in languages other than English have been huge commercial successes, with Squid Game, a South Korean series, the latest hit show to come with subtitles.
The other main language spoken in the MotoGP paddock is Japanese, with three of the six manufacturers building the bike based in Japan. That adds an additional language barrier, but also potentially a couple of cultural ones.
The production company filming Life At Speed is Spanish, and unless they have directors or camera operators fluent in Japanese, they will have difficulty picking up on important conversations in Japanese happening at the time.
Any Japanese conversations captured will also have to be translated and parsed for interest before they can be included in the series.
Then there’s the culture of secrecy in MotoGP. As anyone who has had the privilege to wander up and down pit lane at a MotoGP event will know, teams and factories are excessively paranoid about unwanted onlookers.
Terrified of rivals finding out anything about their bikes, teams put up screens to work behind or close the garage doors as soon as the fairings have to come off the bike.
Anyone who has tried to take a picture in pit lane has close ups of the hands of angry mechanics or engineers as they try to stop anyone from taking a photo.
At the Jerez test, I even had an engineer filming the bikes out at the side of the track shout at me for trying to take a picture of his camera setup.
This culture of secrecy is the biggest barrier to a series such as Life At Speed.
Gossip among regular paddock denizens are that some factories tried to restrict access as much as possible, with, so it is said, Yamaha unwilling to play along, despite the fact that Fabio Quartararo was constantly in the running for the championship, eventually winning it for the Japanese factory for the first time since 2015.
Some factories were extremely wary of the cameras, others wanted no truck with them at all.
Breaching that obstacle and getting factories and teams to play along will be key going forward, but the question is how well the production team managed to work around that in the first series.
The lesson of Drive To Survive is that those who cooperated benefited most.
Red Bull F1 team boss Christian Horner told The Athletic’s Business Of Sport podcast that the team picked up five partners which he believes can be at least partly attributed to the popularity of the Netflix series.
If MotoGP manages to create similar success stories, that should open the doors at factories which are currently trying to keep them closed.
Part of getting the teams to open up is about building trust. The series of short features titled “UNSEEN” on the MotoGP.com website is an excellent example of this.
The Dorna TV directors responsible have invested a lot of time and energy persuading the teams to allow the Dorna cameras to follow them, and built up a lot of trust by being careful not to overstep the mark in what they show to the public.
The series shows frank and unfiltered discussions and reactions to the races after they happen, but though such features are always revealing, they never give away anything that would have negative consequences down the line.
That is also thanks to the careful work of the camera crews involved. They have spent so much time following the riders around that the riders have almost forgotten they are there.
So the riders talk openly, without thinking, without worrying about the cameras, oblivious to their presence. And that has allowed Dorna to capture some incredibly open conversations.
The question is whether Amazon has been able to match this feat. It helps that The Mediapro Studio, the production company behind the proposed series, is run by people who used to work at Dorna.
That means that there is already a strong understanding of the series, and strong ties between the production team and the principals involved. Familiar faces fit in faster.
The Ties that Bind
But this highlights another risk for the series. The strong ties between The Mediapro Studio and Dorna make for more open communication, but also allow for more pressure to be applied from the series organizers.
Dorna is a very closed and tight-knit organization, and they are notorious among the teams and media organizations for wanting to keep a tight grip on what gets into the public domain.
On the one hand, that is understandable: MotoGP is the product they have to sell, and it is in the interests of Dorna to ensure the series is presented in the best possible light.
But the success of behind-the-scenes documentaries depends on it feeling as authentic as possible. That requires the lightest possible touch from the directors.
The audience will see through any interference to try to paint things more positively, and that will risk alienating them.
After all, one of the big draws for F1’s Drive To Survive series has been the foul-mouthed rants and banter by some of its principal players such as Toto Wolff and Gunther Steiner.
MotoGP has plenty of colorful and entertaining characters, but they will only be appreciated if they are shown in their raw and unfiltered glory.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
The final threat to MotoGP’s Life At Speed series is sheer oversaturation. The press release from Dorna names three similar sports documentaries already produced and hosted by Amazon.
That is just a brief snippet of what is on offer: it seems as if every English Premier League club have their own series on some streaming channel or another, with more and more sports picking up on the trail blazed by ESPN’s Michael Jordan series The Last Dance and F1’s Drive To Survive on Netflix.
MotoGP is already behind the curve in that respect. If Life At Speed is to survive and get noticed, it will have to offer something special.
MotoGP fans already know how exceptionally exciting and intense the sport is, but the intensity behind the scenes is what will sell the series to an audience outside of motorcycle racing.
Even if the series is a success, that point isn’t necessarily to create a much larger fan base for motorcycle racing. Just as with F1’s Drive To Survive, there will be a large number of viewers for whom the TV drama is what keeps their interest.
F1 has seen a big boost in fan attendance, especially in the US, but the bigger impact has been on the overall media profile of MotoGP. And more media attention means more money for everyone.
If Life At Speed can bring MotoGP to a wider audience, especially in rich media markets like the USA, then it will be deemed a success.
Even if a large part of a potential audience only watches the Amazon Prime series, that will help teams and factories sell themselves to sponsors.
Perhaps the most important factor in the new series is that Dorna has partnered with Amazon Prime.
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos told Variety magazine that Amazon Prime has over 200 million subscribers, which is a huge potential audience. If the TV series is anything like as gripping as the racing, the impact could be huge.
But it is very far from a foregone conclusion.