Playing Power Politics - Why The MotoGP Weight Limit Was Changed
The weight increase in the MotoGP class introduced for 2012 - from 153kg, as originally agreed when the 2012 regulations were drawn up back in August 2010, to 157kg - has had many repercussions. The addition of 4kg to the 1000cc MotoGP machines has been blamed for causing the chatter that Honda's RC213V suffers from, and for complicating the pursuit of the ideal weight distribution for both Honda and Yamaha, which the two Japanese factories had spent most of 2011 perfecting ahead of the 2012 MotoGP season.
The decision was taken in a Grand Prix Commission meeting held on December 14th of 2011 in Madrid, and though it drew little comment at the time, once the MotoGP paddock reassembled at Sepang for the first test of the year, some intriguing details started to appear. Crash.net's Peter McLaren has an excellent reconstruction of the decision process, from which it is clear that the path to adoption the proposal faced was far more complex than usual. It also reveals some of the underlying tensions in both the Grand Prix Commission and the MSMA which will go on to play a major role in the rule-making process for 2013 and beyond.
When the weight increase was first announced, the finger of suspicion was immediately pointed at Ducati. The switch from the carbon fiber (and then aluminium) subframe design using the engine as a stressed member to a full aluminium twin spar chassis design has increased the weight of the Ducati GP12; to get an idea of the significance of the switch, the Ducati Panigale - which dropped the steel trellis frame used by the 1198 for a subframe design based on the GP11 MotoGP bike - lost some 5kg in weight, just because of the minimalist chassis design. Ducati's detractors claimed that the weight increase was made to benefit the Ducati, as they would not have to search for areas to cut the weight gained by the move to a full twin spar frame.
The reality is rather more prosaic: the weight increase was proposed by Dorna to keep costs down for the Claiming Rule Teams. The initial proposal - 160kg - is 5kg less than the minimum weight in World Superbikes, and given that carbon fiber bodywork is banned in WSBK, building a bike around a production-based engine down to that minimum weight could be achieved without spending vast amounts of money in pursuit of the last few grams of weight loss. Even at 157kg, the CRT machines can get close to the minimum weight limit without breaking the bank, keeping their disadvantage with respect to the factory prototypes - already large, as the factory prototypes are designed for the race track from the ground up, have the most sophisticated electronics, and, in the case of the factory teams, by far the best riders - can be kept to a minimum.
That does not necessarily mean that Ducati had nothing to do with the decision. As McLaren reports on Crash.net, Carmelo Ezpeleta revealed that the weight increase had been proposed at the Valencia meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, held on November 5th. That proposal had been vetoed by the manufacturers assocation, the MSMA, as they have the right to do for all technical regulations under the contract which Dorna had with the MSMA from 2002 until December 31st 2011. However, that right of veto only applies when the MSMA make a unanimous decision on a proposal, with all of the MotoGP manufacturers agreeing. At Valencia, MSMA representative Takanao Tsubouchi told the Grand Prix Commission that opposition to the weight increase was unanimous among MSMA members, but at some time between November and mid-December, the other members of the GPC learned that the decision had not been been unanimous, but that the votes had gone 2-1 against the proposal.
Given that both Yamaha and Honda are now complaining about the weight increase - see, for example, this story by Matt Birt of MCN - the identity of the dissenting opinion is easy to guess. At Madrid, the GPC formally asked for the minutes of the MSMA meeting, where they learned that the proposal had not been rejected unanimously, meaning that the MSMA veto of the weight increase was not valid. The weight increase proposal was reintroduced, and as a compromise, it was phased in over two years, with the minimum weight bumped to 157kg for 2012, rising to 160kg for 2013.
So how did the other GPC members find out about the discrepancy between Tsubouchi-san's report at Valencia and the actual events at the MSMA meeting? As the minutes of MSMA meetings are not public, one of the three MSMA members must have made it apparent to the GPC members that they might find something interesting in the MSMA minutes. There is no evidence to link any of the individual MSMA members to such a leak, but logic would suggest that the dissenting MSMA member has the most to gain by making the erroneous reports by the MSMA's representative public.
What follows is based on rumor and hearsay, and off-the-record comments from sources close to the parties involved, and should therefore be regarded with a healthy dose of scepticism. But reconstructing the chain of decisions and events provides some insight into the future of MotoGP, and the future the rules are likely to take, and if nothing else, makes for an interesting intellectual exercise. The assumptions, conjecture and conclusions are entirely my own, and impossible to verify, at least publicly and on the record.
The dissenting opinion in the MSMA meeting was almost certainly Ducati, as the Bologna factory had the least to lose. Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi was about to embark on a massive project to redesign the Ducati GP12, based in part on the data collected by Valentino Rossi at the Valencia test. Building a heavier bike is always cheaper than building a lighter bike, and with plenty of work ahead of them, Ducati are unlikely to have been opposed to increasing the minimum weight for the class, giving them one less factor to worry about.
Once the GP commission rejected Dorna's proposal to increase the minimum weight, Ducati would quickly have learned the reason for that rejection. The Italian factory has long been outnumbered and outgunned in the MSMA, but as Japanese manufacturers have dropped out of the series - ironically, as a direct result of the increased cost of competition caused by the rule changes imposed by the MSMA - the balance of power inside the MSMA has shifted dramatically. Where once Ducati faced a collective block of four other factories, now just the two Japanese manufacturers remain. After being forced to accept a number of decisions that they were less than happy with - the switch to 800cc was one of them - Ducati is now able to put up a stiffer resistance to Honda and Yamaha. Where previously, Ducati would have acquiesced to majority opinion, now, they are more determined to protect their own agenda.
And Ducati have a bone or two to pick with the Japanese manufacturers. In the run up to the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi, Ducati looked like they might pull out of the race due to fears over radiation. Though most of those fears were allayed by the independent report commissioned by Dorna, there was also intense pressure on Ducati from the Japanese factories to attend the race. Unsubstantiated paddock rumor has it that Ducati was given to understand that if they decided against racing at Motegi, that might influence the way their proposals to the MSMA were viewed by the Japanese members. If they were to race at Motegi, the rumors suggest, then their proposals would be regarded in a much more positive light.
The lifting of the testing restrictions was seen in part as the Japanese factories making good on their promise to Ducati after the Bologna factory dropped their opposition to the Motegi race. The decision - common sense, given that testing was taking place anyway, only less effectively, using separate testing teams rather than the factory riders sitting at home being paid not to ride - was accepted with much complaint by the Japanese factories, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto pointing out to me at Valencia that the decision benefited factories based in Europe, who had riders and race tracks close by, rather than Japanese factories, who would have to either fly bikes, parts and technicians to Europe, or riders and crew to Japan.
Once Ducati discovered that the MSMA had misrepresented the outcome of the meeting on Dorna's weight increase proposal, they may have feared a return to the bad old days, where the Japanese factories would decide the MSMA's response and steamroller the wishes of the Italian factory. Ducati may have believed they would benefit from a weight increase, but they cannot have been unaware of the importance of establishing their role in the MSMA.
But the decision also hints at the approach Dorna is to take to rule making for the 2013 MotoGP season. A meeting of the Grand Prix Commission is planned at the Jerez IRTA tests, with a view to thrashing out a set of rules for adoption in May. Dorna is proposing the imposition of a spec ECU and a maximum rev limit - probably in the region of 15,000 rpm - on the MotoGP class, to allow the CRT machines to be competitive and to drastically lower the barriers to entry for new manufacturers wishing to join the series. The factories are fiercely opposed to both these measures, and intend to reject the proposals.
The problem is that Dorna has not (yet) signed a new collective contract with the MSMA renewing their monopoly over the technical regulations. The old contract expired on December 31st, and no new contract has been signed, leaving all proposals to the Grand Prix Commission to be decided by a simple majority, or deferred to the Permanent Bureau, in which only the FIM and Dorna have a seat. If the MSMA do not come up with proposals which, in the view of Dorna, and especially their Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli, will not serve to drastically cut costs, especially the cost of leasing a MotoGP machine, then Dorna will push through its own proposals, leaving the factories to either accept them or leave. Given that neither Honda, Yamaha nor Ducati have any factory representation in the World Superbike series - and even if they do, they face an even harsher rule-making climate than in MotoGP - pulling out of MotoGP would be the very last resort. The factories know that even with identical bikes, only they can afford riders such as Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, and crew chiefs such as Jerry Burgess, Cristian Gabbarini and Ramon Forcada, who make the difference between winning and losing. Whatever the rules, Honda knows that their only real competition comes from Yamaha and Ducati, and the riders they can contract.
By forcing through the weight increase - especially after also forcing through the issue of front brake lever protectors and rear lights for use in the rain - Dorna is making clear to the MSMA that the rules of the game have changed, and that they now have the reins firmly in their grasp. The MSMA will either have to submit acceptable counter-proposals or start to lease satellite bikes for around a million euros per season, rather than the 2.5 to 4.5 million they currently cost. Either way, the real winner is MotoGP: the aim of the 2013 rule package is to limit the cost of the (satellite and CRT) bikes to a million euros, so that more teams can afford to take part. Neither a satellite bike nor a CRT bike is ever likely to win a MotoGP race - barring exceptional circumstances, such as the weather or a series of crashes - but if they are affordable enough for the stronger racing teams, and can at least be competitive enough to appease their sponsors, the future of the series should be assured.