2012 is the year that everything will change. A bafflingly large number of people think this is because of the approach of Planet X, bringing destruction upon the world as foretold by the end of the Mayan calendar (which rather inconveniently now appears to end in 2220), but for motorcycle racing fans, something even more momentous than the end of civilization is on the cards. For 2012 is the year that sees the return of 1000cc motorcycles to MotoGP.
Those who were hoping to see the return of the glorious RC211V and its soul-churning V5 bellow will be sorely disappointed, however. MotoGP may be allowing the return of the liter bikes, but a couple of significant rule changes mean that the face of the grid will be altered irrevocably. There'll be no more barking V5 Hondas, nor howling Aprilia RS3 Cubes, nor will the overly optimistic and sadly failed WCM Blata V6 project be revived. The rules have been written such that the bikes will have four cylinders, use a four-stroke combustion cycle, and are likely to come in well under 1000cc capacity.
The lack of diversity in MotoGP from 2012 onwards is down to the new rule package due to come into effect. So let us first take a look at the rules laid down for MotoGP, before going on to study the reasoning behind those rules, and the effects they will have on the grid.
The MotoGP rules as agreed by the Grand Prix Commission (the last major clarification of which came at Brno in August 2010) sets out three classes of bikes to compete in MotoGP - or rather, two major classes, one of which has two subclasses. These classes are:
- Factory prototype machines of between 800 and 1000cc, with a minimum weight of 153kg;
- Factory prototype machines of up to 800cc, with a minimum weight of 150kg;
- Machines of up to 1000cc, accepted as Claiming Rule Team (CRT) entries, with a minimum weight of 153kg.
All three classes are subject to a few shared technical restrictions. These are:
- A maximum of four cylinders
- A maximum bore of 81mm
The chassis used must be a complete prototype, and not be based on an existing production chassis
In effect, the factory prototypes (though that phrase is never used in the regulations, but that is in effect what these machines will be) are just the next generation of the MotoGP bikes now being raced. The current fuel limit (21 liters) and engine allocation (a maximum of 6 engines to last for the entire season) remain in place, the only difference being the larger capacity.
And here's where the bore restriction comes into play: Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta described the 81mm maximum bore size as a "silver bullet" for cost reduction, imposing a rev limit through the laws of physics (or rather, through the cost of defying them) rather than than by imposing a regulated cap on revs, a restriction the manufacturers, represented by the MSMA, would never accept. By imposing a bore limit and a maximum number of cylinders, any 1000cc engine will simply be unable to rev much beyond 16,500 rpm without the additional cost far outweighing the marginal benefit of the additional revs.
The advantage of lower revs means greater engine durability, and perhaps more importantly, a lower revving engine can suffice with just standard steel coil valve springs, a much cheaper and simpler technology than the pneumatic valves being used by all of the manufacturers except Ducati. A secondary aim of having lower revving engines is also that in theory, they should require fewer electronics to keep them in check. A lower revving engine is in a lower state of tune, and it should therefore be possible to produce a smoother and more predictable torque curve, obviating the need for a lot of electronic intervention in power delivery.
The problem is, however, that it is unclear whether a 1000cc engine with an 81mm bore and 21 liters of fuel offers any real advantages. The lower state of tune may offer a wider powerband, as well as better engine durability due to less heat and friction at lower revs, but it could turn out to use more fuel, the larger capacity sucking up more gas, which would in turn require yet more electronics to manage fuel consumption.
For this reason, several manufacturers are thought to be looking at a smaller capacity engine. The head of Ducati Corse, Filippo Preziosi, has stated publicly that he is looking at an engine of between 900 and 930cc as a more efficient solution, providing extra torque without sacrificing fuel consumption.
If they wanted, the factories could even continue with their existing 800cc bikes, something that Yamaha had previously stated they were intending to do, though the feeling in the paddock is that once one factory jumps to a larger capacity, the others will follow. So though the existing 800cc bikes could remain on the grid for 2012, exploiting the 3kg weight advantage currently available under the rules, perhaps only a couple of satellite teams could end up running the bikes, and the 800cc subclass is likely to disappear quietly off the rule book once the new formula gets underway, if not before.
So What Exactly Is A Claiming Rule Team?
By far the most interesting class of machines, though, are the new claiming rule bikes. Whenever the new CRT (as they are being called) bikes are brought up, they are invariably described as being production engines in prototype chassis, and while all of the CRT machines will most likely fit that description, the rules define no such thing. In actual fact, the rules have almost nothing at all to say about the nature of a CRT motorcycle, the only difference between a CRT bike and a factory prototype being that the CRT bikes will have 24 liters of fuel to play with, rather than just 21, and the riders of CRT bikes will have an allocation of 12 engines rather than just 6 for riders on factory prototype machines. Other than that, a CRT bike and a factory prototype are identical under the rules.
So if there is nothing describing the difference between a CRT bike and a factory prototype, how do we tell them apart? The clue is in the third letter of the acronym, the T in CRT. That T stands for Team, and under the 2012 regulations, it is the team which defines whether a machine falls under the CRT rules or under the rules for factory prototypes. Anything entered by a team which qualifies as a Claiming Rule Team automatically gets 24 liters of fuel and 12 engines for the season.
So how do you qualify as a Claiming Rule Team? Here's what the rules say:
"The selection of the Claiming Rule Teams (CRT's) will be by unanimous decision of the Grand Prix Commission. Modification to this exception due to performance of the teams requires the simple majority of the Grand Prix Commission."
What this means in practice is the following: A team will submit an entry to the Grand Prix Commission, and if all four members making up the GP Commission (Dorna representing the organizers, the FIM as the sanctioning body, IRTA as the teams' representatives, and the MSMA representing the manufacturers) agree, then the team will be accepted as a CRT. If they are refused entry as a CRT team, that does not mean they will not be allowed to race at all, it merely means they will have to run under the same rules (21 liters of fuel, 6 engines a season) as the factory prototype teams.
So, does the bike they wish to race have no influence on whether they are accepted or not? The answer to that question is, well, yes and no. Obviously, if Herve Poncharal's Tech 3 team turned up with a 2012 Yamaha YZR-M1 and Yamaha engineers in the garage and entered as a Claiming Rule Team, their application would be turned down. However, if they turned up with a Tech 3 chassis and an M1 engine, there's a very good chance they'd be accepted, depending on the support being provided by Yamaha for the engine.
The key to being accepted as a Claiming Rule Team is the perceived level of factory support. One of the reasons for allowing the Grand Prix Commission to select the CRTs is to provide the kind of flexibility that a set of written specifications cannot supply. After all, if a bunch of club racer buddies had their numbers come up in a lottery, decided to blow their millions on a season in MotoGP, and Honda decided to sell them an RC212V without any factory support (an unlikely scenario at best), then merely racing an RC212V would not make them any more competitive. Conceivably, (well, at a very considerable stretch), the Grand Prix Commission could accept them as a Claiming Rule Team to help fill out the grid.
The reason that so many discussions about Claiming Rule Teams refer to using production engines is because this will be just about the only option open to teams wishing to enter as a CRT. The factories have refused to sell engines to privateer or satellite teams for many years now, despite the pleas of Dorna, IRTA and the FIM. The last time an engine was allowed in a non-factory frame was in Kenny Roberts' Team KR machine, the KR212V. After initial success in 2006, the experience of 2007 (and Kenny Roberts failing to raise sufficient sponsorship for 2008) meant that Honda was no longer willing to repeat the experiment. In the summer of 2009, the MSMA came near to agreeing to supply just engines again, but the exorbitant amount of money they were asking (around 70% of the lease price of a full bike) made it a financially impossible proposition.
So without access to engines from the factories, the teams will either have to turn to external engine suppliers (such as Ilmor, Inmotec, Cosworth, etc) or look at developing their own engines. Without access to the kind of resources that developing a modern racing four-stroke engine currently requires, Claiming Rule Teams will instead turn to existing production engines, and radically rework them to turn them into something that could be competitive in MotoGP. This has been tried before by WCM with limited success, before the FIM, at the prompting of the Flammini brothers who run World Superbikes, ruled that the WCM (based on a Yamaha YZF-R1 street bike engine) was illegal under the rules at the time. Why the Flamminis won't win this battle again is a subject we will return to in a later episode of this series.
The rules also contain a rather clever condition, one that it is easy to miss the significance of. The rules read "Modification to this exception due to performance of the teams requires the simple majority of the Grand Prix Commission." What this means in practice is that being accepted as a CRT does not mean that you have been granted that status for the entire season. If, for example, the Grand Prix Commission decides that a team is just a front for a factory effort, then they can withdraw their CRT status and force the team to continue under the rules for factory prototypes, with less fuel and (pro rato) fewer engines until the end of the season.
The point is best explained by an example: If, say, the Aspar team (who have long and historic links to the Aprilia race department) turn up with a heavily modified Aprilia RSV4 engine, in a chassis built in an engineering shop in Noale (Aprilia's home town), they could initially be accepted as a Claiming Rule team. However, if every race weekend the Aspar team's garage is full of engineers walking around in Aprilia uniforms, the GP Commission may decide that the Aspar team is just a front for Aprilia's race department, and withdraw their CRT status. If they did so after the first 6 races (out of 18), then the Aspar team would be allowed only 4 more engines to last until the end of the year, and be forced to race using just 21 liters of fuel, rather than the 24 they were granted under the CRT rules.
The chances of a Claiming Rule Team having their CRT status withdrawn are slim, though. Examining the rules closely, we see that the GP Commission can only decide to change a team's status by a "simple majority." The GP Commission consists of four members, Dorna, IRTA, the FIM and the MSMA, each with one vote. A simple majority means that three of the four will have to vote for withdrawal of CRT status (or for two to vote for, two against, with the chairman - Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta - holding a casting vote). Dorna's interests lie in having a full grid (and in weakening the grip of the MSMA over the technical rules, but more on this subject in another episode also); IRTA's interests lie in racing, representing the teams as they do; and the FIM's interests lie in having close racing with a large and viable grid. Any vote in the Grand Prix Commission is almost certain to fall in favor of the team, and against the MSMA.
Can The Claiming Rule Teams Be Competitive?
That is the million dollar question. And one on which the jury is still very much out.
There are two schools of thought here. The first - we shall perhaps call them the Cynics, though they would probably more likely style themselves the Realists - point out that the MSMA would never have agreed to allowing the existence of the Claiming Rule Teams if they thought that their own factory teams would be regularly beaten by the CRTs. The Cynics point to the dominant role that factories now have, and the immensely complex electronics that a modern MotoGP bike requires, to manage tires so that they will last the race, to manage fuel, and to manage vehicle dynamics, providing launch control, wheelie control, traction control, and generally keeping the bike as stable as possible, as this is the fastest way around a race track. Electronics are expensive, and much can be gained by throwing more modeling capacity - and therefore more programmers writing those computer models - at the data from the track. This is a battle that deep pockets will always win, and deep pockets are the one attribute that Claiming Rule Teams will not possess.
The optimists point to the allowances granted to the CRTs, the 12 engines and especially the 24 liters of fuel. One expert directly involved with both the teams and the factories keeps insisting to me every time that we meet that the factories are deeply worried by the extra fuel allowance for the Claiming Rule Teams. The extra fuel (over 14% more than the factory prototypes are allowed, and the same amount the first MotoGP bikes were allowed) negate much of the need for fuel management, meaning that bikes won't start running leaner and losing power as the race goes on, but more importantly, the CRT machines can use extra fuel to assist on corner entry - by far the most significant part of the corner for a modern MotoGP bike - without having to rely on exotic electronic strategies to manage the slipper clutch and keep the wheels in line without wasting fuel.
So although electronics will still have a major role to play in the CRT bikes - they will still need launch control and wheelie control, and to a lesser extent traction control - the really hard stuff (the fuel management and corner entry strategies) has been taken away. Electronics that are good enough may well be within the reach of the Claiming Rule Teams, and the bikes could throw up quite a few surprises. More than the MSMA had been bargaining for.
One last word on electronics and the 1000cc machines. Those who are hoping to see a looser style of riding, with a return of power slides and riders backing bikes into corners dirt-track-style are going to be rather disappointed. The 800s have moved electronics forward to such a degree that even the CRT machines will enter corners wheels in line, with the front wheel firmly planted on the exit and rear wheel spin kept to a minimum. Even with more fuel, more torque and more power, the fastest way around the track is 250 style, all smoothness and high corner speed.
So Where Will All These Claiming Rule Teams Come From?
The answer to that is simple: One look at the Moto2 grid and you can see that 40 bikes are just far too many for a single race at this level, a fact made all the more evident with each first-turn pile-up. And the disparity among the teams is clear too: On the one hand, teams like Speed Up, Marc VDS, Technomag CIP, Interwetten and (former) MotoGP teams such as Tech 3, Gresini and Pons dominate the racing, while smaller, less experienced teams such as Holiday Gym, Kiefer and BQR have struggled to compete. Despite promises (or should that be threats) from Dorna that fewer teams would be admitted into Moto2 in 2011, there will still be close to 40 riders on the grid at Qatar in March.
For Moto2 is the training ground, a talent pool from which the better teams will be invited to field a CRT MotoGP effort in 2012. Chassis manufacturers like FTR, Suter and Kalex are learning valuable lessons on bike design in Moto2, while former two-stroke 250 and 125 teams get to grips with four-stroke racing engines, and setting up a bike powered by a four-stroke. Teams are learning to develop four-stroke racing bikes, and providing feedback for chassis development to the frame builders.
Dorna's hope (and the hope of the FIM and IRTA as well) is that these lessons will provided a solid foundation for the promotion of these teams to MotoGP in 2012. The Marc VDS team is already working with Suter on the Swiss manufacturer's CRT machine, and though there is no agreement in place for the team to race the bike once it is ready, the odds are good that the Belgian-based team will move up to MotoGP in 2012. Marc VDS will not be the only team: Pons, Giampiero Sacchi's new Ioda Racing project, Antonio Banderas' Jack&Jones team, MZ, and JiR, to name but a few, have all expressed an interest in moving up to MotoGP as a CRT team at one point or another in the future. Informed opinion suggests that between 4 and 6 machines will be entered by Claiming Rule Teams in 2012, with more to follow in the years to come.
What effect that will have on MotoGP, how Infront Motor Sports (who run World Superbikes) will react, what the long-term prospects are for the factories inside MotoGP, and where MotoGP will be racing in the years to come are all subjects we will cover in the following weeks. The face of MotoGP is changing, and 2012 is just the beginning.