Last Sunday’s Grand Prix of the Deutschland at the Sachsenring marked the completion of the first half of the MotoGP season of 2011. Out of the scheduled 18 races, nine have now been done and dusted but the dust instead of settling down has been rising up in ever increasing plumes. Over the last many decades sports have been becoming more and more political in nature. When the United States of America refused to send its Olympic contingent to the Olympic Games at Moscow in 1980, there was hue and cry about keeping politics and sport separate. In the last thirty years the transformation of sport is such that there is more politics and other kinds of filth in it than there has ever been before. The pressure to win has seen the increased pushing of the envelope of all things dubious with athletes like Ben Johnson having tested positive for the use of anabolic steroids and having been stripped off their records and titles. The game of cricket once considered to be a gentleman’s game found itself embroiled in controversies of match fixing, a controversy that has dogged football for years. With the increasing professionalizing of sport it became inevitable that commercial interests have come to the forefront.
This is situation is best symbolized by the state of motorsport which more than any other sport is directly connected to businesses. In the last half century and more of motorsport, one sees that there has been evolution of the sport from comprising of cigarette smoking, womanizing, swaggering and loud mouthed sportsmen to highly disciplined, focussed and almost robotic ones. That is because motorsport has moved on from the race on Sunday and sell on Monday dictum. It is now racing for racing’s sake and winning at all costs. With the recent global economic meltdown leading to cutting of actual costs, other costs have assumed significance. Manufacturers now come and go from motorsport if they are not winning. Honda, Toyota and BMW leaving Formula1 and Kawasaki leaving MotoGP with Suzuki threatening to do the same thing next year, can all be put down to not winning and therefore not justifying participation. Privateer teams, drivers and riders who once abounded on the grids are now an endangered lot. No other form of motorsport has felt this phenomenon more than MotoGP where grid sizes have become wafer thin. For the past few years the sizes of the grids have been 17 or 18 motorcycles out of which 15 are guaranteed points. Ridiculous is the word that comes to mind.
The word ridiculous is refusing to go away from MotoGP despite the best efforts (or are they?) of Dorna who hold controlling rights over the sport. The manufacturers are doing everything under their control to spike the introduction of the CRTs or the Claiming Rules Teams while happily cutting down their own involvement. Honda is the latest to say that next year on there will be only four Hondas as against the present six, while Suzuki may leave the sport altogether or just continue with the existing 800cc motorcycle with one rider to keep Dorna happy. So there is this big question mark over CRTs because the manufacturers will exercise the right to claim the engines of a CRT by paying a paltry sum of 20 million Euros while they remain immune from engine claiming. At this rate there is a strong possibility of World Champions emerging from a grid of a dozen motorcycles and riders. Not much of a World Champion that would be right?
Talking of World Champions, how can we ignore the plight of a nine time World Champion (Seven of those world championships have come in the premier category) who goes by the name of Valentino Rossi. In an article series titled the “The curious case of Michael Schumacher……and of Valentino Rossi” we had said that the two legends had made ill fated moves, the former by coming out of retirement and the latter by not retiring from MotoGP this year. We had said that both were threatening to come out looking second best in doing what they did. But we too did not believe that Valentino Rossi could finish second last in qualifying as it happened at the Sachsenring. Rossi performed almost as wonderfully in qualifying at Silverstone and yet the man is fourth in the MotoGP World Championship so far this season. That is amazing isn’t it? Not really. Here is the explanation why.
This year there are 17 riders and bikes on the grid. Of these Alvaro Bautista on the Rizla Suzuki could not compete in two GPs owing to a broken leg and was substituted by John Hopkins in one race only. Dani Pedrosa has been out of three GPs after being punted out by Marco Simoncelli. Prior to that he had to undergo an operation for arm pump inhibition problems and so was not riding at his best. Marco Simoncelli, the great Italian hope after Rossi fell in most of the nine races so far. Casey Stoner got taken out of a race by Rossi wherein Stoner could not remount and continue his race while Rossi could and finished fifth in a race that had something like 8 or 9 riders completing it. Also look at the competition; Colin Edwards is definitely over the hill and continuing only because he comes for a very inexpensive price. Cal Crutchlow is a rookie and has had his share of misfortunes by missing a couple of GPs due to injuries already. Ben Spies has shown only flashes of brilliance and has been nowhere near consistent. At Riot Engine there are fans of Spies but there are also old cynics who are not convinced by his talent. Hiroshi Aoyama is on a satellite spec Honda and is coming back from a huge back injury. Andrea Dovizioso is NOT a great talent. After receiving equipment that is the same as Stoner and Pedrosa, Dovizioso is consistently slow and never threatening the two. Toni Elias on the LCR Honda looks like he is learning to ride a motorcycle. That is the Suzuki, the Hondas and the Yamahas accounted for. That now leaves the Ducatis and there are six of them.
Ducati have forked out a truck load of money to snare Rossi once Stoner had decided to move on to Honda. It is therefore unlikely that Ducati is giving better equipment to the Pramac team or the Mappfre Aspar team or the Cardion AB team. The latter two are single bike teams. The Cardion AB Ducati is ridden by rookie Karel Abraham whose father happens to own the Czech Brno circuit. The Mappfre Ducati is ridden by the mercurial Hector Barbera who never was consistent at any level of racing. The Pramac team has a rider who is past the sell by date and goes by the name of Loris Capirossi. He too has been injured and missed races. Randy De Puniet is the epitome of inconsistency and has spent as much time in the kitty litter as he has on the actual circuit itself. Anyway all of them receive inferior equipment in comparison with the works team. Nicky Hayden’s approach to racing this season has been best summarised by Casey Stoner who said Hayden was waiting for Rossi to fix the Ducati so that he could ride it properly. Hayden has willingly abdicated the development rider’s position to Rossi. So given this scenario and also given the fact that Rossi has been tip toeing in races and finishing a couple of minutes behind the race leaders it is a matter of no surprise that he is fourth in the standings behind Stoner, Lorenzo and Dovizioso.
The obvious question then is what went wrong with Rossi on the Ducati? Let us face it, the Ducati has always been flattered by the genius of Stoner. He single handedly made a career destroying bike look really good. Want proof? With the exception of a couple of wins by Capirossi, Casey Stoner is responsible for the rest of the over 20 wins that Ducati has seen. In the meanwhile Marco Melandri’s MotoGP career was destroyed by the Ducati as have been those of Capirossi and Hayden. Rossi is probably the latest victim. Here in order to understand things better a little bit of rewind is required. When Ducati came into MotoGP they did so with a V4 engine mated with a trellis frame (the usual Ducati recipe). When the rules of MotoGP were rewritten to replace the 990cc engine with the 800cc engine, the Ducati in the hands of Stoner decimated the opposition in 2007.
A few things which most people now forget happened then. The Japanese factories were used to doing things in a certain way and the rule change along with the rationed amount of petrol (21 litres) made them choose a conservative path of development. Ducati which was the new kid on the bloc (though they had competed in two seasons with the 990cc engine) was more adventurous and the technical analysis during 2007 suggested that the Ducati was making more power due to its desmodromic valves (therefore the bike’s nomenclature Desmosedici or sixteen desmodromic valves) while the Japanese were stuck with spring operated valves. Suzuki and Kawasaki shifted to pneumatic valves and therefore they saw 2007 as their best season. Yamaha and Honda were late to respond insisting all the while that valves had nothing to do with the Ducati domination. But ultimately they too shifted to pneumatic valves. Another factor was the tyres. For aeons Michelin dominated MotoGP but Bridgestone wanted to make a name for themselves and so came into MotoGP. They worked closely with Ducati and ultimately a very spoilt Valentino Rossi threw a tantrum and asked for Bridgestone tyres for the next year so that he could defeat Stoner (which he did). One year on and Ducati’s advantages had all been nullified. In the meanwhile in search of a radical solution Ducati dumped the trellis frame and went for a frameless chassis made out of carbon fibre. In effect the Ducati became a three section bike. The front wheel, suspension and the head stock, the engine used as a stressed member and the rear swing arm, suspension and rear wheel. The front and the back of the bike were bolted on to the engine. This solution generated front end chatter and caused Stoner to crash too many times every season and out of contention for a second world title.
In effect, this is what Rossi inherited this year. Right from day one on the bike (at a test at the end of the last season) Rossi has been super slow and simply making the numbers at the rear. Rossi is used to a delta box frame mated to the engine, the preferred method of construction used by the Japanese manufacturers. Unlike Casey Stoner who went to Ducati when he was just about 21 and after one season in MotoGP, Rossi went to Ducati at the age of 32 and after being used to a certain style of machinery and adaptation has become difficult if not impossible. It must be humiliating for him to hear his feisty rivals Stoner and Lorenzo making remarks about him which ooze pity.
Stoner and Lorenzo have been leading a crusade this season against going to Japan. The Motegi circuit is a couple of hundred kilometres away from the Fukushima nuclear reactor which suffered a melt down during the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and led to the postponement of the Japanese GP to 2nd October from its original date in April. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that it is safe enough to go to Motegi as have other agencies but this is not being agreed to by Stoner and Lorenzo. After having targetted Rossi during the initial part of the season only to find that the man only worthy of pity Stoner and Lorenzo have needed something fresh and that is now not going to Motegi. Lorenzo has also run out of things to say about Simoncelli who now looks all set to lose his ride with Honda. So far the only thing of note this season is that Ben Spies has won his first ever GP.The rest is boringly Casey Stoner Vs Jorge Lorenzo, Honda Vs Yamaha. In Moto2 and 125cc racing things are equally boring. Seriously who is interested in a one make engine series with a few chassis manufacturers fighting it out? Where is the variety? Even in the 125cc category there are only two Mahindra motorcycles and one KTM to keep company to the Piaggio owned and Aprilia produced Aprilia bikes some of which are also branded Derbi. The sad thing is next year may not be much different, probably worse.
Ducati has started testing its new Superbike with Troy Bayliss who is indicating that he wants to race in Superbikes again. If so will Ducati also trim its involvement? Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions, one that MotoGP and its supporters cannot accept.