In times of crisis, drastic measures are necessary. That has been the thought behind many of the cost-cutting measures put forward to help MotoGP tackle the global financial crisis which has threatened to engulf the series since late last year. Yet the sense of urgency engendered by the seriousness of the situation can lead to hasty decisions, and cause those gathered round the table to jump to conclusions which, upon closer examination, turn out to have the opposite effects to what was intended.
According to none other than Masao Furusawa, head of Yamaha's MotoGP program, that is exactly what has happened with the proposals to extend engine life. According to Motorcycle News, the head of the Japanese giant believes that the new rules will force the factories to redesign the existing engines for more durability, raising development costs. "If we decide to use one engine for two or three races, with the current engine you can’t do that," Furusawa said.
Redesigning the engine will lead to bigger costs, Furusawa said. He added that in the long term, costs could be cut, once the teams start seeing savings from the reduced maintenance cycles required by the more durable engines. But before they get to that stage, the factories will have to invest.
From the moment that the cost-cutting measures were rumored, we here at MotoGPMatters.com have argued that this was exactly what was going to happen. The option of limiting revs was dismissed out of hand by Furusawa, for the obvious reason that this could hand their rivals a potential advantage. And so to extend engine life, the first thing that the engineers are going to do to redesign the engine for more robustness without sacrificing horsepower. That redesign, we argued, would lead the factories to spend more money, rather than less.
The big question is, of course, whether the amount of money saved by the reduced maintenance cycles will weigh up against the extra investment required to make the engines last longer. This season, the factories are extremely unlikely to see any savings, as the higher development costs will be squeezed into the first half of the year, with not enough time for the reduced maintenance to start repaying that investment. But any savings last year are likely to suffer the same fate: as of next year, minimum engine life will probably be extended again, from 5 engines to last 8 races, up to a minimum life of 3 races per engine. The winter of 2009/2010 will once again see factories spending even more money developing parts from even more expensive materials to last even longer.
In the end, the investment will pay off, of course. Eventually, the reduction in the number of rebuilds the engines require will start to add up, and the balance will start to swing back into positive territory again. Unfortunately, with rule changes this year and next, that won't be until 2011 at the earliest. By then, the world economy should be in recovery, and the need for cost cutting will have been abated. But the brunt of the costs are going to be borne over the next few years, right in the depths of recession, and right when the factories can afford it least.
There's an old truism which says that you fix the roof when the sun is shining. By taking drastic measures in the middle of a financial crisis, the Grand Prix Commission is fixing the roof by removing the slates to put up stronger ones. Too bad there's an economic hurricane raging outside.