With the cost of racing exploding out of control, factories pulling out and teams unable to afford the rising lease prices demanded for a satellite bike, proposals and rule changes have been coming thick and fast to try to contain costs in MotoGP. The Claiming Rule Teams regulations have already seen the grid expand to accommodate teams running machines using production-based engines, and Dorna, the manufacturers, the teams and the FIM are discussing a range of proposals to cut costs further, including a mandatory standard ECU and a maximum rev limit.
At the Valencia tests in November, MotoMatters.com spoke to HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto about how Honda views these proposals, and whether he believes they will cut costs. As the leading manufacturer in the MSMA, the association representing the factories in MotoGP, Honda has a powerful voice in the negotiations, and in the past has been instrumental in pushing through rule changes. Now that the MSMA appears to have lost its monopoly on writing the technical regulations for MotoGP, Nakamoto, along with the other factory bosses, is having to offer counterproposals to the suggestions put forward by Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta.
We first asked Nakamoto what he thought of the CRT concept itself, and the HRC boss was remarkably positive. "I think the CRT concept is a very good idea," Nakamoto said, adding the caveat that it was too early to make any real judgment, as at the time we spoke to Nakamoto, the CRT machines had only just taken to the track for the first time.
But the idea of having constructors build chassis and factories build engines, following the practice common in Formula One, would not work, Nakamoto warned. "This is impossible," Nakamoto said. "In F1, 80% of the machine performance is decided by aerodynamics. Everyone focuses on having very good aerodynamics performance, not just downforce, but other aero characteristics as well. Once they have good aero performance machine, 80% of machine performance is decided," the HRC boss explained. "But motorcycle is different. Aerodynamics is maybe less than 5% of machine performance. On a motorcycle, the most important thing is the chassis, the swingarm. To make a very good chassis, you need a lot of experience. For the constructor, they can make an average level of chassis, but I think it will be very difficult to make a competitive machine," he added.
So it would possible for a constructor to get to maybe 90% of the performance of a factory prototype, but the really difficult part, the final 10%, would only be possible for manufacturers?
"Yes," Nakamoto replied. "But even manufacturers are struggling to find the last 10%. In the smaller classes, the situation is a little different, like Moto3 next year and Moto2. It is a little bit easier. In the smaller classes, engine performance is very important. Of course the chassis is also important, but in the smaller classes, the balance between engine and chassis is more towards the engine. For the MotoGP machines, it is the chassis side which is more important," Nakamoto explained.
This was in part because a difference of 5 horsepower in the MotoGP class was not as significant. The difference betweem 230hp and 235hp was nowhere near as significant as the difference between 50hp and 55hp. "If you have, say, 200 horsepower or 200 and something horsepower, the difference in lap times will be a maximum of one tenth. But in the 125s, if you have 2 horsepower difference it's a big difference in lap time. "
Nakamoto was steadfast in his opposition to imposing standard electronics, repeating his opinion that without the ability to develop electronic strategies, the factories would lose interest in the MotoGP series. "My position on this has not changed," Nakamoto emphasized, while pointing out that at the same time, they were sympathetic towards attempts to cut costs in the series. "Of course we understand Carmelo's concerns about costs," the HRC added. "This is not only a problem for Carmelo, it is also for us as manufacturers as well. At this moment the racing costs are very, very high. Only the manufacturers can continue to race, and we are losing competitors. This is very much the worst case scenario for us, we need to have competitors. I'm more than happy to speak about cost reduction, we as manufacturers have to think deeply. But technical area is where the manufacturers must think, this is not Carmelo's job, I think."
A standard ECU was not a good solution, Nakamoto argued, saying that it could possibly make racing more expensive rather than cheaper. In this respect, there were lessons that could be learned from Formula One, Nakamoto argued, lessons that he himself had learned at first hand while running Honda's F1 program. "In Formula 1, I understand the need for a common ECU," he explained, "because in Formula 1, while the regulations clearly said that traction control was banned, many teams were trying to use some kind of traction control. When the FIA engineers tried to police this, they couldn't. But with one single ECU, they could police the traction control ban. That I understand."
But having a spec ECU had not made racing cheaper, Nakamoto said. "At that time, we as Honda were racing in Formula 1 with the common ECU, but at that time we spent a huge amount of money, a huge part of our budget on the ECU. That budget was much more than we originally spent when we were using Honda's own ECU, because we had to understand the software being used, and how to write code for it. So it was a huge job." Having a spec ECU would make things more difficult for the manufacturers, as it would take them longer to understand all the ins and outs of the system. "It means you take more time and more resources, and this means a bigger budget," Nakamoto explained.
A rev limit, on the other hand, was something that Honda would be perfectly happy to live with. "Something like a rev limit, we are happy with, because this we can police. Every machine has a data logger, and we can check, like in Moto2 now." The solution to cutting costs in MotoGP was not merely to impose a rev limit and spec ECU, however, and it was up to the manufacturers to come up with proposals to help cut costs. "We have to think a little bit more," Nakamoto said. "Just imposing only an ECU and only a rev limit will not make big cost savings."
Over the winter break, and at the Sepang tests, the MSMA has had time to come up with proposals of their own to cut the cost of competing in MotoGP. Once the teams, factories and Dorna gather again at Jerez next week, they will be able to put those proposals to Dorna, and try to reach some kind of agreement. Carmelo Ezpeleta has set a deadline of May, and Jerez is expected to be a crucial moment in those talks.