Uncertainty continues to cloud Kawasaki's future in MotoGP. Despite the official announcement on January 9th that Kawasaki would be withdrawing factory support from MotoGP, rumors continue to rumble on that there will be Kawasakis on the grid when the season starts, with some sort of private team structure running the bikes.
These rumors have been fueled by the private test currently underway at Eastern Creek in Australia. Test riders Olivier Jacque and Tamaki Serizawa are continuing work on the 2009 version of Kawasaki's ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP bike, lapping the track on Friday and Saturday. The official MotoGP.com website has video of the bike being tested, and is adamant that the bike will be run by a private team in the coming season.
Indeed, this is what Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is working towards. In an interview with the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Ezpeleta stated that a private team structure was almost ready to go, the only problem being the question of building new engines and developing the bike. Kawasaki told Dorna that they only have enough engines for a quarter of the season, and no money to develop the bike. But the Spaniard had a solution for that to: Ezpeleta had found an engineering facility in France that is willing to take on the work from Kawasaki, build engines and continue development of the ZX-RR.
The only stumbling block is that Kawasaki have to accept these conditions and agree to turn the bikes over to the French firm. In exchange for this, and allowing the bikes to run during 2009, Ezpeleta told Gazzetta dello Sport, Dorna would be willing to allow Kawasaki to withdraw from the contract they have with the MSMA to run bikes through 2011.
The alternative is to sort the case out in the courts. Ezpeleta made it perfectly clear: "If they don't run the bikes, I'll take them to court." A court case - most likely to be held in the Spanish courts, as the country where Dorna is based - would be both expensive and raise unwelcome publicity for Kawasaki, but it is potentially even more dangerous for Dorna.
So far this year, the news from MotoGP has been almost uniformly terrible. Kawasaki announced their pullout, the satellite teams managers have all chimed in on the need to cut costs, and the MSMA has met to discuss rule changes meant to reduce the expense of MotoGP. The air is full of doom and gloom, and and MotoGP commentators sound almost uniformly like Cassandra, predicting the imminent demise of the series.
So the announcement by Ducati that two of their sponsors have extended their deals comes as a breath of fresh air, a moment of cheer in these otherwise dark times. Italian energy giant Enel will continue the deal with Ducati which sees its logos displayed on the bikes, riders, and riders helmets of the factory team. Even better news is that Riello UPS, an Italian maker of UPS equipment, will be expanding its sponsorship of Ducati, in a program which has seen its investment in the team grow over the past three years.
Securing extra funding for a MotoGP team is always good news, but what makes it better is the fact that these are two companies from outside the motorcycle industry. If MotoGP is to survive in its current form, it is clear that what is required is more of this kind of outside sponsorship. Indeed, Claudio Domenicali, CEO of Ducati Corse, pointed out as much in his statement at Ducati's annual MotoGP press introduction at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy. "There are also lots of other companies who promote their products through motorcycle racing with the Ducati Marlboro Team such as Alfa Romeo, Gatorade and Puma. Of course these are tough times but there are still plenty of ways to make sure that the MotoGP World Championship remains a leading promotional vehicle," he told the press there. If Ducati can seize these opportunities, then maybe the other teams can too.
FIM Superbike World Championship Provisional list
|41||Noriyuki Haga||JPN||Ducati 1098R||Ducati Xerox Team|
|84||Michel Fabrizio||ITA||Ducati 1098R||Ducati Xerox Team|
|19||Ben Spies||USA||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha World Superbike|
|66||Tom Sykes||GBR||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha World Superbike|
|7||Carlos Checa||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|65||Jonathan Rea||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|53||Alessandro Polita||ITA||Ducati 1098R||Sterilgarda|
|67||Shane Byrne||GBR||Ducati 1098R||Sterilgarda|
|71||Yukio Kagayama||JPN||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Suzuki Alstare|
|76||Max Neukirchner||GER||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Suzuki Alstare|
|23||Broc Parkes||AUS||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Kawasaki Superbike Racing Team|
|100||Makoto Tamada||JPN||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Kawasaki Superbike Racing Team|
|24||Brendan Roberts||AUS||Ducati 1098R||Guandalini Racing|
|96||Jakub Smrz||CZE||Ducati 1098R||Guandalini Racing|
|15||Matteo Baiocco||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||PSG-1 Corse|
|86||Ayrton Badovini||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||PSG-1 Corse|
|55||Regis Laconi||FRA||Ducati 1098R||DFX Corse|
|9||Ryuichi Kiyonari||JPN||Honda CBR1000RR||Ten Kate Honda Racing|
|33||Tommy Hill||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Honda Althea|
|94||David Checa||ESP||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha France GMT 94 IPONE|
|25||David Salom||ESP||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Team Pedercini|
|99||Luca Scassa||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Team Pedercini|
|36||Gregorio Lavilla||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||Pro Ride World Superbike|
|3||Max Biaggi||ITA||Aprilia RSV4||Aprilia Racing|
|56||Shinya Nakano||JPN||Aprilia RSV4||Aprilia Racing|
|11||Troy Corser||AUS||BMW S1000 RR||BMW Motorrad Team Alpha Racing|
|111||Ruben Xaus||ESP||BMW S1000 RR||BMW Motorrad Team Alpha Racing|
|31||Karl Muggeridge||AUS||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Celani Race|
|77||Vittorio Iannuzzo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||Squadra Corse Italia|
|44||Roberto Rolfo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|91||Leon Haslam||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|88||Roland Resch||AUT||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||TKR Suzuki Switzerland|
To paraphrase a great Irish wit, to lose one manufacturer may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. After the dramatic withdrawal of Kawasaki from MotoGP, rumors persist that Suzuki is to follow. MotoGPMatters.com has now been passed on this rumor from three independent sources, two of which are inside the Japanese motorcycle industry, and it is starting to look less and less far-fetched.
The problem is, all that we have heard so far are the five chilling words "Suzuki is out of MotoGP," without any further details being provided. As a result, it is hard to say just how much credence we should attach to this story, but there are good reasons to consider it within the realms of the possible.
Firstly, there has still been no confirmation of Rizla extending their contract with the MotoGP team. The Dutch manufacturer of cigarette papers has already announced that it won't be sponsoring the BSB Suzuki team, which is also managed by Paul Denning, the manager of the MotoGP team. Even if Rizla are still interested, the amount involved is - in MotoGP terms - negligible. Indeed, the Rizla deal angered many inside the MotoGP paddock, as the sum involved - low seven figures, to include sponsoring the BSB team - is only about 5% of what would be needed to run the entire program for a year. A title sponsor, so the argument ran, should cover a big chunk of the teams fees, as Repsol does for Honda, Marlboro does for Ducati and Fiat does for Yamaha.
The decision of the Grand Prix Commission to kill off the 250cc class and replace it with a four-stroke formula was met with a great deal of scepticism by both fans and followers of motorcycle racing. Apart from the sadness at the loss of the two strokes, there was some doubt whether the bikes could be built as cheaply as the Grand Prix Commission hoped, negating the aims of making cheaper racing.
However, there is no doubt that there is real interest in the four-stroke 600cc series. Moriwaki have already exhibited a prototype at a couple of motor shows, and Ronald Ten Kate expressed an interest in the series in an interview with MotoGPMatters.com at Portimao last year.
Today, Ilmor said that they, too, are interested in the new class. Speaking to MotoGPMatters.com, Steve Miller, managing director of the British-based company said that they are watching developments closely. "We are very interested in the class," Miller said. "We would definitely like to be involved, if the series is run seriously and the organization behind it is good."
The framework of the new series - a 600 cc four-stroke engine with steel spring valves and a rev limit, fitted into a prototype chassis - would seem to suit Ilmor right down to the ground. The Northamptonshire-based engineering firm, founded around the engineering genius of Mario Illien, has built a reputation for building and developing racing engines over the years. Their last venture into MotoGP - the remarkable Ilmor X3 800cc bike - foundered on a lack of sponsorship. But the firm's prowess as an engine builder is beyond question, and there is no doubt they could design an engine to fit the new regulations.
As Visordown reported - and as we feared - yesterday, Donington's redevelopment plans to allow the track to host a Formula 1 race have proven fatal to their MotoGP round. Today, Dorna officially announced that Silverstone will be hosting the British Grand Prix from 2010. The agreement will last for 5 years, leaving Donington out in the cold until at least 2015.
Speculation on the reason for Dorna's switch from Donington to Silverstone has centered on the emphasis which the Derbyshire track had placed on Formula 1. It is believed that this was not well received at Dorna, and with Silverstone having lost the British Formula 1 Grand Prix from 2010, the Northamptonshire track needed an international motorsports meeting to replace the huge hole left by F1.
The decision will be met with mixed feelings by motorcycle racing fans. Donington - or at least, large parts of it - is one of the greatest tracks still on the calendar, with the rolling sweep of the Craner Curves one of the finest and most difficult section of corners the riders face. The facilities, on the other hands, were often dire, with overflowing toilet facilities, little in the way of refreshments, and parking chaos.
While the facilities at Silverstone are an improvement over those at Donington - though that's not really very difficult - the track is a real disappointment. Flat, uninspiring, and with a final chicane taken almost at walking pace, it is not a great place to ride a motorcycle round, despite having produced some great racing in World Superbikes.
And so MotoGP heads to Donington for one last time this summer. It will be worthwhile braving the erratic British weather, the terrifying Donington cuisine, and the ludicrous traffic situation to see the bikes roll past the spitfire once more.
When the management of the Donington Park circuit announced that it was planning major changes to the track, to entice Formula 1 to race there, after Silverstone lost the British F1 Grand Prix, speculation ran rife that if F1 did make the switch, MotoGP would leave Donington. And so far, that speculation looks like it could be correct: Visordown is reporting that inside sources have confirmed that this is going to happen, and from 2010, MotoGP will race at Silverstone rather than Donington.
The news came after Donington received planning permission from the local authorities for the proposed track changes and new buildings, which include a new location for the pits and paddock; a new super-fast front straight, and another rolling downhill section between what is now Goddards and Redgate corner. Once the track changes have been made, then the track would be long enough to host a Formula 1 race.
The fly in the ointment is the small matter of raising 40 million pounds sterling, the first part of a total 100 million pound package of redevelopment. With the financial crisis in full swing, and the British economy suffering badly after the implosion of the housing bubble, the prospect of trying to raise such vast quantities of cash is daunting, to say the very least.
Since the end of the 2008 season, Valentino Rossi has been very public about his admiration of the World Superbike series. So much so that the revealed he had tried to arrange to race in the final World Superbike round of 2008 at Portimao in Portugal. After that proved impossible to arrange, Rossi then spoke of his desire to race triple world champion Troy Bayliss aboard a World Superbike some time in 2009.
Bayliss may have turned down Rossi's offer - or perhaps we should call it a challenge - but Rossi remains undeterred. The Doctor continues to press for a chance to ride in World Superbikes.
Now, according to the British motorcycle racing website bikesportnews.com, it looks like he could get his chance. BSN's Edgar Jessop has revealed that Valentino Rossi hopes to line up at the second race of the World Superbike season at Qatar in March.
The report cites unnamed sources inside the Yamaha Motor Italia team, but despite there being no official statement, the chances of Rossi actually racing in World Superbikes are pretty good. Rossi's MotoGP team boss Davide Brivio has already stated publicly that he is prepared to support Rossi in his bid for a World Superbike wildcard, so The Doctor would appear to have Yamaha's official blessing.
The prospect of Rossi riding in World Superbikes must be have Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta in a cold sweat. This has already been a very bad week for MotoGP, and the chance of MotoGP losing the goose that lays Dorna's golden eggs would see MotoGP's status as the premier motorcycle racing class showing some serious cracks. The next few years promise to be interesting times for motorcycle racing fans.
Over the past two days, we have examined the causes for MotoGP's current financial difficulties, and seen why most of the suggestions doing the rounds for fixing the situation are likely to do more harm than good. Today, in the final part of our examination of the state of MotoGP, we submit our own proposals which could form the basis for making the sport a great deal cheaper, and getting private teams back into the sport.
As explained in part one of this series, the biggest problem facing the sport is that horsepower, and with it, top speed, has become incredibly expensive. The best way to cut costs, then, is to make horsepower cheap again.
The easiest way of making horsepower cheap is the old-fashioned way, by raising engine capacity. There is no replacement for displacement, the old saying goes, and for years the quick way to more power has been to bore out the cylinders and add the cubic inches. But while an increase of engine capacity to, say, 1200cc would be a big improvement on the current situation, a braver step is necessary.
For under the current rules, the bikes are limited in two different ways: by engine capacity (800cc) and by fuel allowance (21 liters). Both of these factors can be regarded as having the same goal: to limit the energy output of the machinery. But if both factors perform the same function, why not simply drop one of those limits?
Removing the fuel limit might help make the racing more exciting, but it wouldn't help make the bikes any cheaper. Engine design would still chase the limits of what a given capacity is capable of, and with unlimited fuel to play with, that would make the engines even more high-revving and therefore fragile.
Bigger Is Better. Probably.
On the other hand, keeping the fuel limits while abandoning the capacity limits would offer many solutions to the problem of going fast. You could build a small capacity, high revving multi-cylinder engine with lots of peaky horsepower, and filled with expensive parts. Or you could build a huge V-twin with buckets of torque and mid-range, which will leave the high-revving bikes for dead out of the corners.
In the turbulent times which MotoGP is passing through, the first casualty is truth. Throughout the Kawasaki saga, rumors persisted in the Italian press that any deal which kept Kawasaki bikes on the grid would leave them in the hands of Jorge Martinez, head of the Aspar team.
After Kawasaki announced its official withdrawal from MotoGP, speculation continued that Aspar would get the Kawasaki bikes, despite that deal looking much further from reality. Now, the Dutch website Motorfreaks.nl is reporting that Kawasaki have categorically denied the rumors that Aspar would field the former factory Kawasakis in a private team structure. What's more, Kawasaki say that there will be no Kawasakis at all in MotoGP in 2009.
"As soon as the economic situation improves, we definitely intend to return to the MotoGP arena, but for next season, there will be no Kawasakis in MotoGP. Consequently, there's no truth in the rumors that Martinez would be running our bikes," Kawasaki told Motorfreaks.
As for the fine for breach of contract which Kawasaki will incur by pulling out before their contract ends in 2011, the Akashi factory is still in talks with Dorna. "This won't affect our decision to withdraw from MotoGP, however," Kawasaki said.
Yesterday, we examined why MotoGP turned into the bottomless pit which swallows money, and looked at the mistakes which made this result inevitable. Today, we'll be examining the suggestions being put forward to fix the situation, and get spending in MotoGP back under control, and picking them apart looking for flaws in their logic.
The proposals being put forward come from all around the motorcycle racing world, from seasoned veterans and respected thinkers in major media outlets, to the purest of noobs in every racing corner of every motorcycle discussion board around the internet. The ideas vary from the brilliant to the absurd, with all shades in between. But there are a few common themes which keep reoccurring, and which need to be looked at more closely.
The most common proposal for reducing costs is to limit the role of electronics. There may be a lot of good reasons for wanting to do this - to give more control back to the rider, for a start - but the one thing this suggestion will not do is reduce costs.
For the reason that it won't cut costs, look no further than the lessons of reducing engine capacity to 800cc. Beyond the practical difficulties of limiting electronics, the teams would simply spend more time looking for ways to circumvent the spirit of the law, while balancing on a razor's edge on the right side of the letter of the law.
The most well-known example of this is the attempt by the AMA to ban traction control. The Yoshimura Suzuki team found a way to get around the restrictions - imposed by banning the use of front wheel speed sensors - by doing some clever calculations using comparisons of throttle opening, rear wheel speed and engine speed. This way, the team was able to build a traction control system that passed every single technical inspection it was subjected to.
Likewise, attempts to reduce the role of electronics - by banning GPS, traction control, launch control, etc - will simply spur teams on to find a way around them. If GPS is banned to stop the teams using separate engine maps for different parts of the track, then the engineers will simply use braking marker points (clearly identifiable on data traces) to do the same job. If traction control is banned, then development time will be spent developing a "passive" traction control system based on comparing gear selection, rear wheel speed, engine speed and throttle opening. Add in braking data, and you have a decent basis to start building a rudimentary but refinable traction control system.
After weeks of speculation, finally an official announcement has been made. Kawasaki Heavy Industries announced that it was officially pulling out of MotoGP. All the rumors and hopes of Dorna somehow being able to put together a deal have come to nothing: the economic situation is too bleak, with no hope of relief in the immediate future, for Kawasaki to be able to justify the necessary investment.
But for those with a penchant for exegesis, the news is not quite as dark as it may seem. The official statement (shown below) says that Kawasaki will "suspend its factory MotoGP racing activities from 2009." The two key words there are "suspend" and "factory".
For it looks like there will still be 19 motorcycles on the MotoGP grid. The main speculation in the press is that Jorge Martinez is still looking to run the team for 2009, but there are good reasons to doubt this is the case. The Spanish manager of the Aspar team had previously told reporters that a commitment to developing the MotoGP bikes and a three-year deal were the minimum requirements if he was to get involved in running the team, and that is very clearly missing from this statement.
News is starting to filter out of Akashi, Japan, by way of Italy, that Kawasaki will not after all be pulling out of MotoGP. After long negotiation with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, the Japanese manufacturer has rolled back its decision to withdraw from the premier class, probably after Ezpeleta spelled out the financial consequences of withdrawal.
The exact details are as yet unknown, but it looks like Jorge Martinez will be given the Kawasaki team to run, while Michael Bartholemy will remain team manager. At least, that's what GPOne.com says, the Italian news site Mediaset believes that Martinez will be given the team to run as he seems fit. Martinez had earlier told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he was only interested if he could have a three year contract to run the team.
All this is still speculation, though. An official announcement with full details - including what will happen to the riders John Hopkins and Marco Melandri, one of whom will have to make way for a Spanish rider if Martinez gets to run the team - is expected sometime in the next few hours.
Motorsports worldwide have taken a pounding over the past few weeks: first, there was the announcement that Honda were pulling out of Formula 1 with immediate effect; then came statements from Subaru and Suzuki announcing that both manufacturers were pulling out of the World Rally Championship; in the US, American Honda announced that they would not be fielding a factory team in the AMA Superbike championship; and finally, over the holiday period came the bombshell of Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP.
So how did we get here, and more importantly, what can we do about it? Over the next three days, we'll be examining the state of MotoGP, and asking why it turned out to be so hideously expensive. We'll also be studying the likely effects of the most common suggestions being made around the world, and asking how effective these proposals will be. And finally, we'll be making some proposals of our own, which we feel neatly sidestep the pitfalls which have brought MotoGP to its current, parlous state.
Firstly the question of how MotoGP, and motorsports got into this state in the first place. The main, and most obvious culprit is the global financial crisis, which has hit the car and motorcycle sector particularly hard in the second half of 2008. With sales plummeting and the banks only willing to lend money to them at exorbitant interest, the manufacturers are being forced to examine their activities with an almost pathological attention to detail for areas where they can cut costs.
Naturally, one of the first places the manufacturers are looking is at their racing programs: After all, though racing is an undeniably powerful marketing tool, its benefits are for the most part intangible and hard to quantify. The most commonly hailed benefit of racing is its role as a rolling laboratory; a place to develop new technology to improve the breed, as the expression has it. But appeals to accountants to regard racing as a platform for Research and Development are likely to fall on deaf ears, as R&D budgets are the first area where the bean counters look for savings, and among the first casualties in a recession.
As racing fans all over the globe see the sport they love come under threat, the demand is growing for Something To Be Done. The Something which is to be done is occasionally set out in a clear list of suggested actions, such as Fausto Gresini's proposals to reduce the cost of racing, which included a ban on carbon fiber brakes, running three bikes to a two man team, a rev limit of 17,000 rpm and engines having to last for five grand prix weekends. At other times, it involves more vague ideas, such as FIM President Vito Ippolito's calls for electronics to be limited in order to cut costs, though Ippolito is silent on just what should be banned and how that would save money. But usually, it remains little more than a call for action, any action, as a demonstration that this problem is being taken seriously.
Last season, Ben Spies made no secret of his desire to get into MotoGP. He and his manager, Doug Gonda, spent a long time trying to find the promising young American a ride, but one by one, Spies' options disappeared, leaving Spies to look to World Superbikes to make an impact on the global stage.
So far - even though it's only testing - that's exactly what Spies has done, and the Texan is already setting his sights higher. In an interview with Motorcycle News, Spies confirmed that Yamaha are also interested in fielding him in MotoGP if a seat becomes available.
Whether those seats will be open in 2010 is a question. Dorna's keenness to keep a British rider in the series means James Toseland is likely to keep his ride for 2010. Which leaves only Colin Edwards. Edwards is a veteran with very close ties to Yamaha, and helps Yamaha sell a lot of bikes in the US, but the Texas Tornado is approaching the age where he could be thinking of retiring.
A swap between Edwards and Spies is possible in 2010, but Spies is likely to have to win the World Superbike title at his first attempt if he is to go straight to MotoGP next season. Given the stiff competition in World Superbikes, that's not going to be easy. And given the worries about the future of MotoGP, Spies may well change his mind as the season progresses.