MotoGP enters the 1000cc era in 2012, but the unanswered question is Brave New World of the Claiming Rule Teams.
Should you ever wish to become instantly unpopular in the MotoGP world just try raising the hint – the very merest hint – that the CRT bikes will be less than a total success in the 2012 season.
Recently, I did that very thing – suggesting not only that CRT bikes would not enhance the MotoGP experience for spectators but they would actually detract from it and, far worse, pose a real safety hazard. The result was that the temperature of the room dropped to somewhere close to absolute zero – and I felt as if I had suddenly developed an acute case of body odor and militant bad breath.
Before I explain my concerns, let’s try to unwind the situation. Dorna, who promote and organize MotoGP, have a contract with the FIM, the governing body of world motorcycle sport, to provide a minimum of 18 riders on the start line of every MotoGP race. Clearly, this hasn’t happened during the 2011 season.
Worse still, at most rounds I would have scored points by riding my 1962 Matchless G.50 to the finish without falling off – something I achieve on a regular basis. With just 10 finishers at Phillip Island, I would have bagged five points for 11th place – a jolly good result for a 49-year-old GP bike and a fat, bald, wrinkly old pilot.
Not that Phillip Island was that much of an aberration. Most rounds have had between 12 and 13 finishers and this is frankly a joke on a Grand Prix circuit. Typically, GP tracks are between 2.6 and 3.0 miles in length but some, like Brno and Silverstone, are well over three miles. In fact, Silverstone is 3.667 miles and the gap between bikes in a MotoGP race is such that you can almost get a cup of coffee between riders – and still not miss anything.
The argument is that TV doesn’t show the empty spaces which the spectators see from trackside, so the paucity of riders is an irrelevance. TV producers say that a good battle for 10th or 12th is as riveting as that between the first and second-place riders and, regardless, the slo-mo close ups completely hide the empty spaces so no-one cares.
The gap between factory bikes and CRT entries in 2012 may lead to a new level of boredom for track fans come race day.
The problem comes with the paying public who do care and who are staying away from MotoGP in droves. The fans’ absence hits race promoters hard not only by a drop in the gate money, but the closely related fall in income from vendors and sponsors. You can’t take top dollar from a food vendor if there’s no-one to eat his burgers and fries.
The show was getting weaker by the minute so Dorna decided to come up with a fix. Inevitably, it was the wrong one. The big idea was to allow private teams to participate at vastly less cost than the prototype bikes used by the factories. It’s worth remembering how much money Yamaha, Honda and Ducati spend on GP racing. I am reliably informed that Honda’s MotoGP budget for 2011 was in the region of $450 million whilst Yamaha scraped by with a mere $300 million. Heaven alone knows how much of Marlborough’s cigarette money Ducati have spent – but it will have been a galactically huge sum.
By contrast, it is perfectly possible to go World Superbike racing, at a top level, for less than $10 million and to seriously participate for considerably less than this. What was on Dorna’s mind was to produce a MotoGP show with teams participating at WSBK costs. These low budget participants in MotoGP will be called “Claiming Rule Teams” or CRT.
These are three letters every MotoGP fan is going to get to know well in 2012.
As a theoretical idea, sketched out on the back of a lunch napkin, Dorna’s plan looked superficially good – especially if you didn’t understand racing. It went like this: A state-of-the-art GP chassis will cost less than $250,000 – and that will be a really trick piece of kit with all the bells and whistles. In reality, it may not even be necessary to have an ultra- sophisticated chassis. In the last post season test of 2011, Randy de Puniet ran a very lightly modified Aprilia road frame and this seems to be working fine with Bridgestone GP tires.
Additionally, there are plenty of World Superbike motors producing around 220 horsepower – about the same as a MotoGP engine. In fact, a top World Superbike engine, such as Aprilia’s gear cam RSV4, will be very close to a MotoGP engine.
Success in today’s MotoGP field has come down to advanced electronics. Will the CRT entries be able to pony up the baksheesh for a competent electronic package.
If a chassis costs $250,000, and an engine is only $26,000 (more of this price structure in a moment) than what’s the problem?
The elephant in the bathroom is the anonymous little black box full of silicon and solder. The ECU is the absolute core of racing success not only in MotoGP, but WSBK too.
It’s only when you start to consider the ECU that its overwhelming importance becomes apparent. If you think of a race bike’s ECU as just controlling the fueling and ignition, than you ought to join me in the classic race paddock. On a MotoGP bike, the ECU will control obvious things like traction and launch control plus anti-wheelie and an auto-blipper device for downshifts – but this is only the start.
The ECU will be logged into a GPS system so the bike can be made to perform at its optimum on every millimeter of the track. The ECU will control the vast amount of power available to the rider in a way which he will find re-assuring and useable. This all sounds simple, but even the top teams with the best riders find it a mountain to climb. Witness the struggle the BMW factory team have faced in World Superbike – and that’s with the best equipment, staff and a virtually unlimited budget.
When Colin Edwards – who is being paid a huge amount of money to ride the NGM/Forward Racing CRT machine – recently tested his new bike his first comment was on the electronics. In an interview Colin said: “Our hands are tied by electronics. With Aprilia in 2003 we were kind of leading the way at that time with all the fly-by-wire stuff and I feel like we are doing that again. The last few years I’ve been on a traction control system that gives a certain level of confidence and you can hear it. And we got to a point where it doesn’t upset the chassis any more.
“There is a way of putting the correct numbers in those little boxes, but right now it doesn’t do anything. I open the throttle and I think it is working but I don’t KNOW that it is. You open the throttle, roll the dice and see what happens.”
Edwards then went on to say: “Everything at the moment is being held up by electronics. You can’t ride a bike if you turn the throttle and nothing happens – or if you barely turn the throttle and get everything.
“It is at a point right now where I can’t even push it. There’s no point risking it, but I just can’t go flat out because the bike is incapable of doing that. I’m encountering issues before I even get to that point so I’d say I’m riding it at 65%.”
Colin Edwards: “Everything at the moment is being held up by electronics. You can’t ride a bike if you turn the throttle and nothing happens – or if you barely turn the throttle and get everything.”
And on his prospects for the 2012 season Colin was equally candid. “Right now (November 2011) I’d tell you I’m going to finish dead last in the state it is in. But there is a lot of potential that we can extract from it and get some good results. Are we going to be able to fight with the factory guys? Hell no. Can we play around with some of the prototypes? Absolutely.”
Edwards is arguably the most intelligent rider in the paddock and is a superb development rider. No one is blaming him for filling his pension plan with CRT money, but the Texas Tornado will need a miracle to get into the top-10 with his current motorcycle.
The ECU is the killer factor for the whole CRT project. The importance of the ECU is shown in Dorna’s regulations for CRT. A rival team can claim a CRT engine for 20,000 Euros – around $26,000. For this, you get the complete powerplant – including the gearbox and clutch – but not the ECU and software.
The reason for this incredibly low price is that it is easy to get a 200 hp engine manufactured and produced. The microscopically small Metisse factory, deep in rural England, has made its own road engine which makes 147 hp, and a brand-new Metisse motorcycle built to your own specifications has the same price tag as a CRT engine. In 2011, getting the metal cut is not the problem.
The ECU also throws up another killer problem. CRT bikes are not allowed to be factory backed. Well, that’s straightforward isn’t it?
Would that life were so simple. Take the Aspar team, for example, who are entering their own CRT bikes powered by leased Aprilia RSV4 engines. I have been told that written into the lease agreement is the caveat that the engines can only be run by Aprilia engineers – both mechanical and software. Meanwhile, Aspar staff is relegated to changing the wheels, polishing the fairing and applying fresh stickers.
What this means is that Aspar does have a real chance of getting amongst the prototype bikes. Aprilia has serious, MotoGP quality, software to power the ECU and the engineers to ensure that it works. But is this low budget, affordable racing? If the prices Aprilia charged 125cc and 250cc teams who leased bikes from them are anything to go by, than no.
For sure you will be able to buy an Aprilia/Aspar engine and it will certainly be identical to the very well-known, gear cam ex-WSBK engine, but why bother? What you won’t be able to purchase is the ECU, associated software – and the brains of the Aprilia engineers.
For me, Aspar is the pick of the CRT bunch because they will have an incredibly competitive engine and also two equally credible riders in Randy – “I’m-super-quick-when-I’m-still-in-the-saddle” – de Puniet and the fast improving 22-year-old Spaniard, Aleix Espargaro.
As for the bottom-half of the CRT field, you really do need to be prepared for a shock. Here are the results from the end of season Valencia test, and they make for rather interesting reading.
1. Dani Pedrosa – 1’31.807
Judging from the opening tests, the gap between factory teams and the CRT field is frighteningly high.
2. Casey Stoner – 1’31.968
3. Ben Spies – 1’32.323
4. Valentino Rossi – 1’33.332
5. Cal Crutchlow – 1’33.433
6. Karel Abraha’- 1’33.433 (53)
7. Andrea Dovizioso – 1’33.463 (37)
8. Hector Barbera – 1’33.648 (38)
9. Alvaro Bautista ESP San Carlo Honda Gresini (800cc) 1’33.863 (32)
10. Stefan Bradl GER LCR Honda (800cc) 1’34.142
11. Franco Battaini 1’34.840
12. Kousuke Akiyoshi 1’35.626
13. Ivan Silva ESP BQR Inmotec (CRT) 1’36.695 (33)
14. Carmelo Morales ESP Tea’Laglisse Suter-BMW (CRT) 1’37.003 (44)
15. Yonny Hernandez COL BQR FTR Kawasaki (CRT) 1’37.747 (9)
16. Federico Sandi ITA Grillini Tea’Gapa’(CRT) 1’38.860 (26)
Valencia MotoGP Lap Records:
Valentino Rossi ITA Yamaha 1’31.002 (2006)
Fastest Race Lap:
Casey Stoner AUS Ducati 1’32.582 (2008)
I would ask you to note two things: First, Casey Stoner is confident that he can go 1.5 seconds a lap faster when he gets his new 1000 dialed in than he could on an 800. Let’s say the Australian Race God is optimistic and can only manage a second a lap quicker; this will put him, Lorenzo, Spies and Pedrosa at sub 1’31 laps at Valencia.
This will place someone like Federico Sandi maybe nine seconds a lap behind the aliens. At this point, the arithmetic gets really, really interesting. We know that a lap of Valencia will take 90 and a bit seconds – or thereabouts. We also know that a MotoGP race is 30 laps long. Therefore, in 30 laps Mr. Sandi and his CRT compatriots will be 270 seconds behind young Casey and his friends. Now divide 270 seconds by 90 seconds and you will get – rather conveniently – the answer ‘3’. Yes, the big thrill for spectators will be deciding whether the slower CRT bikes get lapped twice or three times.
What will happen when the lead riders are lapping CRT backmarkers? The answer could be a huge story in 2012.
If nothing else, it should make for some interesting commentary as Casey, Dani, Jorge or Ben come steaming past – yet again.
If this were mere comedy for the TV audience I wouldn’t be too bothered, but there is a very serious element to the farce. If I ride in a major classic race I will never get lapped by anyone in my class. In practical terms, I am a competent upper mid-field rider. Yet, if I get caught up with the top riders during practice I am utterly amazed at the speed differential. The best classic riders are on a different planet compared with me, yet they still don’t lap me. This is the reality of racing.
The speed differential between the best MotoGP riders and the CRT teams is going to be horrendous – truly terrifying. Not only will the prototype riders be on vastly better bikes – and I use the word vastly in its literal sense but, except for a few notable exceptions, the CRT riders will not be up to the job of racing at the highest level.
This is not being discourteous to these very competent riders, but rather a statement of fact. MotoGP is not a superior form of national or international racing, it is a different order of magnitude in terms of difficulty – as world champions from other series consistently show when they arrive in the top division.
This year we have regularly seen how discomforted Casey got if his qualifying was even slightly spoiled by one of the marginally less competitive riders. How far from his pit box will Casey’s Teddy Bear get hurled if he arrives on a hot lap and finds a CRT bike occupying the racing line – but 30 mph slower?
What happens when the “Fast Four” are locked into a battle for supremacy and come upon a bunch of CRT bikes which have already been lapped twice? Good TV? Maybe. But Grand Prix motorcycle racing? I think not.
The solution, of course, is one which you will have read many times before on MCUSA: control ECUs. Interestingly, this is just the solution which has been imposed on British Superbike teams. In fact, the BSB ECU does have a few more tweaks, but it is a basic device compared with anything else in top flight racing.
The problem is that the three mainstays of GP racing – Honda, Yamaha and Ducati – have invested zillions of dollars in ECU software so that no new factory team can match their electronic expertise – and they won’t hear of a control ECU.
Will it be imposed on them for 2013, as is being suggested? Watch this space. Otherwise, get prepared for some very odd GPs in 2012 as CRT entries officially become part of the world of top-flight racing.