Dark clouds hang over the MotoGP paddock at Aragon, and it's not just the ones from which the rain fell for most of the day. There is a sense of malaise, a black funk which pervades the paddock here, a lack of the usual sparkle and cheer which raises the mood at the racetrack. Maybe it's because all three championships are more or less sewn up; maybe it's because the excitement of silly season is mostly over; maybe it's the location: Motorland Aragon sits in of the most beautiful regions of Spain, if arid desolation is what you seek. Or maybe it's just me.
Most of all, what ails the paddock is a sense of uncertainty and a lack of direction. There is only one topic of conversation, but it is large enough to cast a pall over every discussion. What is uppermost in everyone's mind is the future of MotoGP, more specifically the introduction of a standard electronics package, the effect it will have on the series, and most importantly, when and even whether it will be announced.
What the electronics package will be is fairly clear, though the press release issued by Dorna earlier this week was thin on specifics. Magneti Marelli will be supplying a top-spec electronics package to any team that wants it for 2013, before making the system compulsory in 2014. The idea is that the system will be fully functional and have unlimited capabilities for next season, when the teams who decide to use it will have to go up against the millions the factories have already sunk into their existing systems. For 2014, capabilities will be much more restricted, and a rev limit of 15,500 RPM imposed. At least one CRT manufacturer will be adopting the system for next season, and the rest – bar Aprilia, probably, who use their proprietary electronics on the ART bikes they supply – are likely to follow.
What are the problems? Well first there is the question of just which capabilities Dorna will limit once the system is imposed as the standard electronics system in 2014. It is clear that the intention of imposing a spec ECU is to put more of the control back into the hands of the riders, but just how much of that control will be removed from software algorithms and transplanted into the riders' right wrists is a huge question mark. Will the system have anti-wheelie? Launch control? How much traction control will the system have? How much engine braking? The answer to these questions remains a major unknown, but they are crucial for the factories to set out the starting parameters from which to build the new engines which the rules will require.
The bigger unknown – and this, I believe, is what is unsettling the paddock so – is whether the spec ECU will be introduced in 2014, or even whether it will be introduced at all. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta appears to have decided to push on with a spec ECU regardless of any opposition. His reasoning is simple: the MSMA were given a monopoly on the technical regulations back in 2002 on the understanding that they would fill the grid. They, collectively, did not do so. Even if the (frankly absurd) four bikes per manufacturer restriction were to be lifted, there would still only be 13 prototypes on the grid rather than 12. Either the teams can't afford the lease prices, or the factories can't or won't produce the extra machines required.
That Ezpeleta will push through a spec ECU for 2014 seems certain. Yet still no announcement comes. In an interview with the Spanish sports daily AS, Ezpeleta said that he was waiting for the outcome of a meeting with the manufacturers in Japan (Ezpeleta described himself as being "optimistic" about the meeting). The problem is that these talks have been going on since the beginning of the year, with the original expected date for rules way back in May. Nearly five months later, there are still no rules, and the meetings do not appear to produce any real progress.
It looks, from the outside, like either Carmelo Ezpeleta is falling for delaying tactics being deployed by the factories, or that he is unwilling to take the final step and make a decision. Whoever may be to blame for the situation, it makes Ezpeleta look indecisive and leaves the teams and factories hanging, waiting for rules to be published. If this process continues on for too long, the factories simply will not have time to build new engines in time for the 2014 season, and Ezpeleta will be forced to delay or even cancel the introduction of spec electronics.
What is needed is a decision, and it is needed as soon as possible. What that decision is is probably less important than there actually being a decision, at the moment it is the indecision which is killing the paddock. It is clear that the current regulations are unsustainable: grids are split between the factory prototypes and the CRT entries; costs are continuing to rise explosively, with Honda the only factory large enough to afford the 60 million plus euros a year it takes to produce and race a prototype; and interest from other factories almost non-existent. If MotoGP as a series is to have a future, it needs to start today. That means having a set of rules which factories can start to build a bike around, or else decide not to bother and pull out.
This is the fear. HRC has threatened to pull out of a spec ECU is imposed on the series, declaring that they have no interest in racing in MotoGP if they are not allowed to explore electronics strategies. Yamaha, similarly, have said that electronics are important to them. Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Masahiko Nakajima told me that Yamaha was not opposed to spec hardware, as long as they were free to write their own software for the ECU. As the spec hardware to be supplied to the teams is from Magneti Marelli, the same company that currently supplies Yamaha, it is not much of a sacrifice.
The question at the heart of the matter is whether the argument that the factories need to be able to develop new technologies in MotoGP holds water or not, or whether it is a shibboleth, a convenient, mutually understood lie which racing departments tell their boards to cover the fact that the only real reason to go racing is for the brand exposure, especially in key, MotoGP-mad markets like Indonesia. The calculations going on at Honda HQ will be how much market share they will lose in Indonesia if they pull out of MotoGP, and how much they will retain if they switch to World Superbikes. Given that the sales numbers involved are staggering - the Indonesian motorcycle market swallows some 8 million new scooters a year, and Honda has 55% of that market - a drop of just a few percent can mean sales falling by hundreds of thousands of units. Even with slim margins, that equates to an awful lot of money, and that is a massive risk to take. With Valentino Rossi joining Yamaha again in 2013, Honda are already likely to lose some of their market share to their rivals, with Yamaha sure to capitalize on Rossi's selling power in Indonesia. Can they afford to lose even more, by losing the coverage and brand exposure which Honda gain from racing in MotoGP?
Though worry over the future is the biggest cause for gloom in the paddock, the weather sure hasn't helped. Once again, rain is blighting a MotoGP weekend, though fortunately for everyone except the fans, it is falling in sufficient quantities to make it worthwhile going out and putting in laps. That was not the case this morning, when the half-wet, half-dry conditions saw all of the Yamahas and Hondas sit in the pits, while only the Ducatis (who hadn't tested here two weeks ago and needed the track time) and the CRT bikes went out for a few laps.
The weather once again raised the issue of intermediate tires, and whether their reintroduction would mean riders spending more time on the track, giving the paying fans and TV broadcasters value for their money. Intermediates are not widely favored, the conditions under which they work being so very rare, at least until this season, that is. Instead, what the riders are asking for is more wet tires; with just four sets of wet tires available (up to a maximum of six sets, depending on circumstances), a rider can burn through his allocation of wets very quickly. A dry line means the tire heats quickly, and then turns to ice when the tire hits the water again. Tire wear is simply too intensive, and having more wets might solve the conundrum.
Then again, just having more tires may not be enough to tempt people onto the track. The Factory Yamaha men were happy enough to sit out the morning session, saving a hundred or so kilometers on their engines. With both Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies having lost an engine to mishaps, saving mileage is a considerable benefit from such sessions. Neither man is worried about running out of engines before the end of the season - the factories now have the engine situation totally under control, basically factoring losing an engine into their reliability calculations - but should disaster occur and one or the other would lose an engine, there would be a serious amount of juggling needed to make it to the end of the season. Having an engine or two with a couple of hundred KM less from sitting out damp sessions makes perfect sense for both men.
Everyone is likely to need all the wet tires they are allowed by the end of the weekend. The rain is falling very heavily overnight in Aragon, and is expected to continue throughout the day. Sunday will be dry, meaning that the riders arrive on the grid with little set up time. The factory Yamahas and the Honda men will benefit here from the time they spent at the track a month ago, while the Ducatis and the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders don't have as much data. The situation will be the reverse of what happened at Misano, and a genuine benchmark for the Ducati. If Valentino Rossi and, to a lesser extent because of his hand injury, Nicky Hayden can fight with the Tech 3 bikes and keep the gap to Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa limited, then their progress will be real. We will not know that until Sunday, though.