The Rookie Rule, A Paper Tiger
At a press conference held today at Jerez, FIM president Vito Ippolito and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced a range of rules aimed at two goals: Cutting costs and making the sport more attractive as a spectacle. We have been over the oxymoron of changing rules to cut costs ad nauseam here, so we will not continue to flagellate that particular moribund equine any more than is necessary - and frankly, that horse probably does need a little more flogging, just to make sure it is truly dead. Instead, we shall concentrate on another change, one aimed at helping the private teams in the series.
That rule is of course the ban on new entrants into the series joining factory teams. Under the new rule, any rider eligible for Rookie of the Year - that is, any rider who has not previously been entered as a full-time rider at the start of a MotoGP season - will not be allowed to join a factory team in their first year of MotoGP, and will instead have to serve an apprenticeship at a private or satellite team, before stepping up to the very top step of the very top series. The rule, drawn up at the behest of IRTA, is aimed at helping out the private and satellite teams by giving them a shot at signing the big, marketable names which will help them attract sponsorship.
On paper, this is an excellent idea. In theory, big name entries into MotoGP such as Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista and Ben Spies would help the private teams find the sponsorship they need so that they can afford to stay in MotoGP. It stops the factory teams from poaching the top talent, and means that the private teams will get the publicity they so badly need, and quite frankly, broadly deserve.
But like all ideas which sound excellent on paper, this one is unlikely to survive its meeting with cold, hard reality. For the fact remains that the factory teams call the shots in MotoGP, for the simple reason that they pay the piper. The budgets which the factory teams have - between 2 and 10 times the size of a typical satellite team, mean that not only can they afford to pay whatever it takes to sign the big name rookies, but also, they can afford to circumvent the rules by setting up their own "satellite" teams which are all but factory in name.
The likely outcome of the new rule will be the acceleration of a trend already underway. The satellite teams are moving ever closer to the factories as it is, under pressure of costs, and control over technology. As the costs of leasing a MotoGP bike continue to rise, satellite teams need guarantees of competitiveness to be able to attract sponsors, and the only way to ensure competitive equipment is to get factory level bikes and support.
But the factories guard their technology jealously, and are responding to the satellite teams by providing factory-spec machines as asked, whilst at the same time bringing the teams ever more closely under the wing of the factories themselves. The difference between the factory team and a satellite team is rapidly disappearing, the satellite team becoming more and more like a junior team, rather than a truly independent organization.
The Tech 3 Yamaha team is a prime example of this, the team run by Herve Poncharal edging ever closer to Yamaha Racing year by year. But the most blatant example of this trend is the Pramac Ducati team, which Factory Ducati team boss Livio Suppo has repeatedly referred to as the factory's junior team, and a place for young riders to serve an apprenticeship. The true privateer team is gradually disappearing.
As factories bring their satellite teams ever closer, they are also exerting more and more control. The manufacturers are already dictating rider choice to a large extent, but they are also involved in appointing team management, in finding sponsors, and eventually, they will end up controlling every aspect of their satellite teams. In effect, there will no longer be a single factory team, but rather each factory will have multiple teams, one to contest the championship with, and one to nurture young riders until they are ready to contest the championship.
And so this rule, propagated by IRTA, is likely to end up sounding the death knell of the satellite teams. Independent team managers will be thrust aside, in favor of people who the factory believes will be capable of taking on a role at the factory team one day, following the same pattern the riders do. Eventually, the satellite team will be nothing more than an extension of the factory squad, and a training ground for riders, managers and crew alike. Far from helping satellite teams, this rule will finally kill them off.
If anyone doubts that the outcome of the new rule, there is a precedent in history, as GPOne.com's Paolo Scalera pointed out during the press conference. Back in 2000, Honda had an official factory team, consisting of Tadayuki Okada and Sete Gibernau running under the Repsol Honda banner. But they had also signed a young rookie by the name of Valentino Rossi, and needed a place to put him.
So they created the Nastro Azzurro Honda satellite squad, possibly the most talented satellite team in history. Rossi immediately got Jeremy Burgess as crew chief, and along with Burgess came the rest of the newly retired Mick Doohan's Australian crew. According to the letter of the proposed rules, Rossi had joined a satellite team, and Honda would have fully complied with its obligations. But in terms of the spirit of the law, the Nastro Azzurro Honda team tore up the rule book, brutally raped, then spat on its grave. The Nastro Azzurro Honda team was a satellite team in the same way as a Ducati 1198R is a cheap motorcycle: The Desmosedici RR is more expensive, so the 45,000 euro 1198R must be cheap, right?
The aim of the new regulations, as with so many of the new rules, is laudable: To help the satellite teams attract more funding by offering them the ability to sign big names. But the real world is likely to make a mockery of the rules. In the end, they will be nothing more than a waste of paper.
The Rookie Rule is likely to share the same fate as the rule banning launch control which was to be introduced this year. After being told by MotoGP's technical director that the rule is impossible to police, the FIM and Dorna have quietly dropped the launch control ban. The MotoGP rule book, it would appear, is full of paper tigers.