In the world of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), International Road Racing Teams Association (IRTA), Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers Association (MSMA) and Dorna are the controlling powers. “Dorna” is also often written in full capital letters under the mistaken belief the five letters that form its name are an acronym. In fact, a “dorna” is a small, sturdy Galician fishing vessel crafted from wood and with a reputation of being virtually unsinkable.
This single-mast variant of the original drakkars that carried Viking and Norman war parties on raids on the Galician coast in the Middle Ages was the name given to a Spanish sports-marketing company formed in 1988 by four aggressive entrepreneurs, three of whom were from Galicia. “Dorna promoción del deporte” quickly became a giant in Spain, managing many top soccer players and owning TV rights to the Spanish Soccer First Division.
Dorna soon went international, making risky leveraged purchases of prestigious properties. Between 1988 and 1993, it bought rights to the Women’s Davis Cup, Spanish Professional Basketball League, exclusive courtside signage to the NBA (the deal was cut in a single meeting between a Dorna representative and league commissioner David Stern) and, in 1992, in conjunction with Bernie Ecclestone’s company “Two Wheel Promotions,” the TV rights to the FIM Road Racing World Championship. At the end of that year, Dorna, financed by the Spanish bank Banesto, bought out Ecclestone and became the sole rights holder of GP racing.
But the company was starting to lose money. In a moment of what Alan Greenspan would have called “irrational exuberance,” Dorna, in addition to entering into talks to buy the rights of the South African Rugby league, also considered buying the South African Professional Basketball League—in spite of the fact that the league didn’t exist! I recall Dorna’s first CEO, Richard Golding, saying, “In case there ever is such a league, we will already have it!”
Dorna promoción del deporte was a huge financial bubble that burst in the fall of 1993. The Banco de España, basically Spain’s Federal Reserve, intervened, declaring Banesto a “black hole” and turning all of Banesto’s holdings over to the stable Banco de Santander, whose first decision was to sell all holdings that were not strictly banking business. Some of these holdings were nearly worthless, but one of them, the “Dorna Sports” division headed by Carmelo Ezpeleta following Golding’s departure, turned out to be a business so solid that an analysis of the books convinced Santander chairman Emilio Botín to keep Dorna to sell it later at a higher price.
Fast forward to 2011, and Dorna Sports, sold to CVC Funds in 1998 for $80 million (half of which went to pay off debt) is now owned by the venture-capital company Bridgepoint. CVC was forced to sell Dorna after the European Commission competition authority ruled that CVC, intending to buy Formula One, could not own the rights to both F1 and MotoGP, the two most popular motorsports championships in Europe. Bridgepoint reportedly paid $620 million for the 65 percent of the company held by CVC. The remaining shares are owned by a management group headed by Ezpeleta. Just as CVC stood back, confident in Ezpeleta’s ability to guide the company, Bridgepoint relies entirely on leadership from Ezpeleta and his staff.
Since Dorna obtained commercial rights in 1993, GP racing has undergone many changes. What began in 1949 as a series catering to five classes of racing motorcycle (125, 250, 350, 500 and 500cc sidecars) now caters to three categories. Two-strokes have been completely eliminated, the last bastion for strokers, the 125cc class, having morphed this season into Moto3—250cc Singles held to tight cost parameters, with their performance kept in check by a standard ECU that limits revs to 14,000 rpm.
The 250cc two-strokes were replaced in 2010 by Moto2, all powered by Honda CBR600RR engines maintained exclusively by Geo Technologies to identical specifications and a 16,000-rpm redline. Only the MotoGP class has been relatively unfettered by technical limitations other than engine displacement and bans on the use of certain exotic materials. Now, however, for the first time in the 62-year history of GP racing, engines in the premier class are limited to four cylinders and a maximum bore diameter of 81mm.
The change from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes in 2002 was done at the request of the Grand Prix Manufacturers Association (GPMA), which became the MSMA in late 2001. As of 2002, the MSMA wrote most of the technical rules for the championship and had the power to veto by unanimous agreement any technical rules that it disliked. All that went along well until, at the end of 2006, the MSMA chose to reduce the displacement of MotoGP bikes to 800cc, pledging at the same time that all five members (Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha; Aprilia dropped out after ’04) would run factory two-bike teams for the five-year period from 2007 through 2011. The intention was that each factory would also make available additional leased satellite bikes for private teams.
You may have heard what Ezpeleta has been saying recently, basically that he’s “madder than hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Ezpeleta had good reason to be angry. The MSMA “contract” to provide a grid consisting of factory teams from each of the five MSMA members at the start of the MotoGP 800 era (2007-2011) turned out to be empty promises by an association lacking in will and authority to back up its commitments. First Kawasaki pulled out, running a single black bike called a “Hayate” in 2010 and disappearing altogether in ’11. Then, Suzuki cut back to a single bike before pulling out at the end of 2011. (In fact, Suzuki wanted to carry on in 2012 running its 800cc bikes, but Ezpeleta rejected this idea.)
Although there have been heated meetings between Ezpeleta and the MSMA, both sides appear convivial when together in public. But last summer, Ezpeleta broke his silence and, in a series of magazine, radio and TV interviews in Spain, spoke out about his frustration with MSMA obstinacy.
The proposal to allow production-derived engines housed in prototype chassis in MotoGP as “Claiming Rule Team” (CRT) bikes was generally understood just to be a way of filling the grid from the back. But in a popular Spanish sports paper and later on Spain’s most-listened-to sports-radio program, Ezpeleta revealed plans to withdraw financial support from any teams attempting to lease factory satellite bikes and to offer assistance to all teams entering CRT bikes.
“I believe the CRT rules are the future of MotoGP,” he said, “and I’ll do whatever it takes to help the CRT bikes become competitive. If they need more than 24 liters of fuel, I’ll give them another 2 or 3 liters. We are in the entertainment business, not the technology business here.”
Ezpeleta’s CRT initiative has been met by a mixture of enthusiasm from fans tired of processional and predictable races produced by short, 16-17 rider grids and team owners and riders anxious to find a way into the “show” without crippling costs. This acceptance is offset by the outrage of “purists” who believe that MotoGP racing should continue to be a sky-is-the-limit technological war exclusively for “true” prototypes powered by high-revving factory prototype engines.
What will be the outcome? We shall soon see.