2012 Aragon MotoGP Friday Round Up: The Paddock Panic Over The 2014 Rules

Dark clouds hang over the MotoGP paddock at Aragon, and it's not just the ones from which the rain fell for most of the day. There is a sense of malaise, a black funk which pervades the paddock here, a lack of the usual sparkle and cheer which raises the mood at the racetrack. Maybe it's because all three championships are more or less sewn up; maybe it's because the excitement of silly season is mostly over; maybe it's the location: Motorland Aragon sits in of the most beautiful regions of Spain, if arid desolation is what you seek. Or maybe it's just me.

Most of all, what ails the paddock is a sense of uncertainty and a lack of direction. There is only one topic of conversation, but it is large enough to cast a pall over every discussion. What is uppermost in everyone's mind is the future of MotoGP, more specifically the introduction of a standard electronics package, the effect it will have on the series, and most importantly, when and even whether it will be announced.

What the electronics package will be is fairly clear, though the press release issued by Dorna earlier this week was thin on specifics. Magneti Marelli will be supplying a top-spec electronics package to any team that wants it for 2013, before making the system compulsory in 2014. The idea is that the system will be fully functional and have unlimited capabilities for next season, when the teams who decide to use it will have to go up against the millions the factories have already sunk into their existing systems. For 2014, capabilities will be much more restricted, and a rev limit of 15,500 RPM imposed. At least one CRT manufacturer will be adopting the system for next season, and the rest – bar Aprilia, probably, who use their proprietary electronics on the ART bikes they supply – are likely to follow.

What are the problems? Well first there is the question of just which capabilities Dorna will limit once the system is imposed as the standard electronics system in 2014. It is clear that the intention of imposing a spec ECU is to put more of the control back into the hands of the riders, but just how much of that control will be removed from software algorithms and transplanted into the riders' right wrists is a huge question mark. Will the system have anti-wheelie? Launch control? How much traction control will the system have? How much engine braking? The answer to these questions remains a major unknown, but they are crucial for the factories to set out the starting parameters from which to build the new engines which the rules will require.

The bigger unknown – and this, I believe, is what is unsettling the paddock so – is whether the spec ECU will be introduced in 2014, or even whether it will be introduced at all. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta appears to have decided to push on with a spec ECU regardless of any opposition. His reasoning is simple: the MSMA were given a monopoly on the technical regulations back in 2002 on the understanding that they would fill the grid. They, collectively, did not do so. Even if the (frankly absurd) four bikes per manufacturer restriction were to be lifted, there would still only be 13 prototypes on the grid rather than 12. Either the teams can't afford the lease prices, or the factories can't or won't produce the extra machines required.

That Ezpeleta will push through a spec ECU for 2014 seems certain. Yet still no announcement comes. In an interview with the Spanish sports daily AS, Ezpeleta said that he was waiting for the outcome of a meeting with the manufacturers in Japan (Ezpeleta described himself as being "optimistic" about the meeting). The problem is that these talks have been going on since the beginning of the year, with the original expected date for rules way back in May. Nearly five months later, there are still no rules, and the meetings do not appear to produce any real progress.

It looks, from the outside, like either Carmelo Ezpeleta is falling for delaying tactics being deployed by the factories, or that he is unwilling to take the final step and make a decision. Whoever may be to blame for the situation, it makes Ezpeleta look indecisive and leaves the teams and factories hanging, waiting for rules to be published. If this process continues on for too long, the factories simply will not have time to build new engines in time for the 2014 season, and Ezpeleta will be forced to delay or even cancel the introduction of spec electronics.

What is needed is a decision, and it is needed as soon as possible. What that decision is is probably less important than there actually being a decision, at the moment it is the indecision which is killing the paddock. It is clear that the current regulations are unsustainable: grids are split between the factory prototypes and the CRT entries; costs are continuing to rise explosively, with Honda the only factory large enough to afford the 60 million plus euros a year it takes to produce and race a prototype; and interest from other factories almost non-existent. If MotoGP as a series is to have a future, it needs to start today. That means having a set of rules which factories can start to build a bike around, or else decide not to bother and pull out.

This is the fear. HRC has threatened to pull out of a spec ECU is imposed on the series, declaring that they have no interest in racing in MotoGP if they are not allowed to explore electronics strategies. Yamaha, similarly, have said that electronics are important to them. Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Masahiko Nakajima told me that Yamaha was not opposed to spec hardware, as long as they were free to write their own software for the ECU. As the spec hardware to be supplied to the teams is from Magneti Marelli, the same company that currently supplies Yamaha, it is not much of a sacrifice.

The question at the heart of the matter is whether the argument that the factories need to be able to develop new technologies in MotoGP holds water or not, or whether it is a shibboleth, a convenient, mutually understood lie which racing departments tell their boards to cover the fact that the only real reason to go racing is for the brand exposure, especially in key, MotoGP-mad markets like Indonesia. The calculations going on at Honda HQ will be how much market share they will lose in Indonesia if they pull out of MotoGP, and how much they will retain if they switch to World Superbikes. Given that the sales numbers involved are staggering - the Indonesian motorcycle market swallows some 8 million new scooters a year, and Honda has 55% of that market - a drop of just a few percent can mean sales falling by hundreds of thousands of units. Even with slim margins, that equates to an awful lot of money, and that is a massive risk to take. With Valentino Rossi joining Yamaha again in 2013, Honda are already likely to lose some of their market share to their rivals, with Yamaha sure to capitalize on Rossi's selling power in Indonesia. Can they afford to lose even more, by losing the coverage and brand exposure which Honda gain from racing in MotoGP?

Though worry over the future is the biggest cause for gloom in the paddock, the weather sure hasn't helped. Once again, rain is blighting a MotoGP weekend, though fortunately for everyone except the fans, it is falling in sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile going out and putting in laps. That was not the case this morning, when the half-wet, half-dry conditions saw all of the Yamahas and Hondas sit in the pits, while only the Ducatis (who hadn't tested here two weeks ago and needed the track time) and the CRT bikes went out for a few laps.

The weather once again raised the issue of intermediate tires, and whether their reintroduction would mean riders spending more time on the track, giving the paying fans and TV broadcasters value for their money. Intermediates are not widely favored, the conditions under which they work being so very rare, at least until this season, that is. Instead, what the riders are asking for is more wet tires; with just four sets of wet tires available (up to a maximum of six sets, depending on circumstances), a rider can burn through his allocation of wets very quickly. A dry line means the tire heats quickly, and then turns to ice when the tire hits the water again. Tire wear is simply too intensive, and having more wets might solve the conundrum.

Then again, just having more tires may not be enough to tempt people onto the track. The Factory Yamaha men were happy enough to sit out the morning session, saving a hundred or so kilometers on their engines. With both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies having lost an engine to mishaps, saving mileage is a considerable benefit from such sessions. Neither man is worried about running out of engines before the end of the season - the factories now have the engine situation totally under control, basically factoring losing an engine into their reliability calculations - but should disaster occur and one or the other would lose an engine, there would be a serious amount of juggling needed to make it to the end of the season. Having an engine or two with a couple of hundred KM less from sitting out damp sessions makes perfect sense for both men.

Everyone is likely to need all the wet tires they are allowed by the end of the weekend. The rain is falling very heavily overnight in Aragon, and is expected to continue throughout the day. Sunday will be dry, meaning that the riders arrive on the grid with little set up time. The factory Yamahas and the Honda men will benefit here from the time they spent at the track a month ago, while the Ducatis and the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders don't have as much data. The situation will be the reverse of what happened at Misano, and a genuine benchmark for the Ducati. If Valentino Rossi and, to a lesser extent because of his hand injury, Nicky Hayden can fight with the Tech 3 bikes and keep the gap to Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa limited, then their progress will be real. We will not know that until Sunday, though.

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Comments

Nicely written.

Hand-cut slicks might be an option, if 'stone doesn't want to make inters.

One last thought on the spec ECU. If indeed MotoGP requires spec software dictating the parameters for wheelie control, traction control, etc., what it means for Honda, Yamaha and Ducati is that someone other than their own employees and/or subcontractors will be writing the code that controls the machine. Someone else will be determining how the machine performs. That may also add to the factory's sense of unease.

"Cut" slicks are not an option because, even if there exists an animal in the paddock with the expertise to do so in this day & age, this flies in the face of the equal (theoretically)  spec tire rule.  Bridgestone, with the enforcement mechanisms of Dorna, controls the tire supply with an iron fist and such a variable as actual human interaction and skill is unthinkable.

 

When an employee turns in his two week notice that he is resigning to work elsewhere, his heart and mind are already elsewhere. So many riders are going to another team, their hearts and minds are already with that other team and couldn't care less about the remainder of this season...Rossi, Dovioso, Cal, Spies, etc. For the rest of them they have no hope of winning the championship this year so just like those riders who are changing employers, they are also not anxious to risk injury this year. We are past the denouement ( been waiting since high school to use that word) the outcome is known. Riders are now focused almost solely on next year, when the prospects are brighter for most.

I find it hilarious about the intermediates. For the fans and TV broadcasters the engine rule should be lifted or at least increased. It keeps the riders in the garage during practice as much as the lack of intermediate tires.

For a $multi-million sport, they're not very bright. Even rudimentary knowledge or consultation of weather experts would tell you we're going through/near end of an La-Nina pattern.

Whilst on intelligence, if Honda are so worried about a spec ECU and development for the road, why doesn't the Fireblade have electronic riding aids? (one of the few road bikes that doesn't).

As most (sensible) bikes have two sets of injectors and two sets of butterflies, give the manufacturers one set of each to do what ever they want up to a percentage of fuel flow. Make the other set totally controlled by the spec ECU and riders right wrist.

Bike racing is in flux.
From 1949 to 2001, technology (or a lack of it) helped create a tidy set of rules; 125, 250, 500 (single, twin, four). Bikes navigated the transition from four to two strokes in that time. Limits on the number of gears and cylinders were logical. There were some triples and vees over that time, often very sweet bikes, plus an in-between class, the 350s that was at times the best racing.

Only Moto3 has navigated the transition back to four stroke seamlessly (and is the only GP class that can rightfully claim to be for the 'Grand Prize').

I'll only briefly mention WSBK. A fine series that has been the domain of the four stroke, all be it quite agricultural (until MotoGP technology filtered down). If you don't believe me, have a look at a (shocking) Ducati Desmoquattro head! The mass of a production bike based frame, engine etc. also kept the speeds down. One aberration worth mentioning is the Norton Rotary (an almost four stroke with no valves, remember this).

MotoGP when it entered the modern four stroke era in 2002 (ignoring the brief aberration of the NR500) also entered into the arms race that F1 experienced in the '80s. As the transition from mechanical to electronic fuel delivery took over, so did the costs - exponentially! ...along with the revs and the technology to keep it all together above 15,000 rpm.

MotoGP was also entering the era of valves, lots of them, with valve springs and camshafts and oil in a sump. The two stroke era essentially put a cap on a lot of paths for development (and costs). The four strokes also made it near impossible to restart a crashed bike.

The technological genie is also out of the bag.
Electronics have arrived and there is no going back, sorry. The arms race has got to the stage that the ECU can change the bike corner by corner based ONLY by looking at the data logger and the section markers (no need for GPS or inertial systems).

The electronics are cheap.
A handful of components and sensors is nothing magical. What is expensive is the personnel and the near infinite levels of control that goes into mapping the so called "control strategies". Attempts to control the ECU in F1 resulted in some "loose interpretations of the rules".

Suspension.
So whilst the engine and gearbox has reached for the stars, the suspension is still in the dark ages. If anything, it is where electronic control would be best utilised (for racing and for the road). It would also help a team if they made a dodgy chassis; quickly being able to tune it out.

So where to?
I don't know. Should simple limits be placed on the bikes? Maybe a trade off for technology? The pole time of Moto2 (+120hp, CBR-600rr) at Mugello was quicker than Rossi's last pole there on a NSR500!

Most racing classes settle on a generic format organically; F1, CanAm, 500cc. I would place my money on a peripheral ported rotary being the engine of choice should the regulations be opened up. That isn't a direction the big makers would want.

Only Moto3 has, so far, got it right. Maybe this format needs to be expanded into twins and triples.

The MotoGP rules were not stable starting in 1949. In fact, costs exploded throughout the 50s and 60s as the manufacturers rushed to add cylinders and gears to their four-stroke machines. In 1968, the four-cylinder rule was introduced, and Honda withdrew. The bikes necessarily transitioned to two-strokes, and only after Honda's failed NR500 did MotoGP stabilize.

Furthermore, WSBK was not an agricultural series that benefitted from MotoGP trickle down. The old 750cc homologation specials were the most advanced four-strokes motorcycles in the world at the time. They often featured full titanium internals, gear cams, mag subframes and other parts. The Yamaha OW-02 had 6-valves per cylinder. Other manufacturers (notably Suzuki and Kawasaki) offered more pedestrian homologation specials b/c their brand and client base didn't allow them to sell 500 MotoGP bikes per season, and their companies weren't big enough to absorb massive R&D and production losses.

The series was intentionally turned agricultural in 2003 to control costs and protect MotoGP 4-stroke prototyping, but the lack of comprehensive electronics rules has still caused WSBK bikes to develop rapidly in the MotoGP era. The Pirelli control tire (actually a prototype racing tire, not a production relevant tire as classically required) also pushed forward the performance envelope, which is exactly why the Flamminis threw out the tire rules.

The vision laid forth by Ezpeleta is an unprescedented power grab, and a substantial dumbing-down of the prototype concept. Unfortunately, I don't think they can be blamed b/c the MSMA had complete control of the sport at the beginning of the MotoGP era. They ran MotoGP into the ground in less than 1 decade. Dorna's vision is not worth endorsing; especially not with revisionist history. We'd be better off if someone with the ear of the manufacturers and the private equity companies were able to broker some kind of compromise that would allow technology and fierce competition to occupy the same space.

Looking at the history of GP/ WSBK, the rules and fortunes of the respective series are quite cyclical. WSBK went through its own crisis back in the Ducati cup days, when the organizers were too slow to realize that the rules no longer reflected the market reality with 1000cc 4 strokes thriving but not being raced. I believe WSBK will be headed for the same pain in the not too distant future, mainly because the ever increasing influence of electronics is once again moving the series away from the market reality. Bikes that do not have fly by wire are allowed to install them so they can compete with the GP style electronics set ups adopted by the top teams, and we get further and further away from the original production racing spirit of WSBK whilst increasing costs at the same time.

GP has has already hit the crux time where costs need reducing and whilst it's not perfect Ezpeleta's measures will help in attracting more manufacturers and will cut costs. I think it's a bit similar to what happened before moto2 was introduced, there were a few scare campaigns forecasting doom and dismay but the reality was the rules worked perfectly. Though I think it's now time Moto2 had other engines allowed under CRT rules. Manufacturers will just have to spend more of their development budget trying to actually improve chassis and suspension technology which has been stagnating for years, with only Ducati prepared to adopt a different path and even they have had to adopt the ubiquitous twin spar concept since Rossi joined.

Ezpeleta needs to grasp the nettle now.

The "market reality" for streetbikes today is that the more sophisticated the electronics, the better. Fly-by-wire, ABS, electronic steering dampers, traction control and selectable fuel/ignition maps are common (at least here in the U.S.) and becoming more common by the day. Kawasaki has TC and selectable fuel/ignition maps on its new street middleweight. Cruisers and touring bikes have ABS and TC.

I think if WSBK wasn't allowing bikes w/o fly-by-wire stock to upgrade, those manufacturers simply would bail out. And if WSBK tried to ban it altogether, it would be in the position of making the race teams remove electronics that the street rider would have on their bike. At that point, why would any factory go racing?

Reading the reviews of the new BMW HP4, I think the next headache for the rulemakers is gonna be electronically-controlled suspension.

It's a tough position for a rules maker to be in. But computers are turning things on their heads everywhere, and racing is no different.

Let them race with the electronics they come equipped with off the showroom floor. But allowing them to retrofit fly by wire so they can employ the most sophisticated GP style Marelli ECUs is total BS In a production based series, especially as it scales up the costs enormously. Might as well let them fit an aftermarket frame while you're at it.

The R1 comes stock with fly-by-wire. The CBR1000RR does not. The Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC comes stock with "adjustable traction control capable of self-adjusting to suit different types of tyres, wheelie control, launch control, quick shift." They're in three different worlds - and stock for stock, the RSV4 would simply smoke the R1 and the CBR. Why do Yamaha and Honda even show up for that contest?

If you don't allow all bikes to fit the stuff that comes stock on the most sophisticated ones, you simply tell the manus who don't build bikes like the APRC to just stay home or build a "homologation special."

I suspect that Honda is thinking along these lines with the new V4.

Your articles are always well written, David, but I think you may want to refresh your understanding of "shibboleth".
Biblical references to Gileadites and Ephraimites notwithstanding, it's a "password" in simple terms, and not a "convenient, mutually understood lie".

That is one meaning. I was using the word in its more secular sense, see entry 1a in Merriam-Webster: "a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning." 

Perfectly acceptable use. In fact, I thought it was FANTASTIC use of the word. I enjoyed it so much that I re-read the paragraph three times. It is now my goal to use the word in the same manner at some point this week.

Who would have thought that encouragement for grandiloquence could come from reading about bike racing?

For all of the confabulation related to potential rule changes, tyre limitations, engine usage, DNFs from forced/unforced result vacillations, the frisson for this season in motoGp has imploded more than anything from the absence of Stoner. With Rossi effectively hors de combat from contributing to the 4-way battle between the 'aliens', the feeling of inevitability of a Lorenzo WC was cemented at Misano.

While mathematically a Lorenzo DNF and a Pedrosa win/s in the next two races could ignite the season again, the odds are extremely high that Lorenzo will take out the 2012 WC in an almost flawless and highly-deserved display of utter professionalism. Nobody but a curmudgeon would denigrate his performance this year.

Fort all of that, Lorenzo's almost inevitable WC will lack the head on the beer that Stoner's contention for the glittering prize would have added. Lorenzo will take the WC with every right to feel fulfilled in his achievement. However, like a fine wine, the intangible differentiation between merely good and superb lies in the aftertaste on the palate, and without Stoner as a contender that will be missing.

Curmudgeon AND Shibboleth in the same day...nowhere else...

Nothing against Lorenzo, I'm really hoping for a DNF from him tomorrow. Come on Bautista and Barbara, do your thing!!