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.
Much of what Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta is trying to do is focused on cost-cutting. The introduction of a control ECU in 2014 hasn’t been well received by the factories. HRC boss Nakamoto had threatened to take his electronics to World Superbike. But that avenue was shut by Dorna’s new power over the future of World Superbike, which will surely become more production-based. MotoGP can then dumb down its machinery and not worry about being slower than World Superbike.
It isn’t just electronics where too much money is being spent. Honda’s “seamless shift” transmission is a very expensive option for the teams that lease RC213Vs. The gearboxes have their own HRC technician and are removed at the end of the race weekend. The transmission was developed under Ross Brawn when he ran Honda’s Formula 1 project, which is why some refer to it as the “$10 million gearbox.” The Honda RC213V advantage isn’t as much in horsepower, as many riders chasing Hondas think, but the gearbox and electronics, and Honda’s are proprietary.
Valentino Rossi won the last...
Valentino Rossi won the last championship for the 500cc two-strokes before the premier class was converted to the current four-stroke MotoGP format.
It is difficult to overestimate...
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Valentino Rossi’s contribution to MotoGP’s success. His popularity has transcended normal boundaries and obstacles for racing, giving him — and MotoGP — a huge worldwide audience.
The huge amounts of money...
The huge amounts of money necessary to field a competitive entry plus all the other attendant costs in MotoGP has become a major issue with the still-struggling economy, and has forced a few manufacturers to back out.
It was supposedly safety that brought the 800cc era in 2007. The idea was that the 800s would be slower and less lethal than the 990s that ran from 2002 through 2006. From the start it was a flawed argument — the 800s were faster in the corners, where most crashes occurred. Electronics became more intrusive and passing was passé. The era began and ended with Casey Stoner as world champion, first on a Ducati in 2007 and in 2011 on a Honda. There was great hope that the move to 1000s for 2012 and the next four years would bring back some of the gallantry of the 990 era, and it has, to a degree.
“I think the racing has been better this year, other than a few of them,” Ducati Marlboro’s Nicky Hayden said, though it hasn’t produced the blazing lap times or top speeds some had hoped for. “It’s not the big difference like people expected.” Part of that is down to weather. Much of the MotoGP season has been plagued by foul weather. The result is that the riders have been denied critical dry track time to set their machines up, and especially the highly sophisticated electronics, favoring the established teams over the start-ups, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.
The 1000s do weigh three kilograms (6.6 pounds) more, but Hayden said that chassis-wise you could take the 800cc engine out, install the 1000cc motor and not see a big difference. The difference comes in riding styles. The engines now make in excess of 280 horsepower, which forces the riders to attack the track differently; the somewhat higher top speeds mean longer braking distances, mid-corner speed is slower, and more acceleration is done on the fat center part of the tire.
One of the crucial moments in MotoGP history came in 2009, with the advent of control tires. Now the manufacturers had to build bikes around a tire, rather than the other way around. The riders naively thought they were getting the same tires Bridgestone had built during the open competition era. One of the senior managers of a rival tire company claims the cost of the polymer Bridgestone used in its pre-control tires — which is made in the U.S. and put through a process in Japan — was about $1500 per rear tire. There was no way the company was going to spend that much on free tires. Suddenly there was less choice and less development.
Overnight Yamaha’s YZR-M1 inline four had to use the same tire as the V-4s of Honda and Ducati. At the start of every year, at least one factory blames Bridgestone for its woes. This year it’s Honda, which claims the Bridgestone front causes chatter. The most vocal Bridgestone critic is Stoner. Yet it’s rarely kept him from continuing to be one of the three fastest riders, along with Lorenzo and Pedrosa. That trio filled the podium at the first three races and two more. At least two of them have been on the podium of every race but one.
Yamaha touts Lorenzo’s successes in its advertising, pointing out the relationship of the company’s race and street bikes. No other marque can claim as close a connection. The crossplane crankshaft that began life in the YZR-M1 made its way into the YZF-R1 in 2009. The R1 has a seven-level traction control system derived from MotoGP. It also has ride-by-wire throttle control, which began life in MotoGP. The system has a variable intake system that spreads the power. The forks on the R1 use a MotoGP trick: The right fork handles rebound damping, the left fork compression damping.
More relevant to production motorcycles than MotoGP technology is World Superbike. World Superbike starts with a set of production crankcases, crankshafts and pistons. Yes, they have great leeway to make changes, but because of their starting point World Superbike is far more relevant.
The switch to a spec tire...
The switch to a spec tire in 2009 was one of the biggest changes to MotoGP in the past ten years. Some riders have found that the rule isn’t exactly what they’d hoped for.
What FIM boss Vito Ippolito would like to see is one set of Superbike technical regulations for everybody, World Superbike and all the major domestic championships: British Superbike, AMA Pro, Australian Superbike, German Superbike. That will be impossible in the near term — not surprisingly, there is a great disparity in the current regs, especially in electronics and tires — but an effort will be made to make their technical rules similar in time. That will further delineate the difference between the two championships, positioning MotoGP for a stronger leadership position.
The last word goes to Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team owner Herve Poncharal. “Not a lot of people realize how important for the future of both Superbike and MotoGP the fact is that now we have one owner” Bridgepoint, he said. “This is not only politics and business, this is very important for the future of two championships, because clearly we have to reposition them and make more complementary to each other. The two championships need to go down on costs, like we’ve done for 250/Moto2, and 125/Moto3. We need to do the same.”
The 10 Best and Worst Things to Happen to MotoGP the Last 10 Years
The Five Best
1 MotoGP and Valentino Rossi grew up together. Their success was a result of a symbiosis never before seen in racing. Without Rossi there wouldn’t be the crowds, the TV money, the sponsorship dollars.
2 One of the best things came out of one of the worst. After Daijiro Kato succumbed to injuries suffered in the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi, the first death in MotoGP, Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta created the rider safety commission, in which the whole paddock had a say. It’s led to much safer race tracks. Sadly, it can’t stop fatalities.
3 The sophistication of the television production gets little praise, though it should. The investment Dorna has made in television, in technology, cameras, and on-board cameras is unmatched in motorsports. That you can stream it from any connected device anywhere in the world gives them the greatest reach of all.
4 Energy drinks are a healthy alternative to the tobacco sponsorship which once ruled the paddock. Though not as deeply invested, Monster, Red Bull, Rockstar and others have not only backed teams and championships-the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup-but promoted the sport to an entirely new demographic.
5 Both Alpinestars and Dainese have made huge strides in rider safety equipment. Both outfit their top riders with air bag-equipped leathers which have saved any number of riders from broken collarbones, or worse. Composites are being used in boot lines, gloves, elbow and knee protection. The riders benefit; the real winners are the fans who aren’t denied their stars.
The Claiming Rule Team bikes — using...
The Claiming Rule Team bikes — using a production-based engine in a prototype chassis — have helped fill the grid, but most of the factory riders are dismissive of the new class, calling it a subset that dilutes the spirit of MotoGP.
When a front tire spec from...
When a front tire spec from Bridgestone was suddenly changed just prior to the season start, Honda and its riders found that the RC213V didn’t like the new tire that caused midcorner chatter which required a new chassis.
Suzuki fielded a MotoGP entry...
Suzuki fielded a MotoGP entry until the end of the 2011 season, when it finally pulled the plug when financial concerns became too much to bear, even with just one rider
Kawasaki was another manufacturer that eventually pulled out of MotoGP due to cost concerns. When the team officially pulled out in 2009, it left rider John Hopkins without a bike or team, although his erstwhile teammate Marco Melandri was allowed to run for the rest of the year with a skeleton team.
1 The move to 800cc engines ruined racing. The less powerful machines relied more heavily on increasingly sophisticated electronics. The races were won by the boffins. And there was no passing.
2 Marco Simoncelli wasn’t the first rider to die in a MotoGP race, but his death hit hardest. Simoncelli was a charismatic speed demon in a paddock increasingly dominated by the faceless. His was the brightest future in racing. He won’t be forgotten.
3 The global financial crisis crippled motorcycling and racing in ways that will take a decade to overcome, not only in terms of sales but also sponsorship. The fringe players in MotoGP — Suzuki and Kawasaki — withdrew and no one took their places.
4 Be careful what you wish for. That was what the riders, led by Rossi, were told when making the push for control tires. They got their wish, but they didn’t get the tires they’d been racing on before the one-brand rule, not the quality, not the quantity. The bitching continues.
5 The loss of diversity and the move to southern Europe. In 2002, there were three Italians, three Spaniards, and four Japanese in MotoGP. The Japanese are gone and there are six Spaniards and five Italians. This year there were five races on the Iberian Peninsula and two in Italy, both of which are struggling under crushing debt.