It is no secret that MotoGP has been ill, very seriously at that, for quite sometime now. The last many years have been seeing the pulling out of manufacturers from the sport and the number of motorcycles have been dwindling so much that in the last couple of years the situation has become ridiculous. One has seen in the last two years that just starting a race virtually guaranteed championship points. The number of motorcycles has been hovering around seventeen and in almost every race there have been actually fewer motorcycles due to injuries to riders. The entire irony of things is that MotoGP has been most dangerous for riders when squillions of dollars are being spent on electronics purportedly to make the motorcycles safer for racers.
Safe is one thing that MotGP has not been. Ask Dani Pedrosa. The fragile and small Spaniard has been spat out by his bike so many times that in the last three years he has not been without injury. Even Valentino Rossi who has an impeccable record of not crashing in races has been thrown of his bike and in one instance last year with a break to his leg, one that compromised his world championship challenge. In his first year of racing in MotoGP, Jorge Lorenzo raced on will power more than on skill because his Yamaha was like an unbroken stallion that just kept throwing off its rider. There were cartoons of Lorenzo being carried on a stretcher to his motorcycle and podium by the irrepressible Jim Bamber. Later on Lorenzo quietly agreed that he was scared so much that he considered quitting motorcycle racing at one point. The pressure of racing an uncompetitive and difficult to ride Ducati led to fatigue and exhaustion for Casey Stoner who would look like he was about to collapse at the end of a race. The situation became so alarming that he had to stop racing for a while. Doctors were mystified by what was happening to him, finally zeroing in on fatigue. The year 2012 is perhaps the high point of MotoGP, with almost every rider having a serious enough accident to keep him away from a race or two.
This amidst manufacturers pulling out of the sport. Aprilia was the first to go, next was Kawasaki and finally at the end of this year, Suzuki as well. BMW was preparing to enter MotoGP but changed tack and went to World Superbike Championship instead. Aprilia did not give any specific reason for its pull out, while Kawasaki and now Suzuki have given the weakness of the global economy and the accompanying down turn in their fortunes as the reason for their quitting. BMW said that it made more sense for them to race in the production based series as that would be more relevant to their aspirations of selling more road going motorcycles. It would be interesting to see what was happening in World Superbikes when all this was happening in MotoGP. The grid in Superbikes at one point was so healthy that it boasted of seven manufacturers and almost 30 motorcycles starting a race. That number too slowly started dwindling and reached twenty two last year and this year it has fallen below 20 in most races. Ducati quit World Superbikes at the end of last year and the grid started becoming a place of refuge for discards from MotoGP. Look at the number of ex GP riders on the World Superbike grid this year. Carlos Checa, Max Biaggi, Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty. They were also the riders who were contenders for the championship itself. Is that a coincidence? The answer has to be no.
MotoGP and World Superbike Championship have been actually two battle grounds on which motorcycle manufacturers have fought their wars on. Here is a scope for a misunderstanding. When we say wars we are not talking about racing on the tracks. We are talking about politics and the wars of one up man ship between manufacturers. Now that we have cleared up the misunderstanding, let us get on with the rest of the story. MotoGP is actually the back yard of the Honda Motor Company. The only other company that has occasionally managed to get into that back yard is Yamaha and in one instance, and only one instance, Ducati. Honda is the King of MotoGP. Its bikes have been the class of the field and have converted even mediocre riders such as Alex Criville, for example, into world champions. The situation is very much like what team Williams was in Formula1. Even Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve could become World Champions; such was the car they made in the 1990s. There is a parallel here in the story of Honda in motorcycle GP and Williams in F1 GP. So let us draw it then.
Let us start with Williams’s case. Whoever Williams put in their car went on to become champion. Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. They all came a cropper when they went to other teams and other cars. Things changed for Williams when one Mr. Michael Schumacher arrived on the scene and spoilt the party. (Never mind that he has been accused of cheating and wanting to be number one and all that, nobody wins 91 races by doing these things. Also never mind that today he is struggling, he is past his prime). In a Benetton car with a Ford V8 engine, Schumacher beat the Williams cars. He went to a dismally performing Ferrari and won them a World Championship after 20 years of Ferrari being in the wilderness. He won a total of five World Championships with and for Ferrari. Nobody won a World championship with Benetton before or after Michael Schumacher. Only Kimi Raikonnen has won one World Championship with Ferrari after Michael Schumacher and Jody Schekter had won the last one (in the year 1979) before Schumacher’s first triumph with Ferrari twenty one years later in the year 2000.
Now on to MotoGP. What Schumacher did to Williams, Valentino Rossi did to Honda. After a bitter falling out with Honda, Rossi switched to Yamaha and won them a World Championship in the year 2004, the first in 12 years, the last prior to this being in 1992 under the legendary Wayne Rainey. In between in those twelve years 10 years Honda riders took victories while in 1993 and 2000 Suzuki riders Kevin Schwantz and Kenny Roberts Jr took the championship. Rossi’s move to Yamaha changed the fortunes of the company and in his hands, it has won more championships in the 800cc era than any other manufacturer with Ducati and finally this year Honda, winning once each, both with Casey Stoner. Michael Schumacher and Valentino Rossi are two people who proved to the world that a driver/rider could make the difference to a manufacturer in a world which otherwise was all about manufacturer domination.
The intent behind narrating the above stories is to draw your attention to the fact that except for Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha years, Honda is the undisputed leader of GP racing. That means that it also gets to call the shots. Changing from two stroke to four stroke, upping or downing the capacity of engines in every category, the changes are all mainly at the behest of Honda. For a new manufacturer to get into MotoGP it necessarily means playing the game by the rules that Honda orchestrates. Unlike in Formula1 where the FIA (thanks mainly to Max Mosley) is relevant, in MotoGP the FIM (thanks to Vito Ippolito) is more or less absent. The body only rubber stamps the rules and regulations written by manufacturers (read that as Honda mainly). Dear reader, you can rest assured that the reasons of global economic turn down by Kawasaki and Suzuki are really facing mechanisms. The real problem is their inability to fight it out with Honda politically. That is what made Aprilia leave MotoGP and stopped BMW from coming into the category.
Those who did not want to go into MotoGP and beard Honda there, went to World Superbikes and converted it into near prototype racing, instead of it being production based motorcycle racing. After Scott Russel, the American racing legend won the one and only World Superbike Championship for Kawasaki in 1993, Rob Muzzy who ran the Kawasaki World Superbike effort (the team was called Muzzy Kawasaki), said that all the parts on the championship winning motorcycle could be found in Kawasaki spares stores. Now that is no longer the case. First BMW, then Aprilia and even Kawasaki this year with the new ZX-10R have created near MotoGP type of machines and homologated them in World Superbikes. This means that the two championships have been treading on each other’s toes and the battle came out into the open when Dorna the rights holders of MotoGP announced that MotoGP would allow production based engines in prototype chassis.
The Flammini brothers, especially, Paolo Flammini said this was in violation of the agreement between MotoGP and World Superbikes (controlled by Flammini’s Infront). Carmelo Ezpeleta of Dorna gently reminded the Flammini brothers of what was happening in World Superbikes. Funnily, however, the Flammini brothers found an ally in Honda (and to a lesser extent Yamaha and Ducati, the two other manufacturers left in MotoGP). When Dorna said that the new sub category in MotoGP would have claiming rules, everyone believed that teams entered as Claiming Rules Teams could claim each other’s engines. But that was not how it was. It was revealed that the factories could claim the engines of claiming rules teams for a paltry twenty thousand euros!!! Apparently this was done to stop Aprilia entering MotoGP through CRT as a factory. Now Aprilia seems to be showing that the fears of the other factories were justified, because it has announced that it will develop a new prototype chassis for teams that will use its RSV4 based engine.
But Ezpeleta and Dorna are bashing on regardless. Ezpeleta has been giving combative interviews saying that CRT is the way forward for MotoGP and the fact that there are only three manufacturers willing to supply a total of 12 motorcycles has strengthened his case. In the first year of CRTs there will be different rules for the CRTs and the factory prototypes but from 2013 the rules will be same for all says Ezpeleta. What has helped Dorna become strong is that Bridgepoint the owner of Dorna has also taken over Infront, the rights holder of World Superbikes. There are a couple of other reasons as well. The first is the exodus of manufacturers from MotoGP and the second is the very high cost of leasing motorcycles from manufacturers. The competition among manufacturers has reached such a fever pitch that they have driven costs to the outer edges of our solar system. This means that grid sizes will not improve and this is great for Dorna and a good time to bring the motorcycle manufacturers to their knees.
Things in World Superbike too are not different. In their attempt to make World Superbikes less production based and more like prototypes, the costs of running a team have also sky rocketed. This has prompted the organizers to take drastic steps such as allowing only one motorcycle per rider in each team. In 2010, the grid size of the World Supersport category (600cc production motorcycles) fell to just sixteen. The numbers were boosted in 2011 by saying that each team could run only one bike per rider and that immediately doubled the number of entries. With grid numbers slipping to 18 this year, the same is now being attempted with the Superbike category as well. The message is clear, there is no money for extravagance. Right now both categories are fighting for the same space and the same market. Let us face it, World Superbikes does not enough TV exposure as does MotoGP. The MotoGP and Superbikes run with identical 1000cc engine capacity, as do the Moto2 and Supersport with identical 600cc engines. Both series organizers now have a single owner, namely Bridgepoint. So why not make the whole exercise cheaper and more meaningful by clubbing the two series together. Like in Formula1 let there be constructors who have chassis and plonk engines from various manufacturers in them. The integration will not be easy, but it is something that one should work towards in order to save motorcycle racing from vagaries of the economy and from the ruthless ambition of motorcycle manufacturers.
That exercise will be fraught with difficulties and will require a lot of head banging before positive results start emerging. In the meanwhile for MotoGP salvation has to come from CRTs. It is now clear that only twelve bikes will be put on the grid by the motorcycle manufacturers and the lessees. Mercifully, the numbers seem to be coming in from the CRTs. There are about 8 confirmed entries and one hopes that more will come to the fore in the coming days. Otherwise, motorsport maybe something that we will tell as a story to our grandchildren.