It has been a while since I last contributed anything to Riot Engine and that has mostly been due to the fact that I was out of the country for a very long time. In the meanwhile a number of developments have taken place in the automotive world but for now I am interested specifically in the murky happenings of the MotoGP world. I am self confessed fan of all things automotive but I am very, very partial to two wheelers and more importantly to two wheeler racing even though like all good motorsport enthusiasts I will watch any form of motor racing. No not any form, I mean if someone were to conceive of a lawnmower racing championship, that would not interest me, most definitely. But closer to reality, I am not too thrilled by go kart races though they are the foundation of all racers of the future and all that but I will watch them when they have made it to proper cars as racers. But I digress. This is all about the one form of racing that has always been the closest to my heart. MotoGP. When I was young and when there was no internet and when there was only Doordarshan and when there were only news magazines or specialist magazines dedicated to the gossip of tinsel town, news about motorsport was very, very hard to come by. In those days I think some motorsport enthusiasts travelled abroad and bought various magazines such as Car and Driver, Motorcyclist, Cycle World etc and once they finished reading them they sold them to second hand magazine sellers. Inconceivable in this day and age but very much the reality just about 20-25 years ago. That is when automotive and motorsport enthusiasts regularly visited the second hand magazine sellers and begged them to keep any of those magazines if they came by and in order to meet the prices quoted by the sellers we had to go home and cajole our parents and if that did not work we threw tantrums and when even that did not work just threatened our parents that we would leave the house and runaway. It was in this way that people like me (and there were many) collected and treasured motorsport and automotive magazines and sometimes they would be a few years old. Then there would be the occasional film like Turbotime which we all watched everyday for all the days that the movie showed in cinema halls.
Eddie Lawson on a Yamaha YZR 500
In this situation of deprivation, information that we hunted for and procured made us feel very proud of ourselves. Many of us broke up into camps and started supporting different drivers or riders and different constructors of cars and bikes. So there was this time when a friend and I argued about who was better; King Kenny Roberts or Eddie Lawson? Yamaha or Honda? Little did we realize that we were arguing about people whose careers were over (Roberts) or were in the process of getting over (Lawson and Wayne Gardner). Then Star TV happened and brought Prime Sports along with it and showed MotoGP races live. That was every young man’s wet dream come true. As we watched Eddie Lawson and Wayne Gardner fighting with younger rivals or when we saw Wayne Rainey (still my all time great hero) fight injury to defeat an up and coming Mick Doohan, the saliva just drooled and dribbled. Lo and behold finally we were in a position to see the real and the full monty.
The 1990s will be, for people like me, the ultimate period in MotoGP history. Wayne Gardner was still around though on his last legs as was Eddie Lawson, and there was the great rivalry between Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz (the only rider who really gave Suzuki a place under the sun, even ahead of the great Barry Sheene) and the emergence of new talent like that of Doohan. Commentary was all about how the Yamaha was sapping more power since it had twin cranks and the Honda had only one. Then there was all the talk of shift from the screamer (even firing order in cylinders) to the Big Bang engines (uneven firing order). Then Wayne Rainey in order to make sure that he would get his fourth consecutive world title rode like hell only to fall (an innocent looking low side compared to the more spectacular high sides) at Misano and become paralysed chest downwards. With the loss of his great rival, Revvin Kevin lost interest and retired and that left Doohan as king and he reigned uninterrupted for 5 years. But those five years were all not very happy.
Doohan was riding for the Rothman Cigarette sponsored Honda team and with the ban on tobacco advertising due to kick in factories scurried in different direction in search of new sponsors.
Mick Doohan on the Rothmans Honda when he was second only to the great Wayne Rainey
Honda found the Spanish oil giant Repsol, a partnership that continues till today. But Repsol wanted a Spanish rider in the Honda factory team and therefore Doohan found himself in the company of one Alex Criville. Most people don’t remember the man simply because he was nothing great. He did not do anything particularly well; except for one thing. He could stick to the tail of Mick Doohan like a rail car would to the locomotive and after a while Criville was able to overtake the locomotive every once in a while and win a race, something that incensed Doohan.
Doohan had a very capable crew chief Jeremy Burgess who had trained under the legendary Erv Kanemoto who was a tuner and crew chief par excellence. Doohan and Burgess formed a tag time and pressured Honda into allowing them to take on new challenges. So the screamer engine was back for Mick Doohan and Michelin was forced to make tyres that not everybody could use. Doohan liked challenges and loved meeting them and in the process immensely enjoyed grinding his opposition into the dust.
But Criville was made of sterner stuff and every new challenge and difficulty that Doohan decided to take on drove him closer and closer to accidents. Doohan crashed at Assen and lost the ability to move his foot up and down, but undeterred he made Honda give him a bike that had the clutch and the brake for the rear wheel on the left side of his handle bar. This crash was followed by a spate of crashes and finally Doohan looked like a robot who had been put together a la Frankenstein. And when the body could not longer keep up with the spirit, he called a day. But the Doohan era is important, for here was one man who made up for the mediocrity of the rest of the field in order to throw new challenges to himself and the audience always wanted to know what was next. There was only one little thing that Doohan did not do. And that is ride for Yamaha, despite Wayne Rainey trying to coax him to do so many times. Doohan never tried a bike other than the Honda much as Rainey never tried any bike other than the Yamaha in MotoGP (he did ride for Kawasaki in the AMA Championship) and Kevin Schwantz only flew the Suzuki flag. The interesting thing is that while all these were racing together it was not just rider vs rider but also brand of motorcycle vs another brand of motorcycle. With the disappearance of the Americans from the grid, this changed.
MotoGP increasingly looked at the 125cc and 250cc riders to graduate to the 500cc class and this meant that the championship was becoming increasing European and Spanish and Italian at that. The Rainey’s, the Schwantz’s and the Doohan’s came from Superbikes, from four strokes to two strokes. MotoGP began to lose its sheen as it turned more and more Spanish and Italian and in the 125cc and the 250cc classes even the factories were Italian with the exception of Honda. This increasingly European MotoGP started to look less and less convincing as a World Championship and that is when Honda the king of motorcycle racing played its master card. It forced the FIM and the promoters Dorna to scrap the 500cc two stroke class and asked for the creation of a new four stroke MotoGP class. It also took pains to bring in riders from the USA (a very important market for Honda) and that is how Nicky Hayden ended up in MotoGP. MotoGP going four stroke also attracted newer players such as Ducati and Kawasaki and once again there were attempts to bring riders from the USA, Japan, New Zealand and Australia to give MotoGP a truly global face.
The introduction of the four stroke class was excitement in itself. There was talk of different configuration of engines and Honda created a V5 while Suzuki created a V4 and Yamaha and Kawasaki created in line four cylindered engines. Talks about the firing order were once again resumed and there was chatter among fans of cross plane crank Big Bang versions of the four stroke engines and their advantages over the regular screamer engines. In addition slipper clutches were introduced and there was plenty to talk about and it looked as if MotoGP was on its way to glory. Then Bridgestone decided to challenge the supremacy of Michelin and new war became part of MotoGP. Apart from the traditional three of Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki newer factories in the form of Kawasaki, Ducati and Aprilia also joined the series.
Hopkins on the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-RR 800cc
Along with Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards, John Hopkins also stepped into MotoGP from Superbikes. Casey Stoner, Gary McCoy from Australia, Akira Yanagawa and Daijiro Kato from Japan joined the Italians and Spaniards. Aprilia was racing a three cylindered bike.
Kenny Roberts was building his own V5 engine with the help of Tom Walkinshaw racing that had expertise from the Arrows team in Formula1 and the motorcycle was called the Proton KR V5 and Kurtis Roberts did the initial testing and riding.
It was a story that should have gone very well. It should have made MotoGP the most enduring and loved of all motorsports if not of all sports itself. Valentino Rossi emerged as tremendous character with oodles of talent and spontaneous sense of fun to celebrate his ever increasing number of victories. Yamaha that had not one a race in years, leave alone a championship poached the charismatic Rossi who had inherited Mick Doohan’s old Honda team from Honda. And history was made. Rossi became the first ever rider to win two consecutive races on two different makes of machinery having won the last race of 2004 on a Honda RC211V and the first race of 2005 on a Yamaha M1. He transformed Yamaha into a world championship winning team.
It was all hunky dory till for some strange reason Dorna decided to emulate Formula1 and cut the engine capacity from 990cc to 800cc.
Thus began the most secretive phase of MotoGP where factories invested billions of dollars in electronics (now how strange is that) to make the 800cc’s go fast. More electronics also meant that the role of the rider and his style began to count for less and suddenly from being a vibrant championship MotoGP became some kind of a game played by robots. Then came the economic recession of 2008.
By now Aprilia had left citing financial reasons. Post 2008 Kawasaki left citing the same financial reasons. The argument was that it made no sense to invest zillions of dollars in electronics that would be of no use on road going motorcycles. Sponsorships began to dry up. KTM finally never made into the MotoGP category. Michelin left MotoGP leaving only Bridgestone to provide control tyres for qualifying and racing. Honda, the richest factory threw tonnes of money into electronics and Yamaha matched somehow. But Suzuki fell way short and decided to pull the plug. The once green and lush championship now became a barren brown landscape. Riders on the grid dwindled to such embarrassing numbers that one only had to start a race to score points. The racing was listless, with riders becoming precision tools that operated this high tech electronic supported machinery. Ideally the brands racing here should have been Sony, Aiwa, Akai, Samsung, LG, Whirlpool etc. The mechanical part simply seemed to be irrelevant. The tyres even more so.
Dorna then tries to boost the championship by introducing the CRT concept (read another article for that which was published on Riot Engine sometime ago) and the dumbing down of the championship was now complete. Valentino Rossi was made to go to a floundering Ducati (Stoner was the only rider of consequence when it came to wins on the Ducati which otherwise destroyed the careers of many a GP rider) to keep the marque in the championship. Otherwise it was going to be a two horse race. Rossi’s Ducati move must be the most disastrous one ever made by any rider. Prior to Rossi the only rider who won world championships on different makes of motorcycles was Eddie Lawson who did this on a Yamaha and a Honda. He even gave the fledgeling Cagiva their first ever victory.
Rossi was considered to be a genius who would resurrect Ducati and also the careers of many other riders who were riding Ducatis. All that turned out to be complete rubbish with Valentino Rossi looking like a neophyte rider trying to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Meanwhile Yamaha brought Ben Spies from the USA and from World Superbikes and he did well enough in the rookie year on the Tech3 Yamaha and in his second year he even won a race. Stoner moved to Honda and decimated his opposition with only Jorge Lorenzo showing some ability to resist Stoner’s all conquering ability. Thus ended 2011 with some fourteen bikes on the grid.
Then commenced the 2012 season. The home made CRT bikes were in a class of their own. Some of them were so slow that they looked like street legal 250cc bikes. The grid may have been boosted in number terms but as a show it was no go. Valentino Rossi and Jeremy Burgess spent more and more Marlboro and Ducati money to slower and slower.
Then came the bombshell. A whining and kicking Casey Stoner announced that he would retire at the end of the 2012 season. He cited reasons ranging from badly behaved fans through partisan marshalls and horrible press corps to lousy and egoistic competitors like Rossi. Did this make a difference? Not really. If a flower drops of from a tree that is in full bloom no one notices. Similarly if a flower drops from a tree where there are only three it still does not matter. As if this was not enough Ben Spies also has said that he is leaving Yamaha at the end of the year and probably MotoGP as well. So the grid can boast of two or three talented riders.
Speculation is rife that Rossi is likely to crawl on his knees back to Yamaha for 2013 and that means that Ducati could lose its Marlboro money. If it happens then what? Will Ducati leave too? It is not inconceivable. There has been a whole load of brouhaha about Audi acquiring Ducati and how that will change the fortunes of the latter. Let us face it, Audi does not know how to make motorcycles and that is why they bought Ducati. So what is Ducati going to learn from Audi? Make diesel engine bikes and race them endurance series? Audi is a part of the Volkswagen group that does not enter into cutting edge technology based racing. It is therefore a matter of time before Audi will ask Ducati to stop racing or if it feels generous it may ask Ducati to race in World Superbikes since winning there can translate into selling bikes. The further slowing down of the world economy means that the return to spending mega bucks for racing is practically impossible.
Now there is World Superbikes series that races motorcycles that are meant for the street but are pretty cutting edge in their own way and fast. Involvement in this series could mean that ROI is better and the benefits more calculable. Already the series boasts of more manufacturers than MotoGP. And as the President of FMSCI, Mr. Vicky Chandok said rather tellingly that it is much cheaper to host World Superbike races than MotoGP when he was asked as to why the Buddh International Circuit has chosen to first host World Superbikes over MotoGP. So if all these are factored in it looks like the future of MotoGP is not exactly glowing. Worryingly still it seems that neither Dorna nor the FIM seem to have any concrete ideas about the way and means of resurrecting the premier series. If this is the way things go, then is it possible that at some point Bridgepoint the owner of Dorna (promoters of MotoGP) and Infront (promoters of World Superbike) could be forced to choose one of the two series to run. Will they choose MotoGP over World Superbikes? Not if the scenario persists the way it is now. Is it then possible that it is curtains for MotoGP? Maybe not in the near future but in the slightly distant future a definite possibility.