The MotoGP grid is looking in surprisingly good health in 2015. The series has come a long way in the five years since 2010, when there were just 17 full-time entries on the grid, and Suzuki was teetering on the brink of withdrawal. Dorna's CRT gambit has paid off: the much-maligned production-based bikes may not have been competitive, but they did spur the manufacturers into action to actually supply more competitive machinery to the private teams. The CRT bikes became Open class bikes, and Dorna's pet project of standardized electronics has been adopted into the MotoGP rules. From 2016, there will be one class again (well, sort of, the concessions – engine development, unlimited testing, more engines – for factories without regular podiums are to remain in place), with everyone on the same electronics, the same fuel allowance, and the same tires.
A bigger change is coming for 2017. From the outside, the 2017 grid will be indistinguishable from the one in 2016, but the changes behind the scenes will significant, and be a step towards securing the long-term future of the series. The position of the private teams is to change from 2017, ensuring financial security, a fixed price for competitive machinery, and securing their slots on the grid.
The change encompasses a number of key elements, all of which revolve around the independent teams. The first, and most important, is that the grid size will be fixed at 24 riders, each of whom will receive financial support from Dorna. Those grid slots will be awarded to the existing teams – the IODA team, as a one-rider outfit, are likely to be the squad which loses out – and they are guaranteed to keep those places. No new teams will be admitted to the MotoGP class, unless one of the existing teams pulls out. If a new factory wants to enter MotoGP, they will have to do so through an existing team, as Aprilia did in 2015, rather than through their own structure, as Suzuki did. KTM, who are expected to enter in 2017, and are considering entering as a factory, according to a story on Speedweek, will have to partner with an existing squad. Speedweek mentions the Aspar team; given the financial struggles of the Valencia-based team, that would make a lot of sense, for both parties.
There is also to be a shift in the financing of MotoGP. Currently, Dorna pays money to the factories for participating, as well as paying for freight and supplying free tires to the MotoGP teams. From 2017, Dorna will pay the teams €2 million for each rider they field. The direct factory subsidy is to be dropped, though the factories will still end up with Dorna's money: the money paid to each team is about enough to cover the lease of a bike from each factory. Tires will continue to be available at no cost to the teams, though it will be Michelin supplying them, rather than Bridgestone.
Alongside the change to financing the teams, a price cap has been agreed with the manufacturers. Each MotoGP bike will be available to the independent teams for a maximum price of €2.2 million a season. That price will include two race bikes per rider, all maintenance costs (and a season's supply of engines) and access to upgrades when available. The price does not include crash damage, but this is a common arrangement with manufacturers. The price currently charged by some manufacturers is rumored to be nearly twice that.
The €2.2 million is a maximum price, however, and not necessarily a fixed price. Another measure agreed with the manufacturers is that each factory has agreed to supply at least one independent team with bikes for two riders. This means that teams can choose which manufacturer to go with, providing that manufacturer is willing to supply extra machines. Underperforming factories may be forced to make their bikes available at much less than the €2.2 million price cap. The factories with the best bike on the grids may be able to pick and choose the teams they supply, and may be able to supply more than one independent team should the teams ask for it.
At the root of the change is a simple piece of efficiency. At the moment, bikes from the previous years are destroyed, sent to the crusher, or in very rare cases, auctioned off to wealthy individuals. For Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, they make older versions of their bikes available to the private teams. Honda's satellite bikes are the most up to date – the machines of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding are only two to three races behind those of the factory riders Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa – while Yamaha's satellite Tech 3 team are using the bikes Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo stepped off at the final race of 2014 in Valencia, and the Pramac Ducati squad have two different flavours of GP14 at their disposal. Suzuki and Aprilia will have to do something similar from 2017, upon request from the independent teams. Suzuki's GSX-RR is already looking very competitive; if the Japanese factory can extract a few more horsepower from the bike next season, while retaining its sweet-handling nature, their bikes will also be in demand in 2017. And unlike in the past, Suzuki will be obliged to supply at least one independent team with bikes, should they be asked to.
This combination – a guaranteed slot on the grid, a cap on the price of equipment, a guarantee of supply from the factories, and a generous subsidy from Dorna – should help keep the grids full and healthy. The subsidy from Dorna is not sufficient to cover the entire costs of a team for a season. For a two-rider team, they are approximately twice the subsidy available, or around €8 million a season. That includes salaries for two riders, a full technical crew to support two riders, race trucks to transport equipment, hospitality units to entertain sponsors and their guests, and staff to work in the hospitality units. But finding €4 million a season is a more achievable goal for private teams, and a sum that can be found from a number of smaller sponsors, without having to rely on a single title sponsor.
Why have the factories agreed to the cost cap? Because in exchange, they have been guaranteed a stable rule set for a five-year period. Between 2017 and 2021, the technical regulations will only change at the behest of the manufacturers, and only when such changes are deemed absolutely necessary. With an engine freeze in place for each season, and development only possible from year to year, this ensures a predictable level of costs for each year. Rule stability is supplying cost predictability. Not all the factories are equally keen, however: it is rumored that Yamaha are a good deal less enthusiastic about the new deal than Honda are, fearing the loss of direct income from Dorna.
Now that agreement has been reached for the MotoGP class in 2017, attention is being turned to the support classes. Teams' association IRTA is keen to get a better deal for the Moto2 and Moto3 teams, in order to build a better championship at all levels. At the moment, IRTA receives a subsidy from Dorna, and uses that subsidy to pay for three tests, plus most of the freight for each year. They have also received money from Dorna to cover unexpected costs: IRTA are currently working on a rebate for the Moto2 and Moto3 teams for Argentina, after costs for the event went through the roof this year as a result of price gouging by local companies offering accommodation, car rental and other services. Those prices saw some people turn to novel and rather extreme measures to cut costs: instead of paying the exorbitant price being asked for fridge rental in offices, for example, some people went out and bought a fridge themselves for less than a third of the price. Buying a fridge and leaving it there was still cheaper than renting one from local companies.
The aim for Moto2 and Moto3 is to provide a predictable subsidy to each team, to allow them budget their seasons better. The subsidies for the support classes will not be as generous as for MotoGP – 24 riders each receiving €2 million makes a grand total of €48 million, well over a fifth of Dorna's annual turnover – but any subsidy will make the series an attractive prospect. A similar system in World Superbikes would make it much easier for the teams, who at the moment have to finance racing out of their own (or rather, their sponsors') pockets. Before that can happen, revenues will have to go up a long way in WSBK.
The final part of the jigsaw is the calendar. Carmelo Ezpeleta has already given a commitment that the calendar will not expand beyond 20 races in a season. That is already a rather high number, one source close to the teams telling me that the teams regard 18 races as the optimum number, and that any expansion of the calendar will have to come at the price of testing. The current schedule is already hard on both riders and team members, who are away from home for a very long time each year. If the season expands to 19 or 20 races, then one or two of the preseason tests would be dropped to compensate. A 19 race calendar would see the Sepang 2 test dropped, teams going from Sepang for one test, to Qatar for the second test, before starting the season a week or so later. A 20 race season would see just a single test at Sepang, before season kicked off at Qatar.
What is certain is that there will be a few changes to the calendar in the next couple of years. In 2016, Austria will be added to the schedule, Red Bull stepping up to finance a race at the circuit it owns in Spielberg, the track formerly known as the A1 Ring. Whether the addition of Austria means an expansion of the calendar, or whether another race will be dropped is far from certain. The ongoing difficulties with Brno – there is a constant battle over finances between the circuit owner Karel Abraham Sr. and local politicians representing the Moravia region – could see the Czech race dropped, and the Austrian round would be a perfect replacement for the Eastern European race.
In 2017, Thailand seems certain to be added to the calendar. The World Superbike series ran surprisingly smoothly at the excellent Chang facility, and Thailand is an absolutely key market for the MotoGP manufacturers. Talks are ongoing trying to get a second race in South America, either in Chile or in Brazil, but political and financial factors have so far thrown up insurmountable obstacles. Indonesia, seen by both the manufacturers and Dorna as the jackpot in terms of overseas races, faces similar problems, and more. At the moment, the country does not have a track capable of hosting a MotoGP race, and rampant and endemic corruption makes putting on an event a costly, difficult and dangerous undertaking. Without support at the very highest levels of politics and policing, a race in Indonesia seems unlikely for the medium term future.
India could be a market which does see a MotoGP race, however. With the former customs issues now resolved, and a change of government, Dorna is looking at sending World Superbikes to the Buddh International Circuit for another shot at staging a race. If that succeeds, MotoGP is sure to follow, given the size and potential of the Indian market for the manufacturers.
The addition of extra races overseas would mean existing races would be under threat. Apart from Brno, Indianapolis is regarded as being in the bed next to the door, despite the event's popularity with fans who attend the race. Two races in the US are not seen by the manufacturers as necessary. The US is a mature market, and potential for expanding sales there is limited. That is very different in a country like Indonesia, Brazil, or India. The four Spanish races will continue for the time being, as all four tracks have contracts with Dorna. But financial issues for the circuits could see at least one Spanish race dropped, with Valencia currently the weakest candidate. In the past, proposals have been made to alternate the race between Valencia and Barcelona. If the Spanish economy continues to pick up, that may not be necessary.