It seems ironic - ironic at best, downright insane at worst - that at the 7th Grand Prix of the first season after a major capacity change in MotoGP, the Grand Prix Commission will be deciding on another major change in MotoGP regulations. With just one third of the races run of one season after such a change, why are the GP Commission even contemplating more changes?
The reason is simple: money, or rather the lack of it. A raft of technical rule changes introduced at the behest of the manufacturers has left the series struggling to fill the grid with the prototypes being built by the few manufacturers still racing, the others forced out either by a lack of success or the high costs of racing, or more usually a combination of both. The technical regulations drawn up by the MSMA have prevented new manufacturers from entering: even BMW, probably the biggest spenders in the World Superbike series, are saying that they cannot afford to go racing in MotoGP under the current rules, with BMW's head of motorcycle racing Bernhard Gobmeier pointing the finger of blame at Honda and Yamaha for making the series unsustainably expensive.
With costs too high, Dorna, the FIM and IRTA are casting around for a set of rules to make the racing more financially sustainable. That was not achievable with the rules that MotoGP had prior to 2012, and this year's rule package is only a little better. The combination of high horsepower, high revs and limited fuel means that millions are being poured into the development of electronics to keep the bikes rideable and make the fuel last. MotoGP needs cheaper racing, but, as they say, you can't get there from here.
And so on Thursday*, the Grand Prix Commission will meet to discuss a set of rules aimed at cutting costs for the long term. Though the MSMA has lost its monopoly over the technical regulations after the previous contract lapsed at the end of last year, the manufacturers still have an important say in defining the rules of the series. And that's where it all gets very difficult.
For the MSMA and the other parties at the table have conflicting interests, and finding a compromise which will allow everyone to cut costs while retaining a rationale for racing is a very delicate balance. The manufacturers justify their participation in MotoGP on two grounds: as a marketing exercise and as a platform for research and development, gathering data which will be useful in developing their roadgoing machinery. For the marketing argument to carry weight when presented to company boards at the annual budget meeting, the manufacturers have to be in with a chance of winning, both races and titles. Having large numbers of manufacturers vying for wins makes this goal harder to achieve and therefore harder to sell this argument to executives financing race departments.
The R&D argument is an easier sell, but requires that electronics, especially, be completely unrestricted, as this is the area which has the most direct application for manufacturers. Ride-by-wire, traction control, fuel economy, engine response at part throttle; all these are technologies that make their way quickly from race bike to road bike. The problem is that the race track is not the only place factories can do R&D; arguably, laboratory testing, computer simulation and test track testing is far, far cheaper than racing, so if a factory decides that their return on investment from racing is not enough, they can simply walk away, as Suzuki and Kawasaki have already proved.
The R&D argument carries no weight with Dorna and IRTA. The teams are there to race, and Dorna is there to sell the racing spectacle to TV companies and sponsors around the world. If Honda, Yamaha and Ducati dominate racing and ramp up costs, driving out other manufacturers, and keeping satellite teams in their place by carefully controlling the level of performance of the satellite machinery, then the spectacle suffers, as was the case towards the end of the 800 era. Dorna does not have an attractive product to sell, and sponsors are only interested in being associated with the winners - those very same factory teams. The technology should only serve to enhance the spectacle, with just enough being admitted to retain the sheen of prestige bestowed by the Grand Prix tag. What Dorna wants is great racing, and what the teams want is sufficient income to allow them to race, or else a massive cut in the costs of racing, to allow them to continue.
These two conflicting interests will meet head to head at Assen. On the table are a number of proposals, though only a few will survive. The bargaining will be on two fronts: the technical limits wanted by Dorna to cut costs and make the CRT entries more competitive, and the timing of their introduction, with the factories wanting to maximize the return on investment from their current bikes, and Dorna wanting to help the CRT entries as soon as possible.
The proposals include:
- A rev limit, set at either 14,500 or 15,000 RPM. Dorna want the lower of the two limits, but would settle for 15,000 RPM, while the factories are grudgingly willing to accept the higher of those two numbers. Ducati is the exception here: the Borgo Panigale factory have always based their MotoGP race machines around the concept of maximizing power output by revving hard, and exploiting the advantage that desmosdromic valve systems offer in terms of valve timing and valve control.
- A spec ECU. This is a massive stumbling block for the factories, and one of Dorna's main demands. Dorna believes that a spec ECU would allow them to manage the spectacle more effectively, limiting electronic control directly, instead of through other channels. They also believe that a spec ECU would be a major step forward in limiting costs, with the importance of software engineers diminished. The factories argue that this is where most of their R&D gains from the series are to be had, and that rather than limiting costs, it would raise them. Last year, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto pointed out to me the amount that Honda spent in Formula 1 after the introduction of the spec ECU, trying to work their way around the limitations that ECU imposed. A spec ECU would be a sure-fire way of imposing a rev limit, though a rev limit could just as easily be enforced by having a spec, secure datalogger, as is the case currently in Moto2.
- A single bike per rider, as is the case in Moto2, Moto3, and now the World Superbike and World Supersport classes. This was a counter proposal from the factories, to help reduce the cost of leasing bikes for the satellite teams. Though it would do little to cut costs for factory teams, the satellite teams would have less hardware to manage, and less available. Dorna was prepared to consider the proposal, but this looks like being rejected as it makes flag-to-flag racing too complicated. A compulsory 2-minute pit stop to change tires was considered and rejected, as was a ban on carbon brakes (see below). In the end, the factories have found other ways of reducing lease prices - including just swallowing their losses and cutting the price to below what it costs them to supply a satellite team. This looks certain to be dropped.
- A ban on carbon brakes. This request came mainly from IRTA, as the virtual monopoly which Brembo have in the MotoGP paddock - they supply everyone except for Gresini - means that the Italian brake manufacturer can charge more or less what they want. Constant development sees braking performance improve year-on-year, and costs continue to spiral. With the cost of producing carbon disks so high, and with little transfer of technology - carbon brake disks don't work in the wet, so they will never be used on road motorcycles - a request was made to ban them. The ban may not take place, however: paddock rumor suggests that when Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta broached the subject of the cost of carbon brakes with Brembo representatives, they immediately offered to drastically cut the price. Some limit may be imposed - a spec braking system is one possible solution - but the carbon brakes will probably stay.
- The Rookie Rule. This is dead, as we reported during Silverstone. Though Honda made it clear that they would really like to see the rule, which prevented newcomers to the MotoGP class from going straight to a factory team, dropped, the complications which Marc Marquez created for the satellite Honda teams showed up the weak point of the rule: a successful young rider is likely to have the support of his own sponsors and team, forcing any satellite team to destroy long-standing relationships of their own for a rider who would only be with them for a year. The dropping of the rule caused a lot of muttering about Spanish favoritism and Marquez having "the right passport." Ironically, some of those complaints came from Ben Spies and Colin Edwards, two riders whose position in the Yamaha factory team was down to a very large extent to the backing they received from Yamaha USA, who wanted American riders - riders with "the right passport" - on the factory team.
- Reducing the engine allocation and freezing engine development. This suggestion has also come from the MSMA - or rather, from Honda, which in many respects is the same thing - and cutting the engine allocation from 6 engines a season to 5 is most likely to be adopted. An engine development freeze creates other problems: Ducati, for example, is in real trouble with the engine they currently have, with Valentino Rossi demanding major changes to the power delivery. An engine freeze would condemn a factory which got their sums wrong before the start of the season to a lost year, and make it impossible for new factories to enter the series.
Of the proposals on offer, the rev limit looks almost certain to be adopted, while a spec ECU may only be acceptable to the factories if the ECU picked as the spec unit has extensive capabilities. A compulsory datalogger looks certain to be adopted to enforce the rev limit, leaving the option of dropping a spec ECU open. Other suggestions, such as lifting the fuel limits, or (Jorge Lorenzo's crew chief) Ramon Forcada's suggestion to make the primary butterfly mechanically operated by a cable connecting the throttle to the throttle body, or a ban on using sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, could all be considered as alternatives to a spec ECU, but face similar objections.
The technical limits being imposed are not the real problem, though, these are all negotiable, by and large. The major stumbling block is the timing, with the two sides' agendas irreconcilable in this respect. The factories have just spent a lot of money developing a 1000cc engine and the chassis to house it in, and do not want to do it all again for 2014. Dorna and IRTA need to save money now, and need to keep MotoGP attractive for the teams who either cannot afford or have not been offered a satellite machine, and are racing with CRT machinery. Those teams cannot wait until 2015 for the gap to close beyond the natural progression which any early class must make. A CRT bike has to be a reasonable alternative for a satellite machine, which means that a good rider on a CRT bike should be able to regularly dice with the satellite bikes. Comparing the progress that the Moto2 bikes made between 2010 and 2011 - generally, they cut around three quarters of a second from their lap times in a year - still leaves the CRT bikes just off the back of the satellite bikes, and at the mercy of their much greater horsepower. Another year of that deficit would be tolerable; another two years would make it hard to find sponsorship to continue.
The outcome of this argument - to introduce a rev limit and electronic restrictions in either 2014 or 2015 - will show the true balance of power in the MotoGP paddock. If Dorna pushes through the changes for 2014, they will have demonstrated that they are not willing to let the factories run the show, but they run the risk of having the factories walk away from the series. If the MSMA win, and the changes are delayed until 2015, MotoGP could be back to the days of 16 or 17 bikes on the grid again, but the factories would have shown that without them, there can be no Grand Prix racing. This is as much a battle of wills and a power struggle as it is a question of the efficacy of technical regulations as a means to cut costs.
The other possible outcome - more delay, as changes are considered - is a realistic, if undesirable option. The discussions could continue for a few more races, before a decision is finally made. The delay plays into the hands of the factories, however, as the longer we have to wait for a new set of rules, the easier it is for the factories to argue that they have too little time to design and build new bikes for 2014.
The factories - or rather Honda - have another ace up their sleeve, however. The news that Honda is to build a production racer based on their RC213V MotoGP machine opened up a whole new range of possibilities, offering teams currently running as CRT entries a way to be competitive without breaking the bank. If the bike is sold at a price of 1 million euros, and no limits are placed on supply, in theory, there could be 12 or 13 of them on the grid in 2014, filling the gap between Dorna and IRTA's position and that of the MSMA. The danger is, of course, that with Honda supplying such a massive portion of the grid, the dependency of the series on Honda would be worryingly large. As Suzuki and Kawasaki have demonstrated in the past, the factories have proved to be an unreliable partner in MotoGP, pulling out and breaking promises and contracts when economic conditions oblige them, or when it suits their business objectives.
In an ideal world, MotoGP would not be so reliant on the factories, and be capable of raising sponsorship and selling the series to sponsors around the world. Here is where Dorna has failed, focusing on the short-term goal of maximizing income from existing TV contracts rather than trying to grow the sport to increase exposure, and hence interest and revenue from potential sponsors. Instead of hunting down Youtube users who post 1 minute clips of exciting action from the races and share it with their friends, Dorna should be making more material freely available and allowing it to be shared through social networking sites and motorcycle forums. Instead of trying to sell MotoGP.com video subscriptions, Dorna should be encouraging sharing, and boasting of its numbers to outside investors and sponsors, selling the excitement of the series to the people with real money to fund it. Until Dorna manage that, they have to focus on cost-cutting, however, and the need to make the grids more competitive as soon as possible.
Whenever the changes are introduced, there will still be much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the purists that the MotoGP machines, with all of the technical limitations imposed, are no longer "pure Grand Prix prototypes". The fact that pure prototype racing died once two-strokes and oval pistons were banned is not something that will comfort them. For those that really love prototype racing, they can always turn to electric bike racing, the only racing series which is currently pushing the limits of technology, with advances often being made from race to race.