As we reported earlier today, the Grand Prix Commission has announced a slew of new rules for MotoGP, supposedly aimed at cutting costs in MotoGP. The measures contain a mixture of news for MotoGP fans, some good, some bad, and some seemingly incomprehensible. Let's go through the measures one by one, and examine the possible impact.
First up is the revised weekend schedule, which sees the Friday morning practice dropped, and the other practice sessions severely shortened. A race weekend will now look as follows:
|13:05-13:45||125cc Free Practice 1|
|14:05-14:50||MotoGP Free Practice 1|
|15:05-15:50||250cc Free Practice 1|
|09:05-09:45||125cc Free Practice 2|
|10:05-10:50||MotoGP Free Practice 2|
|11:05-11:50||250cc Free Practice 2|
|13:05-13:45||125cc Qualifying Practice|
|14:05-14:50||MotoGP Qualifying Practice|
|15:05-15:50||250cc Qualifying Practice|
|08:40-09:00||125cc Warm Up|
|09:10-09:30||250cc Warm Up|
|09:40-10:00||MotoGP Warm Up|
This change is both good and bad news for MotoGP fans. More specifically, it's good news for racegoing fans, and bad news for TV audiences. Fans actually attending races may be losing out on track time, but they are likely to be gaining something else instead. Rumors abound that the Friday morning will be turned into some kind of open paddock, or pit lane show, allowing fans a much better chance to get close to their heroes, and see the teams at work up close.
TV audiences, on the other hand, get the raw end of the stick. The shortened sessions on Friday and Saturday afternoons mean half an hour less MotoGP action on TV, and that's in areas such as Spain and Italy where both days of practice is televised. With the loss of Eurosport, Friday practice will go untelevised in most countries in Europe, and Saturday qualifying has been reduced by 15 minutes. The loss is not huge, but it is significant.
It may turn out to be significant for the teams, however. The money they save on reduced maintenance due to lower mileages may well be turn out not to be saved, but lost in sponsorship. Sponsorship deals are measured using exposure, using TV minutes as a starting point. By cutting the qualifying by 15 minutes, the Grand Prix Commission has basically cut exposure by 12% in most markets, and a little less in markets where Friday practice is screened. MotoGP may need to save money, but what they really can't afford to do is lose more sponsorship.
The next group of measures is aimed at reducing costs, but is unlikely to do any such thing:
- From the Czech GP, a maximum of 5 engines can be used in 8 races. No changing of parts
will be permitted except daily maintenance.
- Only 2 post race tests at Catalunya and Czech GP for development purposes using test
riders only are permitted.
To take the last point first, cutting the number of post-race tests from the 5 currently scheduled down to just 2 will surely save on maintenance. And if the rule had specified only current competitors, then even more might have been saved. But by specifying that only test riders may be used, then a whole chain of logistics is invoked which starts to increase tests once again. The riders have to be kept on retainer; they have to be flown to and from the track; and perhaps worst of all, there are very few test riders who are capable of running a fast enough pace to generate useful data. If a rider is 3 seconds off race pace, he will not be pushing the chassis hard enough to find the problems the riders will run into at race pace.
The adoption of a single tire has made this point even more critical. Before, riders could fix problems with a different tires, altering construction and compound to mitigate some of the worst effects of chatter, for example. But a single tire means that handling chatter means altering headstock, chassis and swingarm flexibility, to dampen the vibration. And speed is the only way of exposing these problems, as Yamaha found at the beginning of 2006. And so more simulations will have to be run, and more testing will have to be done to compensate for the lack of testing by current racers on current racetracks. What looks like easy savings soon gives way to more spending to compensate. Peter is robbed, to compensate Paul.
We have discussed the minimum engine life proposal at length and ad nauseam previously, but will go over the principal arguments once again. The intention of the rule is to get the factories to detune their engines, so that they last longer. The effect of the rule will be for the factories to increase testing and development of their engines, so that they last longer while still producing the same performance. The fear of losing will mandate that the money saved on maintenance goes straight into R&D.
The policing of this is difficult, if not downright treacherous. Which parts may be opened and which parts may be replaced will be argued over endlessly, as will the exact circumstances of every transgression of this rule. And depending on the severity of the penalty, it might even be worth disregarding it entirely, and just using as many engines as you like. After all, if your (one-race) bike is significantly faster than the (multiple-race) competition at Brno, then why worry about being put to the back of the grid, especially if it's just 6 rows deep? You can make your way through the field, and pick up the points you need anyway. Will it work like this? We can't be sure. Are the factories evaluating this as an option? You can be absolutely certain.
Banning The Future
The other measures in the rules are not so much an attempt at cost cutting, and more of a signpost for the future direction of MotoGP. Here's the full list of prohibitions:
- Ceramic composite materials are not permitted for brake discs or pads.
- Electronic controlled suspension is not permitted.
- Launch control system is not permitted.
To begin with what is at first glance the most puzzling, the banning of a technology that is neither used, nor even under consideration for MotoGP. But the ban on ceramic disk brakes are aimed firmly at 2010, when the Grand Prix Commission is likely to ban carbon brakes. Without a ready alternative, the hope is that the teams will turn to steel disks, so that a one-bike-per-rider rule can be imposed, and the teams can also save the quarter of a million euros they drop on brake parts. Whether they do, or whether they spend more money looking at alternatives which aren't ceramic composites, remains to be seen.
Like ceramic brakes, electronically controlled suspension is little used currently in MotoGP. But once again, the single tire rule makes this a more attractive proposition. Some teams have experimented with it, but it is far from commonplace as yet. The purpose of the ban is little to do with what is currently happening in the paddock, and more as serving as a poster child for the Big Change coming, and one that is presaged by our final rule, and perhaps the most ridiculous one.
Launch control. Banning it seems like a perfectly sensible move, putting the emphasis on the rider once again, rather than the skill of the data engineer. As soon as you start to think about the practical implications, however, any semblance of common sense goes straight out the window. Question number one, and frankly, the only question that matters, is whether this can be enforced, and judging by the experience of Formula One, the answer is a big fat no. Even with a spec ECU, the cars leave the line with no wheel spin and without stalling, all getting away more or less as they lined up on the grid.
Without a spec ECU, policing launch control is going to be impossible. How will the scrutineers, the people charged with enforcing the rules, be able to distinguish between a "safety" engine map, or perhaps a "rain setting" engine map and launch control? Does a failure to lift the front wheel off the line indicate that launch control has been used, or just outstanding bike and throttle control? Without a complete understanding of the working of every ECU currently being used in MotoGP, and the engineering and computing knowledge to extract both the obvious and the hidden intent in any engine maps and embedded software, finding a launch control program is going to be a hopeless task, and doomed to failure at the very start.
But the point of the launch control ban is of course not to ban launch control. The point is to test the viability of imposing controls on electronics, and how that will work out in practice. Both Carmelo Ezpeleta and Vito Ippolito have spoken out against the increasing use of electronic controls, as have any number of riders. As ever, though, the devil is in the detail, and just how to achieve the intended goal is the million dollar question. After all, engineers love nothing better than a seemingly intractable problem, and imposing rules just provides the kind of challenge they thrive on.
However the ban on launch control works out, there is every reason to fear that the ban on electronics will be instigated anyway. It will be instituted for reasons of cost, and will unleash either an orgy of spending in an attempt to bypass the ban while staying inside the letter of the law, or else precipitate the withdrawal of yet more manufacturers, as the value they see in MotoGP as an R&D platform is reduced considerably. Suddenly, taking part in MotoGP becomes nothing more than a marketing exercise, and a way of boosting a manufacturer's image.
The problem here, of course, is that a race only has one winner. Of the four manufacturers in MotoGP, three are destined not to have a MotoGP champion, leaving those three to question the value of their MotoGP program. If you're using MotoGP to promote your brand as a high-performance product, and you get your behind kicked by your competitors, then why continue to throw good money after bad? Why not, like Kawasaki, pull out and find another way to promote your brand?
And ironically, this is the only way that costs will genuinely be cut in MotoGP. MotoGP racing costs what it costs because the racing department can persuade senior management that the marketing value provided by MotoGP matches the 50 or 60 million dollars that it takes to win a championship. If senior management decides that it is no longer worth that investment, they will not reduce that investment, they will simply cut it altogether. More bikes disappear from the grid, and the championship loses more and more of its luster with every departing manufacturer.
Fortunately for those that remain, every manufacturer that leaves increases the chances of winning for those that stay. Less competition means that instead of needing an extra three tenths, they only need one tenth, and the relentless pace of progress slows. Slower progress means less R&D costs, and makes satellite bikes more competitive, and cheaper to produce. If last year's bike is only a tenth slower than this year's bike, rather than half a second, then more teams might be interested in last year's bike, and grids might start to grow again.
Just as lap times stagnated during the 1990s, with Michelin's domination of the tire situation, then picked up again once Bridgestone stepped up to the mark, so it is likely to go with MotoGP. The thing that drives up costs in MotoGP is not technology. The thing that drives up costs is competition, and the relentless pursuit of victory. But then again, that's why they take part, and we watch.