With the MotoGP paddock once again assembled for the start of the season at Qatar, the four organizations who make up the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rulemaking body, took the opportunity to meet and discuss and adopt a number of rule changes. The rules cover a number of areas, including testing for all three classes, the 2014 technical rules for MotoGP, and further steps to control the real cost of engines in Moto3.
The Philip Morris-sponsored Wrooom event is not just the event at which Ducati launches its MotoGP season, it has become the de facto kick off to the MotoGP season as a whole. With an important section of the international media present, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta inevitably seizes the opportunity to talk to the press about his view of the season ahead, and where necessary, of the future beyond that.
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 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.
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.
Much was expected of this Friday's meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, but in the end, the decisions taken were relatively minor. Dorna, IRTA, the FIM and the MSMA agreed on a number of proposals which had widely been expected, but made no real progress on the major rule changes expected for the 2014 or 2015 season.
The rule change with the biggest immediate impact was the dropping of the Rookie Rule, as we reported during the Silverstone round of MotoGP. The dropping of the Rookie Rule, which prevents new entries into the MotoGP class from going straight to a factory team, opens the way for Marc Marquez to join the factory Repsol Honda team next season. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the rule was not dropped at the request of HRC, but rather of the Honda satellite teams themselves, both Lucio Cecchinello and Fausto Gresini fearing the disruption that Marquez would bring for just a single year.
One subject has dominated the past three years of MotoGP, and indeed all of motorcycle racing. Despite some thrilling racing, technical innovation and both fascinating and tragic stories, the main topic of conversation among those involved in motorcycle racing has been how to cut costs. A raft of new regulations have been introduced, and even more radical changes are currently under discussion for the next few years.
At the official presentation of Yamaha's 2012 MotoGP campaign, Yamaha Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis spoke to MotoMatters.com about the need for MotoGP to shift its focus, from just tinkering with the technical regulations to trying to expand its audience base and generate more income, taking advantage of new media and a more international audience to tap into new markets and more potential sponsors. "The technical regulations are very, very important, and bringing costs down is very important," Jarvis told us. "But the other thing is how to increase the popularity of the sport, and increase the revenue. Just saving costs is still shrinking."
Jarvis made it clear that he believes MotoGP's future lies beyond its traditional heartland in Europe, and beyond the existing revenue streams it has relied on, mainly income from TV contracts in Europe and Spanish and Italian sponsors. "We have to take the championship to different geographical locations, different media, different revenue streams. That's something people are not touching on enough. [Cost-cutting rule changes] are all very well, we can do that technically, but don't forget the revenue," the Yamaha boss emphasized.