Saving MotoGP Part 2 - How To Encourage The Cheats
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.
For anyone still unconvinced, take a look at Formula 1. That series hoped to stamp out traction and launch control by introducing a single ECU, built to the specifications supplied by the FIA. But from early in the season it was clear that the teams were violating the spirit of the law, and using engine maps to get around the launch control ban. If you don't believe that is possible, watch the video below of the start of the Formula 1 race at the Hungaroring. The cars leave the line in full control, with little or no wheelspin, and without leaving clouds of smoke behind. Nobody stalls off the line, and they're all quick off the line. That is all thanks to launch control, despite being officially banned.
What's worse is that banning the easy route - the option to purchase off-the-shelf systems from Magneti Marelli, for example - merely means that teams have to pour more time and development into doing traction control the hard way. Instead of working on refining the existing systems, they have to spend hours and hours of dyno time working out engine maps and strategies for creating a de facto traction control system that will pass the technical inspection. More engineers are needed, and once again, it's the factory teams which come out ahead, as they have the budgets to throw manpower at a problem.
The only way to effectively ban traction control and limit the electronics is by removing the electronics from the bikes altogether. That means a return to mechanical points and cable-operated carburettors. But if the FIM imposed that kind of restriction, there's no incentive for the manufacturers to take part at all, as the R&D justification for motorcycle racing is dead and buried.
If The Cap Fits
Another common idea is a budget cap: placing a limit on the amount any one team is allowed to spend in a year. It's an idea that has been tried in many sports, as a way to try and keep costs within the bounds of the reasonable. But while it may work in sports which revolve around athletes, in motorcycle racing - where the machinery is an important component of the costs - it has a significant weak spot.
For motorcycle racing requires motorcycles to race. And motorcycles come from manufacturers. And manufacturers have a huge manufacturing base outside of racing in which to bury costs. For example, if you were a manufacturer running a factory team, and had a budget cap imposed by the racing authorities, then the first thing you would do is start looking for ways to get around that. You might use your distributor network to transport the parts needed by your factory race team, for example, charged at well below market rates. You could outsource the engine development to your in-house R&D department, again charging only a nominal fee.
Without the FIM having full access to the complete accounts of the motorcycle manufacturers - and employing an army of accountants to go through them with a fine tooth comb - the factory teams will remain well under the budget cap, while the manufacturers continue to spend the same amount of money on racing that they ever did. But instead of doing it openly, they will build giant Enron-type financial constructions in which they can bury the costs. It took a knowledgeable insider to finally blow the whistle on Enron, as audits by accountants never found any problems with the energy giant's accounts. The limited resources of the FIM are unlikely to do much better than the massed powers of the SEC.
And once again, it would be the satellite teams and privateers that would suffer under a budget cap. With the exception of Pramac, they don't have huge distributor and manufacturing networks around the world in which to build giant financial constructions which they can hide their costs in. The satellite teams would be forced to respect the budget cap, while the factories continue to spend.
There's an interesting parallel with World Superbikes here. Many commentators have pointed out that Superbike racing is vastly cheaper than MotoGP, and have pointed to WSBK as a model for MotoGP to follow. And it's true that Superbike development budgets are just a fraction of what they are in MotoGP, with figures in the very low millions of dollars, rather than the tens of millions which MotoGP swallows.
But there's a very good reason for this, and one that is easily overlooked. To build a World Superbike machine - even a factory bike, such as a Xerox Ducati - first, you need a production machine to start work on. And the budget for the design and development of that production machine does not come out of the budget of the race team, it comes out of the budget for the manufacturer's sports bike department. The teams are presented with a machine which is maybe 75% of the way to being a full-fat race machine, and are left with a lot less development to do.
But there's plenty of evidence that those are built with racing in mind, at the very least. Indeed, a number of journalists have remarked on the harsh nature of Ducati's championship-winning 1098R machine, and described it as very tiring to ride, despite it being very fast. It was clearly designed with racing in mind, with a lot of input from Ducati Corse, but because it's a roadgoing machine and designed to be sold to the general public, the basic development costs of the bike are borne, eventually, by every Ducati lover who is willing to hand over the substantial amount of cash which secures for them an extremely desirable object.
MotoGP bikes don't have that luxury. MotoGP bikes are prototypes, by force of the very regulations that govern the series. That means that all of the costs, right down to the bolts holding the engine in the chassis, come out of the MotoGP racing budget. Every decision, from rake and trail to valve angle and frame wall thickness, is taken by the MotoGP racing department, and is paid for out of the MotoGP racing budget.
Diamonds Are Forever
Yet another proposal often put forward to reduce those budgets is to extend engine life. The theory is that if the engines can be made to last much longer than the 300 or so kilometers they are currently good for before requiring a rebuild back at the factory in Japan, then that would save large amounts of money in air freight and maintenance costs.
That seems like a fairly logical conclusion, and there is no arguing with the fact that not sending the engines back to Japan as often would save a lot of money. The problem is, how do you go about ensuring that engines last longer than a single race weekend?
The simple answer is that you detune the engines, accepting a loss of horsepower in exchange for longer engine life. That would definitely be a lot cheaper, but it also opens up opportunities for more devious manufacturers. If everyone else is detuning their engines, then obviously you stand a greater chance of winning if, instead of detuning your engine for longer life, you pour even more money into making your engine last in its current state of tune, or perhaps with even more power.
By spending more time and money on design, stress analysis, exotic or unusual materials, and thousands upon thousands of hours of dyno time, you can beat any rivals who were stupid enough to try and obey the spirit of the rules, rather than the letter of the rules. And by trying to reduce the costs of MotoGP, the rule makers actually end up making it more expensive.
Instead of just spending a fortune building an engine which is tuned to the edge of self-destructing, the manufacturers will spend two fortunes: One to build an engine tuned to the edge of self destruction, and another getting that engine to last for 3 or 5 race weekends. Any savings made in shipping engines back and forth to Japan is lost in yet more development, and costs will continue to rise.
They tried this in Formula 1, and costs just keep on rising in Formula 1, despite engine freezes, spec ECUs, minimum engine life of two race weekends, and many, many other ideas. If you're looking for ideas to cut costs, Formula 1 isn't it.
So if budget caps and limits on electronics aren't the answer, what is? Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, we'll examine a few proposals which could help to make racing cheap again, and might just help save MotoGP.