The sight of just 16 bikes taking to the MotoGP grid has been all too common this year, with 6 of the 14 rounds of MotoGP so far starting with at least one of the permanent riders missing and no replacement. But 16 bikes is looking increasingly likely to be a full grid next season, as British motorcycle weekly Motorcycle News is reporting that Suzuki is likely to field just a single machine in 2011. According to MCN, several members of the Suzuki team were told on Thursday night they are free to seek offers elsewhere, including veteran engineer Stuart Shenton, currently crew chief to Loris Capirossi.
Rumors have been floating around the MotoGP paddock for many months that Suzuki was considering pulling out, and an announcement on the team's future was expected at Motegi, after a meeting between top management of the Suzuki factory and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. That meeting was pushed back until after the weekend of the Japanese Grand Prix, and it now appears that Ezpeleta has been unable to persuade them to change their minds. According to MCN, the factory will field just a single bike for 2011, with a promise of increasing their involvement again when the formula changes back to 1000cc in 2012.
Despite the rumors, the news comes as a surprise, as Dorna believed it had the situation in hand after Kawasaki's dramatic withdrawal at the end of 2008. Early in 2009, Ezpeleta went on a tour of the Japanese factories to clarify the contract Dorna has with the members of the MSMA (the manufacturers' assocation) covering their participation in the series. The terms of the contract boil down to the factories guaranteeing to provide enough bikes to fill the MotoGP grid in exchange for the right to draw up the technical regulations. Any withdrawals before the contract expires at the end of the 2011 season would face heavy financial punishment, though Dorna's position was undermined by the relatively light punishment administered to Kawasaki, who were forced to run a single bike team (the surprisingly successful Hayate team) for a year after their official pull-out. According to MCN's Matt Birt, Suzuki have cut a similar deal to Kawasaki, running a single rider for 2011 in exchange for putting more bikes on the grid in 2012.
The factories have been the victims of their own rules: The capacity reduction to 800cc and the simultaneous cutting of fuel to 21 liters created machines that rely to a very great extent on electronics to make them rideable. The addition of a single tire - while cutting costs for all involved - has removed another wildcard from the competition, encouraging Bridgestone to be very conservative about the tires it makes, and putting even more focus on electronics and chassis setup as the only areas where an advantage can be found. This has had the double effect of both driving up costs and making the racing almost unwatchable, only relieved by the occasional battle and the beautifully filmed super slow motion "Riding Style Comparison" shots captured by Dorna's TV crew.
With the MSMA having ruined the racing with their technical regulations, Dorna is looking to the CRT teams for salvation from 2012. If enough CRT teams can be persuaded to enter MotoGP from 2012, then MotoGP's reliance on the factories can reduced. CRT teams, after all, will be run by people whose business is racing, rather than the factories, whose business is selling motorcycles, and who are using racing as an R&D lab and marketing vehicle. When the contract between the MSMA and Dorna comes up for renewal at the end of 2011, expect Dorna to play hardball.