When MotoMatters.com learned that FIM President Vito Ippolito would be visiting Utrecht, just a few miles from MM HQ, we seized on the opportunity to corner the Venezuelan and ask some of the burning questions surrounding motorcycle racing. Questions such as: How will the new MotoGP rules help to cut costs? Exactly what definition of "production bike" is used in the contract between the FIM and Infront Motor Sports for World Superbikes? How will Moto2 affect rider development? And what about electric vehicles and the TTXGP?
Ippolito was extremely forthcoming on all these subjects, and answered the questions with patience and clarity, helping to clear up some of the biggest mysteries in motorcycle racing. For a man who had just arrived after an international air journey, the FIM President was helpful, patient and graceful, and went out of his way to answer our questions. The man's passion for the sport and for motorcycling in general shone through, making Vito Ippolito one of the most interesting interviews we have had to date.
As the interview took place on February 17th, shortly after the Grand Prix Commission had issued a statement with the new 2012 MotoGP regulations, allowing 1000cc and 800cc bikes to run together in the same class, and introducing the concept of the Claiming Rule Teams, basically privateer teams allowed to run production engines, that's where we started our questioning:
MotoMatters: Have you seen the new rules issued by the Grand Prix Commission from today at Barcelona?
Vito Ippolito: I didn't read it all, because I was flying during the meeting.
MM: They announced that 800cc and 1000cc would be racing together, plus a new category, the so-called Claiming Rule Teams.
VI: Yes, the question is, you know, in principle, we have to follow what the manufacturers think. And last year we talked about the possibility to go back to the 1000s. They say it's better because for us it's less expensive, and so on. There may be other possibilities they could make more engines. Now, it seems that there are some factories that want to continue with the 800 and others with 1000s. Both of these would be prototype bikes.
OK, if they think they can do that causing no problem between them, because one is 800 and one is 1000, that is OK. Of course, some specifications will be different, there will be a difference in kilos [the 1000cc bikes will have to carry 3kg more - MM], fuel, there will be a different specification. Now we will wait to know if they continue to think about the future.
The request of the FIM is to have a valid class valid for several years, and not so expensive. It's difficult when you say "not expensive" in prototype racing, because everything is expensive. But the impression we have is that the past was too – the economic situation until a few years ago was so good that nobody worried about the costs. But this is our request: They must be prototype motorcycles; but we have to think to reduce costs; also to give the possibilities to other teams – not just two or three teams or two or three riders – to have a grid with maybe 21, 22 riders. This would be enough, because in any case there are not that many riders who can ride such kind of bikes. We don't want to have 30 riders and 10 being lapped.
This is a long discussion. We are trying, we are following, they hear what we are saying, and what Dorna, the promoter is saying because we try to share the responsibility but this is the request from the FIM and the goal that we want for the next coming years.
MM: You said that before there was lots of money. Do you think that tobacco sponsorship made it difficult because tobacco could only go into motorsports, they could only go into Formula 1 and MotoGP, they couldn't spend their money anywhere else. Do you think that complicated the situation and made the teams think they had more money than they really did?
VI: That's true, but you know when you are fat, and you still breathe and you still walk, you say it's OK, but when you come to a hill, you say Oh! I'm fat, I can't get up it! This is the question. I remember in 2006, 2007, several teams told me that Oh! Everything's so expensive! We need more sponsors, we don't have enough money! And they spent a lot of money back then. Now we have the crisis, but they had a crisis four years before, when there was no crisis in the world. That means that you can cut a lot of costs, in the management of the team, but also in some technical parts of the bikes.
MM: The rules are set for five years at a time, and now we've had the 990s for five years, the 800s for five years, now we will get a new formula. Would it help if the formula was set for longer than five years?
VI: This formula for more than five years?
MM: Any formula, just longer than five years.
VI: OK, any formula, you are right. When we ask the manufacturer to have a kind of bike with reduced costs, it's because we want to stay calm during ten years, and give the possibility to the teams to know, OK this is the cost, this is the probable cost, I can have a sponsor for this amount. We said also that we need a kind of series prototype, like in the past, in the '70s and '80s, you remember, they were prototypes like the TZ 750, the Suzuki RG 500. But they have to study how to do this. I understand that the manufacturers have to study how to get this lower.
I don't know if it is possible, but we need a message. When I say if it is possible or not, it's because of the market circumstances for the factories. In the past we had in Japan the prototype NATIONAL championship, NATIONAL championship. In Europe some racing with 500s and so on.
But I think we have to reduce costs, in practically all the motorcycle disciplines. In MotoGP, in Superbike, this is very important, because, maybe to reduce half a second, you need three million dollars. And you say, OK, I understand technology is important, but do we really need to spend millions to reduce just half a second in a race? You know there are many people who want to have the best bike, in every factory, and the engineers love to have any kind of technical challenge, it's a challenge for them. I understand that. But there are limits to this. Sometimes the sport doesn't need all of the special devices that are used.
MM: How do you prevent engineers from picking up the challenge?
VI: OK, how do you prevent this? The prevention is for the top management of the manufacturers to prevent the engineers, because we understand that they need every year to develop some new technologies, because after that they put this technologies into their production bikes. This is important of course, because it's also good for the normal rider because every year you will have a better motorcycle, especially with good safety devices. Every year the motorcycle is much better, we don't want to stop that. But sometimes it's not necessary. For example last year, we decided together to eliminate the special brake disks, made from special materials, because never will such materials be used in a street bike. But OK, it's very good for the rider, but it's so expensive and the difference is so small, that it doesn't matter. This is the kind of thing we have to work on.
MM: Whenever people talk about the need to cut costs, they always point at Formula One, and the way that Formula one has tried to cut costs. Do you think F1 is a good example for cutting costs?
VI: I don't think so. Of course they have some big costs, but the technology they use in the cars is different. They have big investments in aerodynamics, 50% of the investments is in aerodynamics in Formula 1. Then, electronics, and at the end the engine. It's different, we don't have a problem of aerodynamics, we don't need them because of the nature of the vehicle. But the message is: Reduce costs. In Formula 1 they have to decide how to cut costs, but they have a different technological problem.
At the end, I think, when you are a spectator and you go to the circuit, first of all you want to see the riders, and you want to see what the rider can do. And your passion for the sport starts with the person, not the vehicle. Of course, the vehicle is important, because they have to be competitive, you can say this year the Yamaha is better, other years Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, whatever, and it's interesting for the fans to know which kind of technology they use, and so on. And how good each rider is to really set up the bike. But at the end the sport is what a person can do on a bike.
MM: Turning to World Superbikes, you're one of the few people in the world who know the contents of the contract between the FIM and Infront Motor Sports about the use of production engines and production bikes. Whenever there's talk of MotoGP using production engines, the Flammini brothers get very worried. What can you tell us about what the contract says? Do the Flamminis have an exclusive right to race production motorcycles?
VI: Okay. The key word in this case is "homologation." The contract with the Flamminis is that they have to use production series bikes. The FIM homologates these bikes - every year or when it's necessary to do that - this bike must be from a production run, you can buy this bike in a shop. This is the first condition to homologate the bike. Then, of course every year we can change some rules, some technical rules to permit to change some pieces on this bike. But this bike must be homologated, needs to be homologated. In this case [MotoGP bikes with production engines and Moto2 bikes - MM], the bikes cannot be homologated, because it's not a production series bike.
MM: OK, that's very clear. So in the case of FTR, the British Moto2 manufacturer, they're selling 10 of their Moto2 bikes for use as a track bike, only for use on a circuit, but selling it to private individuals. Because that bike could never be homologated, it's a prototype?
VI: Yes. You can't buy these bikes in a shop, and these bikes can't be homologated. The chassis is completely free, there are seven or eight different manufacturers. This is good, I think, that you give such a chance to many small manufacturers to produce these chassis. And it's not possible to homologate this type of bike. Also, the engine has several special parts fitted, it produces more power than the normal Honda bike, it's not possible to homologate this kind of bike.
MM: Are you looking forward to Moto2? You have a history in 250cc racing, you ran the Venemoto team with Carlos Lavado and Roberto Pietri, now Roberto's son Robertino is competing...
VI: Yes! Again a Venezuelan rider comes back to the World Championship, it's a new start. Sometimes, especially in some countries where you know these countries depend a lot on the economic situation in the world, it's hard to have a rider good enough to go to the world championship. But Carlos has worked looking for some young riders in the last years. In the case of Venezuela, there are a few good riders, but they have to come back and start again, and we will have to see what happens.
MM: Do you hope that Moto2 will become a national championship?
VI: Yes. I think this is very important. It's important to have national championships, because one of the reasons that the 250cc class is disappearing is because many national championships have been disappearing for many years. The price increased incredibly, there were no more national championships, then you had to lease a bike and at the end of the year, give it back and maybe you spent half a million dollars or one million dollars - not for nothing, but it's difficult to sustain this policy.
For this reason, it's important that in Moto2 we have very low costs in comparison to 250. This is one of the reasons I think that the Moto2 will be such a success. And it's important that we expand Moto2 into the national championships, this is the lifeblood of this kind of championship.
MM: Right now, you start in 125s, move up through 250s and then onto MotoGP. Whenever riders come in from World Superbikes and World Supersport, they seem to find it very difficult. Do you think that Moto2 will be a good middle class where you can also come if you have been racing World Supersport or European Supersport or national supersport and also go to Moto2, and become a MotoGP rider that way?
VI: I think it depends on the national situation that way. Every federation, every country has different situation. They can have Superbike, Supersport and 125, or they can have Moto2, 125 and Superbike. It depends on the national situation. I think it would be a good class, also from Moto2 you could go either to MotoGP or World Superbikes. This is the natural way.
But I'm anxious to see the start of this class this year. Everybody wants to know what will happen. But I think we will have good results in Moto2.
MM: You mentioned Venezuela and the fact we have a rider coming from there. If you look at the Google Trends feature, you can see that the country where internet users search most for MotoGP is Indonesia, and Asia is really important to the manufacturers, it's where they're selling their bikes. [Dorna CEO] Carmelo Ezpeleta is trying to get a Grand Prix at Singapore, what do you think the FIM can do to get more races in Asia? Do you think it's important to have more races in Asia?
VI: I think it's important and it's possible. We have countries with millions of motorcycle riders, but the passion for the sport is not the same in all these countries. In the case of China, they have some problems to develop the sport, so we have to wait to return to China. But there are other countries like Indonesia, Thailand where there are a lot of fans who love motorcycle racing. Now we have races in Japan and Malaysia in Asia and that's all. Yes, we have space for one or two more Grand Prix in Asia. I think it's possible, it's also where the global economy is going to is Asia, one third of the population is in Asia.
MM: Is there anything the FIM can do to help? Obviously the problem is track safety and the track homologation process. Can the FIM help here, or is it just a question of someone in Asia finding the money to make the tracks safe enough.
VI: We work all the time for safety, and we talk with the federations. One important thing here: We support that we have to develop more international races. But for example, you can have in one country a round of the world championship, that's very good, but maybe after that we don't have any other kind of important races.
From our point of view, we have to develop more levels of international racing. By which I mean we need more continental championships, so if you are a country that wants to have a continental championship for example, you need a high level of safety in the circuit. Then you can reach the world championship later. But you are right, if you say OK, you have a big company, a big investor with a lot of money, you have a fantastic circuit, very good, fantastic, but in the FIM we think at the same time to have a base behind the world championship round.
MM: So you can't just put a building there, you have to have a foundation?
VI: Yes, this is our objective. But we have to develop the sport, the sport is not just to have a round of the world championship in one country. If in this country after that there is nothing, this is no good. Maybe this is very good for the population of this country because they can watch a world championship race in their own country, but from the point of view of the sport, we need to have races, people practising motorcycle racing at the ordinary level.
MM: One last subject. Electric bikes. Last year we had the TTXGP, the first electric race, that went surprisingly well, I think it surprised a lot of people. This year it looked like we were going to have one international championship but instead we have I think three championships, with the FIM having a championship and the TTXGP organizers running a championship, and the TT also organizing a race. Where did it all go wrong between the FIM and TTXGP?
VI: I thank you for asking this question! The objective of the FIM is to promote and support all kinds of alternative energies, all kinds. And also not only alternative engines but also the kind of energy. The kind of fuels, etc, all in the direction of low emissions etc. This is the policy of the FIM.
Last year on the Isle of Man, a guy with a lot of ability organized the first race, and we supported it. We know that there are a few bikes in the world, a few manufacturers, really small manufacturers. But I think it's a good manner to show that we can have new kinds of vehicles, electric vehicles in this case. We tried to have a deal with the promotor Azhar Hussein, but after a lot of discussions, we could not get a deal. Then he continued, which is good, and the FIM will continue to promote of course, because, for the FIM what's really happened is that we spend money to promote this, we are not trying to have, "this is the gold and we will make a lot of money".
Our policy is to show that we are very interested, which is true because we have an environmental commission, we have an alternative energy working group which we have had for many years. We are working, because in the future we don't know if the factories will say "OK, guys, now this is the bike: No oil, no gasoline, now we use water." Water? "Yes, it's true, now no more gasoline." Oh. Then we have a big problem at the circuit, you understand? Then we have to prepare our people and ourselves for the future. We don't know if we will use hydrogen fuel cells or lithium ion batteries or any kind of new technology.
The idea of the FIM is to promote, because we are interested too, because it's part of our social responsibility, it's the sport and society. And we are concerned like many people around the world about the environment, it's part of our responsibility. Then we support this type of new use of technologies with low emissions. We couldn't get a deal with Azhar Hussain, but then we continue and say, OK we can have a series.
Because one of the problems is not only to have five or six races, the question is we need to show this technology. And the FIM has the world championship in MotoGP and World Superbike and World Endurance. Then we have this opportunity to show in these places where thousands of spectators and also the media, to show what is happening in the world with the new technologies with these kind of motorcycles.
MM: So part of the FIM's job is to make sure that these races happen in front of large crowds, and you do that by having them as support races? If you have a separate series, then maybe only a few people turn up to watch?
VI: Yes! Then we can have the race here [waves at the car park outside] and afterwards we say OK, we support that kind of event, but that is not serious. It will be easier in the future when there are more national championships, because now there are very few bikes and riders. There are some industries in enduro and motocross with small but very real production, the numbers are very small, but they are production runs. There is one in Switzerland, in the US, they are small scale, but they are producing bikes for motocross and enduro.
MM: All over the world, people who ride off-road in natural settings, through forests and parks, petrol engine bikes have been banned from many such places. Here in Holland, it's almost impossible to find somewhere to ride off road. Do you think that electric bikes could create new opportunities for off road riders?
VI: Yes! Yes! In case of off road, it is very important to have this kind of bike, because countries like Holland, of course there are motocross circuits, but the specifics of this country don't permit to have bikes off road. So it's a good opportunity to have people practicing the sport on this kind of bikes.
MM: You also talked about alternative engines, one of the things you see in boats for example, they use marine two strokes, because modern two-stroke engines are very clean. Do you see an opportunity for those kind of two stroke-engines to come back into racing somehow? Because right now, we've only got one two-stroke class left.
VI: Maybe, because I think that is possible, but the problem for the FIM is what the industry decides to do. Because we have to follow the manufacturers, we don't produce the bikes, they produce the bikes. In my opinion, the two strokes, they have a new technology in two strokes that can produce very low emissions, I think the two stroke in principle is a good engine for the young because it's less expensive, especially the maintenance is less expensive. The power-to-weight ratio is very good, there are some very good advantages, but …
MM: But your hands are tied by the manufacturers?
VI: Yes. We don't have the technology! We don't produce bikes.
MM: OK, you've answered all of my questions, thank you very much indeed.
VI: Thank you.