Kazakhstan is set to host a round of the FIM MotoGP World Championship starting in 2023. MotoGP announced a five-year deal to race in the Central Asian country. Kazakhstan is just one of several countries finding their way onto the MotoGP schedule, pushing the number of races to the contractual limit of 22 and likely beyond that limit in the near future. Adding lucrative new markets, as well as adding a half-distance sprint race at every round, will likely positively impact the bottom line of Dorna Sports, MotoGP’s commercial rights holder.
The Kazakhstan Grand Prix will take place at Sokol International Racetrack, a 2.8-mile circuit located 35 miles northwest of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Long-time F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke designed the circuit. Sokol bares the long straights and sharp, low-speed corners associated with Tilke’s style. Turn 9 will likely be the Sokol’s most iconic corner for going against Tilke’s type, being a long sweeping right-hander after the track’s longest straight.
Not much else was revealed in the announcement, not even when the race will take place next season. It is believed that the Kazakhstani round will happen in July, taking the race date slated for Finland. The planned MotoGP race in Finland appears to be canned after the KymiRing circuit was forced into bankruptcy by the debt it owed construction companies. The track construction has faced numerous setbacks despite the stated reason for the 2022 Finnish Grand Prix’s cancellation being the “ongoing geopolitical situation,” hinting at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yes, the KymiRing is located 50 miles from Finland’s border with Russia, but the circuit also wasn’t completely built yet.
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The MotoGP race isn’t Kazakhstan’s first foray into using international sports to promote itself abroad. Samruk-Kazyna, a conglomerate of state-owned Kazakhstani companies, has financially backed several sports teams to boost the country’s profile. The Astana pro cycling team has been its most successful venture after a rocky start. In 2007, the team named after the Kazakhstani capital was forced to withdraw from its first Tour de France after Alexander Vinokourov, Astana’s lead rider, tested positive for blood doping. Vinokourov was banned for two years, and Astana reshuffled its team management. Former U.S. Postal Service team boss Johan Bruyneel was brought on, and
seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was lured out of retirement to ride for Astana in 2009. Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2009 for Astana, while his teammate Armstrong finished third.
In contrast to the state-funding sporting ventures, Kazakhstani citizens aren’t allowed to express their political opinions freely. The country had only a single president from its independence from the Soviet Union until 2019. Political dissent, even online, is dealt with harshly in Kazakhstan. Amnesty International noted an incident where a dozen peaceful protesters “were surrounded by police officers and forced to stand outside in sub-zero temperatures for over nine hours before being released.”
MotoGP’s five-year adventure to Kazakhstan and its recent agreement with Saudi Arabia mimic similar deals made by Formula One and other sports organizations. Concerns for human rights tossed aside for financial gain while shielding themselves with statements mentioning that they are providing new events to race-deprived fans.