With fan attendance shrinking and general excitement over MotoGP disappearing, our man Melling presents his advice for putting the premier motorcycle event back on course.
I would not normally follow up on another staffer’s article but Steve Atlas’ two-part editorial (MotoGP: Technology Worth Boring Racing? and MotoGP Editorial: Can 1000cc Save the Day?) on the future of MotoGP was so interesting, and MotoGP as a shop window for motorcycling so important, that I felt I should add a few observations.
First, everything that Steve has to say about electronics is correct. A control ECU is the way to go – and the only way forward. This control ECU needs to be very basic indeed and, for sure, will bring the spectacle back to GP racing. So far so good. But control ECUs, and production-derived 1000cc engines, are a mere symptom of the disease – not the cause. Falling over and tearing your jeans is, normally, a big deal – but not if you’re running away from an angry bear at the time. The scratches and ruined clothing are not what will kill you – the bear will!
Control ECUs are the torn jeans: MotoGP has bigger problems and that bear is getting awfully close.
Claiming rules are not going to help in the slightest either. Think about the situation logically. Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and maybe even Valentino Rossi clear off and leave everyone. They are the ones who get the TV coverage and the post-race interviews. A minute after they have finished, along come the first of the CR bikes. How much is this situation going to impress would be and existing sponsors?
In order to fix MotoGP the whole show has to be considered. I know that this upsets purists, but MotoGP IS a show. Watching people ride round and round in high speed circles is not essential to the future of the planet, the spectators’ well-being or even the price of a bottle of beer. Truly and absolutely, it is a take it or leave it activity. An ever increasing number of spectators, and manufacturers, are choosing not to bother with MotoGP.
The first step to fixing MotoGP lies in recognizing that Grand Prix is a show which depends on fans.
Until Dorna understand this one simple idea, MotoGP’s ills will not be addressed. Let’s look at the current state of affairs. This year, spectator attendances have been at an all-time low. Just over 72,000 fans braved the appalling weather at Silverstone – even British spectators can only handle so much rain.
Okay, you can forgive Silverstone, but what about 81,000 at Catalunya – and this with the high possibility that a Spaniard would win. Le Mans, France managed 88,000, and 8,000 hardy fans dribbled into the Losail complex for the Qatar GP. Clearly, MotoGP is not currently a sporting series with universal appeal.
If MotoGP doesn’t appeal to spectators its attraction for manufacturers is fast disappearing also. The informed gossip is that Honda’s MotoGP budget for 2011 is 300 million Euros – about $425 million. Yamaha is rumored to spend a smidgen over $280 million.
Think of those sums. How many bike shows, dealer launches, ride-outs, and festivals could a manufacturer attend for $400 million? As a festival organizer myself I will tell you: $400 million would get you representation at most of the major bike events in the world.
Attendance at these events is what sells bikes. Participating, unsuccessfully, in MotoGP doesn’t.
This concept hasn’t escaped Kawasaki, BMW, Aprilia, MV Agusta, Polaris, Triumph, Harley-Davidson and a host other manufacturers you’d never see near a GP circuit, but who are still doing very well in terms of sales.
Viewed objectively, one has to question which manufacturers in real, practical, sales generating terms benefit from MotoGP’s world-wide exposure. For example, if you see Alvaro Bautista bravely battling for 10th place does this make you want to rush out and buy a GSX-R600 – let alone a Suzuki Bandit?
There should be less concern with how MotoGP technology advances superbike performance and more focus on creating a sport that fosters younger fans enthusiasm in the sport.
The standard fall-back position is that, “Racing Improves the Breed.” The old Norton adage was: “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday.” Incidentally, Norton went bankrupt following this maxim.
The situation is now vastly worse than it has ever been. Forgive me for being blunt, but I doubt whether there are 10 MCUSA readers who can ride a modern superbike flat out on a race track. To do this, you have to be a good AMA Pro. Please write me and let me know that I am wrong – together with the details of when and where you wrung the neck of an 1198 Ducati or a Honda CBR1000RR.
On the street, the situation is utterly ludicrous. I still blush with embarrassment at my brush with the Oregon State Trooper who, quite correctly within the law, gave me an extended lecture for doing 60 mph in 55 mph speed limit – in the middle of an empty desert.
Where does this put a superbike with 100 mph top speed…in first gear?
It is interesting that press launches of superbikes now always take place on a track which is fast, smooth and stands an overwhelming chance of being dry. Whatever you may think of bike journos the majority really can ride a motorcycle, but bike manufacturers won’t let them within a nautical mile of real world conditions quite simply because superbikes are overkill in any practical road situation.
Why, therefore, is there an emphasis on GP-orientated engineering helping to make road bikes faster than ever before? Use 50% of a current superbike’s performance and the authorities in any country will not only suspend your license – that’s virtually automatic with speeding offences over 100 mph in Britain – but they’re going to bang you up in jail, too. And that is fact.
Sales data show that the bike industry is surviving off a public that is gradually aging and valuing more user-friendly models. Will Nicky Hayden’s popularity fuel more 1198 sales, or does Ducati’s brand influence help the Multistrada and Diavel.
There is one final factor: rider age. The bike industry has survived on a pool of customers who are getting older and older every year. Twenty years ago, they were 30-years-old with plenty of money and no kids. Now, they’re 50-plus and wondering how to fund their teenager’s three years at college. What they want is a relaxing day of fun on a bike – not a battle to avoid getting killed on a machine with a top speed approaching 200 mph.
Less you should think that this is purely an American phenomenon, and the rest of the world is about to become bearded, bandana wearing H-D owners chugging along wearing WWII replica helmets, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The current must-have motorcycle in Europe is a super trailie along with big panniers, a huge screen and a relaxed, sit-up riding position.
A Triumph Tiger 800 will cruise all day at 100 mph, and carry everything you need for a week’s vacation. With this sort of performance and all-round motorcycling ability, what is the role of the superbike?
So where does all this put MotoGP? In the simplest of terms it puts it in dire trouble, but it’s easily capable of being fixed. However, there is one overwhelming problem – and that is selfishness amongst the three manufacturers who currently keep MotoGP alive. As long as Honda, Yamaha and Ducati see a PR and marketing advantage from the admittedly world-wide TV exposure, than Dorna will continue with the myth that MotoGP, in its current form, has a future.
Because I love motorcycling, I will give Dorna, free of charge, a plan to save MotoGP as the shop window for motorcycle sport and motorcycling. And if anyone at Dorna reads this and doubts the sagacity of my ideas, I am the same Frank Melling who persuades 125,000 fans to watch world class riders racing in a parking lot every year – and has now done so for 14 years. (Read more at Thundersprint.com)
The Technical Regulations
A top priority for fixing MotoGP rests with limiting electronic aides and implementing a control ECU.
1) First and foremost introduce a control ECU with a limited range of options. In fact, an ECU reflecting the control found on road bikes so that racing feeds directly back into the bikes we ride every weekend.
Formula One car racing – the most sophisticated form of motorsport in the world – has control ECUs as does the almost equally sophisticated British Touring Car series. If these high-profile competitions can succeed with control ECUs, than so can MotoGP.
2) A ban on carbon brakes. Every rookie MotoGP says the same thing: carbon brakes are so incredibly efficient that they belong on a different planet. Make steel brakes compulsory, which would slow down corner entry speed, and in doing so raise safety levels while providing real world feedback to road machines.
3) Permit 1000cc engines of any bore/stroke but with the current fuel restrictions. Moto2 does not have sufficient technical interest to ever be a premier class, so let designers have free rein to be clever – but only with a very limited ECU and tight fuel restriction.
Once more, all this would be technology which could feed back into road bikes.
Interestingly, with these three changes, racing would become instantly more affordable. During research for this article, I spoke with top English tuner, Frank Wrathall. Frank is a brilliant engineer with many BSB and TT wins to his name, but he is also a pragmatist. His company can currently get 215 horsepower at the back wheel from any of the Japanese four-cylinder superbike engines, and can do so at an amazingly modest cost.
Our contributor says official testing should be banned on circuits included in the normal schedule, as it adds to costs.
Wrathall will deliver a race ready engine to you for under $10,000 – plus the base cost of the motor – and this would be good for 1200 racing kilometers (750 miles) between re-builds. For $30,000 you could have a full spec GP engine which would include a race (not modified road parts) cylinder head, valves, collets, pistons, clutch and gearbox. In short, an engine which would give science-fiction fast performance and produce a spectacular show.
The key element which is missing and to which we keep returning is a control ECU.
4) Allow any form of chassis – steel, aluminum or carbon fiber.
Speaking with Lester Harris, of Harris Performance, the figures to produce a competitive chassis are surprisingly modest. Harris is presently involved in Moto2 racing and so is very much aware of the current costs of GP racing. Lester says: “For $150,000 we could deliver a top quality chassis ready to accept a 1000cc engine. The big costs are not so much in the actual manufacturing but the testing and production of the tooling for key elements of the bike such as the bodywork and air box. These have to be manufactured in carbon fiber and this is an expensive material to get right.
“A bike like this, with a 215 hp engine, would be capable of running within a second of the best MotoGP lap times, but you might as well be a year behind because that second is the key between being on the podium and riding around in mid-field. The key is a control ECU. Without a control ECU it will never be possible to be competitive with the top teams.”
5) Ban MotoGP testing on any circuits which will be used for any world series – MotoGP or WSB. Testing costs as much as actual racing. Clearly, for safety reasons it is important to be able to run bikes before a race, and in any case it would be impossible to stop “secret” testing at factory owned facilities.
However, there is no need for the hugely expensive test sessions involving transporting bikes, technical staff, PR support and riders around the world.
These technical changes would make racing vastly cheaper; a quantum leap that’s more exciting for spectators and of more direct value to road bikes.
Improving the Show
MotoGP fans of humble means should not be charged VIP prices to enjoy a day of racing. Make the riders and paddock accessible for all, with the participation of younger spectators encouraged.
1) Face up to reality: MotoGP is not Formula One – nor is it a high status activity.
Here is an illustration of why MotoGP needs to understand its place in the wider world. Prince William and his brand-new, barely unwrapped wife Kate, are due to visit America in July. One of their gigs is a charity Polo match at the Santa Barbara Polo Club. Subject to more CIA checks than you would get if you rocked up on the White House lawn in a turban carrying a small shoulder-launched missile, you can apply to play for a couple of minutes with the Prince – for a “voluntary” charity donation of $90,000.
For a further “voluntary” donation of $4000, you can be in the same tent as Billy Boy and Kate for lunch – while just $400 more will get you a place where, with the aid of the Hubble telescope, you might just be able to see the Royal couple as specks on the horizon.
By contrast, many MotoGP fans are living in modest houses whose idea of lunch is more like $4 rather than $4000.
We want to see the MotoGP stars close up and personal. We fund them through our ticket prices and by purchasing the products they’re promoting. Since we are paying their wages, make them accessible to us. In practice, this would mean:
a) Make the MotoGP paddock – but not the garages – open to the public without charge until 6 p.m. each evening during the whole weekend. After this time, there can be a curfew so that riders and teams can rest and meet.
b) Make it compulsory for all riders to attend a “Meet the Fans” session from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday – or whichever is the day before racing.
c) Have an “Under 16s” session for children from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Look at the ever increasing age of MotoGP spectators if you have any doubts about why kids should be encouraged to get involved with racing!
The garages can remain a safe haven for the riders and teams to get to work, but Grand Prix needs open the door to more interaction with the folks that ultimately write the checks.
A by-product of this system would be to give vendors a chance of making money. If race day is wet – which it was at Silverstone – the vendors starve because very few fans attend on two days.
2) Lower spectator admission prices. Currently, MotoGP is too expensive for its audience. MotoGP fans are, predominantly, ordinary working people holding down ordinary jobs. They are not Polo-playing, Porsche-owning bankers and lawyers.
3) Make entry free for kids under 11 and half-price for those under 16. Youngsters are the future.
4) Concentrate on providing a first class experience for ordinary fans. VIP customers are well catered for at MotoGP, but if you want the mass of fans to return than the rest rooms need to be immaculate and accessible; the food on sale must be affordable and circuit access and egress has to be as good as any other major sporting event. It took two hours to get out of Silverstone and yet, every weekend, major Premier Division soccer clubs are getting a similar number of fans in and out of their stadiums in a quarter of this time. It took us four hours to get from Valencia circuit to the highway a few years ago. This is unacceptable.
What is worse is that MotoGP’s problems are easily soluble. There is no governmental agency trying to ban MotoGP. There are no political, philosophical or even religious barriers in the way of a transformation. In fact, a total re-think is not even uncharted territory since Formula One undertook a much more radical transformation.
I would like to conclude by reiterating what I have said on a number of occasions before: MotoGP is a breath-taking spectacle – truly awe-inspiring. To see Stoner, Rossi and Lorenzo in action is an incredible experience – and one which can do so much good for motorcycling.
What MotoGP and motorcycling itself needs is bold leadership, and we’ll soon be on the way to a brighter future. Maintain the status quo, and MotoGP will die.