The Thin End Of The Wedge - Electronics Next Target For Ezpeleta
One of the main arguments heard against the introduction of a single tire manufacturer was that any move to standardize tires would turn out to be just the first of a range of rule changes aimed at making the racing closer. Once Carmelo Ezpeleta got the tire rule through, ran the argument, then after that, he would try to introduce rules on traction control, electronic suspension, a standard ECU, until he finally achieved his goal of close racing, like we had in 2006, the final season of the 990s.
It didn't take very long for the naysayers to be proved right. In an interview with the Italian Motosprint magazine, Dorna CEO Ezpeleta revealed that he has already started talks with the manufacturers on limiting the role of electronics in MotoGP. "We need to discuss it, as it's been done in every motor racing series," Ezpeleta said. No changes were planned for 2009, but Ezpeleta stated that he believed regulating electronics would be "the next step."
Ezpeleta has been here before, having suggested that MotoGP needs a standardized ECU at the end of 2007. The Dorna chief was forced to withdraw that proposal, after unsurprisingly encountering stiff resistance from the manufacturers, who regard MotoGP as a technological showcase. But after having won a victory over the single tire rule, he may well be feeling confident he can push through further restrictions with much less resistance.
While making his arguments in favor of limited electronics, he also let slip the real reason for the move to a single tire. The move was ostensibly to reduce costs and improve safety by reducing corner speed, but Ezpeleta told Motosprint that he also expected to see the single tire rule "improve the spectacle." "I have lots of confidence in the control tire, also to see the riders closer to each other and to see races with more passing." No mention was made of the safety aspect of the rule, which is bearing ever more resemblance to the "safety" arguments used to reduce engine capacity from 990cc to 800cc.
Skeptics might argue that Ezpeleta's logic is flawed. While any attempt to reduce costs should be applauded, and each of the regulations being introduced seem at first glance to be a cheaper option, the problem is that rule changes are by their very nature expensive, and tend to increase, rather than decrease costs.
Firstly, every rule change means that manufacturers often find themselves confronted with the need to throw away what they were doing previously and start all over again. This was obviously the case for the engine capacity reduction, but a similar thing is happening with the single tire. Manufacturers can no longer rely on finding tires to work with their bikes, they now have to change the bike around to work with the tires. For several manufacturers, that will mean throwing away their old swing arms, suspension and chassis, and starting again from scratch.
And instead of leveling the field, this merely strengthens the hand of the strongest teams. The tires provided by Bridgestone are based on the tires used by Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi this year, and so both Ducati and Yamaha already have bikes that work with the tires. Kawasaki and, to a lesser extent, Suzuki, however, can't get their bikes to work with the current tires, and where using a different carcass construction. With this option gone, Kawasaki and Suzuki will have to redesign their bikes to work with the new tires, further increasing their deficit on the top two.
As for limiting electronics, the lessons from the AMA are worrying. In the period that traction control was banned in that series, Yoshimura Suzuki used a sophisticated engine management package from Bazzaz Performance that cut back power delivery based on factors such as engine speed, throttle position, rate of acceleration and several others. It was a de facto TC system, but one that fell well within the letter of the law, while blatantly violating the spirit of the law. In the end, the AMA was forced to allow traction control, as it had become impossible to police. Perhaps even more worryingly, allowing the other teams to use TC as well changed nothing in the results: Ben Spies and Mat Mladin continued to utterly dominate that series, exactly as they had done before.
The only serious option for a rules body wishing to ban traction control is to get rid of electronics altogether. What this would mean is that, like in NASCAR, fuel injection systems would have to be replaced by carburettors, and to make absolutely certain, electronic ignition would have to be replaced by mechanical points.
The chances of the manufacturers accepting any such suggestion are absolutely zero, and so some other way will have to be found to limit the role rider aids play. And it also opens the question of what the point of MotoGP is. Currently, MotoGP defines itself in the rule book as a prototype racing series, but if the bikes on the road feature more and more sophisticated electronics than the bikes racing in MotoGP, that prototype label would start to look like too much of a pretense. If the aim of MotoGP is to attract the best riders and provide the closest racing, then fielding technologically inferior bikes will make it hard to attract those very riders to the series.
MotoGP has enjoyed a golden age since the introduction of the four-strokes, becoming once again the undisputed premier series. While no one would question that the series still houses most of the world's best riders, the arrival of BMW and Aprilia in the World Superbikes paddock means that MotoGP's main rival series will see 7 manufacturers competing, with an 8th (KTM) likely to join soon after. MotoGP's prominence is starting to look uncertain, and the continual tweaking of the rulebook is far from certain to fix this situation.
While having two strong series may be good for race fans in the short term, having two equally strong and competing series may damage both series in the long run. Sponsors will be confused and uncertain about which series they should be investing in, and both series could end up confusing casual spectators, and eating into each other's market share, instead of expanding the audiences for all forms of motorcycle racing. In today's harsh economic climate, and a recession, or at least very weak growth, expected to last for the next couple of years at least, that is a danger which needs to be avoided at all costs.