Here's a good way to start an argument, whether you're gathered over a few beers with some race-loving friends or on a internet message board or chat room. Just ask what the most important race in the world is. Within minutes, you'll have a list as long as your arm and a couple of violent disagreements to go with it, with everyone arguing the merits and faults of their own personal favorites.
Is it the Dakar, that ultimate test of man (or woman) and machine, pushing navigation skills, machine reliability and human endurance? Or perhaps it is the Monaco Formula 1 race, the event that is followed around the world, spreading the cult of motorized racing as entertainment to a global audience of casual viewers. How about the Le Mans 24 hour races, another event where either cars or motorcycles are pushed to the limits of their performance, and of their endurance, for 24 hours without rest, a real test of durability? Perhaps it's the Qatar MotoGP race, the race that marks the start of the MotoGP season, and the commencement of battle in motorcycle racing's premier class. Or maybe the Dutch TT at Assen, or the World Superbike round or Formula 1 race at Monza, putting motorcycle racing in its historical perspective. If history is the key, then surely the Isle of Man TT, the 102 year-old race around the Mountain Course, 37-odd miles of public roads. The track is too long for riders to memorize completely, and with long stretches where the bikes are held wide open over bumpy mountain roads, it tests both riders and machines to their limits.
But in my view, there can be only one answer to the question of which race is the most important in the world: The inaugural running of the TTXGP, the self-styled "world's first zero carbon, clean emission Grand Prix." The race, a single lap of the Isle of Man circuit, was held today, Friday, June 12th 2009, and was won by Rob Barber on the Team Agni bike, basically the skeleton of a Suzuki GSX-R 600 powered by a couple of Agni electric motors and 16 kWh of battery power, at an average speed of 87.434mph, or 140.711 km/h.
So why do I think that a two-wheeled golf buggy cruising around the Isle of Man just a smidgeon faster than a 1966 50cc Honda is the most important race in the world? Well, because unlike any other race currently being held, the TTXGP harks back to the very raison d'etre for racing: To improve the breed. MotoGP, World Superbikes, Formula One, Le Mans, Endurance racing; all have provided important advances for ordinary road users, and have helped push automotive technology forward on both two wheels and four. But the number of truly significant advances from these series has been dwindling for a long time now, with progress coming in the shape of ever-increasing refinement of existing concepts and ideas, rather than earth-shattering new ideas.
At Miller Motorsports Park this weekend, one wildcard rider will be receiving a good deal of attention, more perhaps than is warranted by her results alone. The key word there, and the reason for all the attention, is "her". For Melissa Paris will be making her debut in the World Supersport class, becoming one of a small number of women riders to have raced in international competition.
The team press release trumpeted the news that Paris will be the first female rider to have raced in the World Supersport Championship, a fact that was repeated unquestioningly by a large number of racing sites who ought to know better. Though technically they are correct, Paris won't be the first woman to race in the World Supersport class. In 1998, the year before the World Supersport Series became the World Supersport Championship, a matter mostly of nomenclature, the German racer Katja Poensgen raced as a wildcard at the Nurburgring in the World Supersport race, finishing a respectable 20th, and ahead of 16 other entrants in the class. Poensgen, now a TV presenter with German sports channel DSF, later went on to have two years in the 250 class, one with Shell Advance and Dark Dog in 2001, then a disastrous year aboard a severely underpowered Molenaar Racing Honda in 2003, in which she and her team mate alternated at the rear of the grid.
But Poensgen is not the only woman to have raced internationally: Dutchwoman Iris ten Katen just retired as European Women's champion at the end of last season, and after some respectable results in the Dutch Open Championship; Alessia Polita contested the European Superstock 600 championship, the entry class for World Supersport, scoring points in a large field; Maria Costello competes regularly in the International Road Racing series, racing on public roads in Ireland and the Isle of Man; And just two weeks ago, the 18-year-old Frenchwoman Ornella Ongaro entered the French 125cc Grand Prix as a wildcard.
After the rain-soaked debacle of the postponed MotoGP race at Qatar, any MotoGP fan worth his or her salt will be able to recite one statistic by heart: It only rains in Qatar for eight days a year, on average. And so staging a night race under the floodlights there, in the certain knowledge that the race must be canceled if it starts to rain, seems like a pretty safe bet. After all, 8 rain days out of a total of 365 means that there is only a 2.2% chance of the event having to be called off, right?
It seems like an obvious conclusion, but as with so many other conclusions drawn from statistics, it is completely incorrect. Human beings are notoriously bad at math, and this is just a typical instance. Just why this conclusion is incorrect is obvious when viewed logically, so let us look at it in more detail.
The key term to understand here is "average". It may well rain for 8 days a year on average, but that does not mean that those 8 days are spread evenly throughout the year - after all, the average temperature of the Earth is 14º Centigrade, or 57º Fahrenheit, but tell that to someone in Nuuk or Furnace Creek Ranch and they'll laugh in your face.
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 latest news/rumor on the Kawasaki front - or perhaps that should be the final nail in Kawasaki's coffin - is that Dorna is attempting to acquire the Kawasaki bikes so that Marco Melandri can race in MotoGP in the 2009 season, as reported by various press sources. Carmelo Ezpeleta is said to be willing to pay for the bikes to run out of his - or rather Dorna's - own pocket, in order to pad out the grid and give it some semblance of credibility.
If this is true - and that's a big if, as one of the sources is Alberto Vergani, Marco Melandri's manager, and Italian riders' managers are about as reliable as Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, though they tend to err slightly more often on the side of optimism - then it is both completely puzzling and remarkably short-sighted. If the Kawasaki - or "Dornasaki" as some wags are labeling it - does turn up on the grid, it will be a bike that is likely to start at the back and travel rapidly backwards. As the year progresses, the competition will receive a steady stream of upgrades, improving at each race. And each of these upgrades will leave the Comatose Kawasaki yet another step behind, heaping calumny upon humiliation over the head of the poor rider foolish enough to volunteer to ride the ailing beast.
Any attempt to resurrect Kawasaki will be doomed to failure, with no money for development. The attempt offers nothing to either the team or the rider(s) involved, and is more likely to damage Dorna than anything else, despite allowing the Spanish company to save face. This is surely a rescue better left untried.
But what is the alternative? I hear you cry. Well, believe it or not, there is one, and one that offers hope not just for the 2009 season, but for MotoGP going forward. I was fortunate enough to visit Ilmor over the past week, to speak with the people involved in their ill-fated MotoGP X3 project. What struck me there was the passion and interest which everyone still had for MotoGP, and their desire - verging almost on desparation - to get back into the series, and make a point. The people involved in the project were filled with a burning desire to prove that they can build bikes, and that the poor performance of the first iteration of the X3 was unjustly laid at their door. They believed they had learned a great deal about the bike since the project was called off at the beginning of 2007, and after consulting widely with people with lots of experience of building competitive MotoGP bikes, have done tests with a modified bike which saw it vastly improve on the time set by its previous incarnation.
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.
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.
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.
As we turn to Page 1 on our 2009 calendars, it seems like as good a metaphor as any to consider what looms just a couple short months away...
There's an old saying, that goes "Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it." Ever since the introduction of the restrictions on tires - introduced rather foolishly at the same time as the 800cc rule, breaking the engineer's golden rule of only changing one variable at a time - complaining about how tires have come to dominate racing has taken on epic proportions. Fans complained that the racing had become boring, riders complained that they were left powerless to compete if they were given the wrong tires or the tire companies got it wrong, and sponsors muttered that they were unhappy pouring money into teams who would be invisible all weekend because of a simple hoop of not-so-sticky rubber.
After a false start last year, the baying crowd were finally given what they wanted three weeks ago at Motegi: Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced that in 2009, the MotoGP series would have only a single tire manufacturer, and that he was open to bids for the contract from tire companies.
What happened next completely altered the balance of power: Michelin, knowing that it stood no chance of actually getting the contract, as any result other than Bridgestone would have caused a bombshell of tactical nuclear warhead proportions to go off in the paddock, threw Dorna a curve ball, and decided not to submit a bid. With Bridgestone the only company to have submitted a proposal, the deal was theirs.
But this leaves Dorna with a problem. They too knew that realistically, Bridgestone was the only option, but had hoped to use the bid from Michelin as a stick to beat Bridgestone with to get more favorable conditions. With Michelin declining to play ball, Dorna is now stuck, forced to accept whatever deal Bridgestone offers them, their leverage removed by Michelin's very clever, and very spiteful move.
The Bells! The Bells!
Already, the storm clouds have started to gather. There were always going to be questions about how the development of the tires would be handled, and who and which bikes the tires would be developed around. And as rumors have started to emerge, the alarm bells are finally starting to go off in the paddock as well.
Colin Edwards was one of the earliest riders to comment, stating quite bluntly that he expected the tires to be developed for Valentino Rossi, and that the tires that Rossi likes are so hard that there are very few people who can actually make the tires work. Then both Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner chimed in, Rossi demanding that tires be developed that will work for all of the manufacturers equally, while Stoner slammed the proposals for just 20 tires, consisting of two different constructions and two different compounds, as being complete inadequate.
The current belief in the paddock - this was written before an official statement was made on the proposal by Dorna, expected on Saturday, local time, at Sepang - is that riders will have 20 tires for the weekend, 10 fronts and 10 rears, with two constructions and two compounds, and just 4 wet weather tires for the weekend. There will be no qualifying tires, and teams will have an allowance of 150 tires to test for the entire season. The upside for the teams is that all of these tires will be supplied free of charge.
The downsides are many and varied. Firstly, there's the question of tire development. There can be no doubt that Dorna will want to ensure that the faces that help it sell MotoGP in key markets are provided with tires that they will be competitive on. This immediately raises a problem: Valentino Rossi, MotoGP's marketing genius and golden goose, likes a very hard tire, which is one of the reasons he takes a couple of laps to get up to speed.
But this is going to cause enormous problems in the other key market: Dani Pedrosa is used heavily by Dorna to sell MotoGP in Spain, but the Spaniard is some 35lbs and 8 inches shorter than Rossi. He needs a tire which is softer both in compound and construction, as he doesn't have the weight to help squash the tire and get some heat into it. Valentino Rossi's tires just won't work for Dani Pedrosa.
But with two constructions and two compounds, this would give them both a tire they could work with, right? Well, it would leave Valentino Rossi with one construction that might work for him, and Dani Pedrosa with one construction that might work for him. It would effectively limit their choices even more, making it the worst of both worlds.
In this tug of war, there can be only one winner. And it isn't going to be Dani Pedrosa. If Dorna believes that Jorge Lorenzo can use the same tires that Valentino Rossi can - despite being a few inches shorter and 20 lbs lighter - then Dani Pedrosa will be left clutching the short straw, his only realistic option adding extra weight to the bike to compensate for his own diminutive stature.
Is This Thing On?
Then there's testing. 150 tires may sound a lot, but that's about what a team might expect to get through in three days of testing. It's unlikely that they'll be forced to make that allowance of tires last the whole season, the more likely option being that extra tires will be made available, at an extra cost. This will offer Bridgestone a chance to recoup some of the income it will lose by providing free tires, so tires for testing are not going to be cheap.
And the losers here will be the satellite teams. Already, the teams struggle to find the money to compete, but if the costs for testing tires become too exorbitant, then testing will become too expensive for them to undertake. The satellite teams already test much less than the factory teams, in an attempt to keep costs down, and extra tires may just be an expense too far. If you had only a slim chance of winning on a satellite bike to begin with, without testing, you now have none.