The question is: are CRT bikes too slow? It depends on your viewpoint. If you are Jorge Lorenzo, under pressure from Dani Pedrosa as you come upon a backmarker at a crucial corner, then, yes, they probably are too slow. But if you are able to stand back and look at CRT bikes from a historical perspective then, no, they are not too slow.
The fact is that during six decades of Grand Prix racing the sport has never been rich enough to afford a grid full of machines of similar performance. Well, that did happen once, in those heady few years between 2002 and 2006 when the new MotoGP class was bankrolled by the tobacco industry – anxious to spend, spend, spend before the advertising ban kicked in – and a motorcycle industry that hadn’t yet worked out that it couldn’t afford four-stroke GP bikes and hadn’t yet been be knocked flat by the global economic crisis. Once the factory accountants had taken a good look at the books, most of them made a swift exit: Kawasaki, Aprilia, KTM, Suzuki and others.
At all other times, from the birth of GP racing in 1949 until now, grids have consisted of a dramatically contrasting mix of cutting-edge factory machines at the front and budget-priced bitzas at the back. That’s just the way it is.
Qualifying times reveal all. If we take a random selection of grid times from history – comparing pole position to 15th fastest – you will see that CRT bikes aren’t very slow at all.
At Sepang last year, 15th place on the grid was 3.8 seconds off pole. Ten years earlier, when MotoGP was brand new and chock full of factory prototypes, the gap at Estoril was just 1.3 seconds. But if you go further back the gap widens again, quite considerably. At Brno in 1991 there were 7.1 seconds between pole and 15th, at Assen in 1982 the difference was 6.9 seconds and at Mugello in 1976 it was 6.5 seconds. Qualifying times aren’t recorded from much earlier than that, but look at the 1967 championship and you will see that it wasn’t unusual for the winner (usually Giacomo Agostini on his MV triple or Mike Hailwood on his Honda four) to lap everyone – usually privateers mostly riding ancient British singles – all the way to second or third place. At Hockenheim in ’67 Ago lapped everyone twice, including the considerably talented Peter Williams, aboard a Matchless G50, who finished second! That’s a lap difference of something like 9.6 seconds, between first and second place.
I’m not saying that the facts of history make ultra-slow tail-enders okay, but they do allow one to examine MotoGP’s current predicament with a little objectivity, which is always crucial to the true understanding of anything. During 64 years of GP racing, there have only been five or six seasons of equal machinery. In other words, don’t panic Mr Carmelo Ezpeleta.
Quite rightly, Dorna is trying to narrow the gap anyway. And already it is narrowing. At last year’s first Sepang tests the best CRT bike was 3.2 seconds down, eight months later at the Sepang GP the gap was 2.9 seconds and at Sepang last week it had shrunk to 2.5. Now, if you put Pedrosa or Lorenzo on Aleix Espargaro’s Aprilia ART perhaps the gap would shrink another half a second or so. In other words, there’s not a huge difference between the best protos and the best CRTs – let’s say about 1.7 per cent. That’s not a lot when a full-factory RCV costs – at a wild guess – five times more than an ART powered by a streetbike engine.
Next year, when new rules designed to curb the performance of the prototypes and boost the performance of CRT bikes come into force, the gap will narrow some more. The arrival of Honda’s production RCV may also give privateers a chance of getting closer to the front, though some CRT teams are already shaking their heads at the predicted price of the machine. The RCV is expected to cost about £870,000, or about three times as much as an FTR Kawasaki or Suter BMW. Honda’s announcement of the ‘budget’ RCV led many (including myself) to predict the demise of CRT bikes from next year, but now I’m not so sure. Motorcycle racing has always been a mostly skint sport and especially in these straitened times 800 grand is too much for many teams.
PS: thanks to my Twitter followers for helping me work out the difference between Ago’s and Williams’ Hockenheim lap times. I wish I was clever like that…