Open season on the factory teamsby Mat Oxley on 12th February 2014
No doubt who was the star of last week’s Sepang tests, even if Marc Márquez did stun his rivals with a ridiculously fast race simulation on the final day.
Márquez’s ominous speed on Honda’s latest RC213V wasn’t entirely unexpected, whereas the pace of Aleix Espargaró on his Open-spec Yamaha M1 had a few jaws dropping up and down pitlane. The young Spaniard’s best lap was less than half a second slower than Márquez and within a couple of tenths of factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
Espargaró’s speed suggests that the best Open-class bikes will have a chance of fighting for podiums this year, especially at thirstier tracks where their 20 per cent extra fuel may give them a real advantage over factory bikes. It also confirms that Dorna’s control software – mandatory on Open bikes – is working pretty damn well.
Before Sepang the Open bikes already had the 2014 rules written largely in their favour – all part of Dorna’s sensible plan to narrow the gap between factory teams and privateers to create bigger battles near the front of the pack. As well as four more litres of fuel, they also get to thrash their way through more than twice as many engines as do the factory machines and they can go testing whenever they like, unlike factory riders.
So you’d think that the Open bikes (the Openers?) already had enough going for them. Not quite, in Dorna’s opinion. After the tests Bridgestone confirmed that the Openers will be blessed with softer-spec rear slicks for 2014, as were the slower CRT machines last season. Softer, more grippy rubber was a major part of Espargaró’s ability to embarrass the factory Ducatis during 2013 aboard his Aprilia CRT bike and it may help him do the same to a few of the aliens this year.
I’m sure there was only one man happier than Espargaró at the conclusion of Sepang 1, and that would’ve been Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. He must surely have cracked open a bottle of bubbly and lit up a big fat cigar when the youngster’s lap time popped up on his laptop.
Deciding to give the Open bikes another weapon – more grip – is Ezpeleta’s way of causing yet more discomfiture to the factories. He is already pushing hard against factory opposition to make the entire MotoGP grid Open spec, and anything he can do to help Open bikes perform as well, or better, than factory machines will ultimately help his cause.
He’s playing the long game, because the rules aren’t up for a wholesale rewrite until 2017, but in the meantime every little helps. If Espargaró can bully a few factory Hondas and Yamahas this year, I can already see Ezpeleta sat in his office overlooking the pitlane, grinning madly, clinking champagne flutes with Dorna management and puffing on a Cuban.
Sepang test – fastest times
1. Marc Márquez, Honda 1min 59.533sec
2. Valentino Rossi, Yamaha 1min 59.727sec
3. Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha 1min 59.866sec
4. Aleix Espargaró, Yamaha 1min 59.998sec
5. Stefan Bradl, Honda 2min 0.112sec
6. Dani Pedrosa, Honda 2min 0.223sec
7. Andrea Dovizioso, Honda 2min 0.370sec
8. Pol Espargaró, Yamaha 2min 0.655sec
9. Andrea Iannone, Ducati 2min 0.725sec
10. Álvaro Bautista, Honda 2min 0.788sec
The biggest point of disagreement between Dorna and the factories is control electronics. The factories want to continue electronics R&D – currently by far the most significant area of development – while Ezpeleta wants everyone running his own spec software, so he has full control of the train set. His ultimate aim, of course, is to be fully in control so he can turn down rider aids, like traction control, to turn up MotoGP’s entertainment value.
And this is where Ducati’s struggles are also playing into Ezpeleta’s hands because they are considering entering their machines under the Open rules to help them close the gap on Honda and Yamaha. I am sure Ezpeleta is hoping that the Italians will go Open (perhaps he is even encouraging them to do so) because that will only push MotoGP another step in that direction. Ducati have until the end of this month to decide which way to go.
If they do go Open, Ezpeleta will be delighted, unlike Honda and Yamaha, who will be apoplectic with rage because the Open rules were written specifically to help privateer teams, not to give struggling factory teams a leg up. However, no one thought to include a regulation that prevented factory teams from running under these rules.
If Ducati go Open, they will enjoy the extra four litres of fuel, but the main attraction to Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna is the lack of engine restrictions. Not only do Open teams get 12 engines per rider, instead of five, they can also modify and redesign their engines as much as they like, whereas factory teams must seal their engines at the start of the season.
Honda are already unhappy with Yamaha, for leasing last year’s factory M1 equipment to Espargaró’s and Colin Edwards’ NGM Forward team. They have complained that this isn’t in the spirit of the Open rules and they are correct.
Dorna’s Open concept was for the factories to sell machines to private teams, not lease them. Dorna quite rightly want private teams to be able to buy bikes and then operate on their own without factory involvement. That way, when the racing is over the teams will have equity, which they can then sell on or use again. So long as private teams have to lease equipment they will have no equity and they must fork out a huge annual fee to the factories. That’s not sustainable for the vast majority of teams.
Honda did what Dorna wanted them to do – they built the RCV1000R that teams can buy and own. Meanwhile Yamaha told Dorna that building an entire machine and/or engine to sell to privateers was beyond their resources. Also, they didn’t want their latest MotoGP technology getting into the hands of non-factory people, so they offered a compromise – to lease engines. Dorna had little option but to accept the offer.
At Sepang 1 Espargaró rode with a 2013 M1 engine and chassis, because FTR are still constructing the frames that will form the backbone of the Forward team’s 2014 effort. At Sepang 2 Espargaró may run an FTR frame, so it’s quite possible that his lap times will be less spectacular as the British frame constructors dial in their new kit. FTR are under a huge amount of pressure, because designing and building a frame that works as well as a factory Yamaha unit – the product of decades of GP knowhow – isn’t going to be easy.
For the sake of FTR, Espargaró, Edwards, Ezpeleta and the rest of us, I hope they do a great job.