MotoGP is enjoying a golden age. The racing today is 55 times closer than it was back in the 1960s – and we have the numbers to prove it
Every sport has its golden ages, when the planets align and everything is wonderful. In motor sport this requires the right racers, the right machines and the right regulations.
Motorcycle Grand Prix racing has enjoyed several such eras, which will live forever in the annals of the sport. We are in one of them right now, but is the current racing and rivalry better than anything that’s gone before?
There are all kinds of ways of assessing the wonders of each era, although none is more scientific than comparing winning margins. These make for surprising reading.
Taking one season from each of the four eras that are generally considered to be bike racing’s greatest gives us the following numbers. In 1967, when MV Agusta’s Giacomo Agostini and Honda’s Mike Hailwood duelled for the 500cc world championship, the average winning margin was 2min 5sec. In 1979, when Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts fought for supremacy, that gap had shrunk dramatically, to 6.8sec. In 1991, when Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan ruled the racing, the margin had almost halved again, to 3.6sec. And last year, when Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi were in the title hunt, the average winner’s advantage was 2.2 seconds.
The margin covering the top five finishers has undergone a similar adjustment; from 4min 8sec to 48.2sec, 29.9sec and 12.9sec. Another statistic continues the same theme: between 1949 and 2016 the top 15 finishers (in races run in dry conditions that went full distance) were separated by fewer than 35sec on four occasions. Last season that happened on six occasions.
There are multiple reasons for this transformation. In 1967 Agostini and Hailwood were the only factory riders in the premier class. Their exotic multi-cylinder machines were on a different level to the Matchless and Norton singles used by most privateers, so when either failed to finish, the gap to the next man was often a whole lap or two.
By 1979 Roberts and Sheene were joined by other factory riders but, more significantly, Suzuki was selling very affordable replicas of its RG500 to privateers. Thus the racing, from front to back, became much closer than it had ever been.
During the 1980s the sport changed again. The manufacturers became more heavily involved, with four factories each putting two riders on the grid, while the influx of tobacco money allowed independent teams to lease machines that were very nearly as quick as the factory bikes.
None of these changes was brought about by revisions of the technical regulations; they all came about due to changes in the commercial circumstances of the industry or the sport. Tweaking the rules to improve the racing is a relatively recent phenomenon; to be precise, all such changes have been made since Grand Prix racing was hit by the double whammy of the global economic crisis and the ban on tobacco sponsorship. The reduction of spending from factories and sponsors helped turn TV viewing figures into the new gold standard. Therefore everything must be done to get people turning on their tellies.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, so long as the changes aren’t contrived. MotoGP rights-holder Dorna has done a good job of avoiding gimmickry and has instead focused on narrowing the performance gap and reducing costs across the grid, while also increasing its spend on the less wealthy teams.
The crucial change came when Dorna decided to take on the manufacturers, who for some years had written MotoGP’s technical regulations, which (surprise, surprise) didn’t always deliver the best racing. In 2007 the manufacturers reduced engine capacity from 990cc to 800cc, then gradually reduced fuel capacity from 24 to 20 litres. Both these changes had a dire effect on the action, so Dorna got heavy with the manufacturers.
The company introduced so-called CRT bikes, powered by superbike engines, which simultaneously filled the empty slots on the grid and broke the manufacturers’ monopoly. Then Dorna pushed through other changes, via more threats and coercion. Most significantly, tailor-made factory electronics software was banned and the manufacturers were told they must lease factory-spec MotoGP bikes to independent teams at a reasonable price.
The arrival of CRT bikes upset many purists and was cited by twice MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner among the reasons for his shock retirement in 2012. “I don’t like the direction this sport is going in,” he said at the time. “It’s going backwards, so for me it’s not the championship I fell in love with.”
Those were certainly troubled times, but the CRT bikes turned out to be nothing more than a stopgap in Dorna’s long-term plan to overhaul MotoGP.
“Today the grid is full and the racing is the best it’s ever been,” says MotoGP race director Mike Webb. “It’s been a long road to get here, but this has always been the target. We made some technical rule decisions that made it look like we didn’t know what we were doing, but we always knew where we wanted to be.”
Webb would say that, but the numbers don’t lie. MotoGP is in a good place, with great racing and great rivalries. Dorna, which has run the championship since 1992, has finally come up with a good commercial and technical compromise.
Long may it continue…
Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner