MotoGP’s Civil War: the final showdown

by Mat Oxley on 5th June 2012

The war has been going on for some while now and finally the deciding battle is ready to be fought.

The opposing armies are camped out on either side of the valley, banners hanging limply in the cool, misty dawn. On one side are the tech-heads, flying the flag of the MSMA, the austere purists who believe that the pursuit of greater technology is MotoGP’s true calling. On the other side are the swashbuckling showmen, cavalier types who believe that all that matters is the show. Their forces are massed beneath Dorna’s Technicolor banner.

For years the tech-heads have held sway, but the showmen have rallied in recent months, their belief in their cause now stronger than ever. They look back at earlier battles in this long-running conflict triggered by economic hardship and they count the casualties: Aprilia, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Ilmor, KTM, Team Roberts, WCM, Honda Pons and others. The showmen believe that if they don’t win the war it will be the end of everything.

This final pitched battle will be fought over several crucial areas: the introduction of an rpm limit and a control ECU, limiting riders to one bike and banning other technologies like carbon brakes.

The fighting will be more vicious on some points than others. The MSMA are already close to conceding on an rpm limit, in the hope that this might help their cause on the other fronts. Dorna want to restrict engine revs for two key reasons: to reduce engine costs and to pull the high-revving prototypes back, so they are closer to the lower-revving, lower-cost CRT machines. This is their mantra: reduce costs, improve the show.

But even if the MSMA do concede on the concept of an rpm limit, there will still be plenty of skirmishing to be done on this subject. “The concept is one thing, the actual number is another thing altogether,” says Corrado Cecchinelli, the former Ducati engineer who recently changed sides to help Dorna rewrite MotoGP’s technical rules. “Many people agree that we should have a limit but it’s very hard to find agreement on the actual number. An rpm limiter isn’t complicated, but it means that engines may have to be redesigned – some factories may even choose a different bore to stroke ratio.”

A few months ago Dorna were pushing hard on the rpm limit, but believed that it would be some years before they could even think of successfully tackling the factories on the more controversial matter of a control ECU. The factories might just fight to the last man on this one – because more than anything they want to continue pursuing electronics R&D in MotoGP.

But Dorna now wants both changes at the same time, perhaps emboldened by the ongoing European financial crisis. At Catalunya last weekend the paddock was an uneasy place as two more important sponsors rumbled into financial trouble. Spanish bank Bankia – sponsors of Jorge Martinez’s MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3 squad – grabbed the headlines, but Italian power products company Pramac – backers of a satellite Ducati MotoGP team – is also said to be struggling.

Dorna want a control ECU for the same reasons they want an rpm limit. “Engine management R&D is a huge cost,” adds Cecchinelli. “It’s also an area in which the smaller teams [ie CRT teams] have no chance to compete. So a control ECU would reduce costs and level performance.”

A one-bike rule already exists in Moto2, Moto3, World Superbike (above) and World Supersport. Currently all MotoGP riders have two bikes, which allows them to work faster on set-up and keeps them going in the event of a crash, if their body is still willing. Inevitably, the riders and factories want things to stay the same. But Dorna are advancing fast on all fronts, determined to keep their cost-saving crusade rolling forward.

“The riders don’t like the idea of one bike, I don’t know why,” says Cecchinelli, disingenuously. “We should probably tell them that if they want to keep two bikes then they will have to sacrifice some of their salaries. I think then they probably would agree to have one bike only.”

Casey Stoner isn’t one of those riders. He’s already announced he’s quitting, largely because he’s fed up with Dorna ‘dumbing down’ Grand Prix racing. “If we go to CRT bikes, no one’s going to want to be here and no one will want to watch,” says the reigning World Champion “They’ll lose a lot of people, definitely myself. I’m not interested in the slightest in racing modified production bikes. That should be the league you work your way through to get where we are. It’s like Formula 1 switching to touring cars.”

There are various issues regarding a switch to one bike per rider. At present, when the weather changes during races, riders come into the pits to swap bikes, rather than tyres. That obviously couldn’t happen if riders had one motorcycle each. One of the main reasons for the bike-swap system is that carbon brake discs are used in the dry while steel discs are used in the wet. Changing most of the brake system – calipers and discs – would be too complicated and take too long.

That’s why Dorna also want to get rid of carbon brakes – running steel brakes in all conditions would facilitate the switch to one bike only by allowing riders to simply swap wheels and tyres when conditions change from dry to wet or vice versa.

The factories, however, are adamant that carbon brakes must stay, for safety reasons. “But it’s only the vested interests that want carbon brakes,” says Mike Trimby of teams’ association IRTA, who are fighting on Dorna’s side. “World Superbike already uses steel brakes and the bikes are doing over 200mph and are heavier than MotoGP bikes.”

The factories’ other argument against wheel changes during races is safety, but this is a flimsy argument that suggests that MotoGP mechanics aren’t not up to the job and conveniently disregards what teams have been doing in motorcycle endurance racing for decades. “My own personal view is that perfectly good technology exists for fast, safe wheel changes,” adds Trimby.

Dorna are fighting to have all these changes in place for 2014 or 2015. They may win most of the battles, but perhaps not all of them, and who will win the war is uncertain. However, Dorna’s power increased immeasurably with the introduction of CRT bikes. The CRT concept was something of a Trojan Horse and the teams are now Dorna’s private army. Because as soon as CRT bikes were on the grid the factories were no longer able to threaten Dorna with emptying the entire grid. If the factories quit in disgust, Dorna can now manufacturer its own CRT grid, for better or worse.

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