The rule changes that have been adopted in the MotoGP series since the class went four-stroke in 2002 have generally been met with increasing disappointment by the fans. The 990cc format is generally viewed as the high point of motorcycle racing for many years, even after the fuel allowance was cut from 24 to 22 liters.
But since capacity was cut from 990cc to 800cc, and the fuel allowance cut from 22 to 21 liters, MotoGP's rulemaking body, the Grand Prix Commission, has been buried under a deluge of criticism - not least from ourselves here at MotoMatters.com. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse, with the introduction of the tire restrictions, then the single tire rule, and finally the limits on engines, with criticism growing more vehement at every rule change, nearly all of it aimed at Dorna, the company which runs MotoGP, and its CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta.
The calumny heaped upon Dorna is almost entirely undeserved, though. For Dorna - along with the FIM (the sport's governing body) and IRTA (the body representing the teams - have little or no say in MotoGP's technical regulations. They handed over responsibility for the technical rules under the agreement which defines the role of the GP Commission. Under the terms of that agreement, the MSMA - the manufacturers' association, representing all of the factories involved in MotoGP - is responsible for drawing up technical regulations, and if those rules are agreed unanimously by the members of the MSMA, the GP Commission will adopt them unopposed.
And so most of the technical rule changes which have been blamed for ruining racing - most notably the switch to 800cc and the 21 liter fuel limits - came directly from the manufacturers, with Dorna, IRTA and the FIM unable to block them, whatever their concerns over the changes. Though any proposed changes are always discussed in the GP Commission, the MSMA always end up getting their way.
The reason for this arrangement is simple. The MSMA are deemed to be the technical experts in the GP Commission, as they have the knowledge of the technologies involved, and are assumed to be aware of the implications that any rule changes will have on their racing programs. Though there is considerable technical expertise in both Dorna and IRTA, their experience is all based in racing, with very few people in either organization having much experience of the manufacturing process.
But the balance of power in the Grand Prix Commission could be about to change. Dorna is currently in the process of hiring an outside advisor to help act as an intermediary between them and the MSMA in discussions on technical rules. The kind of person that Dorna are looking for is someone with both a background in racing, but also someone with an intimate knowledge of motorcycle manufacturing and engineering, who is capable of assessing what long-term effects rule changes would have on cost levels, and what possible implications they could have for racing. More importantly, this person would be able of presenting counter-arguments to proposals tabled by the MSMA, backed up with arguments taken from practical experience.
So far, MotoGP's Technical Director Mike Webb has provided technical expertise for Dorna, but despite his long experience in racing and his formidable intellect, Webb has no background in manufacturing and production. So Dorna are looking for someone from a manufacturing background, who can counter the arguments put forward by the MSMA with examples and expertise from their own experience.
Though one or two names are doing the rounds among MotoGP insiders - Jan Witteveen, the former Aprilia engineer, and Harald Bartol of KTM being those most frequently mentioned, though based more on suitability rather than any real information - there is no firm information on who Dorna is talking to about taking on this role. When asked to comment on the matter, a Dorna spokesperson merely confirmed that the position was open, but that the company had not approached anyone to fill the post yet.
The move to attract more engineering expertise to provide a counterbalance to the MSMA is part of a longer term battle between Dorna and the manufacturers. The contract with the MSMA ends after the 2011 season, after which new agreements will have to be made about the role the manufacturers have in the series and its regulations.
Dorna is believed to be losing patience with the factories, after promises to prop up shrinking fields by putting more bikes on the grid have been broken for year after year. Pleas for more - and especially cheaper - machinery have fallen on deaf ears, and the lease price of MotoGP bikes has increased every season. Compromise solutions, such as the request to lease just engines instead of entire bikes, have also failed over cost, with the factories demanding almost as much to lease an engine as an entire bike would cost.
The 2012 regulations allowing Claiming Rule Teams (who will be allowed to run production-based engines in prototype chassis) into MotoGP are one prong of Dorna's attempt to reduce the influence of the factories. The CRT bikes are expected to be much more cheaper than the factory machines, while still being relatively competitive due to the three extra liters of fuel they will be allowed, something which has factory engineers running scared. If CRT bikes are good enough to challenge for podiums, or at least finish regularly in the top ten, then getting 22 or 24 bikes on the grid should be relatively simple to achieve.
With more support from private teams, the power base of the factories will be severely weakened. If MotoGP has five or six CRT teams, with a couple more waiting in the wings - a function currently being fulfilled by the Moto2 class, an ideal training ground for both teams and chassis manufacturers - then the series no longer need live in fear of one or more manufacturers dropping out of the series. Suzuki, for example, is widely expected to withdraw at the end of the 2011 season, but they could leave Dorna in a very difficult position if they were to pull out at the end of this year.
With a larger, and more importantly, a much more broadly-based grid, and technical support from an industry veteran with a background in manufacturing, Dorna - no doubt backed by IRTA, and possibly with the support of the FIM as well - is strengthening its hand. Once the negotiations get underway about a new contract between the MSMA and Dorna, the Spanish organizers may be able to force a much-reduced role onto the manufacturers, taking away their ability to keep introducing rule changes. With a stable set of rules, and a broader manufacturing base working out of smaller engineering shops, MotoGP's costs will perhaps stop spiraling out of control.