A few months ago this column speculated that MotoGP rights-holder Dorna was quietly working to undermine the power of the factories to achieve its aim of closer, cheaper racing. Now the peace has been broken, with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta turning into something of a Bernie Ecclestone, abandoning diplomacy and uttering diktats.
Ezpeleta (a bit taller but balder and poorer than Bernie) used to be friends with the manufacturers. He thought they were vital to MotoGP ’s existence. Now he believes the opposite – that it is their costly R&D programmes that are actually threatening the sport.
This confrontation has been coming for a while and will be familiar to F1 fans – on the one side are those fighting for entertaining racing, on the other are those arguing for a technology race.
For several years MotoGP has struggled to fill even half the grid. Last season there were usually just 16 or 17 starters. The problem, of course, is a lack of sponsorship that had already claimed several teams before the global economic meltdown.
Ezpeleta’s henchmen are now concocting a radical new set of MotoGP rules to slash costs and massively restrict technology. No surprise that the factories – the few still left – aren’t happy with this plan to ‘dumb down’ the sport. Honda has threatened to quit.
Dorna’s assault on racing purity has been well planned. A couple of years ago Ezpeleta outlined his plans for a new kind of low-cost MotoGP bike designed merely to fill the back end of the grid. These machines – grudgingly accepted by the factories – would run tuned streetbike engines that make around 230bhp (like Colin Edward’s Suter BMW , above) and would never trouble the exotic factory prototypes that make 250bhp or more.
But as soon as these so-called CRT bikes (this stands for Claiming Rule Teams) began shakedown tests they were no longer grid fillers, instead they became the thin edge of the wedge. During a press conference to launch the first 2012 CRT team Ezpeleta announced – almost by the way – that within a few years all MotoGP bikes will be like this.
No one knows whether he planned it this way all along or whether his decision to con the factories came more recently. Either way, it’s a genius move: once the CRT bikes were up and running the factories effectively lost most of their power because Dorna no longer relies entirely upon them to put bikes on the grid.
Dorna won’t ban factory prototypes, instead it will reduce them to the level of CRT bikes, most probably with an rpm limit and control ECU . These new rules could be introduced as soon as 2013.
The factories argue there is no point in them being in MotoGP if there is no technical challenge and they may well be correct. But Ezpeleta is adamant: his interests are a full grid and close racing, even if that means one or more of the factories departing.
The new technical rules have yet to be finalised, so we don’t yet know whether MotoGP ’s control ECU will feature traction control. No doubt Ezpeleta will be watching this year’s British Superbike Championship with special interest because it is the first majorbike racing series to ban traction control. BSB has also introduced a milder engine spec, which (in some people’s minds) does away with the need for traction control. If the British series gets through 2012 without major incident then Ezpeleta will surely be emboldened to ban – or severely limit – traction control in MotoGP.
The factories aren’t the only people displeased with MotoGP ’s new direction. World Champion Casey Stoner has also threatened to walk. “If MotoGP isn’t prototypes then I’ll be out of here,” he told me recently. “It’s like Formula 1 switching to touring cars.”
Stoner exaggerates somewhat but you get his drift. But even if the Aussie does retire early Ezpeleta knows that most riders will stick around. Their only real alternative to MotoGP is World Superbikes, where the machinery is even less exotic and salaries are massively reduced. Dorna, it would seem, is going to win this war.