Now that it has the World Superbike series under its control, Dorna is turning its attention to the question of costs. It was an issue which, WSBK insiders claim, the Flammini brothers and Infront spent too little time on, preferring to focus on trying to compete with MotoGP instead. The series' critics charge that this obsession caused WSBK to allow bikes into the series which were more like MotoGP prototypes than production road bikes. The Aprilia RSV4 is one of the bikes most often named in this regard, though perhaps the most extreme example was the Foggy Petronas FP3 machine, of which the entire homologation run is rumored to be stored in a warehouse owned by the Malaysian oil company in Kuala Lumpur. As a result, grids have shrunk from around thirty starters in 2009 to just twenty in 2013.
Since the global financial crisis struck back in 2008, MotoGP's primary focus has been on cutting costs. These efforts have met with varying success - sometimes reducing costs over the long term, after a short term increase, sometimes having no discernible impact whatsoever - and as a result, the grids in all three classes are filling up again. Further changes are afoot - chiefly, the promise by Honda and Yamaha to supply cheaper machinery to private teams, either in the form of production racers, such as Honda's RC213V clone, or Yamaha's offer to lease engines to chassis builders - but there is a limit to how much can be achieved by cutting costs. What is really needed is for the series to raise its revenues, something which the series has signally failed to do.
In truth, the series has never really recovered from the loss of tobacco sponsorship, something for which it should have been prepared, given that it had had many years' warning of the ruling finally being applied. The underlying problem was that the raising of sponsorship had been outsourced and the marketing of the series had been outsourced to a large degree to the tobacco companies, and once they left - with the honorable, if confusing, exception of Philip Morris - those skills disappeared with them. There was nobody left to try to increase the amount of money coming into the sport.
To their credit, Dorna have tried to address this issue, even going so far as to organize a sponsorship symposium with the teams last year. Unfortunately, it was far from a success, with one attendee being particularly scathing about it when asked for his impressions. And because of the scarcity of sponsorship, Dorna has the regrettabe tendency to regard itself in competition with the teams trying to bring sponsors into the series, rather than working in concert with them to raise the total income and reduce the dependence of the teams on Dorna subsidy.
After an almost interminable period of discussions and debate, agreement has at last been reached over the technical regulations to be applied in MotoGP for the 2014 onwards. The agreement has been a compromise, with both sides of the argument being given something to satisfy them.
The new rules see the introduction of a compulsory spec ECU and datalogger, and the ECU now acts as a divide between the two classes of teams in the paddock. MSMA members will be allowed to use their own software for the spec ECU, but the punishment for doing so will be a reduction in the fuel limit from 21 to 20 liters for a race. Teams electing to use the spec software supplied by Dorna will be allowed 24 liters. The MSMA members will also be limited to 5 engines a season, while the rest will be allowed 12 engines. The reduction in fuel and engines was made at the request of the factories, to give themselves an engineering challenge to conquer.
The key role that money plays in motorcycle racing was once again underlined when Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm which owns a large part of Dorna, announced it was selling a 39% stake in the organizer of MotoGP and World Superbikes. That stake was sold to CPPIB, a Canadian pension fund, the combining of WSBK and MotoGP under the umbrella of Dorna having been a prime mover for the sale.
Below is the press release issued by the CPPIB on their acquisition of a 39% stake in Dorna, reproduced with kind permission:
The battle which has been raging rather politely between Honda and Dorna over the introduction of spec electronics continues to simmer on. The issue was once again discussed at Motegi, with still no resolution in sight. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto reiterated Honda's opposition to the introduction of a spec ECU in an interview with the Japanese journalist Yoko Togashi, which was published on GPOne.com.
The reasons for introducing a spec ECU - or more accurately, a spec electronics package, including ECU, sensors, wiring harness and data logger - are twofold: the first issue is to cut the costs of electronics in the sport, an area where spending is rampant and where gains can always be found by throwing more money and more engineers at a problem. The second issue is to improve the spectacle; racing in the modern era has become dull, with the electronics and the Bridgestone tires contributing to produce races where it is unusual for there to be more than one pass for the win.
While Nakamoto did not comment on improving the show via electronics - it could be argued that radically changing the tires would have a greater impact on the spectacle than merely introducing a restricted spec electronics system - he did repeat the claim he has made in the past that merely adopting a spec ECU would not help to cut costs, claiming that if anything, it would actually increase costs.
The repercussions of Bridgepoint's decision to hand control of the World Superbike series to Dorna are just starting to become clear, as each of the protagonists get to explain their side of the story. After Paolo Flammini spoke to the media at the final World Superbike round of the year at Magny-Cours, at Motegi, it was the turn of Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta to face the press.
He did so an hour before the traditional pre-event press conference, giving a statement and answering questions from assembled journalists on the implications of the move (a full transcript of the press conference is available on the official MotoGP.com website). Ezpeleta did his best to first of all quell any fears among the legions of World Superbike fans that Dorna intended implementing any major changes for the coming season, ensuring the assembled media that all would go ahead for 2013 as planned. "For next year things will continue as they are, and both MotoGP and WSBK will continue the same way, with exactly the same system of organization and with the same technical rules," Ezpeleta told the press. "For 2013 the regulations will be the ones that have been approved between the FIM and Infront Motor Sports," he said in response to questions, "In 2013 it will be exactly as proposed by the different parties involved, there will not be any changes for 2013."
The 2013 MotoGP calendar came one step closer to completion today. According to the ever-reliable Spanish website Motoworld, the Jerez circuit has finalized their contract with Dorna to host the Spanish round at the track on May 5th. The date had originally been listed as "Subject to contract" but is now confirmed for 2013.
The deal has been hammered out between the circuit, Dorna, and the government of the Autonomous Region of Andalucia, the federal part of Spain where the Jerez circuit is located. Under the agreement, according to Motoworld, the Andalucian government will pay the sanctioning fee to Dorna, in order to ensure the continuing presence of race on the MotoGP calendar. The race is the traditional opening of the European part of the season, and always attracts large crowds and draws money into the Jerez region.
This may very well turn out to be the biggest week in MotoGP since the decision to replace the two stroke 500s with large capacity four stroke machines. This week, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is set to have meetings with each of the MSMA members at Motegi, to hammer out once and for all the technical basis for the 2014 season. If they succeed, the ground will be laid for a set of technical regulations which can remain stable for the long term, the goal being at least five years. If they fail, then one or more manufacturers could leave the series, reducing the number of factory bikes on the grid and potentially removing two of MotoGP's top riders from the grid. There is much at stake.
Sunday is going to be a big day for World Superbikes at Magny-Cours. Not just because the 2012 title is to be settled in what could be a fascinating showdown, helped in no small part by the weather, but perhaps most of all because on Sunday morning at 9am local time, Infront Motor Sports CEO will speak to the media for the first time since the announcement that Bridgepoint, the private equity firm which owns both Infront and MotoGP rights owners Dorna, has decided to bring both series under a single umbrella, and that umbrella is to be Dorna.
That news has sent a shockwave through the motorcycle racing world. The World Superbike paddock is hardest hit of all: the mood there is somber, with everyone from Infront staff to team mechanics fearing the outcome of what amounts to a coup by Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. Optimists are few, especially as Ezpeleta is one of the most reviled characters among denizens of the WSBK paddock, because of what he represents: the perceived arrogance of the Grand Prix paddock, and a culture which is anathema to everything which World Superbikes stand for. MotoGP is truly the Beatles to WSBK's Rolling Stones.