It is quite likely that many of you who see the headline of this article will see this as a manifestation of paranoia. But you can rest assured that this is no paranoia; on the contrary it is a reality check. Just a couple of days ago, Carmelo Ezpeleta, the man behind Dorna the holders of the rights of MotoGP, has said that MotoGP has to change with immediate effect. He said otherwise come 2013 there will be only two Honda motorcycles on the MotoGP grid and none else. Anybody who has been following MotoGP will know that in the last few years grid sizes have been simply ridiculous. Ever since MotoGP shifted to the four stroke format all motorcycles have only been factory motorcycles and the concept of the privateer team has simply vanished. Satellite squads such as Tech3 for Yamaha and Gresini for Honda have to pay anywhere between 4 to 6 million Euros to lease bikes, which they have to return to the factories at the end of the year. The Ducati is leased for a little less around 3 million Euros. Adding to the woes of MotoGP are the withdrawal of Kawasaki from 2009 and now Suzuki. Honda has decided to cut back its involvement from six to four motorcycles and same is the case with Ducati. The reason behind these developments? Rising costs in a global economy that is seeing crisis after crisis from the one that started due to the sub prime housing loans in the USA in 2008 to the ongoing Eurozone problems. Last month, Shuhei Nakamoto the HRC boss said that they would not supply the latest transmission that was used on Casey Stoner’s and Daniel Pedrosa’s bikes because “it cost more money than a luxury villa”(Nakamoto’s words).
Formula1 has also been seeing turbulence. In the year 2008, Honda withdrew from the sport citing recession and the inability to meet rising costs. The following year saw the withdrawal of BMW and Toyota, the latter without winning a single race in nearly 10 years of involvement in Formula1. BMW had a few sporadic wins when they were engine partners of the respected Williams F1 team. Renault too has become an engine supplier even though there is a team that is called Renault but is owned not by Renault but by Genii Capital. From next year on the team’s chassis will be called Lotus and Renault will just be an engine partner to it officially. The first decade of the new Millennium saw the disappearance of many well known names from the Formula1 grid. Arrows, Super Aguri, Jordan, Midland, Spyker, BAR apart from Honda, BMW and Toyota. The reason for the turmoil- rising costs and dwindling budgets. Both F1 and MotoGP have been hit hard by the ban on tobacco sponsorship that was the main source of income. When technical sponsors such as HP went away from the sport it was due to the down turn in the global economy.
So what is it that pushes up costs in GP racing? Both F1 and MotoGP fall into the category of prototype racing, where cutting edge technology is used and experimented with before finding application (supposedly) on road going vehicles. The intense competition in both forms of GP racing has meant that millions and millions of dollars or Euros are spent in finding an extra tenth of a second per lap. And most times that extra tenth of a second is tantamount to nothing because in a competitive field all players are finding that extra tenth and therefore there is a maintenance of status quo. However, the bane of F1 racing has been aerodynamics. In the last few decades, aerodynamics has pushed costs up into the stratosphere and wrecked the spectacle of racing. Things have reached such a pathetic stage that artificial aids such as the Drag Reduction System (DRS) have to used to make overtaking possible. Otherwise, races are pretty much processions with positions changing not due to overtaking on the track but due to botched up pit stops. So how did F1 arrive here?
Anyone who is familiar with the history of Formula1 will know that till the 1960s F1 was all about cars that relied on ground effect grip or mechanical grip. Cars were front engined, had open wheels and no aerodynamics whatsoever. What differentiated a winning car from the others was the engine and the driving skills of the racing driver. In the initial decades of Formula1, it was the Germans who dominated the sport. The Germans renowned for their precision and perfection were creating engines and cars that simply blew the competition away. Mercedes Benz was the forefront of this with other makes such as the Auto Union cars and BRMs being the second line. Ferrari were always there, they won many races, but never dominated. Other manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo and Maserati were there for sometime but again not consistent winners. The British Jaguar cars did run some impressive races, but ultimately were not a patch on the all conquering German Mercedes Benz cars. But Mercedes Benz withdrew after the horrific crash at the Nurburgring that killed even spectators.
Things began to change towards the end of the 1960s. A few months ago, the Chairman of Ferrari, Luca Montezemolo when asked about the underperforming Ferrari cars said that F1 was going in the wrong direction, one of too much reliance on aerodynamics which was a British thing. That is hardly the answer to the question that was posed to him, for after all, Ferrari also have been using aerodynamics and won so many world titles in the Michael Schumacher era due to good aerodynamics. But let us not bother with that; what is interesting for us is the bit about aerodynamics being a British thing. Today everyone knows that with the exception of Ferrari, all other teams have their chassis building bases in England. Even Mercedes Benz has its wind tunnels and chassis building factory in Brackley, Williams in Grove, McLaren in Woking, Force India at Silverstone; the list goes on. The question then is how did Britain become the spiritual home of Formula1 constructors?
Let us now try to understand that term – constructors. Originally F1 had car manufacturers who brought their cars to the racing tracks. But from the 1960s on one sees the birth of the concept of the constructor. The Brits realized that they were no match for the might of engine horse power of the Germans and to an extent the Italians. And cleverly and very cleverly actually, they changed the way F1 cars went racing. Here F1 shares a story with the rock bands of the 1960s (also called the swinging sixties and the Flower Power years) such as the Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. All the bands that have been mentioned were avant garde and used not just sound but also light to enhance the experience of their music. There were literally loads of art school graduates who had nothing to do and their talents could be used to create visuals that went with the music. Till date bands such as Pink Floyd use those abstract art visuals to go with their genre of music which was once termed experimental but now called progressive.
What happened in Formula1 too was similar, except that instead of using Art school graduates, it used the skills of aerodynamicists who lost their jobs due to the British aircraft manufacturing industry going bust. The services of the unemployed aerodynamicists were available for pittance. Enter a person called Bernie Ecclestone. He created the concept of the constructor. An astute person who was till then languishing selling used cars and motorcycles, he saw a window of opportunity in Formula1. He bought the Brabham team and along with him another person who goes by the name of Max Mosley entered the scene with the March F1 team. Frank Williams of Williams F1 ran his office from a telephone booth. Bernie Ecclestone brought all these people under the umbrella of an organization which he called FOCA or Formula1 Constructors Association.
The British constructors beat the might of the Germans and the Italians by focussing upon the chassis rather than on the engine, which was turning out to be expensive. The aerodynamicists were used to create cars that could go faster even without having an engine that was very powerful. The word handling now comes to mind. The Brits created aerodynamic cars, which handled well, meaning they went faster around turns and bends even though the engines were not powerful. F1 became the playground of disgruntled and disappointed aircraft airframe engineers who inverted the principles of lift to create aerodynamic down force and grip. Formula1 changed its ways to become like aircraft manufacturing.
With virtually all teams adopting the aerodynamic solution, the race began in earnest to out do each other. Wind tunnels that run 24/7 for 365 days in the year became the norm. With aerodynamics not being a big differentiator, the search to make cars lighter also began. Metals like aluminium and magnesium were used till carbon fibre became the de rigeur. Engines became smaller and used exotic materials like titanium and beryllium and each new step pushed the cars costs into the stratosphere. Racing suffered, since aerodynamic grip essentially means that being the air behind another meant loss of grip. Overtaking became non existent. What started off as an exercise in finding low cost solutions for high speed racing became a high cost solution for processional racing. People like Frank Williams were firm believers in technology and pushed for the greater involvement of technology in the sport. Active suspension, launch control, traction control, fast shifting gearboxes and other such innovations made the Williams car of 1993 a technological tour de force.
Mercifully by this time Max Mosley became the President of the FIA. He saw that too much technology was affecting the spectacle of racing and therefore ended up banning things such as active suspension and other driver aids. The world is firmly divided in its opinion of Max Mosley. Many see him as high handed and dictatorial and some see him as the person who has saved F1 a few times. Both of the perceptions are true. F1 needed someone like him to keep the sport from going overboard. If there are 12 teams and 24 cars on the Formula1 grid today, the credit should go to Mosley. Measures like cutting down the number of cylinders of the engine to 8 and freezing engine development and bringing Cosworth back into racing as an engine supplier did help in maintaining the size of the grid. Bernie Ecclestone became the Supremo of F1 and kept it alive by taking it to new destinations to protect it from economic depressions that come and go in Europe. However, Formula1 is still horribly expensive and is very much in unstable equilibrium. Too much technology and diminishing driver importance are still a bane of the sport. Valentino Rossi who tested for Ferrari a few times decided that he would not race in F1 since “it was not a driver but an engineer sport” (Rossi’s words). Launch control for example meant that the driver just sat in the car till the first turn when he pressed the brakes and then took over the throttle and the full control of the car. Till then the car was under the control of the engineers who would launch it remotely from behind their computers when the red lights went out. This is akin to fighter pilots taking off from aircraft carriers where engineers on the ship launch the plane with the help of a catapult and the pilot gets control of a plane only when it is airborne. Rossi wanted things to be in his control, so turned his back on F1.
While on the face of it a rider is in control of the bike that he is riding and does not get constant inputs from his race engineer like in F1 where the engineer goes through the telemetry to rectify problems on the car and also keeps talking to the driver on radio, the spectacle of racing has diminished in the four stroke era. The shift to four strokes was to make GP racing closer to road going motorcycles. But the shift has proved to be anything but that. This has been pronounced in the case of the 800cc era which has mercifully come to an end this year. Traction control, dual clutch gearboxes for fast shifting, pneumatic valves, titanium engine casings have pushed the costs through the roof of the Hotel Burj in Dubai. Where would all these innovations be used? Who can afford a motorcycle that has a gearbox that costs more than a luxury villa? So Carmelo Ezpeleta is right when he sees a crisis, one that threatens to dismantle MotoGP right now. It is good that CRT rules and teams have been introduced. But it may make more sense to merge World Superbikes where motorcycles such as the Aprilia RSV4F have been created like prototypes and then homologated, with MotoGP. Both series are seeing a fall in numbers on the starting grids. Formula1 is safe for now, but continued reliance on aerodynamics will mean that costs will not fall. Marussia Virgin’s getting rid of Nick Wirth means a return to traditional wind tunnels. Perhaps in the interests of better racing, it may make sense to return to ground effect or mechanical grip cars. But then we don’t change till such time that our existence is threatened.
P.S: For more on CRT motorcycles and Nick Wirth and CFD please find below the links to articles where we have discussed the merits of CFD over wind tunnels and the CRT motorcycles over the factory prototypes. They are in two separate articles.