2013 Assen MotoGP Wednesday Round Up: Of Weird Wednesdays, Difficult Ducatis, And MotoGP's Long Term Future
Wednesday at Assen is always a rather odd day. At most rounds, Wednesday is a travel day, and the paddock regulars spend the day in airports, planes and hire cars. But because the race at Assen is on Saturday, the events that normally take place on Thursday such as the pre-event press conference, happen a day earlier. That leaves everyone with the racing equivalent of jet lag, their bodies and minds 24 hours behind events. Mentally, we are all prepared for a day of torpor and inaction. What we are greeted with is a day of rushing around to talk to riders, team managers, and anyone else foolish enough to cross our paths. Mind battles physical reality, and both come out losers.
Even focusing on the upcoming race is hard. Rolling into the circuit under bright skies and cheery temperatures - not warm, but not freezing either - feels slightly surreal after having studied the weather forecasts for the coming days. While race day is likely to be dry, Thursday and Friday look like being full wet days. What that means is that practice may not be much of a guide to what actually happens on race day, rendering practice and qualifying relatively meaningless.
Ducati, at least, will welcome the rain. "The rain is bad for the fans, but it's good for Ducati," Nicky Hayden quipped, though he was not entirely happy with the situation. The Ducati goes very well in the wet, despite still struggling in the dry. Though a wet race may act as a placebo - though perhaps an analgesic is a better metaphor - in easing the pain of the Ducati riders, the fact of the matter is that Andrea Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden, Andrea Iannone and Michele Pirro, still taking the place of the injured Ben Spies, are starting to run out of options.
Their patience is starting to wear thin. Though both Dovizioso and Hayden are effusive in their praise for the work already done by the factory, their criticisms are starting to become louder. Hayden told reporters that although the work done so far had been admirable, it was maybe time to change tack. So far, Ducati had been working with stiffness, experimenting with different stiffness in various parts of the chassis to help cure the pumping of the rear suspension. "Maybe stiffness isn't the problem," Hayden suggested. He reeled off a list of other areas to explore - weight distribution, engine balance and shape, engine location - adding that although he was not an engineer, he felt these were at least areas that needed some serious thought. He may well be right, of course, but while stiffness can be changed relatively easily - a 'small matter' of producing a modified frame - changing weight distribution, and especially the engine layout, is a much more time-consuming and difficult process. Back at Ducati Corse in Bologna, the engineers are working themselves into the ground, but they still have twenty years' work to catch up on.
While Ducati is working for next year, the focus at the highest levels of MotoGP is on the future, and especially the future of the series once Valentino Rossi, the series' major media draw, retires. With Rossi gone, the series will have to start producing some real entertainment if it is to attract the attention of the casual viewer, and though Marc Marquez is fulfilling part of that role, he will never be able to compensate for the loss of Rossi, MotoGP's ace in the hole. What is needed is good racing, something which the current rule set, drawn up mainly to please the MSMA, does little to facilitate. The combination of custom-written software and draconian fuel limits places a premium on flowing, economical lines, wonderful for the purist, confusing for the casual fan.
The rules are locked in for the next few seasons, at least until the current contracts with the manufacturers expire at the end of 2016. From 2017, bigger changes could be on the cards, and to get an idea of what those changes might be, I canvased opinion from among those involved in long-term planning for the future.
Dorna, the FIM and IRTA have two basic aims, I was told, and the path to achieving them is already clear. The first aim is to level the playing field, which means creating a single set of coherent rules, as MotoGP had in the past. The second aim - and one which is complementary to the first - is to spice up the racing, and try to make it more exciting to watch, without detracting from the sporting element. Striking a balance between the purity of the sport, and the spectacle it involves, is a very tricky one indeed.
The first target will be tires. Bridgestone have done an outstanding job at producing tires which combine both astonishing levels of performance and amazing durability. Until this year, it was not uncommon for riders to be setting their fastest lap of the race in the last few laps, something that was unthinkable in years past. As perfect as the tires are, they do not serve the purpose required by Dorna, and so the series organizers have been putting pressure on the Japanese tire manufacturer to make their tires easier to use. Bridgestone have made a big step this year, but more is required.
Dorna have the perfect leverage, to persuade Bridgestone to modify their tires. The single tire contract runs out at the end of 2014, and the first sets of discussions are being held with interested suppliers. Dorna is very happy to continue with Bridgestone, but they also have several other suppliers interested. No names were mentioned to me directly, one source saying simply "You can imagine for yourself which companies might be involved." The mention of Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli failed to extract a denial, and given the companies' respective history in the sport - Michelin were MotoGP's top dogs for many years before the advent of the spec tire, Dunlop also have long MotoGP experience, as well as being official suppliers to Moto2 and Moto3, and Pirelli are already involved as a single tire supplier in World Superbikes.
With suppliers lining up for the job of single tire supplier, Dorna can pick and choose the best offer they get. Their main objective is to have a tire which is both extremely reliable, and much easier to ride, perhaps with some degree of predictable degradation. Getting the most out of the tire should not be the sole purview of a handful of racers in the world; anyone good enough to be racing in MotoGP should be able to extract (near) maximum performance from the tires.
With a more amenable tire, the next target will be to level the playing field. The spec ECU was a step in the right direction, but the concession that factories would still be able to use their proprietary software on the spec ECU means that the gap between the factory teams and the non-MSMA entries - the category which replaces CRT next year, though many of the CRT machines will remain - will stay the same. The combination of proprietary software, 20 liters of fuel, limited engine allocations and the development advantages conferred by a factory team means that even in 2014, the racing will be much the same as it is this year.
To remedy that situation, the plan is to demand that factories supply more bikes, and of more or less equal spec, to all of the teams on the grid. Six bikes per manufacturer would be ideal, though the question is whether a smaller manufacturer such as Suzuki would be able to supply that number of bikes. Factory and satellite teams will have nearly identical equipment, the development gap between the two levels of machinery being carefully monitored and strictly policed.
The major tool Dorna has in their tool chest to achieve this goal is through the electronics. By 2017, Magneti Marelli will have four years' experience in MotoGP, with a wide range of engine configurations, and the spec software package should start to be closer to the proprietary software produced by the factories. The factories will not have stood still, of course, but the gap should be much smaller, and the level of performance the spec Magneti Marelli software provides should be sufficient to persuade the factories that they can live with the spec software. 'We need to get the spec software to the point where they are willing to accept it,' one source told me.
Once the spec software is in place, then other rule changes will follow, changes which will loosen the stranglehold the factories have on the series. With spec software, Dorna can easily impose a rev limit, which will make the engine durability regulations (which mandates that riders can use only five engines for a series) much easier to achieve for factories entering the class for the first time. And with a rev limit, the parsimonious limit of 20 liters of fuel can go as well. The fuel limit serves to limit performance, as well as giving the factories an engineering challenge to chase. The fuel limit has been a particularly poor performance limit, as both top speeds and lap records continue to be broken. A rev limit is a much more logical way to achieve that, and it has the added benefit of bringing the engineering back within reach of any factory who wishes to try. The fuel limit is a major factor in keeping Suzuki away until 2015; a rev limit would not.
The danger, of course, is that the factories simply refuse to accept spec software, and threaten to leave if it is imposed upon them. The last time Carmelo Ezpeleta made the same threat, that he would impose standard software, the manufacturers threatened to walk. Ezpeleta blinked first, but he did get the spec hardware in place, which was half the battle. By 2017, the series should be stronger, and the breadth of competitors should be broader, meaning that MotoGP could afford to lose one or two manufacturers.
But this is a threat which has always hung over Grand Prix racing, almost from the time it began. Factories decide all the time that they gain nothing from racing, and decide to pull out and do something else. In recent years, there have been Suzuki, Kawasaki, Aprilia and Ilmor. Go further back and MV Agusta, Norton, Moto Guzzi, Matchless, and even the mighty Honda have walked away from Grand Prix. The factories can survive without racing, it is merely a marketing and R&D opportunity for them. The teams can do nothing without racing. Without racing, there are no teams.
2017 is a long way away, however. Much can change in the intervening period, but there is a clear path to the future. Whether the proposed changes will make the racing any closer remains to be seen; put the entire field on identical bikes, and the same four men would be fastest. But by bringing Grand Prix machinery closer to something a mere mortal could ride, the advantage those fabulous four (or maybe five) would have would be much smaller. Big change is still afoot in MotoGP, but it is still some way off.