One of the biggest changes made to the MotoGP series as a result of the cost-cutting measures introduced over the winter has been the reduction in the length of practice. The Friday morning sessions have been scrapped, and the three remaining sessions have been cut from 1 hour in length to just 45 minutes. The aim was to reduce the number of miles put on the engines, reducing the amount of maintenance the engines would require.
But the reduced practice time came under a lot of criticism at Qatar, the first time this was tried in practice. The short sessions left the riders - especially the rookies - much less track time to get used to the bikes, and put huge pressure on the teams and riders to hurry through changes to settings, without enough time to think them through properly. The Grand Prix Commission was sympathetic to these concerns, and studied proposals to fix the issues.
Now, a compromise has been found, according to Motorcycle News. The Grand Prix Commission is due to meet prior to the Motegi Grand Prix, and will approve the sessions will be extended to one hour again, to give the riders more time to get the bikes sorted out. But to enforce the object of the rules - reduced engine mileage, making the bikes last longer between engine rebuilds - a limit will be placed on the number of laps the riders will be allowed to do, depending on the length of the track, ensuring that more time does not equal more laps.
The extension of the sessions is to be welcomed: longer practices mean more time for the teams, and more entertainment for the fans, but with the rules being changed again after just one Grand Prix, the initial cost-cutting measures adopted at the start of the season are starting to look like a hurried, poorly-thought-out decision, rushed through without sufficient consideration. As we argued back in January, the first test that any rule changes will face is the law of unintended consequences, and that seems to be exactly what has happened here. If the intention is to reduce the number of miles put on an engine, then it would seem obvious to impose limits on the number of laps the bikes do, rather than limiting the amount of time the bikes have to do them in. As Qatar proved, limited track time just means that the teams will try to squeeze the maximum number of laps into the time available, with the busy sessions often resembling 125 practice rather than MotoGP.
The problem the new rules raise is of course how you define a lap? If a rider goes out, discovers a problem, and comes straight back into the pits, will that be deducted from his total number of permitted laps? Or will only the number of full laps completed count? If the GP Commission decides to count only the full laps completed, discounting in and out laps, then you can expect to see teams risking a fast single lap coming straight back into the pits without crossing the line, and trying to use the data from the rear of the circuit to get a good general setup.
But if all laps are to be counted, including in and out laps, then teams will be want to minimize the number of laps lost to leaving and entering the pits. Riders will be sent out for longer stints, meaning that though more data will be collected, there will be fewer opportunities for making adjustments. Whatever the final rule adopted, the one thing that is clear is that the reduced track time is rewarding the team that gets the bike and setup right straight from the start. Teams simply cannot afford to get things wrong, and spend time chasing setup, placing more emphasis on crews and crew chiefs, and the communication with their riders.
If the changes are adopted, as expected, then they will be go into force at the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi this weekend.