Ten Years of MotoGP

A decade of four-stroke GP machines.

2002 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2002

MotoGP began with great fanfare and high expectations. Because of the magical words “four-stroke,” many believed a flood of Formula One-like money would pour into the series, big teams would materialize from thin air and all would be sweetness and light.

Fortunately, the rapid decrease in lap times distracted people from what would otherwise have been disillusion. Four-strokes, with their ability to deliver modulated power from first throttle movement, allowed riders to begin acceleration much sooner than they had been able with the more brutal two-stroke 500s. Lap records fell and have been falling ever since.

Honda, whose 2002 RC211V prototype had been nearly unrideable in early testing, fought back to dominate the field with smooth, controllable power. Yamaha and Suzuki battled self-imposed demons as they struggled with ambitious clutch/throttle/shift systems. Engine braking was a new problem, causing many crashes as dragging back wheels slid, lost direction and began to oscillate violently side-to-side.

2003 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2003

Ducati shocked the hierarchy by arriving in the series with high power and top speed in 2003, putting both of its bikes on the front row at Jerez, getting a second at Mugello and winning at the fourth event in Barcelona.

Valentino Rossi, feeling undervalued at hardware-centered Honda (our bikes win races, not our riders), went to Yamaha for 2004. Honda replied to Ducati’s power with more of its own, making the RC-Vs harder on tires and harder to ride, thereby helping Rossi to a third MotoGP title.

2004 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2004

Forks in the road are often unseen. Dorna, concerned over the cost of tires, sought to limit them to 18 fronts and 24 rears per rider, per event, but Michelin temporized. Dorna pushed, and the agreement became 14 fronts/17 rears to be chosen on the Thursdays before events.

To soften the new class’s rush to power, fuel allowance was cut from 24 liters to 22 for 2005. Ride-by-wire systems were coming in, and electronics were proliferating under the dual needs of 1) softening the natural harshness of the powered-up engines now necessary to be competitive; and 2) monitoring and controlling fuel use. By the fifth race, Mugello, it had been decided to cut engine displacement for 2007 to 800cc. As so often with so many past racing classes, the cry was “Too fast! Too Powerful!” How could we know that in just a few years, that pendulum would swing the other way, back to 1000cc.

2005 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2005

Another important development of 2005 was Ducati’s switch to Bridgestone tires. Bridgestone had previously funded a 500cc test team to prepare its entry to MotoGP, and Ducati made the commitment. Bridgestone, its factories far from Europe, had to aim its technology at developing tires with a wider performance range. Michelin went the other way, raising performance by narrowing operating range. This would be a crucial accident of history.

The following year brought more disturbances from tire development. At the end of 2005, Honda was out of traction—its bikes spun instead of going forward. Michelin replied with an even bigger, lower-pressure, softer-carcass rear that laid down an unprecedented footprint. Honda initially found chatter with this tire but overcame it. Yamaha’s early tests on the tire went well, but suddenly there was chatter that did not respond to its strongest countermeasures. At the first GP, Jerez, there were no Michelins on the front row. Bridgestone performance was not yet uniform; they performed best on high-grip tracks.

New riders were arriving: Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Chris Vermeulen. The smoothed power delivery of the latest engines was, it was believed, making it almost too easy for ex-250cc GP men to get up to speed on the 990s. No one really wanted to say it, but pundits were nostalgic for the 500s’ constant sliding, spinning and crashing. Electronics worked both ways: At the French round, Rossi’s electronics shut down his Yamaha’s engine.

2006 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2006

With Rossi’s early season slowed by chatter, and with fast Ducati men Loris Capirossi and Sete Gibernau injured in a collision, it was Nicky Hayden on a Honda who found himself able to lead the points and win the 2006 title.

That same season also revealed threats to the size of the MotoGP grid. Kenny Roberts’ V-Five refused to make the planned power, eventually sending the team to KTM and Honda for alternate engines. The underlying fact? MotoGP was just too rich for minor players. Aprilia had fielded the “Cube”—basically three cylinders of an F-1 engine. Though it was very fast, it could not get around the circuits. Again, the same story: Good ideas are plentiful. Not so plentiful are the heavy resources needed to make them work.

Another trend toward higher power dragged the no-exotic-technologies gentleman’s agreement into the mud of reality. Aprilia began with pneumatic valves, Suzuki adopted them, and clearly, anyone seeking competitive power would eventually have them. But that would not be easy for either Honda or Yamaha.

2007 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2007

In 2007, the new 800s had less power but the same weight. And with sharp recent increases in tire side-grip from both Michelin and Bridgestone, corner speeds were up. With the reduced displacement came a smaller, 21-liter fuel allowance. If you wanted to make a fast lap time, you had to ride for corner speed with highest accuracy. Wheelspin, beloved by spectators, had been eliminated by the 21-liter rule. This made passing much more difficult, as there was only one fast line and no possibility of making up for mistakes with handfuls of throttle. Was the 21-liter rule a misguided example of “green washing” from Dorna? No, it was proposed by the MSMA (Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers’ Association), which many people believe is mainly Honda.

Casey Stoner, who had spent 2006 losing the front end on a LCR Honda, found his new Ducati ride workable. Lots of things were said about him—mostly that Ducati’s new Ferrari-inspired electronics allowed him to “just snap open the grip and let the system handle it.” His Bridgestone tires had also matured, and Ducati’s engine-smoothing systems offered a new menu of controllability. Later, Stoner would say, “You have to ride each bike as it has to be ridden.” Partly, this was a dig at classical riders who worked over their bikes to suit their own styles. Partly, it was a bald statement of fact. If a bike pushes the front, you have to kick the back loose, Kenny Roberts-style, to make it steer. Stoner made this look easy and rode away from the opposition.

“Emergent properties” is a term used by evolutionists to describe novel results of an evolutionary line—results unpredictable from original conditions. Bridgestone’s concentration on wide range and Michelin’s upon narrow now essentially separated riders of each into distinct groups. When the Michelins worked, they performed incredibly well, leaving the Bridgestone riders behind. When Michelin missed the mark (resoundingly at Laguna Seca and Misano), they were useless. The result was no longer competition but rather taking turns.

Valentino Rossi now wanted/needed to be on Bridgestones, and Dorna, respecting his importance to ticket sales, told the tire maker, “Provide tires to Rossi or face the possibility that we will adopt Michelin as a spec tire in MotoGP.” Such wrangling is survival-related and has nothing to do with abstractions, such as fairness. Business is business.

By Assen, Rossi was noticing another tire development: Tires no longer “went off” after 15 laps of hard racing, making the last 10 laps a virtuoso’s contest of staying upright on greasy rubber. Riders could now race almost to the finish line.

By Brno, Yamaha’s pneumatic-valve engine was nearly ready to do something about its power deficit. With metal valve springs now being required to rev to 18,000, the 12mm valve lift desirable for best flow had to be reduced to 9mm, which slowed acceleration. At Misano, Yamaha’s pneumatic engine disappointed by failing. At Motegi, Dorna’s Carmelo Ezpeleta formally proposed a single-tire rule. Why? As things were, tires were interfering with competition, not improving it. Stoner was 2007 champion on a Ducati.

2008 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2008

In 2008, people expected Stoner to repeat, and at Qatar, he duly won by 5.5 seconds. Then, a new throttle system interfered at Jerez, and an on-board camera processor came loose and clattered about his dashboard at Estoril. With fixes, he then won at Donington, Assen and Sachnsenring but was dramatically defeated by Rossi at Laguna. Yamaha had fought back energetically in electronics, making its bike notably smooth and stable. Stoner fell while leading at Brno and Misano but came back to win two of the last three races. Honda seemed to be satisfied to alternate between having handling without power and power without handling, giving a feeling of corporate disorganization.

At Brno, Honda held three meetings to pressure Michelin for a schedule of remedies. When nothing definite emerged, Pedrosa was soon on Bridgestones. Honda did not take this action lightly, having been Michelin “partners” since 1982.

Another wild element entered the mix as Ducati engineer Filipo Preziosi revealed the carbon-fiber combined airbox/forward chassis that the company planned to run in 2009. Integrating functions and eliminating the former multi-tube steel “trellis” chassis tremendously increased stiffness and reduced weight.

Just before season’s end, Dorna made the single-tire rule law. Ezpeleta then demonstrated his famous conceptual flexibility. In 2003, he had stated that MotoGP must remain a series distinguished by factory prototypes. But now, in 2008, he announced that a spec-engine class could also be called “prototypes.” The future Moto2, the planned replacement of 250 GP, would consist of identical sealed production-based engines powering “prototype chassis.” All skilled politicians know the value of a snappy new name in selling the second-rate.

Hoped-for sponsors melted away in 2008’s world recession. BMW decided to enter World Superbike, as it was already getting adequate value from involvement of its cars in MotoGP. KTM decided to leave 250 GP. Kenny Roberts remained only as a “Cheshire cat grin” of a few expensive swingarms. All these developments weighed upon Ezpeleta, whose job was to “make the farm pay.” Serious business.

Rossi was champion again in 2008, Yamaha having given him much-improved tools.

2009 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2009

At the 2009 season opener in Qatar, the new spec-engined Moto2 class was announced. After some back-and-forth among Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha, and Honda emerged by the third race as the no-charge provider of 600cc-based engines making “at least 150 hp.” Power was backpedaled more than once, ending up at about 125 hp, considerably south of World Supersport (140 hp).

Some proposals went nowhere. Ezpeleta had the logically sensible but operationally clumsy idea that if riders were limited to one bike each, twice as many machines would exist by which to repopulate the grid. At the German GP, he floated the idea of “CRTs”—Moto2-like, second-level MotoGP bikes to be powered by production-based engines put into “prototype chassis.” He was persistently seeking ways to reverse grid shrinkage even if it might mean two races in one: a fast race of prototypes, followed by a slow race of CRTs.

Saving money might save teams, so the usual four one-hour practices were to be cut to three 45-minute sessions. As a means of working up to limited engine availability, MotoGP riders would get only five engines each from Brno onward. Testing was also cut. Various new technologies available in the showroom were made illegal, including electronic suspension units, dual-clutch transmissions and variable valve timing.

From the outside, this looked arbitrary. From the inside, each measure was seen as essential to team and series survival. At Laguna, there were only 12 finishers—not a reassuring message to sponsors.

Jorge Lorenzo’s remarkable successes angered Rossi, who felt he had developed the YZR-M1 for his own use, yet now, “I am doing it for my worst enemy.”

With tires as large as they had become, two new issues appeared. First, having so much surface area, the tires cooled rapidly if not pushed hard by the rider—perhaps enough to lose significant grip. Crashes were attributed to this. Second, the first laps were crucial: A rider like Stoner could push hard, not fall and gain a substantial advantage from getting his tires hot early. Others couldn’t get their tires hot no matter what they did (and some of these riders left MotoGP for World Superbike because of it).

In 2009, Rossi won six races and the title, Lorenzo and Stoner four each and Pedrosa two. At Valencia, the season’s end, Ducati team manager Livio Suppo announced his move to Honda. Speculation was that his “fund-raising” skills were Honda’s motivation, but later chat suggested his move was preparation for bringing over Stoner.

2010 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2010

More frights: In 2010, three races had only 15 starters. Dorna pressured manufacturers to lease more bikes and at lower prices. This failed when teams couldn’t afford what manufacturers said they had to charge.

At Mugello, Rossi broke his leg, giving the series a taste of what a future without him might be like. The crash was attributed to the left side of his tire having cooled. At Laguna, it was said that 20,000 extra spectators bought tickets only when they learned that Rossi would after all be present. This is the business of racing.

Stoner crashed several times because of lack of front-end feel in his carbon-chassis Ducati. Carbon had been a logical step, as Stoner had commented that “You can’t hit the same place on the track two laps running” with the old steel trellis chassis. This was despite its desirable lateral flexibility, leading to “Ducati wallow,” a kind of slow in-corner oscillation. Of it, Colin Edwards said in 2002, “Yeah, they wallow. But they dig in and turn.” The precision required by the new tires and the tremendous forces they generated required greater stiffness. Yet that very stiffness robbed the rider of essential feel, the warning that the grip limit is near.

Lorenzo made hay, meanwhile, winning nine races and the title. Pedrosa’s Honda looked almost graceful by the Indianapolis round, a new development team under Shuhei Nakamoto finally getting increased engine power under real control. Honda had emerged from disorganization.

2011 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2011

Stoner’s move to Honda made 2011 just as impressive as his ’07 season had been. Here was a consistent tool he could rely on as he applied his skilled improvisational riding. No one could equal him.

Rossi, now on Ducati, went nowhere, as neither he nor teammate Hayden could find a way to overcome understeer and lack of front-end feel. Ducati dithered, unwilling to test the possible negative sales effect of racing a bike that did not have its traditional 90-degree cylinder angle. Yet a more compact engine seemed part of what was needed.

At Valencia, Ezpeleta revealed in an interview on Spanish TV that there will be a control ECU in 2012, a rev limit in 2013 and that, if necessary, he will give the CRT teams three extra liters of fuel beyond the 24 they now have. In addition, Dorna will cease the practice of subsidizing the bike lease payments of satellite teams.

Because the management contract between Dorna and the MSMA has come to an end (largely because of Dorna’s disgust at MSMA’s unwillingness to come up with means of keeping existing teams in MotoGP or of attracting new ones), Ezpeleta now intends to manage racing on his own. He says he plans in two years that grids will be 100 percent CRT bikes—no more super-expensive prototypes.

Japanese racing managers learned of these new developments at Valencia only through Spanish journalists who had heard the TV interview. The result was polite dismay (“We hope this is not so…”).

The problem for Dorna now will be to somehow avoid giving the impression that its planned CRT future for MotoGP will be “old clunker Superbike engines stuck into Moto2 frames.” If Grand Prix racing is to continue to attract top sponsors and major spectator interest, it must somehow preserve its former cachet of exclusivity. Otherwise, it will decline into being just another production-based series.

Shall we call it Petit Prix?

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2002

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2003

2004 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2004

2005 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2005

2006 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2006

2007 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2007

2008 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2008

2009 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2009

2010 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2010

2011 MotoGP History

Ten Years of MotoGP - 2011