MotoGP Update: Grand Prix Of Qatar

The rules of the road explained.

Marc Marquez action shot from Qatar

Here’s most important thing to understand about the current MotoGP rules situation: When the decision was made at the end of the 2011 season to go from 800 to 1000cc, Dorna’s intention was to introduce cost-saving measures that would also reduce the gap between the factory and private teams.

The CRT sub-class accomplished the basic purpose of filling out the grid. In 2011, only 14 riders started the Australian Grand Prix. Such small numbers were not just disappointing for fans in the grandstands who spent quite a bit of time listening to distant engines and watching an empty track, Dorna was dangerously close to going beneath the 13-bike minimum that the series guarantees the race promoter.

“Ezpeleta talked of imposing a generic ECU complete with software and also a rev limit that could be as low as 15,000 rpm.

Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta and Honda Racing Corporation VP Shuhei Nakamoto engaged in some colorful exchanges in the press in 2012 and in '13. Ezpeleta talked of imposing a generic ECU complete with software and also a rev limit that could be as low as 15,000 rpm. Nakamoto responded by saying either of these measures would result in Honda withdrawing and going to World Superbike in order to continue to carry out the R&D that was the sole reason Big Red races—an option that was curtailed when Bridgepoint, owner of Dorna, acquired UpFront, the company that owns World Superbike.

Ezpeleta and Nakamoto both indulge in a war of words in the press, but they have a strong personal relationship and have, up until now, at least, always found common ground. To understand who has gotten the best of things between these two requires a much more lengthy text than this. It could be said that Nakamoto has won a few battles but he has been more in retreat than attack.

The succinct language of the recent FIM press release after last Tuesday’s meeting of the Grand Prix Commission in Qatar spoke of unanimous agreement by all parties: FIM, IRTA, MSMA, and Dorna. But if the last months have taught us anything, it is that these rules are not carved in stone and, much in the tradition of NASCAR’s “rolling rulebook,” could change at any time. (I was told in Qatar by an IRTA official that the ultimate authority is always the rulebook as it is posted online, not the printed “yellow book.”)

“But if the last months have taught us anything, it is that these rules are not carved in stone and, much in the tradition of NASCAR’s “rolling rulebook,” could change at any time.

At present, the final details, promised in the FIM press release, are not yet available even in Kindle version, but the relevant stuff is here:

1. The championship ECU and software will be mandatory for all entries with effect from 2016. All current and prospective participants in the MotoGP class will collaborate to assist with the design and development of the championship ECU software. During the development of the software, a closed user website will be set up to enable participants to monitor software development and input suggested modifications.

2. With immediate effect, a manufacturer with entries under the factory option who has not achieved a win in dry conditions in the previous year or new a manufacturer entering the championship is entitled to use 12 engines per rider per season (no design freezing), 24 liters of fuel, and the same tires allocation and testing opportunities as the Open category. This concession is valid until the start of the 2016 season.

3. The above concessions will be reduced under the following circumstances: Should any rider or combination of riders nominated by the same manufacturer participating under the conditions of described in clause 2 achieve a race win, two second places, or three podium places in dry conditions during the 2014 season, then for that manufacturer, the fuel-tank capacity will be reduced to 22 liters. Furthermore, should the same manufacturer achieve three race wins in the 2014 season, the manufacturer would also lose the right to use the soft tires available to Open category entries. In each case, the reduced concessions will apply to the remaining events of the 2014 season and the whole of the 2015 season.

Carmelo Ezpeleta greets MotoGP riders

The back story is relevant to the recent changes. As laid out last October, the rules stated there would be two general types of machines: One group would run as “Factory Option,” and the second would run as “Open.” The former would be limited to 20 liters of fuel per race, five engines for the season, and use the standard Bridgestone allocation of tires. These Factory Option bikes would use the obligatory Magneti Marelli ECU hardware but be free to write their own software. Teams adopting the Factory Option would have to seal all five of their engines at the start of the season, meaning that no further development would be allowed during the season.

The machines entered in the Open class would be allowed 24 liters of fuel and 12 engines, and would have available to their riders an additional allocation of Bridgestone “super-soft” tires. These bikes would run the same standard ECU but be limited to software provided by Magneti Marelli. Unlike the Factory Option class, the 12 Open-class engines did not have to be sealed until they were put into use, and development would be allowed.

It was understood, at least by Honda, that the Factory Option bikes would be the 12 factory-entered bikes, four from each of the three MSMA manufacturers. The Open-class bikes would be the remaining CRTs, plus the new Honda and Yamaha entries. This is where things began to get interesting.

Honda built a basic version of its factory RC213V. Its target was to build a machine, the RCV1000R, to race against the top CRT of 2013, the ART Aprilia with which Aléix Espargaró had taken the notional CRT title. This bike would be sold to teams, and Honda would include race support (minus crash damage) to the buyers. Three teams bought bikes: Drive 7 Aspar (Nicky Hayden and Hiroshi Aoyama), Go & Fun Gresini (Scott Redding), and Cardion AB Engineering (Karel Abraham).

Nicky Hayden action shot from Qatar

From the outset, Yamaha’s plan was a variant of what Honda (and most logical minds) assumed to be in the “spirit of the regulations.” Instead of selling a complete bike, Yamaha would lease engines to teams that would then build their own motorcycles. Given Honda’s understanding of what that would require, Nakamoto agreed this was kosher.

As a caveat, Yamaha would provide its client team (there would only be one, as it turned out) with one complete motorcycle with which to start the season and general dimensions for building frames and bodywork. British frame-builder FTR was selected by the NGM Forward team to do the work.

When this machine appeared at the first Sepang preseason test and Espargaró put in a very strong performance, it had a factory Yamaha frame, with no sign of any FTR bits on the bike.

Whatever actually happened between NGM and FTR is unclear, but by the second Sepang test, it was apparent Yamaha was now supplying complete bikes built to the spec that factory riders Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies raced at Motorland Aragon toward the end of the 2012 season.

When Honda finally realized it had been out-maneuvered (or duped) and that its production racer, running a metal-valve-spring head and conventional gearbox, was going to be blown off down the straights and out of corners by the old factory M1, Nakamoto cried foul.

But there was one more bad surprise coming. Andrea Dovizioso let the cat out of the bag that Ducati was considering running its factory bikes under Open regulations. Rumor has it the rider was fined and scolded for this untimely leak.

“When Ducati was telling the media it was still making up its mind, what it meant was it was making up its mind when to tell the world it had made up its mind.

I learned from a reliable source that Ducati had made its decision well before Christmas, perhaps as early as the final rounds of the 2013 season. When Ducati was telling the media it was still making up its mind, what it meant was it was making up its mind when to tell the world it had made up its mind.

Suddenly this Open class that most believed had been a new name for CRT was, in fact, really open, wide open, to any manufacturer or team that would accept the generic software package.

Honda should have seen this coming. Yamaha had already gotten Ezpeleta to reverse his stand on lease bikes, but there was no way Yamaha was going to sell state-of-their-art M1 MotoGP engines. Honda may have been confident that no non-factory frame designer could build a chassis for a full-factory 260-horsepower engine.

For whatever reason, the FTR/NGM deal collapsed noisily, and Yamaha stepped in offering exactly what Honda believed had been excluded in whatever passes for a gentleman’s agreement these days.

Cal Crutchlow action shot from Qatar

And while Honda was still sputtering outrage over Yamaha’s failure to adhere to the spirit of the law, Ducati announced what it had decided long ago: that its factory bikes, the two Marlboro-backed machines in the works team and the Pramac bike ridden by Andrea Iannone, would avail themselves of the extra fuel, another seven engines and, more importantly, the factory would be allowed to tinker and change engine internals and even insert a new engine if it saw fit.

When updates to the Magneti Marelli software package were delivered to Open teams, only Ducati was able to put them to immediate use. The other teams said they lacked the technicians to understand the complexities. The NGM team has kept quiet, but obviously, Yamaha, also experienced with Magneti Marelli, is getting good use from these upgrades that are based on Ducati input. (There were some Ducati “fingerprints” on the updated software.)

All this brought out Livio Suppo, former Ducati team boss, barking Honda indignation. Ducati, backed by Dorna, replied quietly that all manufactures had been invited to contribute data to the development of the generic software, but that Honda and Yamaha had chosen not to do so.

Whatever happened behind closed doors led to a compromise agreement that was, in its rough form, announced (leaked) by Ezpeleta to Spanish journalists. Whatever transpired in that meeting must have been previously agreed upon. The upshot of it all is that, in spite of losing a few battles, Ezpeleta seems to have won the war.

So how solid is the future of factory participation in MotoGP under the new rules?

“Perhaps Honda will move on to some new development that will drive everyone crazy and cause costs for competing teams to skyrocket—and advance some undeveloped area of interesting research.

Yamaha has signed a five-year agreement with Spanish telecommunications-giant Movistar that will keep the Japanese factory in the series through 2018. Ducati intends to continue, but it needs good results fast to keep Marlboro on board. And Honda? I imagine it will continue, too. Perhaps Honda will have enough time in 2014 and ’15 to complete its electronics work and move on to some new development that will drive everyone crazy and cause costs for competing teams to skyrocket—and advance some undeveloped area of interesting research.

Or maybe Honda will go away for a while like it did from 1968 to ’79, after which it came back with the extravagant and doomed NS500 before winning a first 500cc world title with the 500 triple. After sparring with Yamaha and Suzuki from 1982 until ’94, Honda then ran off a string of seven titles in eight years (its clean run from 1994 to 2001 was broken only by American Kenny Roberts Jr.’s victory in 2000 with Suzuki).

Then came the four-stroke era with electronic aids that five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan never dreamed of when he advised Ezpeleta in 1996 to “give us 1000cc four-strokes and we’ll all be sideways.” Then came the gearbox loophole when the FIM tried to control costs by forbidding the use of twin-clutch gearboxes, and Honda sprang the seamless gearbox on an unsuspecting paddock. (“It is expensive,” said Nakamoto. “It costs as much as my house.”)

Honda: You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.

Andrea Dovizioso

Cal Crutchlow

Carmelo Ezpeleta greets MotoGP riders.

Dani Pedrosa

Gigi Dall'Igna and Claudio Domenicali.

Jorge Lorenzo

Marc Marquez

Nicky Hayden

Stefan Bradl

Top qualifiers Alvaro Bautista, Marc Marquez, and Bradley Smith.

Valentino Rossi