Honda: goodbye MotoGP, hello WSB?


These are strange days in MotoGP. World Champion Casey Stoner is quitting and Ben Spies may follow him, both of them complaining that they don’t like MotoGP’s current direction away from pure prototypes.

That’s bad, but much worse is the fact that HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) are also talking about withdrawing their factory squad. Even worse than that, HRC are talking about defecting to World Superbike, MotoGP’s arch-rival.

The reason? Dorna’s plan to introduce a control ECU for the entire MotoGP grid within the next few years. Dorna want to ban open electronics development by forcing everyone to use the same ECU, because they believe it will cut costs and improve the racing.

They may be right, they may be wrong. What is certain is that we live in a digital age, which is why HRC won’t tolerate Dorna’s plan to suppress digital R&D.

If HRC aren’t allowed to subject all those zeroes and ones to rigorous experiment in MotoGP’s racetrack laboratory, they say they will take their factory team somewhere they can, to WSB, where there’s no talk of banning electronics R&D.

“At the moment Honda only have a factory team in MotoGP, while we have a ‘dealer team’ in World Superbike,” said HRC vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto at Brno. “But if we have a single ECU here in MotoGP, then Honda’s interest will change to World Superbike. Ciao Carmelo! [Nakamoto means ‘ciao’ as in ‘goodbye’, not ‘ciao’ as in ‘hello’.] Dorna can make the decision, but we must continue spending on [electronics] development. This is very important to Honda.”

Nakamoto’s revelation may be a serious threat or it may be sabre rattling – or rather, samurai-sword rattling – but either way HRC are determined to derail Dorna’s plan for a control ECU. No doubt, the other factories are on HRC’s side as the MSMA continues its talks with Dorna, though Ducati and Yamaha have yet to threaten defection to WSB.

Like any negotiations, both sides ask for more than they expect to get, then agree to meet somewhere in the middle. It’s difficult to see the middle ground in this argument because hi-tech electronics are hideously complex. And even if the two parties do agree on a compromise to limit rider aids like traction control in some way, then how will that be policed? Expect the wrangling to go on for some while.

With so much discord in the paddock, it was heartening to visit the post-qualifying press conference at Brno where there was much hilarity when Jorge Lorenzo was asked if he was worried about having to battle with his fellow Yamaha riders.

The question harked back to Motegi 2010, when Lorenzo was happily cruising to the world title until he got locked into a vicious brawl for the final podium place with outgoing team-mate and bitter rival Valentino Rossi.

Lorenzo’s duel for the 2012 title is with Honda’s Dani Pedrosa, but he also has to deal with three fast Yamaha riders, two of whom are departing to ride for rival manufacturers, which means they aren’t likely to heed appeals from Yamaha management to go easy on Lorenzo.

While Lorenzo considered his answer, the ever-mischievous Cal Crutchlow grinned at the World Championship leader and said “He has to pay me!”. In other words, Crutchlow would like some financial remuneration to guarantee Lorenzo safe passage.

Then things started getting complicated. Pedrosa leant behind Lorenzo to conspire with Crutchlow, telling him that whatever Lorenzo would pay, he would better the offer to have the Briton on his side.

It’s good to see Pedrosa coming out of his shell. Like team-mate Casey Stoner he used to be uncomfortable in the limelight, but he’s grown out of that and is now happier and more relaxed. Perhaps that’s why he’s such a threat to Lorenzo for this year’s crown.

The pair were laughing and joking at Brno, but as their title battle builds towards its climax, how long will the good humour remain?

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