Inside the Moto2 Class - Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Former MotoGP rider and current Moto2 front-runner Toni Elias sheds some light on the new World Championship class

Who are these people?
The thought was going through the head of MotoGP veteran Toni Elias early in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez. For the past five years he'd been racing with Rossi and later Pedrosa and Stoner and Lorenzo. Now he was racing with a group of riders who didn't have his level of experience. Didn't understand racecraft. Didn't think of the consequences of their mid-race pace on their end results.

Most of the riders Elias had to race with in MotoGP were former world champions, whether in MotoGP, World Superbike, or World Supersport. Now he was in with over 40 riders of wildly varying talents. They were racing on prototype chassis with nearly identical Honda CBR600RR engines, the same ECUs, and control Dunlop tires. The chassis were different - there were 13 different makers - and there was a discrepancy in weight. This was essentially the first world championship class with kit bikes...and everybody wanted in to the new Moto2 class. As soon as he signed on with the Gresini Racing Moto2 team, Elias became the favorite. That would soon change.

His season would be derailed just weeks before it started under the floodlights in Qatar. As a concession to costs, the 125cc and Moto2 fields were combined for the final pre-season test of the year in Jerez. The speed disparity was cruelly brought home when the Spaniard found a much slower 125cc rider in his path.

"Yeah, it's crazy because 125s are three seconds slower," he would later say. "But the problem...some areas in the track they are fast, but some more areas they are much slower and this is the problem. I found one very slow rider; to not hit him, I change direction quickly and I had the highside." Elias fractured bones in his right foot and left hand. Of the two, the hand injury - which was plated and screwed - was worse. "The big problem is the left hand because Moto2 is necessary work a lot with the clutch. Try to stand up with my arms. Also with the pain, for sure it's not easy." He survived to finish fourth in Qatar, and the volcanic postponement of the Japanese GP meant he had three full weeks of rest before the first of his three home races.

In Jerez, Elias found himself in a scrap with riders he'd never raced against. Swiss rider Thomas Luthi won the 125cc World Championship in '05, but hasn't done much since. Shoya Tomizawa was a 250cc rookie in '09, finishing a season-best tenth in his home race in Motegi and again at Valencia. There was nothing in his resume to suggest he could win, but he did win the inaugural Moto2 race in Qatar...by 4.656 seconds. Kenny Noyes was racing in his second-ever grand prix. A 31-year-old American ex-pat who lives in Barcelona, Noyes didn't take up roadracing full time until after he won the Formula USA dirt-track title in 2000. For the past few years he'd been racing in the Spanish Championship, with occasional success: he finished fourth in the Spanish Formula Xtreme Championship in '08 and '09. Tabbed as one of two riders on the Jack & Jones by Antonio Banderas team, Noyes made good use of his track knowledge to keep his name among the leaders during the pre-season tests in Spain.

Testing is one thing - racing quite another. Yet here was Kenny Noyes leading the Moto2 race in Jerez, his second-ever world championship race. And not only leading, but riding aggressively, sticking a wheel in on the more experienced riders. Elias and Noyes swapped the lead back and forth with eight laps to go. Noyes would lead across the stripe with seven to go, a GP rookie leading the field in only his second race. Elias went up the inside to take the lead and then tapped his tail section with his left hand. The readout on his lap timer told Elias the pace was too slow. He wanted to clear out. His message was clear.

"Hey, please stay behind because I think we can be seven-tenths faster every lap," was what Elias was thinking when he made the gesture. "Just concentrate and...maybe last laps, [instead of] ten riders we can be only five. It's better for you, better for me." Then, Elias lamented that Noyes was "not thinking the same way. No, next corner, boom, again passed me." That was in turn two and Luthi also came through.

Luthi led with six laps to go, with Noyes getting him in turn one. Elias made his move on the back straight half a lap later. This time he looked at Noyes and pointed to his tail section again. "He has his way to think. I have mine," lamented Elias. "It's not the same way. And then, OK, next time better my setup and me to starting in the front and have less problems with these people." On the final lap Elias took the lead in turn two from Luthi, and would hang on for victory in the first Moto2 race in Europe. And as happy as he was at winning for the Gresini Honda team, Elias wished he was somewhere else. Toni Elias wants to be a MotoGP rider.

The 27-year-old from Manresa, north of Barcelona, made the same progression as many current MotoGP riders. He spent his first two full years racing in the 125cc class, winning once. Next he spent three years on 250s, winning seven races, including five in '03 when he finished third in the championship. The move to MotoGP came in '05 on a satellite Yamaha before moving to the Gresini Fortuna Honda squad in '06.

The race that defines his career came in the penultimate round of the '06 season. Elias got locked in a thrilling three-way battle with Valentino Rossi and Kenny Roberts Jr. The race could have gone to any of the three, but Elias wanted it the most. On the final lap, Elias followed Rossi out of the final corner and won the race by .002 seconds in what is considered one of the classic races of the 990cc MotoGP era. More importantly, by finishing in front of Rossi, he denied the Italian five championship points, the same amount he'd finish behind Nicky Hayden to lose the '06 world title.

Elias moved to Pramac Ducati in '07 and became yet further proof that no one could ride the Desmosedici GP07 except Casey Stoner. In '09 he went back to Gresini, but had an unsatisfying season; he and Alex de Angelis were replaced by Marco Melandri and Marco Simoncelli.

Of the MotoGP riders available for Moto2, Elias was top of the list. He was heavily recruited. He was offered two or three times the money to race elsewhere, but, showing that neither side held a grudge and knowing how professional the team is, he stayed with Gresini. "With my technician, with this team, I take much less, but like investing. OK, difficult, but I must do this with this team. Invest for the future. Then we will see if the future give me back the situation to be again in MotoGP because my thinking is if I win in Moto2, move to MotoGP again."

Elias, like many Moto2 riders, feels that the bikes are underpowered for their weight. The Honda CBR600RR engines are built to make 140 horsepower at the crankshaft - less than a World Supersport 600 - in order to maintain reliability. And they weigh 145kg (320 pounds). "Necessary less kilos or more power, then I think difference to some good riders or some MotoGP riders, he can make more difference, more control, different lines.

"The engine is very, very slow, much more than I thought. When the engine is like this, everybody can be fast. I think difference between good rider and slow riders, it's not a big difference, because everybody can ride this engine fast. Many corners like 125. I think is not good way. Necessary more power to see good riders, normal riders, slow riders. Now we cannot see this difference. Everybody is fast." The situation "puts you on the limit always. Many riders touch you, disturb your pace in race and you cannot do what you want and what you think you can. Difficult.

"Is the most dangerous class at this moment," he said of Moto2, before clarifying his remark. "But not for the bike. Maybe sometimes electronics, no traction control is critical when you make a mistake, but that's not a problem. You must try to control. But it's very dangerous for riders. Some groups experienced, some others less, some others no experience. Everybody wants to be fast, everybody wants to show he can. And maybe sometimes no thinking. No brain. Big crash. Every race is like this." He'd like to see the MotoGP system of three riders per row, rather than the current four, which would alleviate first-turn mayhem. In Barcelona, nine riders were taken down by Alex Debon's mistake, and several others ran off the track to avoid the wreckage.

Elias and many of the others had a hard time adapting to the spec Suter slipper clutch. "You must always control, because normally in MotoGP you can shift down, boom, boom, and then release the clutch and bike doing everything," he said. "Moto2 this is impossible. You must work all the time, because if you don't do this you'll see the big chattering."

There is no answer for gearing issues. You can change sprockets, but nothing internally, which makes everything more of a compromise. And when you exceed the suggested rpm limit trying to stretch a gear, it shows up on the data readout. Elias said that he'd been notified by engine supplier Geo Technology of his occasional forays into the no-go zone. "Yeah, they are watching," Elias admitted.

Elias is now more popular than ever in the Spanish media, which he finds amusing, because he isn't riding any differently. "For me I'm the same rider as last year in MotoGP. But people and sponsors and TV, prefer this than be eighth, sixth in MotoGP; have less value. OK, but next year I want to move," he said. "I think there are some good private teams, Tech 3, Gresini, very good. LCR, for example. To be in one of these places it's good." Would he even go to a team like Suzuki, which has been an embarrassment most of the 2010 season? "If I have the opportunity to be in Suzuki, sure, go," he said without hesitating. "Yes, because you see Suzuki now not OK, but some races are good. I think something is good, just I need the opportunity to be in one place. If I have the opportunity to be in private team and work and get good results, perfect. If is possible official team, much better. Receive materials. Good or not good, but please help me.

"Last year I talk with (Suzuki team manager) Paul Denning and I was very open," Elias said. He told Denning he would ride for little and that he was open-minded. He thought he had an opening, then they decided to keep class graybeard Loris Capirossi and bring in Spanish rookie Alvaro Bautista. Elias thought he could have helped develop the bike and Bautista. "Maybe Bautista don't have experience about this way, but me, five years in MotoGP, I don't say I know everything, but some things. And some new ideas. Very important."

Is he jealous that fellow Spaniard Alvaro Bautista is on a factory Suzuki or that Hector Barbera is on an Aspar Ducati? "No, because I think also for them is difficult. Sure I think I'm in a good situation, but for the future I can now in this moment say or show my intentions for the future. Yes, Suzuki could be a good option for me. I hope they think again."

What Elias hopes is that the rule change for 2012 - both prototype and production 1000cc engines, though with different restrictions - will attract the factories that aren't in MotoGP, such as Kawasaki and Aprilia. "More options, more official teams, more bikes. Better for everybody, no? I think with these rules can be many surprises. It will be good I think." And maybe his path back to MotoGP.

**The open rules regarding chassis in Moto2 has spawned a large variety of entries, including aluminum chassis from (clockwise from top left) Kalex (Germany), FTR (Great Britain), TSR (Japan), Moriwaki (Japan), Tech 3 (France) and Harris (Great Britain). **

Osamu Goto and Geo Technology
Osamu Goto knows a thing or two about engines. The approachable, well-spoken engineer has extensive Formula One experience, including stints with Ferrari, McLaren and Sauber, and also as head of Honda's F1 engine department. For this year and the next two, the job of his company, Geo Technology, is to provide nearly identical Honda CBR600RR engines for the Moto2 field.

Geo starts by tearing down the stock engine and performing relatively minor modifications. Camshaft profile, valve spring changes, head porting, a smaller alternator, and a few other changes are the main differences, he said. The stock crankshaft is used.

The engines are allocated by the FIM with team members picking numbered slips of paper out of a can. Once they get the engine number, they bring it to the Geo Tech truck to claim their engine. The engines make around 140 horsepower at the crankshaft. There was talk of going to 150, but his mandate from the FIM was to build "reliable and equal" engines.

Over the course of the first 18 months, Geo will build 141 engines, which are being distributed in batches of 47. The engine life is laid out for the 2010-2012 seasons, with the entire lot of 141 engines gradually replaced by the middle of the 2011 season. Each engine has a normal lifespan of three races, or roughly 1500km (930 miles). The first batch of 141, which will end up being used a little more than three times each, will end up with a total life of about 6000-7000km (3730-4350 miles). All the engines were replaced after the first two races, about 1000 km, as a precautionary measure, with the second group lasting for three races.

The maintenance routine, which is done at the team's headquarters in Switzerland, depends on the mileage. At the first maintenance, a team of nine technicians strips the engine down and replaces the pistons and associated parts, connecting rods and crankshaft. They also clean the head. Goto said there was little power drop at the first rebuild, despite some valve-seat deterioration. For the entire life of the engine, the difference in power is plus or minus two percent. Engine reliability has been quite good over the first two rebuilds, he said, adding that "I don't lose any engines during the race," only in crashes.

If someone claims an engine isn't making the proper power, they can ask for a new one with a €20,000 ($26,000) deposit. If the power numbers are met - the test has to be done at the shop in Switzerland - the deposit is forfeited.

The engines won't be used for more than three races, but could be used for less. New engines were fitted in Assen, and also used for testing in Aragon, Spain. Then comes a fresh supply in Sachsenring, and with no Moto2 at Laguna Seca, the engines would also be used in Brno and Indianapolis. Teams would have fresh stock for the final two European races (Misano and Aragon) before the flyaway races; new engines would be supplied for Japan, Malaysia, and Australia, with the final two races (Portugal and Valencia) also getting fresh power. For the flyaway races, the Geo team takes 16 spares.

With talk of production-derived motors for MotoGP in 2012, Goto was asked if he'd be interested in building a souped-up Honda CBR1000RR. "Yes, of course, we are always interested in any project," he replied, "in case we have more freedom to develop it is more fun. But on the business side any project is welcome."