There is a storm brewing in the MotoGP paddock. The cause is well-known, and has been debated to death over the past three years: MotoGP is too expensive, for both teams and for factories and the grids keep getting thinner every year. After the departure of Aprilia, Ilmor and Kawasaki, it now looks as if Suzuki is on the verge of pulling out. And it's not just factories withdrawing, the number of satellite bikes available is reducing just as fast. While Honda has maintained six bikes on the grid almost every year since the introduction of the four-strokes, in 2012 they look likely to cut back to just four. Ducati, fielding a whopping six bikes for such tiny factory, a commendable effort, could see its participation cut back to just three bikes for 2012. This, though cannot be laid entirely at Ducati's door; the Bologna factory have kept their lease prices reasonable when compared to the massive price rise that HRC have pushed through for next year, but the miserable performance of the Desmosedici this season has combined with the growing poverty of the race teams to see Aspar split with Ducati, and Pramac holding out, possibly to withdraw altogether. Only Yamaha has maintained its position, staunchly keeping four bikes on the grid, though critics point to the six supplied by the much smaller Ducati and suggest that Yamaha could have matched the Italian manufacturer.
All things considered, it looks like there could be just 12 factory prototypes on the MotoGP grid for 2012, and this has given Dorna much cause for concern. After years of pushing the factories to cut their lease prices, and attempts to get the factories to lease just engines to teams, Dorna, IRTA and the FIM finally persuaded the manufacturers' organization MSMA to allow a new category of entries, called Claiming Rule Teams or CRTs. Teams can source an engine from anywhere - from tuned production engines or bespoke engine manufacturers - and place them in a prototype chassis and race them. To help the CRT entries be competitive, the bikes will be allowed extra engines, and more importantly, 3 extra liters of fuel.
The first CRT bike to take to the track was the Suter, powered by a BMW S1000RR engine and using Bosch electronics developed in part by the BMW factory. The bike's first timed public outing was disappointing, running over 6 seconds behind Casey Stoner, on the 800cc Honda RC212V. At Brno, the bike had improved massively, a good deal of the chatter the bike suffered gone, and the machine was within 4 seconds of the factory 1000s, a much more realistic proposition. But still, 4 seconds was a big gap, big enough to scare off teams who had been mulling over an entry.
At Misano, Colin Edwards announced he would be joining the first officially announced Claiming Rule Team, NGM Forward racing, and the presence of Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta gave the concept a boost. But teams were still reticent; speaking to FTR boss Steve Bones at Aragon, he explained that the teams were still unwilling to take the leap and spring for their CRT package, consisting of a 230 hp Aprilia RSV4 engine in a custom FTR chassis. Despite the fact that the package was massively cheaper than leasing a satellite bike - less than a quarter of the price of a Yamaha or Ducati, and nine times cheaper than a full factory Honda RC213V, including Honda's seamless transmission - potential teams were unwilling to take the plunge and commit to the investment.
That is all starting to change, the first signs of which were the fact that the Aspar team had abandoned its plans to run a Ducati GP12 next season, in favor of entering as a CRT squad. The Spanish media are reporting that Jorge Martinez decided that for the cost of leasing a single GP12, he could enter two CRT machines, and expand his entry as he had originally planned when he entered MotoGP. The defection of Aspar has encouraged others to take the plunge, and a consensus appears to be emerging that the number of CRT entries next season will not be just the sole NGM Forward machine of Colin Edwards, but likely at least 5, and possibly as many as 8 or even 10 bikes. Here's the state of CRT affairs, as far as we know at the moment:
|Team||Chassis/Engine||Riders||Notes||Grand Total (low/high)|
|NGM Forward||Unknown/Yamaha or Suter/BMW||Colin Edwards||At the launch of the NGM Forward CRT project, Colin Edwards told the press that given his long relationship with Yamaha, he expected to use a Yamaha R1 engine, and hoped that Guy Coulon could be perusaded to build a chassis for the bike. Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal has put a stop to that idea, pointing out that Coulon is busy enough with the Moto2 and a potential Moto3 project, without adding a CRT bike into the mix. As a result, it looks increasingly likely that the NGM Forward team will revert to using the Suter/BMW package that they had originally planned to use before the project was announced||1|
|BQR||FTR/Kawasaki||Probably Yonny Hernandez, and possibly a second, paying rider as well||The BQR project is one of the least discussed projects in the paddock, but it is also one of the most far advanced. The FTR Kawasaki should be ready to test later in the month, and BQR are deadly serious about entering into MotoGP. Riders are likely to include the Colombian Yonny Hernandez, and a second rider, who would need to bring money to the team for a ride.||2/3|
|Laglisse||BMW/Suter||A Spanish rider, possibly Carmelo Morales or Jordi Torres||Another sleeper project. Laglisse has been a powerhouse in the Spanish CEV championship for a long time, and has been looking for a way into MotoGP for a while now. The over-subscribed Moto2 class meant there was no option for them to join in 2010, but the CRT rules give them their chance.||3/4|
|Aspar||Unknown/Aprilia or Suter/BMW||Unknown, but 2 riders, possibly including Hector Barbera||As discussed above, Aspar's switch to CRT status (in part a response to losing some of the support Jorge Martinez received from the Valencia regional government, after a shake up in local politics) allows the team to run two bikes instead of just a single satellite Ducati, and still save money on the deal. Riders are as yet unknown (and could be a problem, more of which later).||4/6|
|Gresini||FTR, Moriwaki or TSR/Honda||Yuki Takahashi||A second satellite Honda is beyond the reach of Fausto Gresini, and after Honda vetoed his plan to work with Aprilia and field an RSV4 engine, the Italian turned to a Honda. The CBR1000RR engine is relatively small, not much bigger than the CBR600RR, and though the engine does not use the maximum 81mm bore allowed, its pace has been demonstrated in World Superbikes, especially once Ten Kate were allowed to use fly-by-wire throttles. Yuki Takahashi will make the step back up to MotoGP, keeping a Japanese entry in the class now that Hiroshi Aoyama has crossed to the World Superbike series with Ten Kate.||5/7|
|Paul Bird?||Unknown / Aprilia||"A British rider"||After losing the contract to run factory Kawasaki machines in World Superbikes, Paul Bird has publicly turned his back on the WSBK paddock and said he will be coming to MotoGP. Whether this is a genuine entry, or just a ploy to pressure Infront into offering some kind of support is unknown, as the British team manager has also been linked with a satellite Aprilia operation in World Superbikes. According to news stories in MCN, Bird has already submitted an entry to IRTA, and it is currently under consideration by Dorna.||6/8?|
So where did all these CRT entries spring from all of a sudden? While the BQR and Laglisse entries have largely progressed under the radar of the media, others, such as Gresini and to an extent Aspar, have been encouraged by a change of heart by Dorna. For years, Dorna has helped the satellite teams financially, helping them with the cost of competing in the championship. Naturally, part of the cost of competing is the cost of leasing machinery from the manufacturers, and as a consequence, Dorna has been indirectly subsidizing factory involvement in the MotoGP class.
This was fine as long as the satellite bikes were being offered to the teams at under the actual cost they represented to the factories. But as the economic crisis has bitten, cutting motorcycle sales, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have affected production, cutting sales and profits even further, the factories have responded by raising the lease prices to something much closer to the actual cost the bikes represent, including the research and development that got them here.
This, according to a story on GPOne.com, and in line with what MotoMatters.com has been hearing in the paddock for several months now, has caused Dorna to balk at the prospect of subsidizing the factories, and the series organizer has turned its attention to the potential CRT teams. GPOne is reporting that Dorna has now committed to supporting the CRT teams financially, preferring to help the projects that it believes represent the long term future of the sport, and reducing the series' dependence on the factories. After years of seeing factories make rules which have only served to increase the cost of the series, and break the covenant that Dorna has with the MSMA by failing to maintain the size of the grid, Dorna is putting its eggs in the CRT basket. As Peter Clifford, formerly of the WCM team, put it, the business of a racing team is racing; the business of the factories is selling motorcycles. Racing teams have nowhere else to go.
Dorna appears to be willing to risk its relationship with the MSMA and its mightiest proponent, Honda. GPOne is also reporting that Dorna is considering changing the technical regulations for the Claiming Rule Teams, to make it even easier for them to compete with the factories. Factory engineers were already concerned at the fact that the CRT bikes would have 3 extra liters of fuel; if they have 5 or 6 extra liters, the expensive electronics needed to conserve fuel and maintain power to the line would be made more or less obsolete. Given that the development of precisely these electronics, focused around throttle response and fuel management, is the very reason that the factories are in the sport in the first place, this could cause a very serious breach in relations between Dorna and the MSMA. The CRT entries have already unleashed one major storm across the paddock, but that could just be an omen of the hurricane that is to come.