Mat Oxley

The word on the street

MotoGP has been going through tough times lately. At some of last year’s races the grid numbered just 16 riders, which makes for a sparse charge into the first turn. There’s an obvious reason for the half-empty grids – a serious dearth of sponsorship cash. And for once we can’t blame the recession. Even before the global financial system imploded MotoGP often had fewer than 20 starters, which just isn’t enough.

The harsh fact is that the motorcycle industry cannot afford MotoGP. The prototype class is simply too expensive for the factories to build more than a few bikes (last year Honda supplied six riders, Ducati and Yamaha four each, Suzuki two). If we guesstimate that the global motorcycle industry is worth five per cent of the car industry, it’s not hard to see why there’s not much spare cash.

Certainly the factories could afford to build more bikes if there was more sponsorship, but blue-chip brands steadfastly refuse to form an orderly queue at the paddock gates, despite the sport’s steadily increasing TV viewing figures.

This shaky scenario has forced rights-holder Dorna into drastic action. Last year it decided to rewrite the technical rules, axing the current 800cc machines. The 800s were introduced in 2007 to replace the original 1000s, deemed too fast and dangerous. The 1000s were certainly fast – in ’04 Loris Capirossi’s Ducati Desmosedici nudged 216mph at Catalunya, several miles an hour faster than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari at the previous year’s Spanish GP.

Of course, the 800s didn’t slow MotoGP down. The more nimble bikes were in fact faster through the corners and only marginally slower on the straights. But they were resoundingly more expensive to run, all the Japanese factories immediately incorporating pneumatic valve springs into their 19,000rpm 800 engines.

In 2012 MotoGP will revert to 1000cc engines. This is the third change in engine capacity since it went four-stroke in ’02; during the category’s previous 53 years engine size changed not once.

This time there’s a crucial difference – restrictive new rules will emasculate the 1000s, turning them into glorified road bike engines. All engines will be limited to a maximum of four cylinders and a maximum bore width of 81mm. This will significantly cut rpm, to about 15,500. That represents something of a cost saving in itself, but the real thinking behind these rules is to turn MotoGP into a street-engined series. Street engines were previously banned in MotoGP but are now actively encouraged. Dorna wants everyone running street engines, with a dramatic cut in costs and a consequent increase in the number of bikes on the grid.

Purists are horrified at such ‘dumbing down’, but the feeling in the paddock is to hell with technology, let’s put on a show – a philosophy more in common with NASCAR than GP racing.

But there are reasons to be cheerful. Current sport bike engines make pretty good race engines. BMW’s recent S1000RR makes a staggering 183bhp at the rear wheel out of the showroom, equivalent to perhaps 200bhp at the crank. And the S1000R’s engine just fits inside MotoGP’s 2012 rules with an 80mm bore…

Here lies another subtext to the new rules. Dorna desperately wants to get more factories involved in MotoGP because the sport is very much owned by the Japanese. The latest rules may just encourage makes like BMW and Aprilia to enter. These brands currently race their street bikes in the much less costly World Superbike series, motorcycling’s version of touring cars.

World Superbike bosses are already making see-you-in-court noises about MotoGP’s new direction, which they believe trespasses on their territory. However, the FIM earns much more money from MotoGP than from WSB, so there’s little doubt whom the FIM will support if the two championships come to blows.

In other words, Dorna’s new rules are a masterstroke: lower your costs, get more brands involved, improve the show and knobble your main rival.