The 2012 MotoGP Revolution: Part 3 - Politics, Or Dorna vs The MSMA
In part 1 of this series, we discussed the new 1000cc rules for 2012, especially those for the so-called Claiming Rule Teams, the privateer teams which will be allowed to use engines from production bikes if they so wish. In part 2, we discussed Infront Motor Sports' objections to those new rules as organizers of the World Superbike series, and why their objections are likely to fail. In part 3, we turn our attention to the reasoning behind these new rules, the politics which surround them, and the circumstances which have served to put the changes into high gear.
Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of Dorna, is one of the most vilified men among many fans of MotoGP. He is blamed for the many changes that have altered the face of MotoGP, not least for killing off the 990s and bringing in the 800s, which have robbed the sport of so much of its spectacle. Ezpeleta gets the blame for each new rule change, charged with fiddling while Rome burns.
But those accusations have absolutely no basis in fact. Ezpeleta is innocent of almost all of the crimes that he is charged with over the rule changes, as almost every one of those changes were at the direct request of the manufacturers, while Dorna and IRTA, the organization that represents the teams, have done their best to mitigate the damage done by the factory-imposed rules.
Since MotoGP went four stroke, the manufacturers, united in the MSMA, have had the monopoly on making the technical regulations. In exchange for supporting the series and committing to building enough motorcycles to supply the teams and fill the grid, the MSMA have been able to call the shots on the technical rules, making the changes they deem necessary to keep the series alive. The idea was that the factories would manage the rules to keep the series affordable for themselves, and guarantee a plentiful supply of bikes.
It hasn't worked out that way. I wrote about the reasons that MotoGP became so expensive in some detail about three years ago: a deadly combination of the law of unintended consequences and the perverse incentives that factories have to actually raise costs to exclude competition. But it is worth emphasizing that one of the main ways that the factories justify their racing programs to the people who hold the purse strings - the executive boards of their companies, people whose first responsibility is to the continuing existence of the company, not to any notion of their racing heritage - is as the place to conduct R&D. Progress is forged in the white-hot heat of competition, runs the argument, and engineers learn much faster when they have their competitors pushing them on rather than in the sterile environment of a research laboratory. Fear of the humiliation of defeat, and longing for the euphoria of victory are powerful motivators, the proponents say.
Much progress has been made - the current and final iteration of the 800cc MotoGP bikes are utterly remarkable machines, with incredibly sophisticated electronic systems providing astonishing fuel economy and fantastic throttle response from just 21 liters of fuel - but the costs have become astronomical. Manufacturers are leaving the series one by one, while those that remain are cutting their participation. We started the 2011 season with a grid of 17 bikes, 9 factory bikes and 8 satellite machines, but cost and injury have taken their toll on the grid, with 14 riders starting at Phillip Island, and the possibility of even fewer taking to the grid at the final race of the year at Valencia.
Things are looking even worse for next year, with the cost of leasing satellite machines from the factories skyrocketing. Honda is the worst offender, a satellite RC213V reportedly costing 4.5 million euros to lease for a season, including a 650,000 euro seamless gearbox. Those 650,000 euros will buy you approximately 0.2 to 0.3 seconds a lap, demonstrating all too graphically the law of diminishing returns. Ducati and Yamaha are only a little better, but both still require between 2.5 and 3 million euros to lease a single satellite machine. The way things are looking at the moment, there could be four Hondas, four Yamahas and four Ducatis on the grid, and with the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli at Sepang, one of those Hondas is looking decidedly uncertain.
Carmelo Ezpeleta has had enough. With the manufacturers supplying so few bikes for the 2012 season, the MSMA have clearly broken their side of the bargain. The factories asked for a capacity reduction to 800cc, a fuel limit of 21 liters, an allocation of 6 engines per season, and the massive restriction of testing. They got what they asked for, but instead of seeing healthy growth, costs have grown exponentially while grids have shrunk to a farcical level. From now on, the Dorna CEO will be taking affairs into his own hands.
The introduction of the Claiming Rule Teams - a name that will surely be changed some time in the near future, as while descriptive, it is extremely clumsy - was the first step in the process, allowing teams the ability to compete at a much lower price than the existing satellite machines. With the switch to a 1000cc formula - and especially combined with the 81mm bore limit - it became possible for teams to source engines from production machines for just a fraction of the price of a satellite bike. The MSMA were prepared to accept the change, as it relieved the pressure on them to fill the grid with satellite equipment, which they are subsidizing even at the prices that they are charging. Having the claiming rule in place - the ability to demand that the engine from a CRT bike be handed over immediately after a race, for the sum of 20,000 euros - was their guarantee that rival factories (more particularly, Aprilia and BMW) could not enter unless they were willing to surrender their technology for a paltry sum.
The CRT rules will prove to be the foot in the door that Carmelo Ezpeleta is about to use to lever the rules wide open. After first Stefan Bradl failed to find the funds to make the step up to MotoGP, despite having 2.5 million euros of his sponsor Viessmann's money to spend, and then the Aspar team decided to stop leasing Ducati satellite bikes and switch to CRT status, Ezpeleta has decided to nail his colors to the mast. In a combative interview with the top Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles of the sports daily AS, Ezpeleta announced that from 2013, he will no longer be subsidizing any of the satellite teams, switching the funds instead to the Claiming Rule Teams.
Dorna pours 52% of the series' income into supporting the private teams, Ezpeleta revealed in an interview with the Corriere dello Sport's Paolo Scalera, and for that money, he can support a lot more CRT bikes than he can satellite machines. A CRT bike is likely to cost between 800,000 and 1.5 million euros, depending on the chassis and engine selected, so for every satellite bike that Dorna helps to subsidize, they could have between 2 and 3 CRT machines on the grid.
The criticism so often leveled at the CRT bikes is that they will never be competitive with the factory machines, a point driven home by the time difference between the BMW Suter CRT machine and the factory bikes at the Mugello and Brno tests. But their purpose is not to compete with the factory bikes: even if they save 3.5 million euros by switching to a CRT bike, the privateer teams will not be able to afford the salaries commanded by the aliens who dominate MotoGP. Only a factory can afford the 5 to 15 million euros that it costs to secure the services of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi, and every one of those riders is worth around a half a second a lap.
The point of the CRT machines is to replace the satellite bikes. The most a privateer team running a satellite bike can hope to achieve is a place in the top 6, with a very occasional podium when luck, injury and weather conditions conspire in their favor. So the privateers are faced with a choice: spend 3 million euros to be the best satellite team, or spend a million euros to be the best CRT machine. If all of the satellite teams switch to CRT status - which you can absolutely guarantee happening once Dorna shuts off the subsidies - then instead of hoping to beat a single factory rider having a bad day to take 6th, they'll all be racing for 7th, the factory bikes out of sight. The bikes may be a lot slower than the factory bikes, but given that difference in cost is huge, that will not matter so much.
But the difference may not be as large as the critics fear. Speaking to the Corriere dello Sport, Ezpeleta was clear about his willingness to help the CRT machines by allowing them even more fuel if necessary. Currently, the CRT machines will be allowed to use 24 liters of fuel, rather than the 21 currently allowed for the factory prototypes, but the CRT bikes could get even more. "If [24 liters] is not enough, then we'll give them another two liters," Ezpeleta said. "Or maybe even three."
Paddock sources have already hinted that the factories are worried about the three extra liters that the CRT bikes will be allowed. Another two liters on top of that could make a massive difference to the bikes. The extra fuel is aimed at compensating for the massively complex electronics which the factories use to smooth corner entry and provide a linear throttle response, with electronics swallowing an ever larger portion of MotoGP budgets - and, incidentally, providing the R&D justification for racing, with response at part throttle such a crucial factor for road bikes. Without the need to save so much fuel, the CRT bikes can burn fuel with a fast idle on corner entry, then run rich to provide a nice controllable throttle response to get drive out of corners and onto the straight. That is simple to achieve and set up, and almost as effective as the software produced by MotoGP's brightest brains for the factory bikes.
To force through extra fuel for the CRT entries will require a good deal of bullying and blackmail on the part of Dorna. The MSMA will still have the monopoly on the technical regulations, but that monopoly could be circumvented. Dorna is negotiating contracts with each manufacturer separately, instead of with the MSMA collectively, and by dividing the factories among themselves, Ezpeleta should be able to wrest control of the rules. He may even decide to unilaterally take the power to make technical regulations away from the factories, and risk the factories walking away from the series.
It is a gamble worth taking, for MotoGP remains the most prestigious motorcycle racing series, and the factories have a long-held belief in the value of Grand Prix racing and a desire to race in the premier series. They could switch their attention to the World Superbike series, but the Flammini brothers wrested control of the technical rules away from the factories a long time ago, and so any defectors would find themselves just as powerless in the WSBK paddock as they could become in MotoGP. Or perhaps even worse, as they would also have much less freedom to develop technology and be without the perceived glamor of the Grand Prix series to help promote their brands.
If the MSMA factories are to rebel against the new order imposed by Dorna (and fully backed by IRTA and the FIM), their most likely course of action is to reduce their involvement to just the factory teams. But that, too, would be playing into Ezpeleta's hands: "If they want to race with just six bikes [two factory Ducatis, two factory Hondas, two factory Yamahas - DE], that's fine, they will be world champions and I will focus on the other 16 bikes on the grid," the Dorna boss told AS. The factories will get the podiums and victories they need to sell participation to their boards, while behind the factory bikes, a large group of CRT bikes should provide much better entertainment for the fans to watch.
Though many will mourn the loss of the factory prototypes - there is a good deal of snobbery on display among the purists in the paddock - their demise (or at least their excesses being curbed) is a good and necessary thing. The purists argue that MotoGP should be the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, and that production-based engines have no place in the series. Leaving aside the fact that the restrictions of capacity and fuel allowance already place artificial and unnecessary limits on the machinery, they overlook the fact that all those shiny toys that they love have to be paid for somehow. As long as MotoGP continues to fail so utterly to raise sponsorship money - a legacy of tobacco sponsorship, which saw teams able to choose their sponsors, instead of having to go out and chase them - then the series' only hope of survival is to provide entertainment. Those 800cc MotoGP bikes have been marvels of technology, but have provided some of the dullest racing we have ever seen.
Back in 2005 and 2006, MotoGP fans used to mock fans of Formula One, asking how could they watch such an immensely dull series. But over the past few years, the roles have been reversed, with more and more overtaking happening in F1, just as it has disappeared from MotoGP. F1's popularity has continued to grow, while MotoGP's has stagnated, only kept afloat by the wave of support that Valentino Rossi brings from people attracted to his charisma, rather than motorcycle racing. F1 has realized that it is in the business of entertainment, while MotoGP's purists still believe they exist in a world still isolated from the economic vicissitudes of the world that funds them.
F1's success has been down in large part to Bernie Ecclestone's deal with the teams to make the racing more exciting. Say what you like about Bernie Ecclestone - and there are many things to say, most of them unprintable - but he understands that he cannot rely on the manufacturers to keep racing going. This is a lesson that Carmelo Ezpeleta has learned once again over the past few years, a lesson that he had disregarded since the days that Ecclestone left MotoGP (or 500GP as it was then) to concentrate on Formula One.
The point is this: manufacturers make their money by selling motorcycles, and racing is just a tool that can help them develop and market the bikes that they sell. Racing is subsidiary to their main business, the business of making and building road bikes. The teams, on the other hand, are in the business of racing, and nothing else. If the factories decide they don't want to go racing, they can find other outlets for promoting their products, but their core business does not change. If the teams decide they don't want to go racing, they cease to exist and their members will have to go and get proper jobs, an unbearable and unthinkable fate for most of them.
In his interview with Mela Chercoles, Ezpeleta was clear what side he came down on. "We have to move in the direction that Formula 1 has," Ezpeleta said. "We have to make rules which are simpler, cheaper, which allow more people to be interested and which allow more on track battles." Ezpeleta pointed to the irony that Moto2 had faced such heavy criticism when it was announced, but was now probably the most eagerly awaited race of the weekend. To be able to move in the direction of closer, more entertaining racing, Ezpeleta has to take control of the series once again, and put the rules back in the hands of the people whose livelihoods depend on it: the teams, the organizer and the federation. If the factories want to come and play, that's fine, but they will have to play by Dorna's rules, instead of the other way round.
MotoGP is changing, and faster than planned. When I first started writing this piece - back before the 2011 season had started, before getting sidetracked by the many dramas which this season has produced - I believed that the radical changes that MotoGP is about to undergo would take another 5 years to come to fruition. Events have overtaken my thinking, just as they have overtaken the series itself, and by 2013, MotoGP could be a completely different series to the one we see today.
With the satellite teams eliminated, factory entries could be reduced to just six bikes, who will settle the championship among themselves. Behind the factories, a full grid of 24 bikes will be battling it out on bikes which are much closer in performance than the factory prototypes we see today. With a lot more fuel at their disposal, the riders have a lot more options for overtaking, and much better chances of correcting any mistakes they make in attempting to pass. Added to softer Bridgestones, which will both warm up and wear out more quickly, bringing tire conservation back into the equation, the battle for 7th could very much be the best battle on the track. With Dorna providing the TV coverage, you can expect a lot more coverage of the action down field than of the riders at the front, at least if the factory bikes remain as sterile and sensitive to mistakes as they are today. The 800s encouraged perfection, punishing mistakes and rewarding riders capable of hitting the same centimeter of the track lap after lap. Softer tires and bigger engines should improve the show, even for the factory bikes, but the real entertainment will come from the CRT bikes.
The CRT bikes are the future of MotoGP: that was obvious from the moment the rules were announced. But just how far and how fast the changes would come has surprised everybody, even Carmelo Ezpeleta. Economic circumstances and sheer chance - part of Honda's price rises are due to the drop in profits the company suffered after the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan back in March - have conspired to accelerate the changes that the series is undergoing. MotoGP will continue to be the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, but the difference is, it won't necessarily be the pinnacle of technology any more. If it is the pinnacle of entertainment, everyone but the most diehard purists will be able to live with the changes.