When was it that you last saw a MotoGP grid packed with many riders. Can’t remember right? And you are not to be blamed for that. It has been aeons since the premier class in MotoGP (which is most unimaginatively titled MotoGP since the advent of the four stroke era) has seen any respectable number of motorcycles and riders on the grid. The last few years have been a joke, with grid sizes refusing to go beyond seventeen, despite the increased involvement of Ducati which along with two factory bikes also has four other bikes two run by the Pramac team and one each by Team Aspar and Team Cardion AB. For its part Honda also supports six motorcycles. This year three of those have been under the umbrella of the factory Repsol Honda team and two under the San Carlo Gresini team and one with Team LCR. One of the two Gresini bikes ridden by Marco Simoncelli is again factory spec. Yamaha has four, two for the factory team and two for the Monster Tech3 team. And Suzuki this year has run one motorcycle. Last year it had two, but there was one Ducati less on the grid. The year before there was one Kawasaki that went as Hayate and while in 2008 Kawasaki had two bikes there were two Ducatis less, with Team Aspar also not having a bike. So what does this tell you? For as long as you can remember there have been only seventeen motorcycles on the MotoGP premier class grid. And what about the system of points? Any motorcycle that finished even in fifteenth place scored a point for the team and rider. With the advent of the 800cc MotoGP machines and increased involvement of electronics lap times came tumbling down in the process taking some riders down as well. The increased number of falls suffered by riders has meant that at any given point someone or the other has been injured and so there have been instances in the past two years when the races started with only 15 riders on the grid. So it meant that if you just started a race, you were assured of points; and this in the premier class of two wheeled racing.
Now let us turn our attention to the year 2010. The year saw the introduction of a new category and new system of racing. This is the now familiar Moto2 class which replaced the 250cc class one year ahead of the original schedule. The Moto2 class is a significant experiment. Let us look at what prompted this experiment. The 250cc grids were also beginning to dwindle and for all practical purposes had three manufacturers only out of which Honda and KTM were contributing only four motorcycles between them. The rest of the grid was made up of Aprilia motorcycles some of which were branded as Derbi, some as Gilera and the rest as Aprilia. Aprilia, Derbi and Gilera are all Piaggio group companies and Piaggio used the opportunity of a grid full of their bikes to brand them differently for purposes of advertisement. Honda had said that it had stopped development of its 250cc machine because they did not see any relevance that two stroke technology had for road use. KTM was too small a factory to take on the might of the Piaggio group and Dorna the promoters of the MotoGP series came under pressure from Honda to wind up the 250cc two stroke category and replace it with a four stroke category just as the two stroke 500cc class was replaced first by the four stroke 990cc class and then the four stroke 800cc class.
The timing of introducing Moto2 had everything to do with global recession which crippled the economies of the developed countries such as the USA, countries of Western Europe and Japan. Aprilia’s two stroke motorcycles cost millions of Euros something that most teams could not afford and the rising costs were reducing grid sizes even in the 250cc class. Honda ever the opportunistic company used this situation to press through with its demand to introduce four stroke racing bikes instead of the 250cc bikes. Honda decided that the motorcycles should be powered by 600cc engines and in collusion with Dorna came up with a deviously brilliant plan. Tenders were called for a single supplier of engines for the entire grid, a practice that is common in Indy car racing (Honda is the sole supplier there as well) and the least expensive quote would be picked up. It is a no brainer that nobody can match Honda’s cost effectiveness and so the contract went to Honda. Now what is devious about this?
The world wide motorcycle racing world (not including country specific series) is divided into two categories. The Grand Prix racing series which will allow only prototype machinery and the Superbike+Supersport+Superstock series that allows only souped up versions of road going motorcycles of 1000cc for Superbike and Superstock (1200cc for twin engined bikes) and 600cc for Supersport categories. The agreement between the two series is that one will not infringe on the other’s turf. It was with respect to this alone that the original four stroke category was kept down to 990cc and later to 800cc. But costs had to be kept down which means that Honda needed to put out a 600cc engine. Now when Honda is the sole supplier of engines and when intellectual property considerations come into being no one knows what spec 600cc engines that Honda is supplying. There were protests from the organizers of the Superbike series but they had no case as no one knew the nature of the 600cc Honda engine and Dorna smartly asked teams to get themselves custom chassis from specialized chassis manufacturers. So for all practical purposes this is prototype racing at least according to Dorna anyway. In the first year there were as many as a dozen chassis manufacturers; ADV, BQR, FTR, Kalex, Motobi, Moriwaki, MZ, Pons, Suter, Speed Up, Tech3 etc and this year they have come down to half a dozen; FTR, Kalex, Motobi, Moriwaki, MZ, Suter and Tech3 but all the teams are still there. In 2010 the grid size was 42 motorcycles – nearly double the 250cc grid and this year there are 38 with Dorna saying that they will limit entries to 36 from next year.
Another new category of four stroke racing will come into being from 2012; Moto3. Moto3 will replace the oldest and still surviving two stroke 125cc motorcycles with 250cc four stroke motorcycles. And there will not be only one engine supplier. How come you may ask? There is no 250cc class in the production Superbike series. So why not 200cc or 300cc? The Moto Cross series uses engines of 250cc capacity. All manufacturers compete in the World Moto Cross series. The issue is now straight forward. Tune the 250cc engines to suit road racing. No extensive chassis work is required since the chassis used for 125cc motorcycles can be tweaked and used for the 250cc engines since the power out put will be roughly the same. Simple cost effective solution. Break the back of the Piaggio group that monopolizes the grid with Aprilia and Derbi bikes (both are the same) and the two Mahindra machines plus the lone KTM. Honda will dominate again. Yamaha may join the grid at a later stage in 2013 perhaps but most motorcycles will be Hondas with some KTMs thrown in for good measure along with the Mahindra motorcycles maybe. ADV is supposedly working on its own engine, but it may take time. Dorna is so confident of the grid swelling up that it has already stated that it will limit the size of the grid to 36 motorcycles for the Moto3 category as well. One more problem solved. But the biggest one remains.
The premier class has the strangle hold of motorcycle manufacturers association and if costs have to be brought down then something like a Moto2 has to be done. But there is a problem. Since it is the premier class one cannot possibly call for tenders and give the supply of engines to one manufacturer alone. That strategy is alright for a supporting class but a big no no for the main class. Dorna decided to take the horn by the bull and talked of a new class within the premier class. The premier class would have three categories of machines; the factory spec motorcycles, the satellite spec motorcycles supplied by the manufacturers to teams of their choice and the new category called the claiming rules teams or CRTs (do not confuse this with cathode ray tubes). But for this to happen there is a glitch. No motorcycle manufacturer makes 800cc engines that can be bought and fit into custom chassis. So the solution was to make it 1000cc engines. Here Dorna was boxed from two sides; on the one side the motorcycle manufacturers and on the other side promoters of the World Superbike series. To keep costs down Dorna said that CRTs could use modified production based engines of 1000cc capacity and this raised the hackles of the promoters of World Superbikes who claimed that Dorna was breaking an agreement. The claiming rules mean that if one team suspects the other of cheating it can deposit a certain amount of money with Dorna and claim the engine of the competing team (this rule exists in Moto2 as well). Dorna to encourage teams to become CRTs decided that while factory and satellite spec machines will be allowed only 21 litres of fuel per race and 6 engines per season the CRTs would be allowed 24 litres of fuel per race and double the number of engines. This sent the manufacturers into a tizzy. Why? Read on.
The present premier class category has four manufacturers with Suzuki threatening to quit at the end of 2011. The other three are Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. All of these, especially Ducati with their amazing ability to create unrideable bikes (apparently only Casey Stoner can ride them), have one big fear; what if CRTs using engines from Aprilia, BMW and Kawasaki beat the factory and satellite teams? Disgrace, right? So they amend the rules and say that factories can claim CRT machinery but not the other way round. But to Dorna’s credit it must be said that they have persisted with their plan of introducing CRTs from 2012 onward. It is a big help that Dorna owner Bridgepoint has purchased the Infront group which owns the Superbike series. With both under one umbrella the possibilities of an amicable rapproachment have become very real. It is this that seems to have given the Dorna Chief Carmelo Ezpeleta the courage to take on the manufacturers. On Friday at Misano he said that the way forward for the premier class was CRTs. He did not stop there. He went on to say that in two years he expected half the grid to be CRTs and in another couple more the full grid would comprise of CRTs alone. Well done Dorna.
If one looks at Formula1 at a time when the engine suppliers and chassis constructors were two separate entities, one sees that the series was stable. Costs were in check. Then came the deluge of manufacturers wanting to manufacture both engine and chassis. Ferrari was the only team to do this but the first decade of the 21st century saw Toyota, Honda, BMW and Mercedes all coming into F1 as engine and chassis constructors. When the recession hit the world all of them with the exception of Mercedes have disappeared from F1. Erstwhile independent teams like Williams which were for a decade forerunners have been reduced making up numbers. Arrows, Simtek, Jordan, Ligier, Benetton, Tyrell have all disappeared. Only McLaren survives while Force India survives with a lot of help from McLaren. The other teams can disappear anytime. Since manufacturers have a different agenda and a different point to prove they have to spend millions of dollars in order to extract a 10th of a second more and therefore the whole process of increased costs and unviability. The same is now happening with MotoGP. Dorna need to maintain their courage. Teams can always buy engines from the market and put them in custom chassis like it once was overwhelmingly in F1 and returning to the same again. Just as there is a McLaren Mercedes or a Lotus Renault or a Sauber Ferrari there can be Suter- BMW, Moriwaki – Honda, BQR -Kawasaki, Tech3-Yamaha, FTR-Aprilia and Motobi-Ducati. Then we will have the same quality of racing at less than a quarter of a price and the grid numbers will swell. The racing will be genuine and the points will make sense. Let us hope that this is the future. A brave new world of two wheeler racing. Amen to that.