With the decision by KTM to withdraw from the 250cc class in 2009 - a decision taken in response to the proposed rule changes which would see the class becoming a 600cc four-stroke series - and the global financial turmoil causing a host of sponsors to pull out, the future of the 250 class is looking increasingly in doubt.
The combination of KTM and Polaris World pulling out took 4 bikes off the grid, immediately decimating numbers. And with other teams and sponsors as yet unsigned, at the moment, the class looks like falling well short of the minimum number of 15 bikes needed to run the class. If Dorna does not receive entries for 15 bikes, then FIM rules prevent the series from being called a world championship, which in turn would make the series an irrelevance in global terms.
At the moment, there are between 10 and 12 bikes certain to be on the grid. That does not mean that more will not appear, however. The makeup of the smaller classes is notoriously unpredictable, with entries being added well after the end of the previous season. And the list of likely participants is still missing a few possible names, such as Campetella, Caffe Latte, Blusens and Yamaha Indonesia, so there is no immediate reason to panic. But even if a few more teams do field bikes, it could leave the grid looking worryingly thin.
Part of the 250 classes problems are down to money, victims, like many other sports, of the current financial crisis. Polaris World, who sponsor the team fielding Mattia Pasini, are a Spanish-based construction company building second homes and luxury golf resorts around the Mediterranean. The company had originally weathered the storms ravaging the Spanish housing sector rather well. Though domestic Spanish housing prices were caught in a hyperinflated bubble, prices for second homes had been holding up reasonably well. But once the financial crisis hit worldwide, luxury purchases such as apartments at golf resorts were among the first purchases to be dropped, hitting the firm badly.
Polaris World's difficulties highlight the MotoGP's underlying problems. The series is still based very strongly in Spain and Italy, and consequently, economic circumstances there dictate the health of the series to an exaggerated degree. More and more broadly-based sponsorship is required to help carry the series through difficult financial times.
Dorna's proposed replacement for the 250 class, spec 600cc four stroke engines with severe engineering limitations, but an unregulated chassis, was aimed at addressing these problems. By making it possible to field a bike for hundreds of thousands of euros, rather than the million plus that a factory spec Aprilia currently costs, it was hoped that more teams would find it easier to raise the necessary cash to go racing, making for bigger grids, and leaving a larger chunk of the big sponsorship money to help expand the MotoGP class.
But the proposal has proved to be a double-edged sword. Though the class is likely to be significantly cheaper than the current class - though by no means as cheap as Dorna hopes and claims it will be - it has also killed the existing class stone dead. KTM withdrew stating that they saw no sense in investing in a dying class, and KTM's technical lead Harald Bartol has gone a step further.
In an interview with GPOne.com, Bartol accused Carmelo Ezpeleta and Dorna of lying to them. When KTM entered the class in 2005, Bartol alleges that Dorna told them that the technical regulations would remain stable until 2014. The sad demise of the two-stroke engine worldwide and pressure from the Japanese manufacturers who help make up the MSMA meant that pressure increased to ditch the two strokes much earlier. And this decision, and KTM's anger at it, have precipitated KTM's retreat from the class.
The question now remains as to whether KTM's withdrawal will also mean the demise of the class. If it does, it will leave several very high profile and promising riders suddenly find themselves without a ride in a world class series next year. Alvaro Bautista, Marco Simoncelli, Mattia Pasini, Hiroshi Aoyama and Hector Barbera have all, to a greater or lesser extent, proved that they deserve a world championship ride, with Bautista and Simoncelli in particular expected to do extremely well in MotoGP once they make the step up. If they are left without a ride for a year, you have to wonder what will be left of their careers when, or if, they return.