Racing season is now truly upon us. MotoGP kicked off ten days ago at Qatar, last weekend the British Superbike championship had their first race of the year at Donington Park, and this weekend sees a bumper crop of racing. MotoGP is at Austin, where MotoAmerica also kicks off its inaugural season since taking over the AMA series from the DMG. World Superbikes heads to the Motorland Aragon circuit in Spain, where they are joined by the Superstock 1000 and Superstock 600 classes. It is going to be a busy weekend.
Despite the bustle of action, the amount of real news emerging has been limited. Teams and riders are too busy racing, absorbing the lessons of the first races while preparing for the next races, to be plotting and scheming beyond that. Here's a rundown of things you might have missed this weekend anyway.
And you thought the Stoner return was a surprise...
The Suzuka 8 Hour race is growing in stature. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment at which this happened, but it seems fair to guess that Kevin Schwantz' participation in the 2013 race. While Honda had always supported the endurance racing classic by sending their top World Superbike riders, the days of Grand Prix riders competing at the event had long passed. Schwantz returning to racing at the event seems to have kickstarted interest in series once again, with some big names coming forward.
Casey Stoner's participation in the event had already been announced, the Australian flagging the event as a race he had always wanted to do, but his busy MotoGP schedule prevented him from doing it. That announcement kicked off a huge buzz around the event, but now it could get a second, possibly even bigger boost. According to ace Spanish reporter Manuel Pecino, writing for Sportrider Magazine, Yamaha is pressuring Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to race in the event.
Yamaha's participation is part of a bigger marketing push for the Japanese factory. According to Pecino, this is Yamaha's 60th anniversary, and the factory wants to celebrate it with a win at the biggest motorcycle racing event in Japan. A win would also boost the profile of Yamaha's brand new YZF-R1, launched this year to replace the old model, as a radically revised and updated version. Originally, Yamaha management asked both their factory MotoGP riders to participate in the event, but both men declined. However, when Casey Stoner announced he would be riding there for Honda, Yamaha have upped the pressure on the Movistar Yamaha pairing, trying to get them to race. No doubt they will face a barrage of questions about the situation this weekend.
The new-fangled R1
Winning the Suzuka 8 hour race will of course depend on how competitive the Yamaha R1 can be. Last weekend, we got the first glance of it competing in a high-profile national series, with the Milwaukee Yamaha squad putting the bike through its paces at the BSB season opener. Josh Brookes had a solid first outing on the bike, finishing in 6th and 3rd in the first double header of the season. The bike is handicapped to some extent by having to use the spec Motec electronics mandated in BSB, rather than the MotoGP-derived kit fitted as standard.
This weekend could provide a better measure of the R1. The bike will be raced at both Austin, in the MotoAmerica Superbike class, and in Aragon, where it will make its debut in the Superstock 1000 class. Both series allow the use of the standard ECU, which on the 2015 model R1 is extremely advanced. Of course, with Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier aboard the bike, the strength of the riders may outshine the actual bike. But the Superstock 1000 races in Aragon may give a slightly better look at the machine.
Whether the R1 is any good is still to be confirmed, but there is no doubting that the Kawasaki ZX-10R is a good standard bike. Shane Byrne leads the BSB series after the first round, having come 1st and 2nd in the two races, while James Ellison and Stuart Easton also took the honors on the bike, Ellison winning race 2 and Easton taking 3rd. Dan Linfoot put the Honda CBR1000RR on the podium in race 1, while Josh Brookes was 3rd in race 2.
2016 – Back to the future?
The basic rules for MotoGP for 2016 and beyond were laid down at Qatar, where the Grand Prix Commission met. Seven engines, 22 liters of fuel, and a minimum weight of 157kg were agreed upon, as well as a continuation of the concessions granted to manufacturers who have yet to score regular podiums or wins. A few minor questions still remain, especially surrounding tires, but some fans still remain confused about the plight of the current Open class teams.
In an interview with the leading Spanish sports newspaper AS ahead of the first race at Qatar, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta laid out his vision for the series. His idea, he said, is to have twelve factory bikes and twelve satellite bikes from 2017 onwards. With the switch to the spec software from 2016, the advantage offered by factory electronics should disappear, he said, creating a much more level playing field. The idea is to have each factory supplying two bikes to a factory team, and two bikes to a satellite team.
That would require Suzuki and Aprilia also supplying satellite teams. Suzuki has been extremely reluctant to supply a satellite team in the past, the last of the privateer Suzukis dying out in the mid-90s. Aprilia has been more willing in recent years, but have only supported teams at a very low level. And KTM's plans do not include a factory team at all: the whole concept of the KTM RC16 is to build a bike for sale to private teams, to compete at a reasonable cost. KTM have, as yet, shown now interest in competing as a factory squad, an understandable decision given the high cost of such a move.
Just how close to reality Ezpeleta's dream will come remains to be seen. However, MotoGP is currently in robust good health, with bikes available and costs no longer spiraling out of control. MotoGP is not cheap, and costs are still rising. But they are not rising as exponentially as they did previously.