The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island - likely to be known henceforth as 'The Debacle Down Under' - taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez' disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez' crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew. Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn't come in to swap bikes, but Marquez' inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner's crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez' team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it's over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. 'We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],' Marquez said, but the plan had backfired. 'The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,' Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.
Talking to the Spanish media, Marquez was a little more explicit. 'We knew we had to enter on lap 9 or lap 10, and we thought we could enter the pits on lap 10. This was always the plan, to enter on the last lap possible, and we thought this was the last lap possible.' It was not, and that lap would lead to his disqualification.
After the initial disappointment at the death of the 250cc two strokes, the advent of the Moto2 class raised hopes that Grand Prix racing would enter a new era of chassis innovation, as the teams spent the money saved on engine development on exploring novel solutions to the problem of hustling a motorcycle around a circuit is the shortest time possible. The first set of designs unveiled did little to feed that hope, with most bikes being of the aluminium twin beam variety which is standard in most sports and racing machinery, with a couple of tubular trellis frames thrown in for good measure.
Even that variety did not last. The trellis frames were the first to go - mostly as a result of the extra weight the design created - and the number of chassis manufacturers dropped from 13 in the first year to 6 in 2013. Even that figure gives an inflated picture of the variety in the paddock: 28 out of the 32 permanent entries form Moto2 this year use either the Kalex, Suter or Speed Up chassis. The bikes vary in stiffness, in aerodynamic detail and in aesthetics, but other than that, they are virtually identical.
Why did the factory Yamaha team head to the Motorland Aragon circuit to join Honda and Suzuki at a private test? Was it perhaps to give Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their first taste of the seamless gearbox Yamaha have been developing, to counter Honda's advantage? That is the question which many fans have been asking, and in recent days - and weeks - I have been inundated with questions about the seamless gearbox. Well, question, singular, actually, as it all boils down to just the one: When will Yamaha finally start to race their seamless gearbox?
It is a question I have been trying to pursue since the start of the season, since rumors first emerged that they may have used the gearbox at the first race of the year. All inquiries I made, at all levels of the Yamaha organization, received the same answers: Yes, Yamaha is developing a seamless gearbox, and is testing it back in Japan. No, Yamaha has not yet raced it, and has no plans to race it. And no, it is not yet ready to be tested.
The decision by HRC to stage a private testing session at the Austin MotoGP circuit in March unleashed a wave of criticism in some circles, especially from other teams. Yamaha eventually decided to join the Repsol Honda and LCR Honda teams at the track, but only after much internal deliberation, taking only a skeleton crew to the test. Ducati refused to go altogether as a political statement, saying that the costs were simply too high for them to ship all their equipment from Europe to the US, and then back again in time for the final IRTA test at Jerez. The costs involved have caused some inside the paddock to call for a ban on private testing, to prevent this situation from being repeated.
Certainly, the bare cost of testing at Austin was close to astronomical. Sources in Sepang reported that testing at the Circuit of the Americas would cost around 350,000 euros in total for the three days, including shipping, track rental, staff flights, accommodation, insurance and all the other odds and ends that are involved in traveling. That is a real stretch for Yamaha, the team already operating on a tight budget, and well beyond the reach of the satellite teams, with the exception of LCR Honda, who had some help in getting there. Even for the mighty Honda, largest and richest of the motorcycle manufacturers, dropping that kind of coin on a three-day test pushes budgets to the limit, and it is not a simple decision to take.
So how did HRC manage to afford it? The answer is simple: marketing footage. The private MotoGP test at Austin was not just a chance for Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez to get to learn the track at Austin. It was also a chance for HRC to unleash their marketing department, unhampered by the restrictions of filming at a Dorna-organized event.
When the news that Dorna would be taking over World Superbikes broke, there was a wave of outrage among fans, expressing the fear that the Spanish company would set about destroying the series they had grown to love. So far, Dorna have been careful not to get involved in debates about the technical regulations which seem to be so close to fans' hearts, their only criteria so far appearing to be a demand that bikes should cost 250,000 euros for an entire season. Yet they have already make one move which has a serious negative impact on the series: they are clamping down on video footage from inside the paddock.
There was some consternation - and there is still some confusion - about the situation at the first round of WSBK at Phillip Island at the end of February. Where previously, teams and journalists had been free to shoot various videos inside the paddock, there were mixed signals coming from Dorna management, with some people told there was an outright and immediate ban, with threats of serious consequences should it be ignored, while others were saying that they had heard nothing on the subject. That Dorna is determined to reduce the amount of free material on Youtube became immediately clear after the race weekend was over: in previous years, brief, two-minute race summaries would appear on the official World Superbike Youtube channel after every weekend. After the first race of 2013, only the post-race interviews were posted on the site. It is a long-standing Dorna policy to try to strictly control what ends up on Youtube and what doesn't. It is their most serious mistake, and one which could end up badly damaging the sport unless it is changed very soon.
This is a battle that has been going on inside Dorna, and many other major companies involved in motorcycle racing. It is about a fundamental change in the media landscape, a shift away from centralized control towards a diffuse and distributed form of media broadcasting, communication strategy and promotion. It is a shift that is permanent, affects the way in which sports are promoted and monetized, and radically alters the balance of power throughout all levels of the sport. The old hierarchies are dead, and trying to maintain them will merely end up crippling motorcycle racing.
This is part 1 of a new series entitled 'Under the Radar'. In it, we will be looking at stories we believe will have a major impact on MotoGP and World Superbikes in the next season, but which are not currently receiving much attention. While everyone expects Marc Marquez in MotoGP to be a big story, or Valentino Rossi's return to Yamaha, these are the stories which you won't hear much about by the start of the season, but which could end up playing a major role in 2013.
Everyone can guess the big names that are likely to make an impact in MotoGP in 2013: Marc Marquez will clearly be an exciting rookie to watch, Valentino Rossi should be competitive on a Yamaha, Pol Espargaro looks set to dominate Moto2, and Maverick Viñales and Luis Salom will be major players in Moto3. But look beyond the obvious candidates, and there are a number of candidates who could cause a surprise in 2013. Here are some of the riders to watch this season.
The Red Bull Rookie Invasion
The Red Bull Rookie Cup was set up to give young riders from around the world a shot at getting into MotoGP. The subtext has always been to avoid having a single nation or championship (i.e. the Spanish CEV championship) being the only viable route for anyone with aspirations of riding in MotoGP. In that, it has been remarkably successful, with its record improving with every year.
With the announcement of the introduction of price caps for brakes and suspension in MotoGP from 2015, the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule-making body, appears to have finally found an effective way of controlling costs in the series. Instead of trying to control costs indirectly and seeing their efforts kicked into touch by the law of unintended consequences, the rule-makers have decided to attempt to go straight to the heart of the problem.
Will capping prices unleash a whole set of unintended consequences of its own? Will, as some fear, the move to cap prices lead to a drop in quality and therefore a reduction in R&D in the areas which are price-capped? And will the price cap act as a barrier to new entrants, or stimulate them? These are hard questions with no easy answers, yet there are reasons to believe that price caps are the most effective way of controlling costs, while the risks normally associated with a price cap, such as a reduction in quality, are lower in a racing paddock than they are in other environments.
Classical economic theory proposes that under normal conditions, high-value markets such as the one for brakes and suspension in MotoGP encourage both innovation and new entrants into the market. High prices offer relatively high margins of return, and should make it a highly competitive market. This, in turn, should also stimulate research and development, as companies look for technological advantages over their competitors which they can use to increase sales. The race track would appear to offer a perfect benchmark, pitting one brand of equipment against another, and the stopwatch and results sheet providing an objective comparison between products.
Unfortunately, however, racing paddocks are a long way from being perfect markets. There are many, many distortions which mean that any attempt to manage costs via traditional economic methods will fail. The usual law of supply and demand requires the existence of two parties making rational decisions on whether to do business together. If the prices of a seller are too high, then a buyer will go elsewhere, looking for a similar alternative available at a lower price.
Since the global financial crisis struck back in 2008, MotoGP's primary focus has been on cutting costs. These efforts have met with varying success - sometimes reducing costs over the long term, after a short term increase, sometimes having no discernible impact whatsoever - and as a result, the grids in all three classes are filling up again. Further changes are afoot - chiefly, the promise by Honda and Yamaha to supply cheaper machinery to private teams, either in the form of production racers, such as Honda's RC213V clone, or Yamaha's offer to lease engines to chassis builders - but there is a limit to how much can be achieved by cutting costs. What is really needed is for the series to raise its revenues, something which the series has signally failed to do.
In truth, the series has never really recovered from the loss of tobacco sponsorship, something for which it should have been prepared, given that it had had many years' warning of the ruling finally being applied. The underlying problem was that the raising of sponsorship had been outsourced and the marketing of the series had been outsourced to a large degree to the tobacco companies, and once they left - with the honorable, if confusing, exception of Philip Morris - those skills disappeared with them. There was nobody left to try to increase the amount of money coming into the sport.
The battle which has been raging rather politely between Honda and Dorna over the introduction of spec electronics continues to simmer on. The issue was once again discussed at Motegi, with still no resolution in sight. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto reiterated Honda's opposition to the introduction of a spec ECU in an interview with the Japanese journalist Yoko Togashi, which was published on GPOne.com.
The reasons for introducing a spec ECU - or more accurately, a spec electronics package, including ECU, sensors, wiring harness and data logger - are twofold: the first issue is to cut the costs of electronics in the sport, an area where spending is rampant and where gains can always be found by throwing more money and more engineers at a problem. The second issue is to improve the spectacle; racing in the modern era has become dull, with the electronics and the Bridgestone tires contributing to produce races where it is unusual for there to be more than one pass for the win.
While Nakamoto did not comment on improving the show via electronics - it could be argued that radically changing the tires would have a greater impact on the spectacle than merely introducing a restricted spec electronics system - he did repeat the claim he has made in the past that merely adopting a spec ECU would not help to cut costs, claiming that if anything, it would actually increase costs.
The analogy he used to describe the change was as follows: "Using different ECU is like switching to Macintosh while you are using Microsoft adapted computers for many years. You have to change everything." At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable argument: switching ECUs would indeed mean that all of the software Honda has developed for their own ECU would have to be transformed into a form which they could use on the new ECU, the unit to be supplied by Magneti Marelli. Nakamoto bases his claim on his experience in Formula One, where Honda spent a lot of money adapting their electronics package when that series implemented a spec ECU.
An Alternative To Spec Tires: Australian Superbikes Introduces Price Caps With Multiple Tire Manufacturers
The spec tire rule in MotoGP is one of its most hated elements. Introduced for the 2009 season after a mass defection from Michelin threatened to leave everyone except Bridgestone struggling to survive, the standard tire has had a massive impact on the series. The idea behind it was to reduce costs, and for the smaller privateer teams who could only buy their tires, it has helped to bring down expenses.
But the side effects have been fairly disastrous. Having a spec tire may have reduced the cost of tires, but it has raised the cost of development for the chassis, electronics and engines. Instead of building a bike and having a tire company iron out imperfections with different carcasses and compounds, the bikes have to be designed completely around the tires. The problems the engineers face have been especially obvious this year: the Ducati continues to struggle with a lack of front-end grip, while the Honda suffers terribly from chatter. Both problems could be sorted out in a couple of weeks with specialized tires made for them.