Eighteen months after the MotoGP class reduced its capacity from 990 to 800cc, ostensibly in the name of safety, the number of worried faces at Dorna is increasing. It's been 29 races since a race was won thanks to a pass made on the last lap, and complaints have been growing that MotoGP has lost much of its former shine.
As always, whenever there's a problem, the search starts for a culprit - or at least a scapegoat - and the current favorite explanation is the growth in scope and power of electronics, with special scorn reserved for the role of traction control in MotoGP. The increased sophistication of electronics is almost universally blamed for the dearth of close racing over the past season and a half.
The complaints have Dorna rattled. Just how worried they are by this development was made clear by an interview which Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta had with Mela Chércoles of the Spanish sports' daily AS.com. Ezpeleta acknowledged that the racing had lost much of its excitement since the regulation changes, but said there was nothing he could do about it. "There's nothing we can do, because the five manufacturers have all agreed a common set of regulations," Ezpeleta told AS.com. The situation could not be solved in the same way that the tire regulations were dealt with at the end of last year, Ezpeleta said. "With the tires, I do not need to make any compromises, and could decide to go to a single tire make if I wanted to, but I cannot tell the bike manufacturers that all of the research and development they have done was for nothing."
Ezpeleta made no secret of his desire for a single, standardized engine management system, or ECU: "I would prefer to go to a single ECU if I could, but I need to get the agreement of the entire (MotoGP) world ... Ducati wouldn't want it, nor would any of the other manufacturers. The manufacturers are using the competitiveness of the series for their R&D efforts."
Though there is nothing he can do about it at the moment, the Dorna CEO is quite clear about the task he sees for himself. "It's up to me to try and convince the manufacturers that a spec ECU would be better. It's obvious that this would be a solution, but I have to convince the manufacturers ... We have to see if this could interest the constructors, but it's not something we can do today, nor something we can do for next season, as they've already built these bikes. I have to persuade the manufacturers a little bit at a time."
Setting aside the question of whether producing a spec ECU for the wildly differing engine configurations used in MotoGP is feasible or not, the question remains over whether such a move would improve the racing. The new regulations in Formula 1, where a spec ECU has been introduced and traction control has been banned, has had little effect on the closeness of the racing, the only big difference being that races in the rain have become much more of a lottery than they were previously. The F1 experience hardly points to a bright new future of wheel-to-wheel racing if traction control was banned.
The other question is whether the lack of close racing really is down to electronics, or whether other factors have come into play. The restrictions in fuel capacity have certainly had a big effect, limiting power, and stopping riders from chasing in the second half of the race, as the bikes are leaned out to ensure they actually finish the race, leaving little excess power for overtaking maneuvers.
But the issue usually glossed over entirely is the fact that these bikes are so new. The regulations changed just 18 months ago, and the disastrous start to the 2007 season made by Yamaha and Honda showed just how badly you could misjudge the new class. All of the manufacturers - even the mighty Ducati, who still have the fastest bike on the grid - are still learning an awful lot about the new bikes, and just how much power they can squeeze out of the reduced capacity. Power has already increased greatly, from an estimated 210 horsepower when the bikes first rolled out, to something around 230 hp in their current guise. Power increases are getting harder to find, and each incremental increase is both smaller and more expensive than the last one.
Inevitably, the performance of the bikes will get closer and closer as the years progress. If the best racing ever was in 2006, after five years of the 990s, then maybe we will have to wait until 2011 to see racing just as close as that magical year. By then, the bikes should be completely developed, and both satellite and factory machinery should offer similar performance. The real disaster would be for Dorna to start changing the rules about again, as they did with the 990s. If there's one thing the manufacturers crave most, it's a stable rules package. And a stable rules package is the one thing that is most likely to generate close racing once again. Let us hope that wisdom will prevail.