STM: Changes Afoot in MotoGP Open Class

March 10, 2014
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.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

As a reader, you would reasonably expect a professional motojournalist to be able to make sense of what is happening in the motorcycle industry.

Worse, or better, still you could even more reasonably expect a specialist in the field of GP racing to at least be able to have some basic understanding of the subject. Well, your honor, all that I can do is plead guilty of failure on both counts because even in the Alice-in-Wonderland-on-LSD world which is MotoGP, it is currently impossible to make any sense of anything which is happening.

There are so few “facts” that even mentioning the word seems a travesty of the English language, but let’s try to make some sort of sense of the alternate universe in which Dorna lives.

Last December, in a rather tongue in cheek edition of STM, I wrote:

“Dorna are certain, absolutely and utterly convinced, that the customer GP bikes (now called Open Class) provided by Honda and Yamaha to Colin Edwards, Aleix Espargaro, Nicky Hayden and Scott Redding will not, despite having soft tires and four additional liters of fuel, be faster than the machines ridden by the aliens.

“The moment one customer bike rider zips past an alien’s machine on the straight, or worse still genuinely out qualifies them in equal conditions, you will see time travel in all its wonder and glory as Dorna travel back to 2013 and expunge all memories of four liters and soft tires.

“‘Back to the Future’ will be a mere fictional movie plot in comparison.”

What I didn’t expect was that my prediction would come true even before the first race.

There have been three major problems and they have all been predictable. However, their magnitude has taken even me by surprise.

First, there is the specification of the Open Class machines – the de facto replacement for the actively unloved CRT bikes.

It was touchingly, let’s-wait-for-Santa-to-leave-our-presents-under-the-tree naive to expect Honda and Yamaha to sell upmarket CRT bikes to teams when they could get away with bending the rules.

In fact, Honda did comply with the spirit of the regulations with its RCV1000R and the result has been a disaster. The RCV1000R is two generations out of date, with a spring valve engine and a conventional gearbox, when the Prototype Hondas, including the satellite team machines, have seamless gearboxes and pneumatic valve actuation.

The result has been that the Hondas supplied to Nicky Hayden and Scott Redding are a whopping 11 mph slower than the prototype machines ridden by Marc Marquez, Stefan Bradl, Dani Pedrosa and Alvaro Bautista.

I don’t know HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto personally but Soichiro Honda must be turning in his grave at Mr. Nakamoto’s incompetence. He is the same man who put Marquez’s World Championship in serious jeopardy when he did not monitor the maximum number of laps which could be completed before a tire change at Phillip Island.

What was even worse is that the blame was shifted squarely on to the shoulders of Marquez’s pit crew. As someone who has controlled a number of big projects, both as an employee and running my own business, it is a central tenet of management that the head of the organization bears the final responsibility for the performance of staff. Truly, from those to whom much is given – much is expected.

Marc Marquez speaking with HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto.
Marc Marquez and HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto.

Shuhei Nakamoto was not responsible for personally changing Marquez’s wheels – but he was wholly and completely responsible for ensuring that the change took place within the rules. This is what managers are paid to do – control strategic decisions.

An identical situation pertains to Honda’s interpretation of the new Open Class rules which, to put the matter at its kindest, was simply embarrassing and Mr. Nakamoto is responsible again. He said:

“We thought, but maybe Honda mis-understood, the Open Class category had to sell to teams, but I read the regulations and there is no mention that you have to sell.

“I don’t know the detail but it looks like Yamaha’s Open Class machine is last year’s Factory machine. This is allowed…
“Our approach is different. We made a machine to sell. If the team use it for two years. In the first year they pay 1.2 million euro ($1.8 million), then next year they just pay to upgrade.

“If you divide the cost by two years it is less than one million euros a year. They also still own the machine and can sell it, with some value.

“To make a machine for less than 1.2 million euro, Honda has to use a standard valve spring system, standard transmission and a little bit different specification of Ohlins suspension. But main parts – chassis, swingarm, bodywork is factory specification.”

Well, one thing that Nakamoto got 100% correct was his assumption that Yamaha would run a full on works bike in the Open Class.

Plan “A” was for Forward Racing to have a Yamaha factory engine and swinging arm with a British FTR chassis, but this soon went in the B1N drawer.

When I spoke to FTR last week, they confirmed that almost the whole bike is factory Yamaha with the Brits supplying bits such as footrests and hangers – “…although things may change as the season develops.”

Critically, the weakness with the YZR-1M Yamaha has been fuel consumption. Typically, the Tech 3 bikes ran only five laps at full power quite simply because they couldn’t be relied upon to manage a whole GP without running out of fuel.
Along comes the Open Class, with almost an additional gallon of gas, and suddenly the world is a sunnier place and Aleix Espargaro’s stunning times become completely comprehensible.

Espargaro finished behind Alvaro Bautista in second position on the first day of the Sepang test, lapping in 2’00.9 to finish 0.151 off the top spot.

Meanwhile, the best of the Honda Open Class riders, Nicky Hayden, languished in 17th place 3.033 seconds off pole.
Now Nicky is not a Marquez or Lorenzo, but he’s not a back of the field runner either. Unofficial top speeds told the story. Marquez ran 203.18 mph, Bradl 203.80 mph and Lorenzo 200.08 mph.

Nicky could only manage 191.38 mph and Redding was even worse with 189.51 mph.

Scott was half a second a lap down on Nicky Hayden but put a brave face on the situation:

“I’m happy with today’s outcome; we worked a lot on braking stability and now the situation is better than yesterday, therefore I was able to improve my lap times.

“Tomorrow we will continue to work in this direction, trying other chassis geometry solutions and I hope we can make a further step ahead. In the last day we will also try to refine the electronics.”

In truth, the problem was not the Nissin brakes but the core issue is that the Honda is a complete dog and will never, ever be competitive – at least in its current form.

A totally unrepentant Giovanni Cuzari, who owns Forward Racing, explained where fiscal babies come from in MotoGP. “If Honda wishes, they are free to fit Marquez’s bike with standard electronics and a 24 liter fuel tank and move to the Open Class with us.

“Maybe they just undervalued us a bit.

“The Open Class is a big opportunity for us because you take a bike very close to Lorenzo’s, put 24 liters in it with the standard Dorna electronics and fight to be in the top 10.

“It would never have been like this without this (Open Class) opportunity.

“If you have more visibility, you can ask for more money from sponsors and this will help us continue at this level.

“The last two years were a disaster for us because we were never seen on TV and it isn’t easy to ask a potential sponsor for millions in that situation.”

Meanwhile, Gigi Dall’Igna, the smartest team manager in MotoGP, was sat back in his chair at Borgo Panigale deep in thought.

Ducati head hunted Gigi precisely because he makes a Wall Street Corporate attorney look like a play school assistant when it comes to interpreting regulations. Remember, it was Dall’Igna who discovered that, buried within the very, very, very tiny print of WSBK regulations it was possible for Aprilia to have a gear cam engine, which was never available in a road bike, and still be, just, legal for the Championship. The result of Dall’Igna’s astute interpretation of the regulations was Max Biaggi’s two World Championships for Aprilia.

Dall’Igna looked at the Open Class regs and saw that it was black and white clear that a team could have:

a) 12 engines in one season
b) That the specification of these engines would not be fixed as they are for the Prototype class
c) That Open Class engines could have 24 liters of fuel rather than the 20 for the Prototype
d) Finally, that Open Class machines could run the softer Bridgestone tire – and this little gopher really was going to pop its head out of the burrow after the first test.

The only drawback to everyone going Open Class was that the regulations require teams to run the control Magneti Marelli ECU and software.

This really is a deal breaker, or as things have turned out, a deal maker. Every other part of the bike can be to Prototype specification. Teams can run pneumatic valves, seamless gearbox or have Kermit the Frog as a mascot on the fairing – just as long the bike is fired up with a Marelli ECU.

The problem with running the control Marelli software and ECU is that it was, and note the past tense, far behind the specification needed to run at the very front of MotoGP. At this point that Gigi showed why he is worth every cent of his very considerable salary.

In an act of sheer and utter genius, Dall’Igna contacted Roberto Dalla at Marelli and simply gave them a huge amount of code from the Ducati factory ECU.

This is not quite as generous as it seems because what Ducati didn’t give Marelli was the “MotoGP Coding for Dummies” manual which went with the code.

This meant that only Ducati can actually get the full benefit from the system – at least until the MotoGP IT geeks who now rule the paddock work out the fine details. How smart was that?

Now, Ducati had an ECU, and code, which they knew intimately and which was close enough to the optimum for a Ducati engine, with 24 liters of fuel to burn, to be competitive.

This master stroke immediately moved Dovizioso to second place on the time sheets at Sepang just 0.068 seconds behind Rossi’s Pole – and it’s back to Casey Stoner days since that last happened.

Crutchlow was 8th – but only 0.791 behind Vale whilst Iannone was 11th but really hot on the tails of the two Tech 3 Yamahas – both of which are full on factory Yamahas.

Just as importantly, with their engine specification not immutably fixed, as are the prototype machines, Ducati can, or maybe could because Dorna are re-writing the regulations as I write this story, have 12 new versions of their engine during the season – each one of which could use 24 liters.

The idea of this happening clearly put Dorna into a state of shock and, as I predicted, they shifted immediately into regulation changing mode.

In an interview with the web TV company AS TV Carmelo Ezpeleta appears to suggest that a brand new class called “Factory 2” will be introduced, the core of which would be a reduction in fuel allowance from 24 to 22.5 liters and the maximum number of engines would be cut back from twelve to nine.

The Factory, aka Prototype, Class limits will remain 20 liters and five engine changes. These regulations would be imposed on Open Class machines when a team scores three third places or two seconds. This dramatic change will supposedly be in place by Tuesday 11 March, less than two weeks before the start of GP season.

Confused? So is everyone else.

But we’re not at the graduation ball yet because there is still more trouble. At the Phillip Island debacle Bridgestone, justifiably as things turned out, were concerned that their tires wouldn’t last a full MotoGP distance. Dorna went crazy and insisted that the teams have a guaranteed safe tire for 2014. So far, so good.

The fix was straightforward. Make a harder tire which would have longevity. So far, so good twice.

The change was apparently minor. Bridgestone reputedly made the tire 3% harder and their test riders reported no differences in performance. The elephant in the tire designer’s bathroom was that Bridgestone’s test riders were not, and never will be, twice World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. Jorge, the racers’ racer, is the most elegant and graceful of all the MotoGP riders and he achieves his success by carrying enormous corner speed. His Yamaha YZR-M1 is designed to help him do this.

It is difficult to articulate just how good are these motorcycling deities and they only ever ride at 101%. If you take the rider who carries the most corner speed in the world then Bridgestone’s 3% lower performance is vast.

There’s no doubting Jorge’s physical courage or commitment. Let’s not forget that he was back on a race bike, carrying a quarter-pound of the finest medical titanium in his body, within 20 hours of a horrific collar bone smashing accident. The problem is that Lorenzo now lacks confidence in his own ability and this is more damaging than any physical injury. In short, he can’t ride the bike as he wants, and needs, it to perform, and so we saw Jorge in a very unusual seventh-place in the second Sepang test – 0.62 seconds behind Rossi. Or, in Lorenzo’s terms, not worth taking the bike out of the truck.

Why is this so important? The primary reason is TV. If Jorge were battling for 10th place no-one would take a flicker of interest. Hey, who takes any notice of the guys in mid-field?

But Lorenzo isn’t in 10th. On the contrary, he is probably the only credible challenger to Marc Marquez over the whole season. Here’s the nightmare scenario for Dorna.

First, Marquez will be fully fit for Qatar – of that there is no doubt. His broken leg would make the rest of us ill for two months but Marc is 20 years old and a MotoGP rider so it’s probably not much more than a bad headache.

Second, the change in the Bridgestone tires hasn’t bothered Marc who doesn’t carry nearly so much corner speed as Jorge. If you want a slightly fuller explanation, here is a link to a short film Scott Redding made which explains how Marc rides.

Next, the Honda is not designed for the absolute optimum corner speed.

The end result is that it is, currently at least, highly likely that Marquez will arrive at Qatar and simply disappear into the distance.

Now since MotoGP is already a very weak TV show, having Boy Wonder massacre everyone will be a viewing disaster.
This is why intense pressure is currently being applied to Bridgestone to find a fix. What Dorna needs, and needs today, is a tire which will last a full race on an abrasive track – and yet still allow Lorenzo to race Marquez.

I look at the whole situation with a real sense of sadness. MotoGP is motorcycling’s premier class. It has the best riders, the best designers, the best technicians and the best bikes. Why not simply impose a control ECU and then let everyone get on with racing – subject only to a sensible minimum weight limit?

Ezpeleta and Dorna are constantly trying to ape Formula One racing and this is a tragedy for motorcycle racing. We are not car racers, and MotoGP is not car racing. Bring on the revolution.