The MotoGP World Championship celebrates the end of its first decade in the midst of profound change. The free-spending high tech days of the past are gone, replaced by more prudent use of limited resources and mandated technology. The evolution is pitting the factories against Dorna, the series organizers, who want to bring costs down while enhancing the championship’s entertainment value. Now, with the announcement that Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta will oversee both MotoGP and World Superbike, the line between the two series will be more sharply drawn and MotoGP will evolve in a way unheard of only a year ago.
To understand where MotoGP is now, it’s instructive to look at how it got here. The answer, inevitably, points to Honda. Unlike the other Japanese manufacturers, Honda never embraced two-stroke road bikes. Four-strokes have been in the company’s blood since Soichiro Honda was born. Certainly it won 500cc World Championships from 1983, with Freddie Spencer, though 2001, with Valentino Rossi. And in between came championships delivered by the great Mick Doohan, his countryman Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, and the quiet Spaniard Alex Criville.
Honda tried desperately to go head-on against the two-strokes with a four-stroke. The weapon was the oval-pistoned NR500, a magnificent failure and clear demonstration of proving a philosophy right and failing. As the NR500 was being raced, Honda was developing the NS500 two-stroke triple, a nimble, quick-turning motorcycle that Spencer rode to Honda’s first 500cc world championship. A number of machines followed, including the NSR500 that Doohan used to such ruthless effect. But as the ‘90s drew to a close, there was no benefit to continue racing two-strokes. Yes, it was fun watching the riders wrestle them around, but they had no relevance to the street product. And once it was decided in the Far East that two-strokes were finished — their emissions didn’t help — that sealed their demise.
Coincidentally, it became increasingly difficult for teams to find sponsorship. Since 2002, the MotoGP grid has seen the departure of teams owned by former world champions Kenny Roberts and Sito Pons (Pons continues in Moto2). WCM, Luis d’Antin, Erv Kanemoto and others could no longer afford to race. Suzuki withdrew. Kawasaki came and went. Nothing did more to decimate the grid than tobacco money going up in smoke. Gone were Fortuna, Gauloises, MS, and Camel. Only Philip Morris’ Marlboro brand remains, though it’s nowhere to be seen on the bike.
Herve Poncharal has been in Grand Prix racing for 30 years. Now he owns the most successful satellite team in the field, Monster Yamaha Tech 3. His riders have been on the podium far more than any other satellite team and their intra-mural battles are endlessly entertaining.
“As a private independent team in MotoGP you have three main expenses: you have the technical expense, which is the lease fee we are paying to the factory, then you have the rider salary and then you have all the rest, which is manpower, travel, assets like trucks, hospitality, etc.,” explained Poncharal. “So clearly the logistics including staff salary, traveling and everything, didn’t change too much, because the weight of the transport is the same, the transporters we have are the same. The way we set up the pit box and to work on the bike and the hospitality is the same, so that didn’t change.
“What changed was the lease fee we were paying to the factories. And that has been increasing; if I can remember, it was 2003, it went from…[the four-stroke cost] is not far from double [the two-stroke cost]. But when the four-strokes arrived, it was the start of the reduction of the tobacco involvement which led to the disappearance except Philip Morris is still here with the Marlboro brand, but the riders since then we’ve been reducing a lot. So clearly all of us like Fausto (Gresini), who now almost is not paying (Alvaro) Bautista, every independent team, the riders cost went down a lot.”
The dirty little secret of MotoGP is that series organizers Dorna subsidize many of the teams. As long as the tobacco companies were throwing money at the series, there wasn’t a need. But there isn’t another business sector with so much disposable cash and nowhere to use it.
Racing is entertainment, but MotoGP isn’t very entertaining. “At the moment we have very exciting racing in Moto2 and Moto3, but we have quite boring racing in MotoGP, so we need to do something,” Poncharal said. “And if we can reduce cost we will make the grid more even and if the grid is more even, the fight will be better and more exciting. Because at the end of the day technology is killing the battle and the show.
“And the manufacturers have got to understand that we have problems. I remember I talked to (HRC boss Shuhei) Nakamoto in Assen, he told me, ‘I don’t care about the show. We’re not here for this.’ Then it’s quite difficult to find a consensus.”
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it would take a few years before Dorna reacted and by then it was too late. The solution was the polarizing CRT class, a subset class that brought a decidedly mixed reaction. Dorna pushed it as a low-cost alternative to the ultra-expensive six prototypes on offer. It was done to fill the grid — the prototype field had shrunk to 12 — and it did. It was done to entice other manufacturers into the paddock in a roundabout way. It did. BMW powers the NGM Mobile Forward Racing Suter of Colin Edwards, and Aprilia made incremental changes to the RSV4 Factory, which fooled no one and brought derision from its competitors (more substantial changes were later made).
Despite the schism between prototype and CRT bikes, CRTs are here for the foreseeable future. With Dorna pushing for cost savings in things like electronics, the gap will continue to shrink. And at the same time, the CRTs are getting better. The first year has been a massive learning experience for them and they’ll just get better at it. Though it’s true that a factory bike will win every GP in the foreseeable future, the hope is that the chasing pack’s a bit closer and that convinces teams to justifiably say it’s worth running a private bike, which costs many multiples less than a prototype, and cost is the number one concern these days.