MotoGP’s Dorna versus MSMA showdown on shapeshifters

MotoGP

Most factories want to get rid of so-called shapeshifters, but the current system doesn’t allow a ban. Yet. Here’s the latest on MotoGP’s politics of technology

Start of the 2022 MotoGP Qatar GP

The first lap of the 2022 MotoGP season – will shapeshifters still be allowed when the 2023 series gets underway?

Honda

MotoGP rights-holder Dorna is running out of patience with the MSMA as it tries to get a grip on controversial technologies like shapeshifters.

Shapeshifters adjust the geometry of motorcycles exiting corners to improve traction and reduce wheelies, which limit acceleration. Ducati introduced this tech a few years ago, dropping the rear of its Desmosedici via a complex mechanical/hydraulic/pneumatic system (because electronic adjustments are banned). All the other factories followed. This year Ducati has a front-end shapeshifter that further reduces wheelies

Dorna originally approached the MSMA – the Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers Association, which represents all six MotoGP factories, and controls MotoGP’s technical rules – before the start of the season. It is concerned that shapeshifter tech is too complex, too costly and is spoiling the racing.

Five of the manufacturers agree with Dorna, but one doesn’t. (I’ll leave you to guess which is which.) The MSMA operates on a unanimity voting system, so rules are only written or dismissed if all six manufacturers agree. So one factory can dominate the regulations, against the wishes of the other five, or indeed against the wishes of all MotoGP’s interested groups.

“It’s starting to be too much. We have to check too many things.”

Incidentally, the MSMA’s new secretary general Biense Bierma was a vehicle dynamics engineer at Aprilia Racing many years ago, working with Gigi Dall’Igna, now at Ducati.

Dorna has been pushing the MSMA to find a way around this impasse, allowing the group until last weekend’s Qatar GP to find a solution. It offered two proposals – possibly a ban on front-end shifters or a ban on all shapeshifters. However, no solution was forthcoming.

No wonder that Dorna now wants to move the MSMA to a majority voting system, which will have a major effect on the future development of technical regulations.

Can it make this happen? Possibly, through the Grand Prix Commission, which consists of four members: Dorna, the FIM, the MSMA and IRTA, the teams association. The GPC operates on a majority voting system, with the chairman (the Dorna rep) having the casting vote in the effect of a tie.

Gresini Ducati handlebar controls

Too much? A Gresini Ducati: thumb brake, shapeshifter switch, mapping buttons and front and rear holeshot devices (on the triple clamps)

Oxley

Of course, Dorna must be careful. It needs to respect the manufacturers, because while Dorna makes money out of racing, the manufacturers spend money to make the racing happen. This is paddock politics: just like the real world, every group has its causes to fight.

What do the riders think?

Many believe that MotoGP’s holeshot and shapeshifter tech has got out control.

“For me it’s starting to be too much,” said reigning MotoGP king Fabio Quartararo in Qatar. “When I came to MotoGP in 2019 the start procedure was, find neutral, press the launch-control button and just go. Now we have to check too many things.”

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Last year’s runner-up Pecco Bagnaia doesn’t agree, because Ducati’s holeshot/shapeshifter tech is considerably more advanced than most of its rivals.

“I only have to flick one button, so it’s not a problem for me,” he grinned.

However, Quartararo’s predecessor Joan Mir agreed with the Frenchman. “Every time we come onto the straights faster, so we will soon reach 370 kays [230mph], so it’s not the best thing for the safety.

Six-times MotoGP king Marc Márquez agrees with MotoGP’s last two champions.

“It’s something we must remove in the future,” he said. “I already said last year when I came back from my injury that all the riders need to get together, because of course all the manufacturers always want to go for more and more and more [speed].

“Now it can be difficult to engage the holeshot device at the start, plus with the rear device we have more speed, so we arrive faster at the braking points and we can brake later, so we are always trying to increase the runoff areas. So for the future it should be no.”

Safety should always be Dorna’s major concern, but the company must also focus on keeping the racing competitive and entertaining, because ultimately it’s the fans that keep the show on the road. If no one watches the racing there’s no money and if there’s no money there’s no racing.

Joan Mir on Suzuki

Joan Mir says shapeshifters make it more difficult to make the difference on corner exits to set up a pass

Suzuki

Because the other problem with shapeshifters is that by making the bikes more perfect it becomes more complicated to find an advantage that will get you past the rider in front.

“For sure with the devices you get more performance but it’s more difficult for the rider to make a difference in acceleration,” added Mir.

This was how it was in the bad old days of the 800s (2007-2011) when most MotoGP races turned into processions, because the bikes had super-high-tech factory electronics and lower-torque engines and Bridgestone tyres that allowed them to use one line and one line only.

“Today’s race was ugly,” said Valentino Rossi after the 2007 San Marino GP at Misano, during which there was no change of leader and just two changes of position in the top five. “This is not the show motorcycle fans deserve. I have the sensation that we are losing the best and most important part of our sport, which is the overtaking.

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“The bikes are too good and the tyres are too good. The problem in MotoGP is that the factories make the rules and of course they want their engineers to make their job to develop the bikes.”

Shapeshifters aren’t the only new tech that makes overtaking more difficult today. Downforce aerodynamics also plays a part.

“When I arrived in MotoGP, when there were no wings, so the show was better because it was easier to overtake,” added Márquez last weekend. “Now sometimes you get close to somebody and your bike starts shaking in a strange way.

“Without wings it was more difficult to ride the bike, easier to make mistakes and overtaking was easier. Now the bikes are easier to ride and it’s more difficult to make mistakes. You need to be very precise and smooth but following somebody and overtaking is much more difficult.”

MotoGP clipped the wings of aerodynamics soon after big aero arrived in 2016, because riders were having scary moments at top-speed while drafting other bikes, especially Ducati’s Desmosedici.

Once the shapeshifter controversy has been sorted, MotoGP must do some research into aerodynamics.

MotoGP needs to find the right balance, so the aero delivers enough downforce to keep the front wheel on the ground at high speeds but doesn’t create too much dirty air, so that riders find it too difficult or too dangerous to get close enough to make a pass.