For the third year running, MotoGP is down to just 17 bikes on the grid. And for the second time in three years, a manufacturer is showing an alarming lack of commitment to the series, Suzuki fielding just one rider for the 2011 season. Sponsors are pulling out and teams are constantly complaining about a lack of money. Something has to be done.
Throughout 2009, MotoGP's rule-making body, the Grand Prix Commission, debated ways of changing the class to make the series cheaper, thereby increasing the number of bikes on the grid. The solution, announced in December 2009, was the return to 1000cc machines under specific restrictions aimed at capping costs: a maximum of four cylinders, and an 81mm maximum bore.
But that in itself was not enough. Throughout the entire process, it was also broadly hinted that the requirement that engines must be prototypes would be dropped for privateer teams, with these so-called Claiming Rule Teams being allowed to run heavily modified production engines in a prototype chassis. To ensure the teams would not be forced to spend on electronics what they saved on engines, the CRT machines would also be allowed an extra 3 liters of fuel above the allowance for the factory machines (for our detailed explanation of exactly what the CRT rules entail, see The 2012 MotoGP Revolution Part 1.)
We have been here before, of course. Back in 2003, the WCM team, under the management of Peter Clifford, entered two 990cc Harris WCM MotoGP machines, their engines based on the dimensions of Yamaha's R1, housed in a prototype frame produced by Harris. The WCM bikes turned up at the first race of the year, but were disqualified by scrutineering as not being a fully prototype machine.
The same pressure that eventually killed off the WCM project also threatens the CRT teams, and the arguments that kept the WCM off the grid for the first half of the 2003 season are being brought up again for the CRT bikes.
The problem, at least in the eyes of Infront Motor Sports, the organizers of the World Superbike series, is that they believe they have a monopoly on organizing a world championship for production motorcycles. And to Infront, the plans for the CRT machines are just as flagrant an infringement of that monopoly as the WCM was back in 2003.
At the Brno round of World Superbikes last year, Maurizio Flammini left no room for doubt about Infront's stance. "We heard about all these rumours, about MotoGP against SBK because they are going to use those engines or motorcycles derived from the series," Flammini said. " If, by any chance this will happen […] you should know that we have a very strong contract so we have the possibility to protect the SBK as we did in the past." (See the full text of Flammini's speech here).
As if his statement wasn't clear enough, the very fact that it was Maurizio speaking, rather than his brother Paolo, is significant. Visit a World Superbike round and there's every chance of bumping into Paolo Flammini, as it is Paolo who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the series. Generally, if Infront (or as they used to be called, FGSport) needs to make a statement to the press, IMS' hyper-competent press officer Julian Thomas will call all the assembled media into a room for a press conference with Paolo. Paolo Flammini has his finger on the pulse of World Superbikes.
When Infront has something big to announce, Paolo still runs the press conference, but it is Maurizio who does the talking. Maurizio spends most of his time in IMS' Rome office, and is the political and financial powerhouse behind the series. Maurizio is WSBK's heavy hitter.
So when Maurizio talked to the press about defending WSBK's interests and their monopoly of production-based motorcycle racing, you knew that it was deadly serious. Maurizio's almost casual mention of sending an "official" letter, and of corresponding with the FIM's lawyers, was a sign that IMS was prepared to go to war over this issue, and was marshalling an army of lawyers to take up arms. The last time that happened, it changed the course of MotoGP, and struck a blow at the heart of the WCM team.
So should Dorna have cause to be worried? In the sense of coming under direct attack from Infront, then the answer is absolutely not. Dorna has a contract with the FIM to organize the Grand Prix Road Racing World Championship, and if Dorna decided to race only bog-standard Honda CBR1000RRs, then Infront has no grounds for action against Dorna. That does not mean that Dorna could just go ahead and do that, however: first, the FIM would withdraw World Championship status from MotoGP, and if necessary, forbid its member associations from any involvement with series.
Infront could not take Dorna to court over such a decision, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at 9am on the morning following the announcement, a very thick and severely worded writ would land on the doorstep of the FIM's Geneva headquarters, reminding them of their obligations to Infront Motor Sports, and featuring some mind-bogglingly large numbers as the cost of not observing them. Just as in 2003, the owners of the World Superbike series would put pressure on the FIM to intervene.
This is exactly the course of action that Infront is following in the run up to the 2012 season. Infront are gambling that what worked in 2003 for FGSport - Infront's legal predecessor - will work in 2012. In 2003, FGSport pressured the then FIM president Francesco Zerbi to ban the WCM machine, and the FIM ruled that the WCM was not a prototype, as it was based on the Yamaha R1, however loosely.
But there are some key differences between 2003 and 2012. The stipulation that MotoGP machines must be prototypes is still in place, but the exact rules for 2012 have not yet been completely finalized. That stipulation could possibly be dropped before the 2012 rulebook is released, or modified such that the word "prototype" could be interpreted more loosely.
A much more significant change is a political one, and a question of personnel. Zerbi - an Italian, former president of the Italian Motorcycle Federation, and someone who had close associations with FGSport - is no longer FIM president, his place taken by the Venezuelan former GP team manager Vito Ippolito. Ippolito has made no secret of his desire to see the cost of racing cut drastically, to ensure a return to healthier sizes of grids. The Venezuelan has repeatedly called for a return to the days of production racers, such as the Yamaha TZ and Suzuki RG series, which dominated grids throughout the 1970s and '80s. Though thoroughbred race machines, the TZs were mass-produced by Yamaha and sold to privateers to modify as they saw fit.
The presidency of the FIM matters, as it is the FIM which Infront will try to pressure into taking action, and it is the FIM who are the only party capable of taking action against Dorna. Though Ippolito has been scrupulously even-handed in his dealings with both Infront and Dorna, his background in Grand Prix leaves him with a natural sympathy for the fate of the MotoGP series. Any request to put a stop to the plans for the CRT teams must go through Ippolito, and it is Ippolito who will decide whether to take action or not.
So even if the stipulation in the MotoGP regulations that MotoGP bikes must be prototypes is left to stand, it is up to the FIM to decide on the exact definition of what a prototype is. If the FIM believes that a bike with a prototype chassis and an engine derived from a production bike should be classified as a prototype, the FIM will do nothing to stop the CRT teams, whatever the feelings of Infront.
But the question of whether a MotoGP bike should be a prototype or not is almost certainly irrelevant. The crux of the matter is actually about what the contract between Infront and the FIM says. And this is where the stories of Infront and the FIM diverge. In his statement to the press at Brno, Maurizio Flammini made it abundantly clear where Infront stood on the issue: "We have a very strong contract, so we have the possibility […] to protect the SBK as we did in the past." Flammini also claimed that Infront had a letter from the FIM's lawyers supporting their position. "It will never happen that engines or motorcycles derived from the series [i.e. production machines - DE] will race in MotoGP."
Vito Ippolito sees it differently, though. When interviewed by MotoMatters.com in March, 2010, Ippolito clarified the FIM's position on the contract. "The key word in this case is 'homologation.' The contract with the Flamminis is that they have to use production series bikes. The FIM homologates these bikes […] But these bikes must be homologated. In this case [MotoGP bikes with production engines and Moto2 bikes - MM], the bikes cannot be homologated, because it's not a production series bike."
In Ippolito's view, the legality of the CRT bikes - production engines in prototype chassis - has nothing to do with the contract between the FIM and Infront. Ippolito's statement was unambiguous: Infront has the right to organize a championship for production motorcycles, but their only monopoly is on the use of the motorcycles as homologated for competition by the FIM. The manufacturers - Japanese, German and Italian - produce sports bikes to sell to the public; the FIM homologates those bikes for racing; and Infront organizes the racing series in which they compete.
Should a Claiming Rule Team build a bike with a completely prototype chassis, using an engine that at some point started life as a BMW S1000RR or a Suzuki GSX-R 1000, the FIM would have no reason to stop them, and Infront would have no reason to complain, as the machine being entered in MotoGP would bear very little resemblance to the machines being raced in World Superbikes by Leon Haslam or Michel Fabrizio, the bikes homologated by the FIM for use in the WSBK championship. The engines may once have started life in the same bike, but once they end up in the Marc VDS Racing Suter 1000, they have nothing more to do with the production bike from whence they once sprung.
Infront surely know this, so why, you may understandably ask, would they risk losing face in a high-stakes game of brinkmanship? Why would they claim to have a monopoly on racing with production engines, when the FIM president clearly begs to differ? Why disrupt the excellent relationship they have with the FIM by threatening to sic the lawyers on them over an issue they surely cannot win? For Maurizio Flammini pulled no punches at all in his threats over the CRT bikes: "We are going to support Superbike until the last Euro," he told the press at Brno. "Now we also have a big company behind us, which is Infront Sports and Media: it is a very strong international company and it will be a difficult exercise to make a fight against them…."
The reason must surely be to discourage factories currently in the World Superbike series but not in MotoGP from making the jump to MotoGP through CRT teams. Infront's main fear is that BMW and Aprilia - both of whom have shown an interest in entering MotoGP - might use the CRT rules to dip a toe into the MotoGP waters, and potentially abandon World Superbikes in the process. In this scenario, Infront's threats of legal action are aimed not so much at Dorna and the FIM, but more at the manufacturers in World Superbike, as a demonstration of how far they will go to defend WSBK and keep everybody on board.
WSBK's reliance on factory support has become painfully clear this season, with just 21 full time entries in the World Superbike class. Of those 21, fully 14 - or two-thirds - of those are either factory or factory-supported teams, the manufacturers bearing a sizable portion of the costs of competing. Aprilia and BMW both run full factory squads, as well as supporting privateer efforts, and Infront could not afford to lose either of them to MotoGP. Fortunately for World Superbikes, Aprilia is the last factory that Dorna want back in MotoGP, the Italian factory having left a lot of bad blood in the MotoGP paddock over the way the company dominated and controlled the 250cc class, and in part the 125s, driving the cost of an RSA 250 up to the region of a million Euros, making it impossible for the poorer teams to compete.
To an extent, we have already seen a prelude of the coming battle over Claiming Rule Team machinery in Infront's tactics over the Moto2 class. When Moto2 was announced - the original idea being that production 600cc four-stroke engines would be used in prototype chassis - Infront went through the exact same ritual of making serious threats of action against any attempt to run production engines outside of the World Supersport class. Nothing - other than that Infront was "monitoring the situation closely" and "studying their options" - ever came of those threats, and the issue was dropped when the Grand Prix Commission announced that the Moto2 class would use a spec engine, supplied by Honda and to be prepared by Geo Tech Engineering.
In his speech at Brno, Maurizio Flammini broached this subject, and offered an explanation for Infront's acceptance of what they had previously condemned as violating their contract with the FIM. "Carmelo came to us and said what we can do because we want maybe to use some engines that comes from the series, and we said you know we want to help," Flammini told the press. "We said if it is a one brand, mono-brand engine and unbranded, (if it is not a Honda or a Ducati engine but it is just an engine, unbranded), we said OK we can accept it, because it is something that is not a competition between manufacturers and nobody knows what the engine is."
The fact that the Moto2 bikes competing are FTRs, Suters, Moriwakis, Kalexes, Tech 3s, rather than Hondas, Suzukis, Yamahas, Kawasakis was what made Moto2 acceptable - if not exactly palatable - to Infront, particularly as Dorna made scrupulous efforts to turn away World Supersport teams showing an interest in the class. That the spec engine is a Honda is hardly unknown, especially given the Honda stickers that all of the bikes are obliged to carry, but the way the teams and bikes are branded avoids any link to Honda. So it is the Marc VDS Racing Suter, or the Ioda Racing FTR, or the Gresini Moriwaki that line up on the grid, with (strangely) only MZ using Honda in their machine name.
The mention of the solution which paved the way for the Moto2 class is surely no accident. By bringing up the use of non-branded engines, Flammini is leaving the door ajar for a graceful exit, giving Infront room to back down without losing face. The subtext of the message from Infront is that if MotoGP adopts a non-branded, spec engine for the CRT teams, then Infront will drop the expensive litigation.
A spec engine is an extremely unlikely prospect for the MotoGP class, but even that may not be a problem. The CRT bikes are almost certain to make use of engines that started life in production machinery, but the one thing you can be sure of is that they will not have the name of the engine manufacturer plastered all over the tank. The bikes will bear the name of the team and the chassis maker, but not the engine being used in the frame. So you might reasonably expect to see the Marc VDS Racing Suter, or the Kiefer Racing Kalex, or maybe even the Mapfre Aspar FTR. What you won't see is the Marc VDS BMW, or the Mapfre Aspar Aprilia, regardless of whether the bikes are using these engines or not. The idea is to allow the teams to race, not to promote the manufacturers; that's what the factory prototypes are for.
With assurances from Dorna - which they will surely receive - that the CRT teams will not promote the manufacturers or bike designations of the production bikes the engines are taken from, Infront will be forced to live with the CRT rules as they stand. Legally - as far as anyone who has not seen the contracts can tell - they do not have a leg to stand on, but that would not be the point of legal action against the FIM to try to prevent the CRT rules from being implemented. Infront may enter litigation not expecting to win, but they can certainly create a huge drain on the resources of the FIM. The international motorcycling federation may not be exactly destitute, but they certainly cannot match the spending power of the multi-billion Infront Sports & Media - the company that owns the rights to the soccer World Cup - and a protracted legal battle would be both costly and resource-intensive for the FIM.
The CRT rules for MotoGP, allowing production engines in prototype chassis, may yet turn into a battleground between World Superbikes, MotoGP and the FIM. Infront, the people behind World Superbikes, would not necessarily win that war, but they could make it costly enough for both Dorna and the FIM to tread lightly into battle, and be wary of collateral damage. There is still room for two motorcycle racing World Championships, though both need to pay attention to costs.
The real victim of these rules is the WCM Team. Back in 2003, they offered a glimpse into the future of MotoGP, but found themselves crushed by the politics of the day. Those politics have now radically changed, a subject which we shall address in part 3 of this series.