I have a copy of MotoGP’s 1999 rulebook. It’s 43 pages long, of which six pages (SIX!) cover every single technical regulation relating to all three GP classes: 125cc, 250cc and 500cc. This year’s edition amounts to 371 pages, of which 179 [ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY NINE!) are dedicated to technical rules.
That’s around 30 times more pages – a mind-boggling multitude of regulations written by people frantically grappling with a fast-moving, ever-more complicated four-stroke, electronic world, in which just about anything is possible, if you’ve got the money to pay for it.
The 1999 technical regulations featured brief sections on engine capacity, minimum weights, fuel tank size, number of gears, breather pipes, chain guards and throttle grips. The paragraph on throttles numbered seven words: “Throttle twistgrips must close automatically when released.”
By 2010 the book had grown to 91 pages, 24 of which were dedicated to the tricks that teams could or couldn’t use to make their motorcycles faster. A new rule banned electronic suspension.
“We don’t want to talk about any of our new technologies because when we do the other manufacturers try to block it”
Paragraph number 2.7.12 announced: “Electric/electronic controlled suspension, ride height and steering damper systems are not allowed. Adjustments to the suspension and steering damper systems may only be made by manual human inputs and mechanical/hydraulic adjusters.”
In fact I think the rule-makers believed this rule would rule out all adjustable suspension – apart from the simple rear-preload adjusters mounted in some race-bike cockpits – because they surely never considered that factories would attempt the kind of super-complex mechanical/hydraulic suspension adjustments required for the shapeshifters and holeshot devices that adorn today’s MotoGP bikes.
People up and down pitlane have been grumbling about shapeshifters since the end of 2019 when Ducati deployed first its dynamic ride-height adjuster to lower the Desmosedici’s rear end exiting corners to transform it into (even more of) a dragster. This advance forced its rivals to scramble into a whole new area of technology, just as they’d done a few years earlier when Ducati introduced downforce aero.
At Sepang earlier this month Ducati unleashed a front-end shapeshifter, once again sending its rivals into a panic.
Ducati factory team boss Davide Tardozzi won’t discuss his factory’s latest innovation because he’s mad that rival manufacturers are already talking about getting the technology banned.
“We don’t want to talk about any of our new technologies because when we do the other manufacturers try to block it – they want to take us back to the 1990s,” he says.
Maverick Viñales’ Aprilia: thumb-operated shapeshifter lever, low-slung cutch lever, ‘scooter’ rear brake lever (where the clutch used to be) and holeshot lever by the dash
Dorna knew trouble was coming, because earlier this year they contacted the MSMA [Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers’ Association] to ask them if they should ban shapeshifters? Some manufacturers want these items banned, others don’t. All MSMA meetings are secret, but you can probably have a rough guess who is keenest on the technology.
So, should shapeshifters be banned and perhaps holeshot devices too? That’s the first question. The second question (if the answer to the first is, yes) is how can they be banned? Because MotoGP’s current rules protocol makes that very difficult.
MotoGP’s problem with rulemaking is two-fold. Firstly, the MSMA decide the technical regulations, so MotoGP is a game in which the players make the rules.
The MSMA – which the manufacturers established in the early 1990s to protect their interests in top-level racing – can propose any new technical rule and can veto any technical rule proposed by the other members of the MotoGP establishment: Dorna, IRTA and the FIM.
Secondly, all rules must be decided unanimously, so if five factories want a new regulation or want to veto a new technology and one factory doesn’t agree with the other five, then nothing happens.
“Ducati’s aggressive reading of the rulebook over the last half decade has to be applauded”
Formula 1 has wrestled with this exact same problem for many years. Often new technical regulations made the racing worse, so now the rules are devised by the FIA, F1-owner Liberty and Formula One Management, in consultation with the teams. And rules no longer need to be decided unanimously, a majority is good enough, which surely makes more sense.
The real argument, of course, is the same as it’s always been: should MotoGP be a rolling R&D workshop for half a dozen motorcycle manufacturers or an entertainment show for several hundred million fans?
Do we want unrestrained technical progress which gives a huge advantage to the richer manufacturers, or do we want tight technical rules that shrink the gap between the front and back of the grid to create more entertaining racing?
Over the last decade, Dorna’s push has been 100% towards reducing that gap to increase entertainment. For example, machines can only run four-cylinder engines, so that legendary MotoGP bikes like Honda’s five-cylinder RC211V and Aprilia’s RS3 triple would not be allowed on today’s grid.
During the same period open tyre and electronics development was replaced by same-for-all spec rubber and software. All these changes were made to make the bikes more equal and (in theory) cheaper.
Banning five-cylinder motorcycles is easy, so is fitting the same tyres and software to all the motorcycles. But you will fry your brain when you go deeper into the rulebook to read the latest regulations on suspension.
Pramac Ducati with thumb-operated rear-brake lever, (mountain-bike derived) shapeshifter switch inboard of handlebar grip and front/rear holeshot wingnut on triple clamp
In 2021 the rule on suspension adjustment was specifically rewritten via the MSMA to allow shapeshifters and auto-shapeshifters. It now reads thus… (Good luck!)
“Adjustments to the suspension and steering damper systems may only be made by manual human inputs and mechanical/hydraulic adjusters, or passively determined by forces/displacements directly transmitted by mechanical/hydraulic connections (e.g. suspension position, load, acceleration, pitch… may be used as mechanical triggers of a passive adjustment).
“For example, according to the above, ride height systems that operate on collapsible elements that collapse/extend under the load they are subjected to, and are locked/unlocked by the rider and/or by mechanically triggered locks are allowed.”
Of course, this applies to the front suspension as well as the rear suspension, but no one thought about lowering the front exiting corners, except Ducati.
Ducati’s aggressive reading of the rulebook over the last half decade has to be applauded. Chief engineer Gigi Dall’Igna understands that you can probably find better lap times by spending hours scrutinising the rulebook than hours working on the dyno. And there’s no doubt that he derives great delight from creating gadgets that no one else had considered even in their wildest dreams or scariest nightmares.