The gap was huge: 6.342 separated Mika Kallio on the BMW-powered Suter 1000cc MotoGP machine from Casey Stoner on the 800cc Honda RC212V at the Mugello test on Monday, a difference that would have seen the Suter lapped by a large portion of the field had the bike raced on Sunday. And that was when measured against the factory 800s: Ducati have calculated that the increased capacity of their 2012 machine (the new rules for next season allow a capacity hike to 1000cc) will lap Mugello half a second quicker faster than their current 800cc bike. So does the deficit between the Suter BMW and the factory prototype 800s make the idea of CRT entries a dead duck, or is it a concept still worth pursuing?
On the face of it, things don't look good for the Claiming Rule Team machines. The concept behind the CRT rules is simple: allow teams to build bikes using engines from any source (including production machines) as long as they are housed in a prototype chassis and running gear. The hope is that WSBK engines - or even more heavily tuned than that, the rules imposing few restrictions on engine modification - housed in a Suter, FTR or Kalex chassis would provide a relatively competitive (meaning the ability to regularly score points) basis for a lot less money than leasing a factory prototype machine. Given that at most circuits that host both World Superbikes and MotoGP running the same layout, the WSBK machines are only a couple of seconds off the pace at most, making a CRT machine competitive should be an achievable objective without pouring millions into research and development.
Monday's test does not appear to support that thesis, however. With Kallio over six seconds behind Stoner, and perhaps four seconds off the required pace to compete for places 10 to 15, the whole concept of the CRT is being questioned. Teams running a CRT bike might be able to find another second in setup once they've got to grips with the bike, and a more competitive rider than Kallio (the Finn's fastest lap during the Moto2 race was a second slower than Stefan Bradl's who set the fastest lap of the race) might be worth another three quarters of a second. Another 6 months' development might also find another second or so, but that would still leave the CRT bikes well off the pace.
The question is, though, do the times set by Mika Kallio on the Suter BMW at Mugello reflect a weakness with the CRT concept, or just with the BMW-powered Suter Moto1 machine being tested by the Marc VDS Racing team? While there are legitimate questions to be asked of the CRT concept, there are also plenty of reasons to take a long, hard look at the Suter project itself. So if we break the bike down into its constituent parts, we can see where potential problems might lie, and therefore how much of the time difference is down to the specifics of the bike, and how much down to the underlying rule package.
First, to the chassis: On the basis of the Moto2 championship standings, there would appear to be little wrong with Eskil Suter's ability to design a racing motorcycle. Suter sits atop the manufacturer standings, 19 points ahead of Kalex. Marc Marquez holds 2nd place in the rider championship, and has taken 3 wins from the 8 races contested so far. With his acclimatization period behind him - the Spaniard crashed out of the first 3 races - he seems to be settling in and is extremely competitive on the Suter 2011 machine.
But Marquez' success hides a host of problems being experienced by the other teams in Moto2. Complaints of chatter, instability and a lack of rear grip are rife throughout the Moto2 paddock, with widespread complaints - off the record, naturally - of a lack of support from the Swiss Moto2 manufacturer. Eskil Suter himself is a regular visitor to Marquez' garage - unsurprising given the level of financial backing for the Spaniard, and Marquez' results - but several big-name riders have complained that he does not appear to have much time to spare to spend with them.
A glance at the other riders on the Suter is instructive in this instance. Britain's Great White Hope Scott Redding has struggled badly this season, performing well below expectations. Despite being on the same bike as last year, he has 7 points less than at the same stage in 2010, when he had 23 points against his current tally of 16 - and those 16 points were taken from just two races. Last season's title contender Thomas Luthi is much the same story. On the Moriwaki in 2010, Luthi had scored 94 points after 8 races, whereas now the Swiss rider has just 66. Andrea Iannone is in a similar position, having secured 64 points in 2011 where he had 90 in 2010, riding an FTR-based Speed Up. In comparison, Yuki Takahashi - who went from a Tech 3 machine to a Gresini Moriwaki - is 6 points up on last year, with 58 points against 52 points this year.
The Suter CRT chassis is based closely on Suter's Moto2 machine, as a quick glance at the chassis demonstrates, and this may be part of the problem. One person involved in Moto2 described the Suter as "a bike only one person can ride," implying that the machine was suited only to Marc Marquez. And looking at the results, it is hard to counter that accusation.
The problem with the Suter chassis is not unique to the Swiss chassis manufacturer, however. Though Suter is a sizable engineering company, they pale into comparison to an organization like HRC. Honda's racing department not only has more engineers available to throw at a particular problem, they also have access to much more computing power to throw at the finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics that are the main constituent parts of modern chassis and aerodynamics design, with the financial might of Honda providing the tools at their disposal.
Suter's capacity is limited by more than just the size of the company, however. With the MotoGP class expanding to allow CRT entries for 2012, and the replacement of the 125cc class with the 250cc four-stroke Moto3 class for next season, the workload at Suter has grown enormously. Not only do they have the Moto2 World Championship bikes to look after - and at 13 bikes, they are the largest supplier on the grid - they also have the bikes they supply to the Spanish CEV and Italian CIV championships. Then there's the Moto3 bike that Suter is working on, as well as the MotoGP machine being developed and tested in partnership with BMW and Marc VDS Racing. They have a very, very full program at Suter.
Nor are Suter unique in this aspect: Moto2 rivals FTR have a similarly packed program: Not only are they supplying 10 bikes to the Moto2 World Championship, but they also have a Moto3 bike in the works, as well as designing the chassis for the Kawasaki-powered BQR MotoGP machine for 2012. In addition to all this work, they are also working on Norton's V4 powered MotoGP bike, though it is still uncertain whether Norton will actually run in next year's MotoGP championship.
Of the current Moto2 manufacturers, Kalex seem to have the best approach. The German engineering firm have just 4 bikes on the grid, including one belonging to championship leader Stefan Bradl. Kalex are believed to be building a MotoGP machine for the Viessmann Kiefer team who are currently running Bradl in Moto2, and who have been accepted as a CRT entry. Though a much smaller company than either FTR or Suter, the workload of Kalex would appear to be much more manageable, though a number of Moto2 teams are talking to Kalex about using their bikes for next season.
Turning to the engine, the BMW motor should provide plenty of usable power. The S1000RR unit the Suter is based on is already close to the dimensions specified under the 2012 rules, which specify a maximum bore of 81mm (the BMW's bore is 80mm), leading some to speculate the rules were written with one eye on the BMW as a possible entry. The bike makes close to 200bhp in standard form - complete with catalytic converter and complying with very strict European emissions regulations - with the WSBK version making at least another 20+ bhp in race trim. Achieving the target output for a competitive MotoGP machine - for the 2012-spec 1000cc machines, probably something in the region of 250 bhp, with torque being a bigger target than outright horsepower, the 81mm bore limiting revs to around 16,500 rpm - should be well within the bounds of possibility for the S1000RR engine, given the wide freedom allowed within the regulations. All the engine has to do is last for two race outings, as CRT machines will have twice the engine allocation (12) of the factory prototypes. The people preparing the engine (in the case of the Suter, BMW) are free to do whatever they like to the motor, as long as it will last the distance. They can take slightly larger risks with reliability in the hunt for horsepower and torque.
Outright horsepower has not been the problem for the BMW in World Superbikes, the machine clearly among the fastest on the grid. Yet the bike still hasn't won a single race in WSBK, despite bagging a handful of podiums. And that shortcoming brings us to the weakness in the CRT rules, indeed in the MotoGP series, a situation that is magnified by the BMW.
Electronics. The word the fans love to hate, and the factories love to use. Electronics have become immensely important in MotoGP, though not perhaps in the way that many fans think they are. With a strict limit of 21 liters of fuel (the 21 litre limit is staying when the 1000s return from 2012), electronics strategies have become crucial to making a competitive MotoGP bike. The key here is conserving as much fuel as possible, to ensure you have power throughout the race.
Saving fuel and improving traction is done primarily in two places: in corner entry and on corner exit. Though the fans all complain about traction control on corner exit, the biggest gains - and the biggest revolution in MotoGP riding styles - has been on corner entry. Bikes now enter the corner still perfectly in line, the electronics working with slipper clutch systems to allow bikes to be pitched into corners fast and carry a lot of corner speed, 250-style. From mid-corner on, traction control systems take over, but they are dialed back as far as possible to save fuel. The rear can spin, but only a fraction, just enough to put pressure on the front and help turn the bike faster. The more successful a rider is at doing that with his wrist, the less electronics need to interfere, the less fuel there is wasted, and the better the drive coming out of the corner. Use a lot of traction control and you end up losing drive and acceleration; use very little, and if you have the throttle control, you get the maximum amount of traction and drive, while also conserving tires.
And electronics is where the BMW World Superbike project is falling down. The WSBK team uses custom electronics developed in-house, rather than the industry-standard Magneti Marelli systems, and this is widely felt to be one of the biggest problems for the Bavarian marque. The BMW WSBK machines have struggled with tire wear and tire conservation ever since entering the series, and given the complexity of the subject matter - the major teams using more conventional electronics systems have many terabytes of data on how tires wear at the various circuits over the course of a race and in different conditions - it is hardly surprising that BMW have not yet matched the systems produced by Magneti Marelli. They persist in developing their own systems, as it is their philosophy to understand and master all aspects of motorcycle development within the factory, despite finding themselves unable to match the performance of the other electronics packages. This insistence could even cost them dearly: rumors are starting to emerge that Leon Haslam is looking to leave the BMW factory team, with electronics a major part of his dissatisfaction.
This problem also affects the Suter BMW package directly, as the engine and electronics package for the MotoGP project is being developed by BMW, rather than Suter or Marc VDS Racing. So the problems BMW faces in WSBK are compounded in MotoGP, where they are up against the most highly-skilled motorcycle racing electronics engineers in the world. Add in the complication of the Bridgestone tires, which have completely different characteristics to the Pirellis being used in World Superbikes, and you can see how much work the BMW Suter project still has to do.
For the Bridgestone tires make electronics even more important, thanks to the fantastic grip they offer. The Bridgestones will provide comparable levels of grip and traction almost throughout the race, with the fastest lap of a race as likely to be set on the penultimate lap of a race as on lap 2. A well set-up electronics package will capitalize on all that grip, and provide extra traction throughout the race. The tires never degrade to the point where they are being completely overwhelmed by the engine, which is the point where the disadvantages of the electronics begin to outweigh the advantages. On a completely worn tire, you can program the bike to avoid wheelspin, but the engine will be cutting so much you will simply have no power. On a durable Bridgestone, the power can be modulated to provide drive all the way to the flag, with available horsepower being balanced against available fuel throughout the race.
To an extent, the extra fuel allowance (CRT bikes are allowed 24 instead of 21 liters of fuel for a race) is aimed at reducing the importance of electronics. After all, if the CRT machines can waste fuel smoothing corner entry and boosting acceleration once traction has been found, this should offset some of the millions of euros the factories spend to eke the final few tenths out of the meager fuel allowance using electronics.
Electronics remain necessary, however, but more than that, what is needed is the knowledge and expertise to get the most out of them. At Mugello, Yamaha MotoGP boss Lin Jarvis pointed out that the Magneti Marelli Marvel 4 system - the system used by Yamaha and Ducati, and rumored to be used by Honda as well - was commercially available to anyone, and was not even all that expensive. What Jarvis was conveniently forgetting was that the package was not the problem, it was the expertise to get the best out of the package that was the expensive and difficult part. After all, I can buy a World Supersport-spec Honda CBR600RR from Ten Kate Racing, but that won't put me on the front of the grid in a WSS race.
Yet using a Marvel 4 system would give the Suter - and any CRT MotoGP project - a much greater chance of success. The number of engineers with experience of the system is vastly greater than the number who have successfully designed and built their own electronics packages. Harnessing the power of the existing user base would give any CRT project its best chance of success, providing several important shortcuts to performance.
But even here, the factories will always have the upper hand. As the poaching by Honda of two of Yamaha's top electronics people at the end of the 2009 demonstrates, the market value of engineers who can extract the most from the systems is rising astronomically. And as with any other key factor in a motorcycle racing performance package, the factories will always have the deepest pockets and get the best picks. The factories will always be able to afford the best riders, the best race crews and the best bike components, and the electronics engineers are just a part of that package. If a CRT bike gets close to the factory MotoGP bikes, the first thing the factories will do is offer the electronics guys a lot of money to come and work for them. No team running as a CRT in MotoGP will be able to match the offer or the allure of a full factory position and salary.
To illustrate just how important the role of the electronics engineers has become, I have spent the past two years trying to line up an interview with some of the people who write the software that controls the electronics packages. The aim of the interview is to find out what goes into building these systems, the parameters and options that the engineers have at their disposal, though obviously staying away from information that might offer a competitor an advantage. My attempts have so far met with failure, despite teams and press officers bending over backwards to help me in other respects. Mention the word "electronics" however, and press officers look at you as if you've just produced a couple of bottles of nerve gas and are doing a spot of juggling. To say that this is a sensitive subject is like saying that the US trade deficit is moderately large.
Given all of the above, does the 6.3 second gap - which would probably have been a 7 second gap if the Suter had been up against the factory 1000s - mean that the CRT project is doomed? There are reasons to suspect that a project with a different approach might not have been quite so far off the pace. If the Marc VDS team had been running an Aprilia RSV4 engine using a Magneti Marelli electronics package, for example, or a BMW engine using MoTeC electronics, the deficit may not have been so great. Though it is unlikely that a CRT machine would have challenged Casey Stoner and Marco Simoncelli for the top spot on the timesheets, a different bike with a faster, more experienced rider - current World Superbike rider Sylvain Guintoli tested the Pramac Ducati, and was also 5 seconds slower than Stoner, despite having been on the podium in WSBK this year - might have been much closer to the factory prototype machines.
What is clear is that the CRT bikes stand very little chance of actually challenging the factory prototypes. Under the current rules, the factories will always be able to outspend the Claiming Rule Teams, and will always have the best electronics engineers. As long as the electronics are not controlled (and for an excellent summary of the role of electronics in racing, see Dennis Noyes' three-part series on electronics on SpeedTV.com) and Bridgestone continues to provide tires which will last an entire race without severe degradation, the CRT machines will be lucky to get into the points. Impose a standard ECU and tires that come up to temperature immediately then go off at two-thirds distance (much as they did during the early years of the 990s), and it might be a whole different ball game.