Looking Ahead: MotoGP Grids Filling Up With Aprilia Working On 2016 Return
Towards the end of the 800cc era, MotoGP looked to be in dire condition. Grids were dwindling, factories were reducing their participation, and teams were in difficult financial straits indeed. By the end of 2011, there were just 17 full time entries, Suzuki was down to a single rider, and were about to pull out entirely for 2012.
How different the situation looks today. The CRTs have served their purpose - to persuade the factories to help fill the grid, and supply the teams with (relatively) affordable equipment - and the reduction in costs brought about in part by the spec electronics is enticing factories back to MotoGP. Suzuki is in full testing mode, and getting ready to return to racing full time in 2015, and Aprilia is working towards a full-time return in 2016.
In a recent interview with the official MotoGP.com website, Aprilia Corse's new boss Romano Albesiano gave a brief outline of their plans. The Italian factory will continue to work with the IODA Racing team for 2014 to collect data on the electronics and tires, which they will use as input on an entirely new project being worked on for 2016. The new bike will begin testing in 2015, with the possibility of a few wildcard appearances that year, before Aprilia return as a full factory effort in 2016. With MotoGP going to a single set of rules for 2016 - based very closely on the Open class rules for this season - making their return when the new regulations take effect makes much more commercial sense.
Though Albesiano revealed few details in the interview, some details are already known of Aprilia's direction. Last year, when the Aspar team were still in talks with Aprilia about their plans for 2014, it emerged that Aprilia were planning a bike with pneumatic valves and a seamless gearbox. In the first instance, those technologies would be applied to the existing ART project, which is itself based on the Aprilia RSV4 superbike. It is unlikely that the new bike Aprilia is working on will be a radical departure from the RSV4 layout, with engine layout and basic chassis geometry likely to remain the same. The main emphasis of the changes will probably be on improving the engine construction, removing some of the compromises made in the RSV4 to cut costs as a production bike, making it a more specialized machine.
The return of Aprilia and Suzuki will provide a quality boost for the grid. For the past two years, the grid has been kept at 24 slots, dropping to 23 with the loss of Leon Camier from the IODA Racing squad, when Giampiero Sacchi's team failed to find sponsorship to make up for the loss of CAME. Dorna's aim is to have a grid of 22 riders, all on relatively competitive equipment. That grid size is determined in part by the deal Dorna have done with Bridgestone, who supply 22 riders with tires for free. To help trim down the grid, the team which finishes last in the standings will lose its financial contribution from Dorna, and be persuaded to concentrate on Moto2. New teams entering will also have to forego the Dorna subsidy for the first year, until they have proven to be financially sound.
The entry of Suzuki has thrown the weakest teams a financial lifeline, however. The three weakest teams on the grid - currently PBM, Avintia and IODA Racing - could decide to sell their grid slots to Suzuki for 2015. The price could be hefty - 2 million euros is one number being bandied about by the well-informed website Speedweek - though with three potential sellers, that could help drive the price down for Suzuki. If there are more candidates to join - Marc VDS Racing is also considering making the step up, team boss Michael Bartholemy told Speedweek - then prices may once again rise. With Aprilia looking to come as a factory entry in 2016, IODA Racing may be able to extract financial backing from the Italian factory in exchange for their grid slots - or a role running the factory team - when they join the series.
The return of Suzuki and Aprilia would bring the number of factories involved back up to 4 in 2015, and 5 in 2016, with Avintia's strong ties to Kawasaki leaving the door open for the Japanese firm to come back, should they decide it is cost effective. So far, though, Kawasaki has been perfectly content to remain in World Superbikes, and with the ZX-10R already such a strong base package, the bike looks set to remain competitive in WSBK when the series switches to EVO regulations from next year on. Though the cost of competing has reduced considerably - Kawasaki was rumored to be spending upwards of 65 million euros a season when they raced in MotoGP, about as much as Yamaha and 10-20 million less than Honda - it is still nowhere near as cheap as World Superbikes. Kawasaki's World Superbike budget is believed to be closer to that of a satellite MotoGP team, rather than a factory MotoGP team. Even BMW's factory WSBK budget was said to be just 10 million euros a year, a cost that was considered outrageous by the rest of the World Superbike paddock.
It is not just the return of factories which is helping to boost the quality of MotoGP grids. Ducati have already pledged to sell competitive machines based on the 2014 Desmosedici for next season, at a price similar to that of the Honda RCV1000R. With the improvement in performance which the GP14 has shown, that could be an attractive option for next season. What's more, it appears that LCR Honda could also expand from one to two riders, with a second slot opened for an Open class machine, Lucio Cecchinello looking at adding a production Honda alongside the RC213V currently in the hands of Stefan Bradl.
MotoGP has gone through a long and very dark period. But the revival which started in 2012 is showing signs of growing stronger. Many threats still remain - not least, the decision by Dorna to switch to pay-per-view broadcasters - but the series is in much, much better health than it has been in some while.