Analyzing MotoGP's New Rules: The Marquez Penalty Points, Price Caps And Dashboard Lights
The meeting of the Grand Prix Commission last week was primarily aimed at doing a little housekeeping, and tidying up a few loose ends. What emerged from that meeting, and from the previous one held at Valencia a month ago, turned out to be a little more than that. Among the many changes announced were a few that point to the series turning down a new, and more sustainable path.
On reading the rule changes, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the official FIM press release containing the minutes may as well have been subtitled "MotoGP Regulations: The Marc Marquez Edition." Though Marquez is not yet twenty years of age, he has already left his mark on the rulebook, many of the new regulations appearing to have been drawn up in response to controversies emerging (rightly or wrongly) from Marquez and his Monlau Competicion Moto2 team.
The biggest change to the rules is the introduction of a penalty points system, aimed at bringing some clarity and consistency into the way that repeat offenders are treated. The rules arose from the debate generated by the treatment of Marquez throughout the year. The Spaniard received a number of warnings for incidents during the 2012 season, starting at Qatar, and his maneuver which forced Tom Luthi off line, passing through his collision with Pol Espargaro at Barcelona, a collision with Mika Kallio at Motegi, and ending with a penalty for an incident with Simone Corsi at Valencia, where he was forced to start from the back of the grid (the penalty did not slow him up much, he still came through most of the field on the first lap and went on to win the race).
After the incident at Qatar, Marquez was issued a formal warning, which Race Direction referred to informally as a 'yellow card'. That terminology led some, especially outside of the Spanish media, to believe that a following infraction would result in Marquez being suspended for a race - that, after all, is the meaning of a yellow card in soccer, the sport where the terminology is derived from. Marquez never did receive a suspension, and the penalty imposed by Race Direction for his clash with Espargaro was overturned by the FIM Stewards, who viewed the incident in isolation, not taking his previous run-in with Luthi at Qatar into consideration.
The treatment of Marquez - as well as a few other serial transgressors, including riders who had committed serious offenses such as pushing marshals and others - had given the impression that the decisions of Race Direction tended to be rather arbitrary in nature. The very opaque way in which decisions were reached left Race Direction open to charges of inconsistency, and worse, favoritism. It was clear that a much more transparent system was required to manage such infractions, making it clear to everyone where a particular rider stands, and the possible penalty for a subsequent offense.
Hence the penalty points system introduced by the Grand Prix Commission last week. Under the new system, Race Direction can punish any rider deemed to have breached the rules, or shown unsafe or unsportsmanlike conduct, by awarding them a number of penalty points (between 1 and 10) depending on the seriousness of the offense. If the rider has collected 4 or more points, they will have to start one race (the next race) from the back of the grid. If the rider collects more points, and their total reaches 7 points or more, they will have to start one race from pit lane. Once the rider's total reaches 10 points, they will be automatically disqualified from the next race. At this point, the rider's penalty points total is reset to 0, and he starts afresh.
All penalty points are valid for just a single season, however. Any rider finishing at Valencia with 9 points will start the next season at Qatar with a clean slate. This does preclude riders from receiving points for any crimes committed during the final race of the year, of course, though Race Direction still has the option of deducting points, disqualifying riders, and fining them, in addition to awarding points.
Though the new system is a clear improvement, in that now everyone can keep track of which rider has how many points, it still leaves Race Direction open to charges of arbitrary decision-making. Race Direction are free to decide to penalize riders with as few or as many points as they wish. The added transparency of the penalty points system does make it easier to keep track, however, for riders, teams, the media, and Race Direction themselves. Race Direction will now at least have some form of precedent to go by in future, once enough incidents have been judged and penalized.
The transparency benefits the riders, most of all. It is now perfectly clear exactly where they stand, and what risks they are running by any following transgressions. They now have a better idea of when they need to calm down a little, and ride a little less recklessly.
The introduction of a penalty points system was not the only new rule change which brought Marc Marquez to mind. The Grand Prix Commission introduced two new rules in Moto2, one starting immediately, and the other to be enforced from 2014 onwards.
Starting from now, the scrutineers will be stricter on which quick-shifters the Moto2 teams are allowed to use. All systems must now be approved by Danny Aldridge, MotoGP's Technical Director, before they can be used on a Moto2 bike. The controversy surrounding the TSR system used by Marc Marquez (and also adopted by other teams, including Marc VDS Racing, HP Pons Tuenti, and others) has been averted by this measure, it now being perfectly clear whether a system is inside the rules or not. There were those who felt that the TSR system broke the rules, introducing an extra control unit between the standard HRC ECU and the coils, capable of altering the length of time that sparks were cut during gear changes. The rules stated merely that the wiring harness to be used may be altered as teams see fit, as long as it 'respects the official Supplier’s wiring diagram'. That phrasing leaves rather too much room for interpretation, perhaps.
Along the same lines, a new lambda sensor is to be supplied to the Moto2 teams from 2014 onwards. The current lambda sensor appears to be one of the suspects for manipulation: given that the teams cannot design their own fueling strategies to create traction control or increase power, their main focus has been of optimizing the air/fuel ratio under all conceivable conditions, providing the best possible engine response and power delivery. The new lambda sensor should eliminate any vulnerability the current kit may have to manipulation.
The restrictions on quick-shifters and the new lambda sensor will not be met with universal approval. Some Moto2 teams were already expressing their displeasure at Valencia, while discussions were still ongoing. Their objection was that their ingenuity was being punished: they had spent a lot of time and a considerable amount of money figuring out the loopholes in the current regulations, and the (admittedly small) advantage they had gained was now being taken away from them. No doubt that the strongest and best-funded teams will soon find new ways of ensuring whatever small technical advantage they can find in the new rules. Such is the arms race inside any motorcycle racing paddock.
One of the by-products of that arms race is to keep driving costs up, and that too has been addressed. In what promises to be a revolution for the MotoGP paddock, price caps are to be introduced from 2015 onwards on certain key components, starting with brakes and suspension. The price of brakes has been a thorn in the flesh of the teams for many years now, the issue coming to public attention early in the 2012 season, when Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow started complaining about not having the latest set of Brembo brakes, while his teammate Andrea Dovizioso did have them. Crutchlow alleged that Dovizioso had paid the 60,000 euros the brakes cost himself, and that the only reason he did not have the new calipers was because he was not willing to pay for them out of his own pocket. Eventually, Crutchlow also received the brake upgrade, despite Casey Stoner telling him they didn't offer much improvement. Though team boss Herve Poncharal refused to comment on the issue, sources inside the team hinted that neither Dovizioso nor Crutchlow had had to contribute funds out of their own pocket, the money having come from the team budget.
With brakes running at over 60,000 euros a season, and forks upwards of 30,000 a set, just getting a bike on the grid is an expensive business. With Ohlins and Brembo having established a virtual monopoly in the MotoGP class - the paddock's innate conservatism working against itself once again - competitive pressure on prices is almost absent. Teams pay what the manufacturers ask because they believe that they have no alternative, and because they fear trying to compete on different equipment: if you have the same forks or brakes as your competitor, that is at least one variable which you have eliminated. This then makes it even harder for new brands to enter the sport, as the dominant manufacturers continue to amass mountains of data, while a new entrant has little or none.
The monopoly positions held by Ohlins and Brembo are unlikely to change. Nor is that necessarily a bad thing, as their products are without doubt of the very highest quality. The only complaint which the teams have is the price. If competition will not reduce the price, then imposing price caps is a sensible way to limit costs. It will not necessarily slow development, as Ohlins and Brembo will be free to continue to develop their products as much as they like. If they wish to do so, however, they will have to fund more of the development themselves, and less from income gained from selling to the teams.
This is likely to become the predominant method for cutting costs in the future. After other attempts at cutting costs via the rules have met with at best limited success, and at worst spectacular failure, the simple expedient of defining a reasonable price for a component and ruling that anyone wanting to supply to the series must supply at the specified price, choosing either to build to that price or swallow R&D costs themselves, costs which can be recouped via both marketing exposure in the series and from improved sales of consumer products based on GP technology. This is one way of effectively controlling costs.
Changes to the Moto3 class also underline that this is the strategy of the future for Dorna. Though the first year of the new four-stroke class has been a relative success, the costs of a competitive Moto3 motorcycle are still much higher than the teams and Dorna had hoped. To stop the costs from spiraling out of control, with KTM and Honda vying for supremacy in the class, further price controls are to be introduced for Moto3. The price of engines is already capped at 12,000 euros, but chassis costs are much, much higher, complete with top spec brakes and suspension parts. The price of these parts is to be controlled as well from 2014 onwards, a move aimed at both leveling the playing field - the difference between a standard Honda NSF250R and a GeoTech-prepared engine in an FTR chassis is massive - and at making the series affordable for all of the players.
Another change in Moto3 is the way which engines are supplied. At the moment, each engine manufacturer is supposed to be willing to supply any team that asks them, and make all engine upgrades available to all their customers equally. This has not prevented some teams from having vastly superior parts to others, and so from 2014, all the engines from one manufacturer will be handed over to the series organizer (Dorna) and they will distribute these engines to the teams choosing to use that manufacturer's engine at random. This should reduce the disparity between the teams, and remove the incentive for manufacturers to favor their factory teams.
Engine development is also subject to regulation in MotoGP. An engine freeze had already been announced earlier this year, basically restricting engine development to electronics, exhaust and inlet work, and bore and stroke dimensions fixed for the next three seasons. The Madrid meeting of the Grand Prix Commission confirmed that this engine freeze does not apply to CRT engines, but it also confirmed that factories may homologate different specs of engine for a season, allowing, for example, a satellite team to use a different spec of engine to the factory team. The unfortunate side effect of this regulation is that satellite teams could be given lower-spec engines at the start of the season, leaving them less competitive for the entire season.
The final major change - and a long overdue one at that - is the introduction of a transponder capable of receiving signals corresponding to the flags shown by the marshals, in addition to its usual function in timekeeping. From 2014, this new transponder will be made compulsory, along with forcing the teams to use a dashboard system capable of receiving those signals from the transponder and passing them on to the rider by way of lights, etc. Direct communications with the pits remains illegal, but Race Direction will have the ability to warn riders much more easily. By having the transponders receive warnings for yellow flags, red flags, ride-through penalties, disqualifications, etc, track safety should be much improved. No longer will there be certain corners where visibility of the marshal stations is an issue, with flags only seen in peripheral vision. The trackside flags will not disappear, but having the information quite literally in front of the rider's eyes should make a big difference.