STM: MotoGP, Without the Emotion

October 16, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

eni World Superbike Championship
MotoGP and World Superbike were recently merged under the direction of Dorna for the 2013 season.

If you have not already done so, I would recommend you read my colleague Mark Gardiner’s excellent article on the merging of MotoGP and World Superbike under the direction of Dorna. Mark’s article is perceptive, accurate and reflects all the passion of a true racing enthusiast. I too am in love with bike racing but I am also still very much an active event organizer and so have a somewhat different view of the situation.

The first thing to remember, and I do realize how cross this next comment makes readers whenever I write it, is that what we as race enthusiasts want, or like, is really peripheral to the current state in which both MotoGP and WSBK finds itself. Really and truly, whether we desire, or abhor, rpm limits, carbon brakes, fake lights on WSBK machines or whatever, is completely and utterly irrelevant.

The difficulty for both series is financial – on many levels. It is worth identifying these issues coldly and calmly and accepting them as they are.

1) It is too expensive for teams to participate in either MotoGP or WSBK and costs must be brought down. Not ought to be reduced, or preferably constrained, but have simply got to be slashed. No ifs or buts or maybes – neither series can continue with its current cost base.

Unemployment in Spain for under 25 year olds is currently somewhere in excess of 50% and the country’s brightest and most ambitious young people are leaving in droves. The rest of the Spanish economy is being kept alive by money poured in from the European Union and Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and even Luxembourg are on the danger list. These are facts.

What does this mean for MotoGP? It’s simple. Sponsorship from non-motorcycling sources is becoming ever harder to find.

Reflecting this situation is the huge shift in the way riders are paid. Five years ago, there were plenty of top British Superbike riders earning more than $100,000. Now, there is probably only one. You will be more likely to find a BSB contender driving a delivery van in mid-week, or working on a building site, than you will find him training in the gym. This is fact too.

In some ways the situation is worse in MotoGP and WSBK, where not only will a rider not be paid, but he will be expected to bring money to a team – his wages coming via his personal sponsor.

Carlos Checa celebrating his Race 1 win.
World Superbike’s Carlos Checa at Miller Motorsports Park in 2012.

2) Dorna relies on selling franchise fees to circuit owners for its income. In turn, these franchise fees are determined by the number of spectators the tracks get through the gates. Attendance is falling through the floor at a quite terrifying rate at both MotoGP and WSBK events. In fact, if the real, paid for spectator figures were ever available I feel sure that there would be an outcry.

Did you see the spectators on the TV coverage of World Superbike at Miller Motorsports in Utah? No? Then you’re not alone, because finding them was difficult. How much profit did the circuit owners actually make from the hosting the event? The figures won’t be published but they would make interesting reading.

This is not a criticism of Miller, which by all accounts is an excellent track and a well-run event, but only a comment on the spectator appeal of WSBK to an American audience. Not that things are any better in Britain. The last time we watched WSBK at Donington the track was deserted – and Britain is one of the series’ top countries.

3) Linked with all that I have outlined above, is the value of MotoGP to TV. I have identified MotoGP because, of the two series, this is the hugely the most attractive with an excellent world-wide penetration.

In these days of instant, and constant, televisual gratification how attractive is a sports show where very little happens during 45 minutes?

Yes, we aficionados delight in seeing the slow-mo replays, and admiring the tactics of the winner in terms of tire choice, but is this good, general interest TV?

One option, the foolish one, is to say to the world at large, “If you don’t want to watch our sport then go stick your head up your ass…” or words to that effect. Motorcyclists really are good at doing this.

But that’s just the same attitude which has caused the Western world to close its manufacturing plants, import goods from the emerging economies with borrowed money – and now balance on the edge of oblivion.

We need Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Person, and all the Person kids, to enjoy bike racing because this is what attracts sponsors.

Marc Marquez  93   Johann Zarco  5  and Alessandro Andreaozzi at Indy.
With costs skyrocketing, is it wise to keep Moto 2 and Moto 3 classes when race fans fail to watch the contests?

4) Finally, the big question has to be asked regarding the construction of the MotoGP offering. What conceivable value is there to anyone, except race junkies, in Moto 2 and Moto 3?

They are not even watched by fans at the race track let alone having any sense of appeal in the wider world. Tiny riders, droning around on 250cc single-cylinder motorcycles no-one can buy, is just not good entertainment either live or on TV.

I feel sure that Dorna executives wait with bated breath to read every installment of Single Track Mind and this is the reason that there will now be a control ECU in MotoGP – an idea I first suggested three years ago.

Soon, they will also introduce sensible minimums for the combined rider and machine weights in all classes. This will then allow normal, athletic young men to compete with the very small, and very light, riders who are currently dominating the feeder classes.

Just as the introduction of control ECUs was absolutely guaranteed then an increase in combined weights is as certain.

So where do we go from here? This is the next certainty. Not maybe or if but simply only when. There will be a unified motorcycling World Championship series.

This is as inevitable as sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening because the current and foreseeable economic climate cannot, and will not, support two competing series.

A unified series makes not only economic sense but will be a joy for every motorcycle race fan in the world. Here’s how it will look.

Over 60 000 fans visited The Brickyard for Sundays MotoGP race.
A unified motorcycling World Championship series would potentially excite more fans  to come out and watch a race as well as generate more revenue for organizers and riders.

At the top, will be a form of MotoGP. Dorna have been singing the praises of the CRT bikes and have been quoting the Aspar bikes as the example of the CRT bikes getting ever closer to the prototypes. To give this example insults the intelligence of race fans and even the bike press – and that takes some doing. 

Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaro have full on factory Aprilias with ex-factory Aprilia staff and that’s why they are fast. Why isn’t everyone honest about this?

A better example is Colin Edwards – a very, very fine rider – and his Suter which has been a solid four seconds a lap slower than the prototype bikes.

But this isn’t the problem it seems. With a control ECU, the factory bikes will drop maybe 1.5 seconds a lap which will bring them within reach of the very best of ex-World Superbike engined machines. Now, take a couple of seconds off Lorenzo et al, and put Colin on a really quick World Superbike, with the chassis tuned for Bridgestone tires, and you will have a race.

As well as bringing in a control ECU, I hope that Dorna will take on another of my recommendations: the banning of carbon brakes. Doing so will make chassis design easier and will also ensure that the transition between WSBK and MotoGP is easier – and this will be important.

The two support classes will be World Superbike and World Supersport but both as pure production classes as Mark Gardiner suggests. With the present quality of road legal hyper sports bikes, racing these machines is absolutely no problem. Look how quickly stock bikes go in the TT if evidence were needed.

Clearly, there would be a control ECU for both classes along with standard brakes, chassis and extremely limited tuning options.

Sykes out in front of the pack on Sunday.
In Melling’s estimation, the best national riders would filter up to World Supersport, then move to World Superbike and finally the fastest would go to MotoGP in a unified motorcycling World Championship.

Now, the entry, and egress for that matter, to and from MotoGP would be simple and straightforward. National championships would feed the best riders into World Supersport. This would vastly increase the gene pool instead of relying mainly on Spanish and Italian riders.

The best of the World Supersport would go on to World Superbike and the most talented of these riders would progress to MotoGP.

Now, here’s a question. Would you spend your hard earned dollars to see not one spectacular race – and there is nothing better than MotoGP in any sport anywhere in the world – but three world class championships on one day?

As for the rest of the entertainment, it really doesn’t matter because they will be sideshows. Harley races, sidecars or whatever – the big attraction will be three outstanding races which are both comprehensible to race fans and the general public and have real marketing value to sponsors.

In the ancient days of GP racing, there used to be 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500c races – all of which were of equal value and none of which were ignored by the fans. It was a success in the 1960s and could be just as good today.

And let’s look at the sales pitch to circuit owners and the resulting franchise fees for Dorna. The best bikes, the best riders and as much dry ice, laser shows and umbrella girls as you could find at any show in the world. What would you give to be part of this?

So, for a very wide range of reasons, a unified championship will happen. My dearest wish is that it begins in the 2014 season.

Will it? You might well be surprised. Mark suggests internecine rivalry between Dorna and Infront and cites the decades of arguments between the two organizations. The difference this time is that both shows are owned by the same venture capitalists. All of these firms are hardwired to make profit. Sometimes they do this through forcing efficiency on dull, torpid companies. On other occasions it is through asset stripping or mass redundancies. The approach varies with the need. However, what is beyond certain is that Bridgepoint is not going to sit there and watch egos get in the way of profit. This is not how venture capitalists work. Profit is King – and personalities, unless they are generating that profit, can go jump in a lake – or anywhere else for that matter.

With all European economies suffering at present, someone at Bridgepoint is going to sit down soon and look at two failing companies – and both are. Shortly afterwards the hard men in suits at Bridgepoint will tell the motorcycle men whom they now own what will happen – regardless of what how they feel.

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