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STM: Practical Solutions to MotoGP’s Woes

Tuesday, June 28, 2011
With fan attendance shrinking and general excitement over MotoGP disappearing  our columnist presents his advice for putting the premier motorcycle event back on course.
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 the MotoGP lies in recognizing it as a show that is dependent upon fans being content with its overall presentation.
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 little concern how MotoGP technology advances superbike performance and sales since the vast majority of these machines cannot be handled properly  or legally  on the street.
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 shows that the bike industry is surviving off a public that is gradually aging and valuing more user-friendly models.
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.
 
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

One of the top priorities in fixing MotoGP rests with limiting ECU functions.
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.
 
MotoGP testing should be banned on circuits which are included in the normal racing schedule because its costly and adds to admission prices.
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

The majority of MotoGP fans are not wealthy doctors  lawyers and business men. As such  they should not be charged VIP prices to enjoy a day of racing.
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 MotoGP paddock especially needs to be made available to kids so they can meet riders and raise awareness for the next generation.
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.
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Comments
irfrank   July 5, 2011 02:22 PM
I'm not sure if you were including the USA in this analysis or not. "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." NASCAR has done pretty good with that concept. Motorcycle racing will never have the appeal of the big time sports. People that don't ride just don't have an interest. I agree with the attempts to make it more competitive though.
nuttyprof1   June 30, 2011 12:10 AM
I have attended Laguna Seca almost every year (not last year). This year I was very late in buying a ticket and there were still plenty available. When MotoGP first came, almost all packages were sold out way before the race, some sold out months in advance. I bought my ticket last week and got grandstand seats, preferred moto parking, etc. BTW, access for two days, grandstand seat, parking, paddock access = $205, so not exactly cheap, but I am a fan, I am old enough to have the dough and willing to pay. I am going for the entire show, but I don't expect a great race. And I remember awful times with access and exit from laguna Seca: hope it's gotten better, as it was improving last time I went.
I agree with the article. Something should be done or this will become an afterthought. All major manufacturers should be involved fully (Suzuki, and Kawi, that means you two as well) and it would be nice if riders arrived less than 10 seconds apart. I am a junkie: I enjoy practice, qualifying, etc., but I still wat the race to be close.
Kevin358   June 29, 2011 10:56 PM
BRING BACK THE TWO-STROKES. 500cc bikes that weigh <300lbs with 230hp. Limit it to real RPM like 15,000. High, but not out of this world high. This will keep the bikes to controllable powerbands so TC isn't as mandatory with these high strung 4-strokes with damaged torque curves. By eliminating TC, and such, you will force the manufacturers to focus on the real issues with bike handling. Improving chassis, suspension, etc. Creating a bike that is faster than one with TC. This will eliminate the "privateer" teams running far back just because they don't have the money to build a fast bike. More will rely on the riders ability so it will even it out and actually give a superior rider the chance to shine. Light weight 2-strokes means quick, nimble handling, exciting slides, and just all around good racing. And it will pave way for DI 2-strokes to come to the street. So; 500cc maximum(2 or 4 stroke), 15000rpm limit, no electronic aids(ABS, TC, anti-wheelie, etc), mandatory fuel injection(DI on 2-strokes), 4 cylinder max, cylinder arrangement unlimited, 400lb minimum weight limit(bike AND rider). Put an emphasis on chassis design and alternative suspension.
apachesix   June 29, 2011 09:56 AM
IT'S THE WEIGHT TOO! One possible fix to make it more competitive would be to have a combined bike and rider weight minimum. If F1 and Indy Car use this because of the performance effects, how much more are lighter weight motorcycles affected by differences in rider weight? the way it is going all the riders will end up being 5ft tall and 95lbs. All racing orgs need to adopt this.
RDorfmeyer   June 29, 2011 09:40 AM
Seldom do I agree with someone 100%. So, for my small part I will disagree on one issue and comment on another. First issue. Prices for the Indy Red Bull GP are very afforsable. $10 for Friday,$20 for Saturday and that includes the bands in the evening.Sunday is $40 and kids are free. That is damn cheap by any standard. Some folks think the 500cc two stroke days of yesteryear were the glory days. More like the gory days if you ask me. Those bikes were so miserable to ride, nearly everyone who rode them is either dead or crippeled from the experience. No thanks for a retuen to bikes like that. Racing is a show. There is no doubt. To introduce this show to the great unwashed will cause the "true believers" some pause. We must attract folks to the sport. Special attention to the fans in attendance must be paid, in particular the female and young. For those who argue for the TV dollar, remember, the fans in the stands are watching on TV when they cannot get to the race.
eligovt   June 29, 2011 09:01 AM
I'm getting sick of the motogp bashing on this site. Sure, lets fix it like they did AMA Superbike racing; that's so much more popular now.
mhevezi   June 28, 2011 10:35 AM
I have attended every USGP event at Laguna Seca since the return in 2005. I have loved every minute of m 3-day stay at the track and the area. The event has always been very well attended, even last year in the face of a poor economy and a less than full GP grid. Still MGP has issues and I see them as such-
Ticket Prices are a little high, but not unreasonably so. ANY professional sporting event will charge for entry, parking, premium for food & beer- that just comes with the territory. I doubt reducing those costs will boost attendace that much. I'd appreciate it though.
Ingress/Egress at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is good, but the local highways have had construction and lane closures on the day of the race causing HUGE back-ups on the surrounding highways. I agree that not enough is done to notify local Highway Authorities to accomodate the tens of thousands of MGP fans.
The biggest problem I have with the event is the RAPE OF THE FANS at the local hotels. I like to stay around the track and the Monterey area is full of hotels, most triple their rates for the weekend and have 2 or 3 night minimums. What was a $69/night room, becomes a $239/night room with a 2 night minimum stay. Really? At least buy me dinner before you take advantage of me.....
I do agree 100% with a control ECU that can bring more parity to the grid. Who wants to see more, non-factory bikes lapped? I am a firm believer in better living through technology, but I'd like to see more rider involvement then just holding the throttle wide open 80% of the time and letting the bike control the traction and prevent wheelies, etc, etc.
Great article.
fmaxwell   June 28, 2011 08:43 AM
Excellent article. I'm less concerned about in-person attendance because the vast majority of fans see the races on the TV. The way that you get more fans into the stadiums is not with low ticket prices or whoring-out the riders in mandatory meet-and-greets. It's with close racing and intense rivalries. What MotoGP needs to do is return to the explosive 500cc 2-strokes that would spit off mere mortals the way that a Rodeo Bull would Stephen Hawking riding a rodeo bull. We need to return to feather-light bikes that could change direction in that lightning-quick way that riders on the modern 800-1000cc four-stroke MotoGP machines cannot hope to achieve. Heck, maybe even increase the displacement to 600cc given the improved brake, tire, and chassis tech. Give the fans a reason to watch MotoGP rather than World Superbike. As a consumer, I know that I can get something akin to what wins in World Superbike. Sure, the Aprilia RSV4 at my dealer isn't going to have all of the factory trickery that's on Max Biaggi's bike, but it's a lot closer to his bike than a Yamaha R1 is to the MotoGP Yamaha-badged M1 that Lorenzo rides. MotoGP, like GP500 before it, is like NHRA top-fuel drag racing: It's supposed to be the pinnacle of performance, not a race between bikes like the ones at the local dealer. People weren't under the illusion that the Yamaha OW48 works TZ500 ridden in GP500 by Kenny Roberts was anything like something sold at their local Yamaha dealership. Yet there were huge numbers of spectators, great factory interest, and close finishes.
jmdavis984   June 28, 2011 07:19 AM
Your comments make sense for most of the GP calendar I assume. I agree that a spec ECU and more open regulations could lower costs and introduce more "thrill" into the sport. Why steel brakes though? Why not ceramic? Ceramic brakes, unlike carbon, can be used on the street. I've never used them, but I hear they are "the stuff."

As to improving the events, most of what you are recommending is up to the local track organization and not DORNA, FIM, or the promoter. Take Indianapolis for example. The tickets are CHEAP ($55 for the whole weekend), kids under 15 get in free, the food is good, the restrooms are clean-ish, and all 100K people can leave the track in an hour. I can tell you as a person who has lived in Indiana for 90%, this efficiancy has NOTHING to do with the MotoGP organization. The speedway has been hosting international racing events for 100 years now, and they have got it figured out. Just ask anyone who has been to the Indy GP as well as one of the other GP's. They don't sell paddock passes unfortunately. So, while your ideas are good, they don't really apply to the GP circus. I imagine that if the restrooms are dirty for the GP, they are dirty for F1, WSBK, Aussie Supercars, World Endurance, or any other racing event that occurs there. Maybe you need to aim these points at the track organizers rather than the GP circus?
frankenfurter   June 28, 2011 07:04 AM
It has been decided that your ideas are impractical (ie: they make too much sense and may make us look bad and somehow upset the gravy train) MotoGP will continue on as a flashy version of the post office. The glory days of motogp will continue to exist in the dreamworld minds of old men in the ivory towers until the lights are turned off.
stefaandb   June 28, 2011 06:58 AM
Bang on as always. As I am from Belgium, I went for the first time ever to a motoGP this weekend (Assen). I love motorracing, and I am willing to pay a bit for it but your bill doesn't stop buying a ticket. You need food, drinks, a place to spend the night perhaps. All of that sums up to a very expensive weekend, and for that price, it would be nice to just take a picture of the riders or something like that.