Opinion: The Factory 2 Farce - How Poor Communication Made It Seem Much Worse Than It Probably Is
So, who is to blame for the three-class farce? When the 'Factory 2' regulations were first announced, fans and followers were quick to point the finger of blame at Honda. With good reason: HRC has made a series of comments about the way everyone except HRC have interpreted the Open class regulations. Honda thought it was their duty to build a production racer, so that is what they did. The fact that it is hopelessly uncompetitive against the Forward Yamahas – 2013-spec satellite Yamaha M1s running the 2013-spec Open software – led to suggestions from Honda that what Yamaha was doing was unfair. When Ducati announced that they would also be switching to the Open category, Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo was quick to denounce the move, saying it would drive costs up for the Open class teams. It was easy to put two and two together, and come up with HRC putting pressure on Dorna to impose a penalty on Ducati, for fear of them exploiting the benefits of the Open class.
Those putting two and two together appear to have come up with a number which is not as close to four as they thought, however. The proposal for the new 'Factory 2' category did indeed come in response to pressure, but the pressure was not so much from Honda, as it was from the other Open class and satellite teams. They objected to Ducati coming in to the Open class at the same time as the new, radically updated and expanded version of the spec Magneti Marelli software was introduced. This version has vastly more capabilities than last year's version, as well as the mildly updated version used at the Sepang 1 test. The 2014 software was created by Magneti Marelli based in part on the input from Ducati, offered at the request of Dorna. Honda and Yamaha were also asked to contribute, but apparently refused.
The Open teams lack the experience and the staff to fully use the capabilities the 2014 software offers. If they chose to use it, they risked going slower, rather than faster. Ducati, on the other hand, has plenty of electronics engineers they can put to work optimizing every aspect of the new software. Put the complex software together with extra fuel Ducati is allowed under the Open class, and their performance is much more in line with the factory Yamaha and Honda teams than the Open teams. This was an unfair advantage, the Open teams said, and complained to Dorna.
And so Dorna came up with a compromise, an intermediate class called Factory 2. The rules for the Factory 2 category are surprisingly straightforward. If a team elects to use the 2014 spec software, they get all the benefits of the Open class – unlimited testing, no freeze on engine development – until they start scoring podiums. After one win, or two 2nd places, or three 3rd places (what the combinations are is as yet unclear), they will have only nine instead of twelve engines for the season, and 22.5 liters of fuel instead of 24 liters to last the races. The teams in the Open class – everyone except the three factory-backed Ducatis – will be using the uprated 2013 version of the Magneti Marelli software, and will not be punished for their results.
So how badly would Ducati be punished were they to win a dry race and have fuel and engines taken away? In all probability, they would barely notice. Though fans were quick to point out the gaping holes in the Factory 2 regulations – what happens if Ducati wins a race on its 9th engine, or its 10th engine? – in practice, there is zero chance of that happening. In 2013, Ducati managed the season successfully with just 5 engines, so there is no reason to expect that they would need much more than that in 2014. Even factoring in the ability to modify engines as a result of development, they are unlikely to produce more than one or two major updates of the engine. I, and many others, would be shocked if Ducati used more than eight engines all season. Six or seven is a much more likely number, given the development work to be done.
Likewise for fuel. The Ducati does not have fuel consumption problems, and has always managed comfortably on 21 liters. Ducati staff were never worried about the reduction to 20 liters – unlike Yamaha – and so managing a race on 22.5 liters, even with the spec software, is unlikely to be an issue. At the Ducati launch, Gigi Dall'Igna said that 22.5 liters could be a problem at some fuel-heavy tracks, as the spec software is not as configurable in terms of fuel economy. And of course, to even lose the 1.5 liters of fuel, first Ducati either have to win a race, or score a number of podiums. They still have some way to go before they manage that. Neither fuel nor engines are likely to pose an insurmountable problem for Ducati in 2014.
So why have the Factory 2 class, then? It is clearly a sop to the Open teams, a concession just to reassure them that their concerns are being taken seriously. In essence, it is a piece of performance balancing, to ensure that teams compete on a more or less equal basis. Should the combination of the new software and the Open class regulations prove to benefit Ducati too much, then there is a way of taking the edge off the worst excesses of Ducati's advantage.
In reality, this is almost identical to what happens in World Superbikes. The technical rules in World Superbikes have been drawn up to ensure parity between the twins, triples and fours, giving all of the manufacturers a chance to win. Results show that the theory works in practice, with both twins and fours having won races and championships in recent years. Whether the MotoGP rules work as well as the WSBK regulations remains to be seen. But it is not the novelty which it at first appeared.
So why the fan outrage? Mainly because of the way this was communicated. With no indication or warning, and just a few weeks before the season is set to commence, a new category is introduced with a new set of rules. The announcement comes out of the blue, in an interview which Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta did with the Spanish sports daily AS, when he was visiting their offices. The rule, and more especially the way in which it was announced, smacks of last-minute improvisation, of making rules up on the fly. There was no preparing the ground, no discussion, Ezpeleta presented it as a fait accompli.
That announcement made the whole process look very ad hoc. Fans had accepted the Open regulations, grown to like them, even, especially given the outstanding results of Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha. More and more fans were expressing enthusiasm for 2014 and the new rules, which were relatively simple to explain. The Factory 2 rules – as simple as they actually are – simply muddied the waters, and caused an outrage within hours of their being announced. Timing and the method chosen to communicate the rule change was extremely poorly chosen. This is not the first time Ezpeleta has made a bad communication choice, badly damaging the support which had been built in the preceding months.
It is a shame the message was delivered in this way, as the Open class, and the introduction of the 2014 version of the spec software have made a convincing case for Dorna's proposed rule package for 2017. The dismay which the Open teams showed when they saw the latest version of the software illustrates precisely just how expensive electronics have become in MotoGP. The Open teams have neither the manpower nor the experience to run the system, and cannot afford to free up the time of their existing electronics staff to allow them to play with the system and fully understand it. That is a luxury only afforded to the large factory teams; smaller, private outfits can just about manage the simpler 2013 system, but the 2014 system was a step too far.
When I asked Ducati team boss Paolo Ciabatti what he expected from switching to the Open software, Ciabatti said that he believed their electronics staff would have less to do, after an initial period of getting to grips with the new software. In the short term, costs increase, as teams work to understand the new system. However, in the long term, costs would be cut as fewer engineers would be needed.
This echoes the experience in Formula 1. F1 engineer Pat Symonds told veteran MotoGP journalist Mat Oxley that the introduction of a spec ECU in that series had cut electronics costs by 50%, after an initial period of adaptation. Once all of the teams in MotoGP are running the spec software, similar savings can be expected.
It also highlights where the difference lies between the top teams and the satellite teams. Winning a race as a satellite rider has become virtually impossible. The last time that happened was when Toni Elias won at Estoril in 2006. That victory was due in large part to the tires which Elias had, a set of tires made especially for Dani Pedrosa, which the Repsol Honda rider had rejected. They gave Elias enough of a boost for him to win the race.
In 2014, the difference is no longer in the tires, it is in the electronics. The data analysis and strategy selection among the factory teams is now so sophisticated that only the other factory teams and riders can compete. The difference with the past is that whereas previously, satellite riders stood at least a chance of being passed the spare tires from the top riders, they have zero chance of being handed the electronics strategies used by the factory teams. So specialized are those strategies that they are tailored to a specific rider, and do not offer much benefit to other riders. In other words, the best the satellite riders can hope for is an occasional podium. The playing field looks more like a ski slope than a level field of competition.
Unfortunately for the fans and the teams, the future of MotoGP – spec software enforcing a rev limit, and greatly limited traction control – will not take effect until 2017 at the earliest. Until then, the factories can continue to cling to their own software, and the advantage it brings them. From 2017, they will no longer be able to block fully spec electronics, as Ducati have acknowledged that they believe the spec ECU and spec software is the future of MotoGP, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna saying as much at the Ducati launch in Munich. The point of the Open rules, Dall'Igna told the press, was not to cut costs for the Open teams, it was to cut costs for everyone in MotoGP. This was inevitable. With Ducati onside, and Suzuki looking more and more likely to follow, the last holdouts against spec electronics will have to give up in 2017, or perhaps even earlier. At some point both Honda and Yamaha will have to make a decision on their participation.
Until then, the fans have another year or two of confusion and muddled rules to put up with. Commentators will fill gaps in on-track action with explanations of the three different categories. And writers like myself will spend more time than they would wish laying out the whys and wherefores of the three different sets of rules in the premier class. The only small mercy is that the extra bike in Parc Ferme for first CRT during qualifying and the race is gone. From 2014, there is only one championship again, though the teams may be competing under slightly different rules. It's a bit of a mess, but the mess cannot endure for long. The racing looks set to be good, and quite frankly, the different rules could turn out to be more of an irrelevance than everyone fears. Only a couple of weeks before we find out for sure.