The Humdrum Conundrum

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MAT OXLEY – ON TWO WHEELS

MOTORCYCLE RACING HAS NEVER BEEN A WEALTHY sport. If a MotoGP team attracts five per cent of the sponsorship of a top Formula 1 team it’s doing very well indeed. So we are poor, but we are happy, or at least we were.

The one thing we knew was that MotoGP will always produce racing that’s more exciting than F1. There were real reasons why – bikes are much narrower than F1 cars and they don’t benefit from ground effect – so overtaking wasn’t usually beyond the bounds of possibility. That’s why MotoGP became the last bastion of gladiatorial motor sport, with riders attacking and counterattacking all the way to the chequered flag, the very opposite of the lacklustre parades that were F1’s way for so many years.

How things have changed. Just as too much technology and too many ill-judged rules did for F1, so they have done for MotoGP. If you’ve been watching MotoGP for some years you will have noticed that the racing has changed. More often than not (the recent Mugello GP was a slight exception) it is now agonisingly processional with infrequent overtaking.

There are several reasons for MotoGP’s transformation from breathtaking display of high-speed combat to humdrum parade of awesome technology.

The one-make tyre rule – introduced in 2009 – has contributed enormously to a homogenisation of machinery that has had a disastrous effect on the action. When only one brand of tyre is available, engineers must design motorcycles that can generate grip from those tyres. So it is inevitable that all the bikes will work in a similar way and go round the race track in a similar way. That’s why it has become very difficult for riders to find an advantage.

“Ten years ago, you had four or five corners in a lap where you could overtake; now it’s one, maximum two,” says Valentino Rossi. The type of lyre supplied by Bridgestone and the current 800cc engine regulations – introduced in 2007 – must also take their share of the blame. The 800s have crucially less torque than the old 990s, and Bridgestone’s slicks have astonishing edge grip which allows for only one fast way round the corners. In the past, some riders won races with corner speed – big, wide, cornering arcs – while others used a point-and-squirt technique – stop the bike, wrench it sideways and get on the throttle early, relying on torque to fire them off the corner. Those two styles allowed thrilling and frequent overtaking moves. Now there is only one fast line.

Then there’s the old bogey of electronics. Traction control is now so effective that riders come off the corners at pretty much the same speed, so it’s tricky to set up a pass into the next corner.

The decision to do away with qualifying tyres hasn’t helped either, since riders usually qualify at their race pace and – thanks to launch control – enter the first corner more or less in the same position. And the bikes are now so good that they can run the same pace all the way to the chequered flag, so there’s no juggling of positions as bikes enter and exit their sweet spots.

In other words, the machinery is too good. It might be anathema to engineers, but MotoGP technology needs to be reined in, just as F1 technology is. Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it sounds. For some years MotoGP regulations have been contrived by the factories, which is a bit like allowing bankers to write the tax laws.

There are glimmers of hope on the horizon. MotoGP rights holder Dorna – aware that boring racing equals fewer TV viewers equals reduced income – is quietly removing itself from the factories’ headlock. Its decision to allow street-based engines from 2012 – resisted by the manufacturers – means that it is no longer entirely reliant on the factories to fill the grid. Also, the company recently appointed its own Director of Technology who can concoct new rules that will benefit the sport, not just the factories.

Of course, Dorna denies that it has even thought about wresting power from the factories, but it would say that, wouldn’t it?

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