This weekend, MotoGP roars back into life in Jerez, Spain after a four-month back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Life for all involved in the championship will be radically different as the championship adjusts to the ‘new normal.’
As revealed by Motorsport Broadcasting last month, access to the paddock will be limited to key personnel and major television crews only, with all other journalists remaining off-site.
On the UK front, television broadcaster BT Sport are remaining in the UK, opting to present their programming from Triumph’s Visitor Experience Centre in Hinckley, albeit with all social distancing regulations in place.
Lockdown life for BT
Whilst most of Europe was in lockdown, BT took the opportunity to prepare for the road ahead, presenting 36 hours of MotoGP programming remotely across 11 weeks, and exploiting MotoGP’s rich archive in the process.
Despite the natural challenges surrounding remote broadcasting, arguably the end solution was better than BT could have ever expected in the circumstances, an ‘extreme’ solution as described by Kevin Brown, BT’s MotoGP series editor at production house North One.
“The engineers at BT and our partners at Timeline are brilliant. They’ve been working on remote solutions for a while for sustainability reasons, but those plans were accelerated very, very quickly to make it work,” explained Brown.
“What it meant was that the usual gallery of people working on a TV production was spread around into their homes by using technical solutions to make that happen.”
“I think the best way to describe it is extreme because it hadn’t been done before and it ended up with us being able to make 36 hours of MotoGP programming across 11 weeks, which we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.”
The channel started off with whittling down MotoGP’s classic races over five weeks, with the 2009 Catalunya battle between Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo crowned The Greatest Race. Following the initial five episodes was another series of episodes looking at MotoGP’s Greatest Years.
Fans engaged with both programming strands, each generating social media traffic in the process for BT, helping to fill the racing void for motorcycling fans around the country, all done remotely, and with no obvious teething issues from the outset, which Brown says is a “testament to all working on the production,” despite the scale of change involved.
“For all of us, it was a big change to how we’ve done things previously. The presenters had to build and set the kit up themselves remotely, engineering their own television studio essentially! Everybody has had to adapt, and I think with coronavirus, we’ve all had to do different things to get the show up and running,” Brown said.
“It was a very different kind of programme because we were generating the content rather than reacting to it, and there were fewer people working on it. It was a way of using what we know is fantastic archive, but to put a modern spin on it, encouraging viewer engagement. At the time, there was no sport on the television, there was nothing for people to talk about.”
The return of present-day sport
Fast-forward, and MotoGP returns this weekend, however social distancing regulations remain. Having perfected remote broadcasting during lockdown, BT are continuing down that path, for the moment at least, but with the experience from lockdown now in their back pocket.
Although the BT’s presentation team of Suzi Perry, Gavin Emmett, Keith Huewen, Michael Laverty, and Neil Hodgson are presenting the coverage from Triumph’s Hinckley base, the production aspect of the coverage continues to be remote.
Triumph is a relevant base for BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage, given their involvement with MotoGP as Moto2’s core engine supplier.
A skeleton crew will be present in Hinckley, three people will be based at Timeline’s production facility in London, with nine people working from home.
“The learning that we were able to do over the 11 weeks of those two series’ has stood us in good stead for this because we were able to use this remote setup,” Brown tells me.
“We couldn’t put the nine people who are working from home in a gallery because there wouldn’t be a gallery big enough to cater for social distancing. We’re trying to make it as close as possible to our normal production, but without putting anybody’s safety at risk.”
“The main thing is, we all want to make programming, we all want to see sport back again, but the overriding thing has to be that we keep people safe.”
Safety is key for BT, and to that effect the crew will be in different places across Triumph’s base, with the touch pad located in a different area of the building compared to the main socially distanced set. Floor markings identify which direction the presentation team must walk in throughout the weekend.
Similarly, Perspex screens will separate the four commentary booths, with each desk two meters long, allowing for BT to continue their usual policy of rotating their commentary team with each session.
“It’s all been set up so they don’t share lip mics, they won’t have the same talkback keys, they won’t have the same computer screens, all of those things have been carefully considered,” explains Brown, who himself will be based down in London for the duration of the weekend.
“The Perspex screen though means that they will still be able to see each other and obviously because the interaction between the commentators is quite crucial, we felt that was an important thing to be able to do.”
Only one of the pundits will be with Perry in the main studio area, and similarly only one person will be directing the touch screen at any given time.
Brown praises Dorna co-operation
The touch screen will allow Emmett to interview riders throughout the weekend, including post-race, and Brown praises the co-operation with MotoGP’s commercial rights holder Dorna during this period.
“I always feel the job of a sports production is to take people to an event they can’t go to, and right now they really can’t go to the event, so I think it becomes even more important for us to try to get people closer to what’s going on.”
“Not being in the paddock is always going to be a disadvantage, however Dorna have been brilliant throughout. They understand that we’re not going to be travelling and they’ve done their best to help us with that.”
“The riders and the teams have been briefed that when they do their interviews with us, they will have headphones and a mic which will allow them to interact with our studio. It means that, although we’re not there, we’re hopefully able to bring people closer by having the key characters still interacting with our presentation,” Brown says.
Although this period has been tough for everyone, Brown says that BT have learnt a lot.
“What I think we’ve learnt over lockdown is that we can be agile enough to adapt in the circumstances, and I think that’s something BT can be really proud of.”
“We were able to continue making MotoGP programmes when there wasn’t any MotoGP, and we were able to continue doing it when there wasn’t any access to any TV studios. I think that’s shown a lot of agility and a lot of resourcefulness, just to keep motorbike racing on the telly, which in the end is what people want to watch,” he tells me.
For at least the next five races, Triumph will be the home of BT Sport’s MotoGP coverage. Beyond that, is anyone’s guess. For now, let us enjoy the ride as MotoGP accelerates back off the start line.