Saving MotoGP Part 3 - Avoiding The Traps Of The Past
Over the past two days, we have examined the causes for MotoGP's current financial difficulties, and seen why most of the suggestions doing the rounds for fixing the situation are likely to do more harm than good. Today, in the final part of our examination of the state of MotoGP, we submit our own proposals which could form the basis for making the sport a great deal cheaper, and getting private teams back into the sport.
As explained in part one of this series, the biggest problem facing the sport is that horsepower, and with it, top speed, has become incredibly expensive. The best way to cut costs, then, is to make horsepower cheap again.
The easiest way of making horsepower cheap is the old-fashioned way, by raising engine capacity. There is no replacement for displacement, the old saying goes, and for years the quick way to more power has been to bore out the cylinders and add the cubic inches. But while an increase of engine capacity to, say, 1200cc would be a big improvement on the current situation, a braver step is necessary.
For under the current rules, the bikes are limited in two different ways: by engine capacity (800cc) and by fuel allowance (21 liters). Both of these factors can be regarded as having the same goal: to limit the energy output of the machinery. But if both factors perform the same function, why not simply drop one of those limits?
Removing the fuel limit might help make the racing more exciting, but it wouldn't help make the bikes any cheaper. Engine design would still chase the limits of what a given capacity is capable of, and with unlimited fuel to play with, that would make the engines even more high-revving and therefore fragile.
Bigger Is Better. Probably.
On the other hand, keeping the fuel limits while abandoning the capacity limits would offer many solutions to the problem of going fast. You could build a small capacity, high revving multi-cylinder engine with lots of peaky horsepower, and filled with expensive parts. Or you could build a huge V-twin with buckets of torque and mid-range, which will leave the high-revving bikes for dead out of the corners.
The danger of an unlimited capacity class is of course that top speeds can quickly get out of hand. But with a fuel limit in place, the cost of aiming at out-and-out top speed is that you risk burning through your fuel allowance before the end of the race. So the balancing act that is necessary between horsepower and fuel efficiency acts as a natural brake on top speed. And of course, the straights used at MotoGP tracks are rarely longer than three quarters of a mile, and so the faster you go, the sooner you have to start braking.
Naturally, there's no guarantee that tight fuel limits won't also fall foul of the law of unintended consequences, and still end up pushing costs higher, but at least with unlimited engine capacity, there are multiple ways of solving the problem, some of which are likely to be cheap enough to allow privateer teams to be competitive.
If top speed turns out to be a problem, then there is always a possibility to limit it artificially. It would be relatively simple for the organizers to fit a GPS speed sensor which could limit top speed to, say, 200 miles per hour. That kind of speed is achievable from most engine formats without pushing them beyond their limits. After all, it is easily within the reach of a World Superbike, costing upwards of 200,000 euros, and so factories - and more importantly, privateers - would be free to explore other ways of decreasing lap times.
The danger of limiting top speed electronically is that we force the engineers into the law of diminishing returns again. If the bikes are forced to top out at 320 km/h, or 340, or 360, then the trick becomes getting there as quickly as possible. The big guns can concentrate all their fire - in the form of huge budgets - on a single trick, acceleration, and attempt to dominate once again.
In an unlimited class, the first avenue that any team - whether manufacturing giant or privateer tinkerer - is likely to explore is increased engine capacity. But bigger engines mean heavier bikes. And heavier bikes are harder to stop, turn, and get off the corner. And so all the money saved on engine development would probably not be saved, but would be poured straight into weight saving, as the engineers examined every single nut and bolt for ways to get down to the minimum weight limit.
He Ain't Heavy ... Enough
And the current weight limit of 148 kg is pretty low for a multi-cylinder four stroke. Even during the 990 era, the factories had trouble getting their bikes down to the minimum weight limit, and consequently the factories spent a lot of money on exotic weight-saving materials. If cost-cutting is the goal, clearly the weight limits have to be examined carefully.
So in addition to making horsepower cheap, we should also make weight cheap, and raise the minimum weight limits by at least 10kg. That would leave the bikes below the World Superbike limits of 165kg, but be heavy enough to obviate the need for lots of expensive materials.
These two changes are likely to have another beneficial effect, and an unintended, if fortuitous, consequence. By raising weights you extend the braking zone needed to stop the bike for the corner, and give riders more room to start passing one another again on the brakes. And with an unlimited capacity, there is room for teams to build bikes with lots of mid-range, allowing more options on corner exit, and making it possible to make up for mistakes with throttle control again.
One of the few sensible measures to be proposed so far is the banning of carbon brakes. Despite the fact that MotoGP should be a prototype series exploring the best technological solutions to problems, carbon brakes contribute nothing to production motorcycles whatsoever. While fans may complain about the role traction control and electronics have played in ruining the racing, they have certainly made a big difference to road bikes, contributing hugely to the smoothness and throttle response of fuel injected bikes. So MotoGP should have at least some relevance to road bikes.
Indeed, a ban on carbon brakes might not even be necessary. It may be sufficient to demand that only a single type of brake rotors be used in both wet and dry conditions. Carbon disks are mostly ineffective in the rain, never getting hot enough to work properly, and giving a huge advantage to bikes with steel disks. And so teams could gamble on the whole season staying dry, or risk losing big during the three or four wet races which they are likely to face during the season. They may even encourage exploring ceramic disks, which are a good deal cheaper than carbon disks, but offer more performance than steel.
Dropping the restrictions on engine capacity, and limiting only the amount of fuel to be used for a race may open up options for teams to explore different ways of reducing lap times, but if the restriction on engine type - allowing only four-stroke engines to compete - is maintained, then MotoGP may still not be offering manufacturers a place to develop ideas and new technology.
The four-stroke gasoline engine is not the most efficient means of transforming fuel into horsepower. Diesel engines are 5-10% more efficient, while two strokes are pretty efficient too. When the capacity limit was stuck at 500cc, four strokes just couldn't compete, but without a capacity limit, both engine types would have a chance of competing. And if strict emissions limits were enforced, the playing field between all forms of engines could be kept level, without driving up costs. If someone can make a clean two-stroke, one which doesn't emit clouds of unburned hydrocarbons, why shouldn't it be allowed to compete? Similarly with diesel engines, if the particulate emissions can be kept to a minimum, why not allow diesels too?
All this talk of various types of combustion engines is fine, but in reality, what is the gasoline that combustion engines burn? All gasoline represents, when you get down to it, is stored energy. And why should we choose one form of stored energy over another? Gasoline is currently the favored form of stored energy for vehicles, because it packs an awful lot of energy into small space, the so-called energy density. If we exchange the fuel limit for an energy limit, using the amount of chemical energy stored in 21 liters of gasoline (around 700,000 kJ) as a limit instead, we reward efficiency, and open up more opportunities for smart people in workshops to find ways of powering a racing motorcycle.
At some point in time, gasoline is going to stop being the way that vehicles - and that includes racing motorcycles - are powered. MotoGP has to take this development into account, and provide a platform for the manufacturers to work on these technologies for their future road machines. It would take a quantum leap in battery technology to create a battery which can store 700,000kJ in a space and weight small enough on a racing motorcycle. But once that quantum leap happens - and there are a lot of people spending a lot of time on battery technology - then electric motorcycles are going to wipe the floor with combustion engines.
The first signs of this change are already visible, with the non-carbon fuel TTXGP race due to be run at the Isle of Man this summer. And more and more manufacturers are presenting electric motorcycles at bike shows around the world - some just as design studies, some as actual prototypes. But electric motorcycles are coming, and probably sooner than we think.
Leave It Alone For Five Minutes
Of course, the biggest problem with MotoGP has been the continuous changing of regulations itself. The MotoGP bikes only lasted 5 years, before being replaced with an entirely new formula, requiring vast investment to design and build new bikes, and then make them competitive. Added to this is the imposition of a single tire, taking one factor out of the designers' hands, and forcing them to reevaluate their designs once more. For 2009, the bikes will have to be redesigned to make them suit the tires provided, where previously, it was the tire manufacturers designing tires to suit bikes and riders. What's certain is that it's a lot simpler and cheaper to produce a tire than to produce a chassis, and a swing arm, and suspension parts.
So even if the proposals made above were to be introduced, the short-term effect would be to raise costs once again, as the teams analyze the best way to exploit the new regulations, and find a way to go fast. But they would not necessarily have to throw their old bikes away: indeed, they could even offer those bikes for sale to privateers to run, while they get on with designing a new twin / triple / V8.
The best thing to do right now is, paradoxically, nothing. If Dorna, the FIM, IRTA and the MSMA can all just resist the temptation to keep meddling, then the teams will have a chance to catch up with each other. The law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in, and the bikes are getting closer in performance. Not due to the genius of the engineers, but because all of the easy power has been found, and the extra horsepower is getting harder and harder to find.
Suzuki and Kawasaki are a long way behind, but Ducati and Yamaha are no longer putting more and more distance in every year. Honda went from an awful machine to being as good as the Ducati and the Yamaha, and the 2009 version of the RC212V is looking like it could be the best bike on the grid. Encouragingly, it won't just be the factory Hondas which will be good, the satellite RC212Vs are looking like they could be competitive, meaning more bikes could be in with a chance of running at the front of the field.
But despite it not being a good time to change the rules, it is a good time to announce the intention to change the rules in, say, 3 years' time. That would give manufacturers thinking of pulling out a window, a period in which they can consider their position, and allow them to stay in the series instead of going immediately. It would also give potential new recruits to the series an opportunity to explore the best way of exploiting the new rules, and try to build a competitive bike. As long as there's a chance of going fast at an affordable cost, the new entrants should come.
The point of all the suggestions made above is get around the three factors which have forced the costs of racing into the stratosphere. The combination of the law of unintended consequences and the law of diminishing returns has had a devastating effect the cost of racing, and given the factories too many opportunities to use the system in their favor. The above proposals have been thought out with precisely the aim of not falling into the same trap.
How To Prevent Cheating
For if we are to draw up new regulations, we must not fall into the same old trap again. The problem with most of the proposals made over the past couple of weeks is that they all assume that the participants in MotoGP want a level playing field on which to compete. Though outwardly, the manufacturers all profess to wanting a fair fight, given the opportunity, they would all fix the races to ensure that their bikes won.
So we have to assume that the first thing that the factories will do when presented with a set of rules is try to find a way to get around them, to cheat while still staying within the letter of the rules. When drawing up the rules, it is imperative that we bear this in mind, and think like lawyers, not like motorcycle racers. When reading a new set of rules the first thing anyone should do is to imagine ways of getting around them. We should be jamming sharp edges into every nook and cranny of the edifice of rules, and seeing if any of the bricks start to come loose. This way, we can try to ensure that the rules have been put together in such a way that the factories cannot simply spend their way to victory.
That means that for any problem, there should be more than one solution. The weakness of the current rules is demonstrated by the fact that all of the bikes on the grid use a four-cylinder engine. A combination of power delivery and maximum weights have forced the designers to accept the four as the best compromise, and this has seen all of the factories chasing each other up the same, increasingly expensive blind alley.
But as the factories all helped draw up the rules, they have no one to blame but themselves. Their perceived short term interest was to chase out the small fry, so they could concentrate on each other. Now, those decisions are coming home to roost, and the costs are rising beyond what even giant corporations like Kawasaki are prepared to bear. As long as the manufacturers are drawing up the rules with their own interests in mind, this will continue to be the case.
The proposals I have made above are all just that, proposals, and I do not presume that anyone at the FIM, or Dorna, or the manufacturers will be listening. But sometime soon, the Grand Prix Commission is going to present their solution to the problem of rising costs, in the form of more regulations. What I would like to see is a set of rules in which it is not immediately obvious how the factories are going to bend the rules in their favor. What I fear is that this is exactly what we are going to get. The fiddling continues, and Rome is starting to burn quite cheerfully now.