So what has this Asian country got to do with motorcycling? That was probably the question on a lot of people’s lips when the calendar for the 2023 MotoGP World Championship was revealed a few days ago and we discovered that the Kazakhstan Grand Prix is to be one of the 21 races scheduled for the next season.
In fact, many people might have a hard job even locating Kazakhstan on the map. This old Soviet republic is the largest country in Central Asia, and is known for being enormous in size, spanning 2.7 million km2—that’s almost six times the size of Spain—and yet having a small population of just 18 million, less than half of Spain’s. To the north, the country shares a border with Russia, while to the south it neighbors the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.
Astana, its capital, is situated in the northern part of the country. It is a huge, desert steppe dotted with enormous lakes; to the south lies a mountain range alongside Almaty, the country’s most populated city, with almost two million inhabitants. Just 76 kilometers from there is the Sokol International Race Track, which will be hosting the MotoGP World Championship next year.
Sokol consists of a track that runs for 4,495 meters, designed by the renowned architect Hermann Tilke, who is responsible for several recently built circuits, including Sepang, MotorLand Aragón, COTA, Shanghai, Istanbul, Moscow, Buddh, Chang and Jeddah.
The Sokol Circuit
The project began back in 2014, when Alijan Ibragimov, a Kazakh oligarch, announced the construction of a circuit with the aim of hosting top level, international competitions. The works started that same year and are currently 90% complete, with work remaining to be done on the main track, while other parts of the circuit, including the karting, drag and drift area are now fully functional. In fact, Sokol already hosts a full program of motorsport activities throughout the year.
The man behind the development of the circuit, Alijan Ibragimov, died last year, however his son Dastan continues to drive the project forward. While completely privately run, the project is supported by the Kazakh Government to bring MotoGP to the country. This is perhaps what sets it apart from other failed projects, like KymiRing, or the unfinished circuit planned for Hungary that never took off after the Hungarian Government pulled its investment.
A factor that perhaps works in this circuit’s favor is that Sokol hired the consultancy team that managed MotorLand Aragón in its early years, which is there to oversee daily matters and the entire construction process, as well as being in charge of the organization once the MotoGP arrives at Sokol, a guarantee that they are in safe hands. Lest we forget that it was then that the Aragon Grand Prix was chosen as the best GP of the season, in 2010, 2013 and 2016.
The Kazakhstan Grand Prix
Kazakhstan will be the thirtieth country to host the MotoGP World Championship since it began all the way back in 1949, and Sokol will become the 74th circuit to host a Grand Prix in the history of the championship. MotoGP has signed a five-year deal with the Kazakh developer, which is a sure way for the sport to gain a foothold in the country.
Unsurprisingly, there is not much of a motorcycling tradition in Kazakhstan. In such a vast country with widely dispersed towns, a motorbike is not the most practical form of transport, so motorcycling is a whole new world for the Kazakh people to discover, and they are likely to be fascinated with the spectacle surrounding the MotoGP World Championship.
Kazakhstan is not currently home to any motorcycling championships. In fact, it could even be said that organizing a MotoGP Grand Prix in a country without its own motorcycling tradition is like putting the cart before the horse, but the arrival of the World Championship to Kazakhstan will be a catalyst, with the spectacle of MotoGP taking root and awakening an interest in motorcycling among the Kazakh people, and eventually taking off. Doing it the other way around and waiting for a tradition of local motorcycling to develop and bring about the arrival of MotoGP would make it impossible. The best example of this is Qatar, which built its circuit out of the blue and is now a regular championship venue and has even had its own team and riders in the World Championship.
And while there may not have been a tradition, Kazakhstan is already on the World Championship map thanks to rider Makar Yurchenko. Born in Saint Petersburg to a Kazakh family, Yurchenko moved to Spain at just 14 years of age to train at national promotional competitions after having competed in different categories in Russia, participating in PreMoto3 in the Spanish Championship before making the jump to the MotoGP Rookies Cup in 2014, the FIM CEV Repsol in 2017, and finally the Moto3 World Championship in 2018, where he completed 27 Grand Prix until the end of 2019, with seventh being his best position in 2019 and coming in 24th place that year overall, before leaving the World Championship scene.
It won’t happen overnight, but there is no doubt that the presence of MotoGP in Kazakhstan will awaken an interest for a new and unknown sport for them and for the neighboring countries. Asia is clearly where the future of MotoGP is at. With markets like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, where motorcycling is so ingrained in their culture and where the riders are treated almost like rock stars, especially in the first two countries, not to mention India coming on the scene, this sport is very much at home in Asia.