The Ever-Changing Face of MotoGP Racing

Can Dorna and Honda be partners? Stay tuned.

Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa

MotoGP rivals Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa

Will MotoGP survive? Insiders say only radical cost-cutting and production-based Claiming Rules Teams (CRT) bikes can restore full grids and save teams from a shoestring existence in which lesser riders may be shaken down to cover parts costs. Sounds desperate.

I’m confused. Recently, I was told that World Superbike “has 15 teams, and they are all making money.” Quite a different reality.

The future calls for CRTs to begin using a spec ECU (made by Magneti Marelli and provided to teams free of charge) in 2013, extending to factory prototypes a year later. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta wants spec software, as well, but the manufacturers have not agreed. Ezpeleta called for an eventual 14,500-rpm redline (as with spec ECU, to be imposed on CRTs first, then prototypes a year later). No one accepted this, but that was easily explained away by the arm-waving assertion that Ezpeleta asked for more than he wanted to "compromise" at the number he actually desired: 15,500.

Honda engines have been revving to 16,500 and Yamaha to high 15K, low 16K. The TV feed from Ducati no longer includes revs, which formerly went to 17,000.

The question any factory will ask is, “Is this the end of it? Or will Ezpeleta be back next year, saying that another 500-rpm reduction will further cut costs, assure full grids and save teams money?”

Turn your head and see a new reflection. Honda announced 2014 supply of a MotoGP “production racer”—a simplified RC213V to sell rather than lease and at lesser cost. Could the 2014 Suzuki MotoGP prototype recently seen also be such a “production racer”? Isn’t the Aprilia “ART” in fact just a production racer?

Now, the question: Could the whole CRT concept have been just a feint intended to force production racers into being?

Just this past summer, production racers were dismissed as too expensive—1.3 million euro per bike, with engine service extra. But now it is said the 1.3 million includes two bikes, plus engine service. Which is true? Which will be true next month?

Would this mean the whole CRT establishment, now responsible for more than half the MotoGP grid, would be for nothing? Not quite.

Every team, factories included, receives subsidy from TV through Ezpeleta. This is no different from American baseball or football, in which the teams naturally share in TV revenue. So, what is to prevent a struggling Moto2 team from making a little on the side by fielding a CRT or two? Ezpeleta gives them some money, and they throw something together out of wheels, suspension, brakes and chassis lying around the shop, plus a war-surplus World Superbike-spec clunker engine or two. Building such a “junkyard dog” might earn useful money. In this view, if CRTs “go away,” their parts just go back in the pile.

If the gossip is to be believed, much of the paddock lives below the “poverty line”: five to a rental car, staying in two-star hotels 25 miles from the track and having to resort to ploys like shaking down pay-as-you-go riders for 24,000 euro to keep the bikes in carbon brakes. Times are hard.

Or are they? SBK says all of its teams make money and are happy with stable rules.

We hear that Moto3 was a collaborative effort between Ezpeleta and Honda race boss Shuhei Nakamoto. The idea is to power prototype chassis with single-cylinder 250cc four-stroke engines that cost no more than 12,000 euro and are rev-limited. At present, Honda and KTM engines are dominant.

Think Honda has big influence in MotoGP? It supplies Moto2’s spec 600cc engines, as well. The chat is that Ezpeleta has told Nakamoto that “MotoGP will go either the Moto2 or Moto3 way.” Which will it be?

Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

If MotoGP becomes “Moto1,” Ezpeleta could phone Ducati and say, “Run us up a batch of 200 1000cc engines and send us a bill.” Each team will pick a chassis, bolt in its spec engine and go racing. Is this Moto1? Or is it “Ducati Cup”?

If the Moto3 model is chosen, any maker deciding to build engines must produce some for sale to others at a fixed price. Then, non-factory teams buy what they need, stuff it in a chassis of choice and go racing.

Now, this bombshell: In a recent interview given to Mat Oxley at Brno in the Czech Republic, Nakamoto said, "At the moment, Honda only has a factory team in MotoGP, while we have a 'dealer team' in World Superbike. But if we have a single ECU here in MotoGP, then Honda's interest will change to World Superbike. Ciao, Carmelo! Dorna can make the decision, but we must continue spending on development. This is very important to Honda."

Two months earlier, Nakamoto had told me the same thing, that if a spec ECU was required in MotoGP’s future, Honda would be out.

Is this a bluff? Or has Nakamoto, understanding Ezpeleta’s hall-of-mirrors methods, decided to do a little reflecting of his own? He knows that Dorna’s show depends on Honda’s financial ability to simultaneously compete in MotoGP, supply all the engines in Moto2 and 40 percent of the engines in Moto3. If Nakamoto and Ezpeleta are partners, Ezpeleta cannot get his way 100 percent of the time with Honda meekly following like a little pig with a ring in its nose.

This reminds me of AMA Pro Racing here in the U.S. The power struggle between Yamaha, which has allegedly said it will leave the series if there is an electronics ban, versus the noisy no-electronics group, has just been resolved in favor of electronics, but with an $18K cap. Yamaha stood by AMA Pro Racing when others left over differences with Daytona Motorsports Group leaders. Now, in turn, AMA Pro Racing has stood by Yamaha. Is this compromise a model for MotoGP? Patience!

At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it became clearer to me that with engine delivery now smoothed by the “virtual powerband” technique, riders are using less anti-wheelie and traction control. Electronics remain central to the problem of making 1000cc engines finish races on the skimpy 21-liter fuel allowance. Why keep the 21-liter rule? Ezpeleta points out that Honda originally proposed it, and he retains it because it gives him “leverage.”

In his hall of mirrors, Ezpeleta says many conflicting things, such as his original response to World Superbike’s decision to adopt a spec tire: “Any championship with a single tire rule is not a World Championship but just a cup.”

Let’s talk Moto2, which replaced 250 GP two years ago with a class powered by mildly tuned production Honda CBR600RR engines built to a zero-modifications standard by Swiss contractor Geo Technology. Chassis design is free, meaning in practice that the teams buy them from Suter, Kalex or FTR. Spec Dunlop tires are used.

When the class began, it was a crashfest as 40 starters funneled into Turn 1. Looking at the streaming bikes, you’d see “turbulence” develop and, soon, bikes would be crashing while following riders swerved to avoid them. Spectators raved about this “action,” but when I asked them the names of their favorite riders, teams or machines, they had no idea.

Participants became acclimated and starting fields were reduced. It became essential to have a crew chief with MotoGP or World Superbike experience who could find a raceable setup from a bunch of unrelated parts bought from suppliers. Moto2 has become an intensive school of tire conservation. When the flag falls, the riders arrange themselves in a long stream in order of their immediate lap time. At Indianapolis, Dominique Aegerter stayed near the front for several laps, but I soon saw he was on a five-lap bike. That means a bike like last year's SBK BMWs, which ate their tires in five laps and went backward to downfield finishes.

Marc Marquez

Moto2

Now, the usual leaders—Marc Marquez, Thomas Luthi and Andrea Iannone—were at the front, and as the laps unwound, it became clear that A) they are the class of the riders; and B) their bikes are set up for Lap 20. As everyone else’s tires went off, the leaders’ tires came good. Marquez slashed through backmen like they were slalom poles. Bear in mind that some fast riders are fast only so long as they follow someone faster. If they pass or the leader drops out, they leave the only situation in which they are comfortable and either slow down or pile up.

Moto2 is a soup from which the occasional bit of meat rises to the surface. It has not become the fabled “close racin’” of the Daytona SportBike type—knots of 6-10 riders kept together by drafting. The many turns on GP circuits quickly shake out the riders in order of lap time.

Just as Stefan Bradl was Moto2 world champion last year and is now prospering on a satellite LCR Honda in MotoGP, so current class points-leader Marquez has been chosen by Honda for similar elevation. When he recently went to Portugal for testing, big Honda trucks went with him.

Moto3 replaced 125 GP, which had run from 1949-2011. Chassis are free (build your own, adapt old 125 GP stuff or buy from Kalex, FTR, etc.) and, at present, power comes from one of three available single-cylinder four-stroke engines with maximum bore of 81mm (as in MotoGP) and limited to 14,000 revs.

At Indianapolis, I spoke with Honda engineer Hideki Iwano, previously an assistant to Nakamoto. He said, “Moto3 is entry-level racing, so most important thing is not technology but easy feeling, more cheap. We must make more cheap machine. If not, nobody can race. But if start racing, especially Honda, we must win. But regulation say, if we do something, make a good change, we must give to everybody.” “Give” in this case means make available for sale.

If you Google “Moto3 approved engine and parts,” you will see a list of 13 companies. A few of them—KTM, Honda and ORAL—make engines, but the others offer approved aftermarket parts, such as an exhaust cam, a back-torque-limiting clutch or a cylinder head with improved performance.

Iwano continued, "Now, we must change thinking. For the future, technology must be good and cheap."

When asked about Honda’s role as Moto2 spec-engine supplier, he said, “We give engine parts, not make complete engines. then send to Geo Tech, who builds engines in Europe. Next year, proposal is to change to a Spanish builder. In Spain, many people lose jobs, especially young guy, so Dorna want a Spanish builder.”

When would this happen? “Very difficult .”

Might another OEM take over the task of supplying Moto2 engines? “We ask Yamaha, but the answer is ‘not possible.’”

This puts Honda in the position of being the only company with the money for this. So, Honda is essential to Dorna for more than one reason. Yet we hear that Ezpeleta was recently told by legendary Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, “You will never have a successful championship until you have either run Honda out of it or taught them who’s boss.”

That was supposed to be NASCAR’s automatic success formula: boot the manufacturers. In 2009, DMG, the new managers of AMA Pro Racing, made a good start on that program. With only Suzuki and Yamaha left, and few remaining spectators, Roger Edmondson of DMG admitted, “I underestimated the importance of the manufacturers to the series.”

As Ezpeleta changes his mind, feints in one direction then moves in another, the steady effect is to make MotoGP appear unstable and directionless. Each proposed change works to take yet more of the “Grand” out of Grand Prix in the name of cutting costs. Does “grand” no longer matter to spectators? Maybe all that’s needed are men, motion, noise and color. Maybe Ezpeleta sees a change the rest of us have missed, that trackside spectators and television viewers will be just as happy with two-wheeled bumper cars.

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