MotoGP's proposed rule changes for 2014 have laid the groundwork to fix the most glaring deficiency of the sport—uncompetitive, boring races. Nothing is official yet, but getting to this point was not easy and at one point looked implausible.
The two sides of the issue are represented by Dorna—MotoGP's parent company—and the MSMA, or Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association—a consortium of the motorcycle manufacturers competing in MotoGP, charged with looking after their own interests in the sport.
Dorna, led by Carmelo Ezpeleta, wanted to accomplish two things with the rule changes. Ezpeleta's first and foremost desire was to make the races more competitive. During the 2012 season there were never any more than four bikes that had a realistic chance of winning, and, because of injuries and plain old bad luck, the number more often than not was lower than that.
Secondly, he wanted to corral the ever-upward spiraling costs for teams to compete, which directly plays into the lack of competitiveness seen on the track. Two of the Big Five manufacturers—first Kawasaki, then Suzuki—have dropped out in the last four years because of financial concerns.
His proposals were drastic and consisted of two key elements: instituting a rev limit of 15,500 RPM on the engines to increase their longevity and thereby reduce costs and the mandated use of a spec ECU, or electronic control unit.
Neither of these proposals ever had a chance of being ratified by the MSMA.
What Steps Should be Taken to Improve MotoGP?
When the heads of HRC—Honda's racing arm—Ducati Corse and Yamaha Racing go before their respective company's board and have to justify the tens of millions of dollars they are using to compete in MotoGP, they have two supporting points.
One is brand recognition. If people see their bikes winning races they will be more likely to buy them.
The second, and most important, is the research and development opportunities presented by competing in a prototype racing series. The company's best and brightest engineers work with the racing team in the kind of fast-paced, pressure-packed environment that often breeds engineering brilliance that will eventually trickle down to their production bikes and increase sales.
As of late, R&D has been focused largely on electronics. Technology like traction control, which was conceived as a means to go faster on a racetrack, also has a valuable, safety-enhancing, real world application. Not to mention electronic steering dampening, launch control, wheelie control, power delivery modes, etc.
The MSMA was not going to approve any rule changes that would restrict their ability to develop their own electronics and consequently make it more likely that their bosses would pull the plug on the whole racing experiment. Why spend all of these millions of dollars to race in MotoGP when they would have to do their electronics research on their own test tracks or in another racing series anyway?
Ezpeleta threatened to impose his will no matter what the MSMA said or did. Honda countered with a threat of their own to pull out of MotoGP altogether, which would have been a devastating blow from which the series may never have recovered.
A compromise was needed.
As so often proves to be the case when pre-negotiation posturing devolves into increasingly dramatic threats, rationality prevailed, and an acceptable compromise was reached.
Ezpeleta got his mandatory ECU and datalogger, but the MSMA retained their ability to use their own software within the compulsory hardware, meaning non-factory teams will not have to spend the asinine amount of money required to develop their own units or buy them from the factories, and the MSMA gets to continue its R&D in electronics.
This, in effect, will be the new class division in MotoGP. In an effort to level the playing field, both sides agreed that because MSMA teams are using their own (vastly superior) software in the ECUs they will have their fuel limit reduced from 21 to 20 liters, while non-MSMA teams that use the spec software will get 24 liters. The MSMA requested this lowering of the fuel allowance to give themselves an engineering challenge.
Also, MSMA teams will see engine allowance reduced from six to five, while non-MSMA teams will be allowed 12 engines, and new or returning MSMA members will be allowed nine engines in their first year.
Lastly, all engines to be used in a season will be frozen (figuratively). This will prevent the MSMA teams from gaining an advantage by implementing any developmental changes their experiences from the season's events to date may have inspired.
All of these changes are contingent upon the ongoing negotiations between Dorna and the MSMA to work out the details of an agreement to have the MSMA provide engines, technical support and even complete machines to non-MSMA teams.
If the negotiations are successful, this last bit will be the best part of the whole deal. Gone will be the woefully overmatched production derived CRT machines, replaced by genuine prototype powerplants from the major manufacturers or even full machines. The deadline for the agreement is the first race of the 2013 season. Fingers crossed in the meantime.
This agreement will create the levelest playing field MotoGP has seen in a long time. The MSMA get to continue developing their electronics but with handicaps for doing so while at the same time filling out the grid with machines worthy of the series.
With Mark Marquez in the Repsol Honda garage, Valentino Rossi returning to a competitive bike with Yamaha, Ben Spies having absolutely no pressure on his shoulders, Dani Pedrosa's improved performance and Stefan Bradl and Cal Crutchlow's continued development, 2013 already holds promise to be a much better spectacle than 2012.
Take all of those aspects and then add in the rule changes for 2014, and it will be the dawning of a new, glorious era in Grand Prix motorcycle racing.