Once upon a time, the manufacturers reigned supreme in MotoGP. The MSMA – the Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers' Association – determined the shape of the premier class. In the early years after Dorna secured the rights to promote Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the MSMA negotiated a monopoly over the technical regulations in MotoGP.
The rules in MotoGP are made in committee, the Grand Prix Commission, containing representatives of the four parties with an interest in the sport: Dorna as promoter, the FIM as sanctioning body, IRTA representing the teams, and the MSMA on behalf of the manufacturers. While the sporting and other rules are voted on by majority, the MSMA controlled the technical rules.
In the early years of the MotoGP era Rule changes proposed unanimously by the MSMA were adopted automatically, and the MSMA retained a veto over rules put forward by the other members of the GPC. It was the MSMA who asked for the switch from two strokes to four strokes, and the MSMA who insisted on reducing the capacity from 990cc to 800cc in 2007, when concerns were raised over the speeds of the bigger bikes.
Then the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Through 2009, it became clear that the technical rules were unsustainable in the economic climate of the time. First, Kawasaki dropped out, then Suzuki went at the end of 2011. When new contracts with the factories were negotiated, Dorna ensured that the MSMA lost a little of its influence.
The loss of Kawasaki and Suzuki had a bigger impact on the MSMA. Up until that point in time, Honda had dominated the manufacturers' association, as the senior Japanese manufacturer, with the others deferring to HRC. Ducati was seen as a mere inconvenience, a Johnny-come-lately, having only joined the premier class in 2003. But from 2012, Ducati comprised one-third of the MSMA, with Honda and Yamaha. And Ducati were considerably less inclined to play along.
There were early signs of trouble back in 2011. Dorna had proposed raising the minimum weight for MotoGP machines from 153kg to 160kg for the 2012 season onward, to keep costs in check for the CRT teams which were due to join the class in 2012. That proposal was rejected by the MSMA at a meeting in Valencia in 2011, which meant it was dropped by the Grand Prix Commission.
But in the weeks that followed, it became evident that the MSMA members had not been unanimous. Ducati had voted in favor of the weight increase, and so it should never have been rejected. The Grand Prix Commission adopted a compromise, raising the minimum weight to 157kg, and unleashing a raft of issues of chatter for Honda and, to a lesser degree, Yamaha in early 2012.
This episode made clear that unanimity would be hard to maintain within the MSMA. That made it easier for Dorna and IRTA to push through the rule changes they wanted to reduce costs and make the racing closer. That helped MotoGP arrive at the point we currently are, with spec electronics and maximum prices for the lease of satellite machines.
Out of balance
These changes have disturbed the balance inside the MSMA even further, however. Where once there were four Japanese factories (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha) and Ducati, the new factories arriving have been a mixture. Suzuki have returned to increase the number of Japanese factories to three, while KTM and Aprilia have entered MotoGP to swell the European ranks to three. There is a very different power balance and a different vibe inside the MSMA nowadays.
There has also been a marked increase in tension. With less consensus and a clash of corporate cultures, relations have been strained. And the changing rules in MotoGP has served to radically ramp up those tensions.
First, Gigi Dall’Igna threw a spanner into the works of the MSMA when he announced that Ducati would be racing in MotoGP as an Open Class team in 2014, to allow them to circumvent the freeze on engine development, and use more engines during the season. That was solved by the introduction of concessions for manufacturers who hadn't won races, a system which has also proved invaluable for Suzuki, KTM, and Aprilia in helping them develop and, in Suzuki's case, return to winning.
Ducati muddied the waters even further with their pursuit of aerodynamics as an alternative to electronics to control the bikes. Winglets appeared on the Desmosedici GP15 in 2015 as an anti-wheelie device, and quickly spread all over the front of the bike.
A war of words erupted between Honda and Ducati, though mostly behind closed doors. Shuhei Nakamoto, vice president of HRC at the time, expressed his anger at Ducati publicly in an interview with international journalist Manuel Pecino. "Ducati said no to everything," Nakamoto told Pecino, about proposals put forward to restrict the wings. "It just was no, and no, and no. All the Japanese factories agreed and Aprilia in some respects did too, but Ducati did not want to discuss the matter. It was their way or nothing."
This followed earlier dark warnings that Ducati did not want to get into a war of aerodynamics with Honda. HRC, after all, had the backing of the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, tied to one of the largest car manufacturers, with a vast amount of experience with aerodynamics through their F1 programs, as well as wind tunnels at their disposal.
Compromise followed, with winglets being replaced with ducts and loops. The aerodynamic function remained, though it had been somewhat curtailed.
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