For someone living in India, the attitude that the West has towards motorcycles is a little difficult to comprehend. In fact, most would find that attitude bizarre. In India the motorcycle is an extension of the self, one that goes everywhere with the user (the word rider has been deliberately left out since it can connote other meanings). It is used for the office commute, weekend getaway, family outing (one or sometimes two small kids on the petrol tank, wife with a little baby on the pillion seat) and even inter city transport. So what would life be without this contraption that enables all people to do all things (including riding very badly and getting killed)? Unimaginable would be the most suitable word here. But the West, especially America sees the motorcycle as the preferred steed of the anti social and uncouth rogue who roams the American freeways like Satan does the roads of hell. It doesn’t help that Harley Davidson riders not only call themselves HOGS but look like them (hogs that is), unwashed and unkempt. Sobriquets like Hells Angels and Hell Raisers add to the already powerful imagery. No wonder then that motorcycling is not considered the habit of the genteel and the respect worthy in the United States of A.
And how is the scenario in Europe? Not too different, but not like in the US. The key difference is that in European countries motorcycles are not the preserve of hooligans, beer drinkers and stink raisers. Still the motorcycle is not the preferred mode of transport. The answer to understanding this lies in the weather. Europe is near the tropic of Capricorn and upwards towards the north pole. So with the exception of some sunny areas in Spain most of the time Europe is quite cold. It means that riding on a motorcycles will lead to the formation of icicles on ones face, hands and legs. Cold increases with wind chill which the rider of a motorcycle will have to encounter and with a great deal of discomfort and maybe even suffer frost bite. No wonder then motorcycling is popular mainly in sunny Spain and not in the rest of Europe where the occasional adventurist will want to ride a motorcycle in the summer when the temperatures reach a warm 15 degrees Celsius. And if you are in England it rains everyday and who would want to ride in the rain? So four wheelers with HVAC and good dynamics are preferred.
It is therefore this reason that the Europeans prefer four wheeled motorsport to the two wheeled one. And motor racing is very European, at least in the way in which we know it here in India. So everywhere there is this greater glamour and viewership that is associated with Formula One and not MotoGP. Old timers will remember old ads in between races featuring riders such as Ralph Waldmann, Doriano Romboni and Olivier Jacque asking the viewers to watch two wheeled racing since it is every bit as exciting as four wheeled racing. Ralph Waldmann who was sponsored by Marlboro once said that F1 drivers like his fellow German Michael Schumacher thought of themselves as gods and the motorcycle racers as mere mortals and therefore never their equals. Waldmann was very miffed at being ignored by not just Formula1 drivers but by the media as well. Things have improved a bit these days but that is still insignificant.
MotoGP is a very European phenomenon and it emphasizes more on the prototype character of racing than production machinery racing. The latter is more the creation of the Americans, where the” race on Sunday and sell on Monday” dictum is supposed to work. Maybe that is as only as real as the free market, but it seems to work for the Americans. The Americans followed a policy of isolationism for centuries before the Second World War and even today the mindset of the Americans is to create things for themselves on their soil only. Baseball, NBA and importantly for us the AMA or the American Motorcycle Association are for America only; and let the rest of the world be damned, it is not for them to reason why.
The marketing savvy Japanese caught on to this trend and decided to sell motorcycles in America, the country with the largest per capita consumption and with a population willing to be persuaded by advertising and other opinion changing practices. Honda went to America and persuaded them to believe that “only the nicest people ride a Honda” and sold many motorcycles before starting to sell cars in big numbers. Suzuki who saw the days of its power looms being numbered quickly shifted focus to selling motorcycles and lo and behold there was America, the land of the plenty to go to. Kawasaki Heavy Industries was doing a whole load of good work in huge industrial projects, ship building, train car building, train locomotive manufacture, helicopters and planes but none of these were giving it the visibility it wanted, so it decided to showcase its technological prowess with motorcycles and what place better than the land of uninhibited consumption? Yamaha also wanted to do things other just making musical instruments and so got into motorcycle manufacturing and like the other Japanese companies they too went to America. All these companies raced their motorcycles (which are all production based) on Sunday and sold them on Monday and were not too bothered with the rest of the world, until they saw another window of opportunity.
The Europeans may not have taken to motorcycling too much but they were not entirely averse to racing. So there were marques like Norton, Triumph, Vincent, Velocette, Moto Guzzi, MV Augusta, Benelli, Ducati, Morbidelli and Zundapp who were making prototypes and showcasing their techno prowess. The fiercely competitive Honda wanted a piece of this pie as well and went to Europe with machines that were laughed at initially but feared and dreaded later on. Honda did most unconventional things such as building six cylindered 125 cc machines and beat the four strokes of MV Augusta and Moto Guzzi with wickedly powerful two strokes. The rest of the Japanese did not want to be left out of this and so faithfully followed Honda to Europe and to Grand Prix racing.
The two stroke motorcycles of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki collectively annihilated not just European manufacturers from racing but from manufacture of two wheelers itself. All the British manufacturers shut shop as did most Germans with the exception of BMW which became a niche player and most Italians went into different states of doldrums from which they never recovered. All Italian motorcycle marques have been taken over by either venture capitalists or other manufacturers from other parts of the world.
The GP market became the sole preserve of Japanese companies with only Cagiva in the late 1980s and early 1990s trying to go racing with them. Of the Japanese Kawasaki was not always involved; it flirted with GP racing occasionally first in the 1980s with riders like Kork Bollington and Anton Mang and again in the first decade of the new Millennium with riders like John Hopkins, Anthony West and Marco Melandri. Aprilia tried GP racing and left (though it did stunningly well in the 125cc and 250 cc categories with years of domination) BMW threatened to try but did not and only Ducati thanks to one Casey Stoner was able to stand up to the might of the Japanese big three. Suzuki has over the years become a marginal player especially with the re-introduction of four stroke racing in GPs. The re-introduction of four stroke engines in GPs is a fascinating tale, one that merits great attention. We have said that the Americans brought production machinery racing into the picture. A similar thing was tried in Europe too but with the exception of UK which now faithfully follows what the Americans do, production machinery racing did not find too many takers.
To try and make production machinery a global phenomenon the European companies such as Ducati took the lead because they thought that there would be no competition from the Japanese, at least for a while. So the whole World Superbike racing concept came into being in the 1990s and gained some currency in the first decade of the 21st Century. Initially World Superbikes was a Ducati show but the Japanese got wind of the possible popularity of this series and invaded it big time. Now all Japanese manufacturers are involved in World Superbikes and three of them in MotoGP. It is here that the plot thickens. Honda is so powerful that it can write and re-write rules with only some token resistance from Yamaha and no one else. Take a look at MotoGP. What do you see? The 500cc two stroke class first paved the way for a 990cc four stroke MotoGP class and then to the now existing 800cc MotoGP class. The 990cc was to not tread on the toes of the promoters of World Superbike Racing. However, that has changed now. Next year onwards, MotoGP will allow production based engines being fitted into custom chassis and will have an engine capacity of up to 1000cc. Remember this point we will come back to it.
The 250cc two stroke racing class was changed to the new Moto2 four stroke 600cc class (at the behest of Honda and it killed European manufacturers Aprilia and KTM in the process). To differentiate this from World Supersport which has production 600cc motorcycles, Moto2 had only Honda supplying 600cc engines to teams who could make or buy custom chassis. This year is the last for the oldest category of racing, the two stroke 125cc class. This will be replaced next year by the new Moto3 class which will use single cylinder 250cc four stroke engines (Honda at work again and Aprilia and KTM again being the losers here). Now can you see the big picture emerging? If you can good, otherwise here it is for you. The Americans love dirt track racing in the form of Motocross and Supercross. The most popular category of engine there is the 250cc four stroke, single cylinder. So engines used in Motocross and Supercross will find their way in a different state of tune and in a different chassis into the Moto3 class. Result no engine development costs that will go through the roof. Synergies mean less spending that can be spread across different forms of motorsport. And the Moto2 class now. Right now it is Honda alone supplying the engines, but in the near future the same laws that apply to claiming rules teams in MotoGP class next year can be used for the Moto2 class as well. This means that there will be the opening up of the 600cc category for production based engines in prototype chassis. This means no additional costs of engine development.
We asked you to remember the 1000cc MotoGP category a while ago. Let us to revisit that. World Superbikes run on 1000cc engines. Now MotoGP will allow prototypes along with production based 1000cc engines in prototype frames. This means at some point in the future, motorcycle manufacturers may go the Formula1 way, where they will only supply engines and not the chassis. So MotoGP could become what Moto2 is only difference being engine capacity. So teams can choose from BMW, Aprilia, Kawasaki and MV Augusta engines and put them in Suter, FTR, Moriwaki or Tech3 frames. Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha engines too will be eligible. But in all likelihood with the exception of one or two teams most will go for Japanese engines anyway and therefore the European manufacturers will not be of great significance here. Now do you get the full picture?
This is typically business dictating the rules of the sport. Over the new rules of MotoGP the promoters of MotoGP, Dorna and the promoters of World Superbikes, Infront are already fighting. With next year getting nearer, the fight will become more intense. The FIM will have to adjudicate and in all possibility it will be in favour of MotoGP and Dorna, because they have more muscle. World Superbikes and MotoGP have small grids, though the Superbike grid is slightly bigger with 21 motorcycles compared to the 17 on the MotoGP grid. Last year the Supersport grid was all but non existent due to everyone moving to Moto2. This year it has grown mainly due to an influx of riders and teams from Hungary, Russia, Poland, etc. But it could just fall again next year if the new teams do not have funding. So what are we going to see? One series instead of the two? Will GP racing be international while Superbike and Supersport racing become national and feeders to the GP series? Who knows, but in the world of business anything can happen, and since this sport is dictated by business, anything is possible in this sport as well.