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MotoGP is an elite fraternity that every up-and-coming road racer dreams to be a part of. These are the upper echelon of athletes that have refined their craft to a science as they pilot prototype racebikes sporting the latest in cutting-edge development around the greatest race tracks in the world with surgical precision. For a select few, their names become legend: Hailwood, Agostini, Doohan, Rossi. These are the racing elite, the best of the best, and they compete in MotoGP.
Grand Prix Motorcycle racing began 61 years ago and survived wars, natural disasters and economic crisis. Over the years many elements of the championship have changed, including the name, type of machinery, and faces inside of the helmets. But what hasn't changed is the competitive spirit that drives the world’s top riders and motorcycle manufacturers to participate in this global racing event.
“Well, it’s the top level where everybody wants to be,” explains ’06 MotoGP Champ and American rider Nicky Hayden, who currently competes with the factory Ducati team. “There are a lot of other strong series and strong competitions in the world. But there’s not really anything like MotoGP. It’s the best riders on the best circuits riding the best bikes in the world. The level is very high - it almost speaks for itself.”
A Little Bit of History
During the majority of Giacomo Agostini's (#4) reign, MV Agusta used a a 4-stroke Triple before switching to the updated four-cylinder engine.
Originally known as the 500cc World Championship, the series has always consisted of multiple racing classes with the premier division being reserved for machines powered by 500cc engines. During the early years, European motorcycle manufactures Gilera, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta and Norton dominated the series with 4-stroke powered motorcycles proving the sophistication of European design during that era.
Toward the end of that decade, Italian marque MV Agusta rocketed to the top of the class - decimating the competition until the mid-’70s. It did so first with its 4-stroke, Inline-Four piloted by England’s John Surtees, a man who would go on to win four 500cc World Championships and later a Formula 1 car racing championship. To date, he’s the only person to accomplish this feat.
MV continued its dominance with another English rider, Mike Hailwood, followed by Italy’s Giacomo Agostini and finally Great Britain’s Phil Read. During most of Ago’s reign of terror, MV employed a 4-stroke Triple before switching to an updated four-cylinder configuration when Phil Read won his two titles.
Together these men helped give MV 18 premier World Championship titles (seven of them awarded by Agostini in succession between 1966 and 1972) before eventually exiting the racing scene and shutting down operations. In spite of this, MV still holds title to the most 500cc Grand Prix World Championships even though they haven’t turned a wheel on track in more than 30 years.
In 1984 American Eddie Lawson won his first of four World Championship titles, his first being with Yamaha.
By the mid-’60s, Japanese motorsports conglomerate Honda entered the fray and enjoyed some initial success and race wins with a 4-stroke Inline-Four ridden by MV’s ex-superstar, Mike Hailwood. But just as quickly as it entered the 500cc championship it pulled out, opening the door for the remaining big box Japanese brands including Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. And it was Agostini, another ex-MV pilot who would give Japan its first world title in 1975 while riding a 2-stroke Yamaha Inline-Four.
Shortly thereafter, Honda rejoined the series with a brand-new 2-stroke machine and from then on it was a full-on war between Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki with all three manufacturers winning multiple championships over the next two decades. Suzuki was the first to nab consecutive titles in 1976 and ’77 with British rider Barry Sheene. Then America’s own Kenny Roberts won three in a row between ‘78 and ’80 with Yamaha.
The racing got even fiercer in the ‘80s and was marked by a grid full of American riders all battling and trading race wins at nearly every round. At first it was Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer and Randy Mamola, followed by a young Eddie Lawson. From 1983 through 1985 American racers won all but one GP round with all four of the aforementioned riders hoisting trophies. Australian Wayne Gardner finally broke America’s stranglehold in Grand Prix racing during the late ‘80s before another pair of fresh-faced Americans by the names of Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey got familiar with spraying champagne.
Australian Mick Doohan was part of the golden age of MotoGP racing which saw riders on extremely powerful but difficult to handle V-Four Japanese 2-strokes.
Just when you thought the racing couldn’t get any better, it did, with American’s Lawson, Schwantz, and Rainey battling against Gardner and his fellow Australian countryman Mick Doohan. At this time all of them were riding extremely powerful and difficult-to-ride V-Four-powered Japanese 2-strokes. This was the golden age of GP racing when the rivalries were high and the bikes were almost impossible for most to control.
“The bikes we had back then had 190 horsepower,” remembers American and three-time 500cc World Champ Wayne Rainey. “But the powerband was from 9000 to 12,000 rpm. So you had about 3000 rpm that you were riding that beast in. Imagine coming out of a corner and having an instant 130 horsepower on a tire contact patch the size of your fist. The only thing keeping you from wheeling over backwards or high-siding is your right wrist.”
Without the benefit of advanced electronics that are commonplace today, including GPS and wheelie/traction control, these machines’ flip-switch-style powerbands, not to mention the more primitive tire technology, made humongous high-side crashes and broken bones the norm.
The war continued until the mid-’90s when Honda began dominating the championship, winning eight titles in nine years with the heavy assistance of Doohan, Spaniard Alex Criville and a young Italian by the name of Valentino Rossi, who won the final 500cc World Championship in 2001.
The series received a major overhaul for the 2002 season. Amongst some of the key changes was the inclusion of 4-stroke engines with displacements up to 990cc. This decision was made to better represent the direction of contemporary motorcycle design and technology as well
Riders like Nicky Hayden (#69) had to adapt in 2007 to engine modifications from 990 to 800cc, which led to higher corner speeds, advanced traction control systems and the evolution of tire technology.
as to gradually phase out 2-strokes, as they were no longer deemed applicable based on modern production trends. Correspondingly, the championship carried a new name — MotoGP.
Valentino Rossi won the first four MotoGP titles, two with Honda and two with Yamaha, after a controversial but successful team switch. Then the series underwent yet another big modification in engine displacement from 990 to 800cc for the 2007 season. The change was made sighting safety reasons, though the 800s eventually become faster than the 990s due to their higher corner speeds, advanced traction control systems and evolution of tire technology. Two-strokes were also banned, even though most teams had ceased using them after the conclusion of the 2002 season.
“They’re different for sure,” recalls Hayden who entered the MotoGP class in ’03 with Honda’s RC211V. “The 990s were a more physical bike and the electronics weren’t as strong. So the rider could actually make a bigger difference. Now with the 800s you can’t over-ride the bike. You have to ride the bike to its limit every corner, every apex, every braking and acceleration zone. You can’t make any mistakes.”
In 2009, the championship adopted a spec tire rule with Bridgestone signing a contract as the sole supplier until 2011. Additionally, halfway through the 2009 season, the championship implemented an engine directive that would allow riders access to only six engines throughout the entire 18-round season. The rule was enacted to reduce competition costs and keep performance from advancing by forcing manufacturers to build more reliable engines.
The 2012 season is set to usher in yet another major regulation update with manufacturers allowed to return to engines up to 1000cc but with the number of cylinders now restricted to a maximum of four. Cylinder bore will also be limited to no more than 81.0mm. Add to this the possibility of the allowance of semi-production based engines in an effort to boost grid numbers and ’12 will see yet another major change to the face of MotoGP.
The MotoGP series allows only prototype machines which are built for absolute performance and maneuverability. They are the fastest, lightest and most expensive motorcycles in the world.
As opposed to other racing series, in which racers compete on modified production-based motorcycles you see in dealerships, the MotoGP series allows only prototype machines. These are bikes built for absolute performance where the ability to maneuver around turns and accelerate and stop as fast as possible is paramount. Simply put, these are the fastest, lightest, and most expensive motorcycles in the world. The Formula 1 of the two-wheeled world.
This type of prototype-based racing allows manufacturers to showcase its technical know-how and test cutting-edge technologies that may eventually trickle down to mass produced bikes. Thus, many of the bikes you see competing are in one shape or another the basis for ultra high-performance motorcycles of tomorrow (see sidebar). Race bikes are engineered in accordance with technical rules set forth by the organizing body Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM).
Manufacturers are free to select from any type of reciprocating piston engine configuration with the only restriction being displacement cap of 800cc as well as a minimum weight based on the number of cylinders. Furthermore, all engines have to be normally aspirated (no forced air induction), run on unleaded fuel, and be manipulated by manual-style transmissions with a maximum of six gears. Advanced engine management systems and rider aids including GPS-based wheelie and traction control are all permitted.
In terms of a MotoGP bike’s chassis the rules are also quite open. Teams can utilize frames made from materials such as aluminum or carbon fiber, however titanium is not allowed. Suspension systems must be manually controlled and adjusted without electronic interface and the wheels must adhere to a certain diameter and width specification and be shod with said spec Bridgestone tires. Teams can use carbon brake discs with a maximum diameter of 320mm. The bodywork and fuel tank can be made from any type of composite material and shaped in any way as long as it doesn’t stretch past the front tire or beyond the rear tire.
The Ducati Desmosedici GP10 machine (above) utilizes a 90-degree V-Four engine layout, whereas Suzuki’s GSV-R (below) has a 75-degree configuration.
At its 2003 season peak there were six manufacturers competing in MotoGP: Aprilia, Ducati, Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. But due to the combination of being uncompetitive and economic hardships both Aprilia and Kawasaki have since withdrawn, leaving just four brands.
The specifications and features of each manufacturer’s machine are closely guarded secrets and finding out information about these bikes isn’t easy. Readily available information states that all four current machines employ four-cylinder engines with nearly identical minimum weights of less than 331 pounds.
Ducati campaigns its Desmosedici GP10. The GP10 utilizes a 90-degree V-Four engine configuration in which each of the two cylinders form a V-shape when looked at from the side. This design reduces both the length and the width of the engine as compared to a conventional Inline design.
Like all Ducatis it uses its proprietary Desmodromic valvetrain in which each of the engine’s 16 valves are actuated with rocker arms. It also uses a “big bang” engine firing order for 2010, which is said to aid engine tractability and make the bike friendlier to ride. The GP10 is also the only MotoGP bike to utilize a carbon fiber main frame.
Honda’s RC212V is powered by a V-Four engine as well, however, its cylinders are canted at a more compact 75-degree angle. Similar to Yamaha and Suzuki, the valvetrain is operated pneumatically which allows the engine to operate at very high rpm. As opposed to the hybrid carbon fiber/aluminum chassis on the Ducati, the Honda uses a more conventional twin-spar aluminum frame. For 2010 Ohlins suspension has replaced the Showa components that were standard in years past.
Like the Honda, the engine in Suzuki’s GSV-R is a 75-degree V-Four layout. It also uses pneumatically-controlled valves and a twin-spar aluminum frame with Ohlins suspension and rolls on forged magnesium Marchesini wheels. In contrast to the Ducati, Honda and Suzuki V-engine configuration, Yamaha uses an Inline-Four configuration where the cylinders are aligned horizontally across the width of the machine, much the same as its production YZF-R1 street bike. There are plenty of reasons why a manufacturer would choose a V-format over an Inline, and vice versa, some of which include external size, chassis balance and power characteristics. Like the rest of the Japanese bikes, the M1 employs a twin-spar aluminum frame and Ohlins suspension.
One of the major stars on the MotoGP circuit is Valentino Rossi (#46), who currently rides for Fiat Yamaha and has won seven 500cc/MotoGP Championships.
This season there are 17 riders from seven countries competing in the MotoGP Championship. The motorcycle crazy countries of Italy and Spain are each represented by five riders while America has three. Australia, Finland, France and Japan each have one rider in the series. Every manufacturer has an official two rider “factory” team that has access to the latest motorcycles, parts and technical assistance. Additionally, each brand, with the exception of Suzuki, leases equipment to privately funded “satellite” teams.
Headlining the championship is the larger-than-life personality of Italy’s Valentino Rossi (No. 46). The 31-year-old pilots a Yamaha YZR-M1 for the Italian-based Fiat Yamaha factory team. “The Doctor” is arguably the best motorcycle racer the world has ever seen having achieved seven 500cc/MotoGP World Championships since joining the series a decade ago.
Rossi already holds claim to the most premier class Grand Prix victories at 78, and before his recent injury he showed no real signs of slowing down. He is currently recuperating from a severely broken right leg suffered in a crash during his home GP at Mugello, missing the first GPs of his long career.
Valentino Rossi's teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, has been having an extremely successful 2010 season and is the favorite to win the championship.
Rossi’s early exit from this season opens the door for his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo (No. 99). The 23-year-old Spanish rider joined the series three years ago and is already following in the flamboyant, successful manner of his teammate. Last season Lorenzo finished in the runner-up spot behind Rossi, but opened the current season with multiple victories. With Rossi now out of the picture, if Lorenzo can stay healthy and be consistent at every round he is the favorite to win this year’s championship.
The factory Ducati squad is represented by two former world champions: USA’s Nicky Hayden (No. 69) and Australia’s Casey Stoner (No. 27). Stoner won his first MotoGP World Championship in the inaugural year of the 800cc bikes and in 2008 he narrowly lost out on a successive title to Rossi. The following season saw things start to go downhill when he missed three rounds with a mysterious illness which was eventually diagnosed as lactose intolerance. He came back with a string of podium finishes including two wins at the last few rounds. But this year he has had a string of crashes, including falling out of a commanding lead at the opening round, all which have cost him precious championship points.
Dani Pedrosa rides for the Repsol Honda Team and, despite being only 24-years-old, he's the team's veteran rider.
Riding for the Repsol Honda Team is Spanish rider Dani Pedrosa (No. 26) and Italy’s Andrea Dovizioso (No. 4). Despite being only 24-years-old, Pedrosa is the team’s veteran, having competed under the orange and blue Repsol colors for five seasons. Since joining the series Pedrosa has shown flashes of brilliance, occasionally beating the series’ top riders, but lack of consistency has held him back from achieving a championship.
Twenty-four-year-old Dovizioso joined the MotoGP ranks in 2008 with the factory-supported satellite JiR Scot Honda team. He would go on to finish an impressive fifth in the championship points in his rookie season. The following year he was promoted to the factory outfit. After a year of learning, this season the gregarious Italian has recorded multiple podium finishes, positioning him directly in the championship hunt.
The English-based Rizla Suzuki factory team consists of veteran Italian 500cc and MotoGP rider Loris Capirossi (No. 65) and rookie Alvaro Bautista (No. 19). At 37 years of age, Capirossi is the oldest competitor on the grid. But with age comes experience and he certainly has plenty, having
The Rizla Suzuki factory team consists of Loris Capirossi (#65), who is the oldest rider on the circuit at 37, and rookie Alvaro Bautista (#19).
ridden for both factory and factory-supported Honda and Ducati teams. Since joining Suzuki in ’08 Capirex has failed to be a serious contender for wins and has only collected one podium finish.
Hailing from Spain, Bautista is one of this year’s rookies pulled from the now extinct 250GP series. For 2010 a new rookie rule preventing rookies from competing on a factory team was waived for Bautista, as Suzuki does not have any support teams. In spite of not having experience racing big bikes, the 25-year-old has plenty of track knowledge having competed on the Grand Prix circuit during his 125GP and 250GP racing days.
The Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Team is Yamaha’s official satellite team. This year the unit has two American riders both hailing from the state of Texas: Colin Edwards (No. 5) and Ben Spies (No.11). Having competed in MotoGP since the 2003 season, Edwards is a MotoGP veteran. The 35-year-old has recorded multiple podium finishes but has yet to win a race.
Another rookie in this year’s championship, Ben Spies graduated from the World Superbike ranks after winning the championship last year. Although this is his rookie season, the 25-year-old had two wildcard rides in ’08 with his former long-time AMA Superbike employer Suzuki. This season he’s run inside the top-10 on multiple occasions with a best finish of a third-place podium at the British Grand Prix. Expect Spies to be a contender for more podiums or possibly even race wins as he gains experience.
Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rookie Ben Spies is new to MotoGP and fresh off his title win in World Superbike in 2009.
The Pramac Racing Team and the Paginas Amarillas Aspar Team are Ducati’s two support squads. The Pramac Team fields Finnish rider Mika Kallio (No. 36) and Spaniard Aleix Espargaró (No. 41), while the Paginas Team is represented by Hector Barbera (No. 40) - yet another Spaniard.
After a fairly successful 125 and 250GP career with KTM, Kallio moved to the premier class for 2009 and filled in for Stoner on the factory Ducati during his mid-season absence. This year the 27-year-old hasn’t been a serious threat, only finishing inside the top-10 once. At 20 years of age, Espargaró is the series’ youngest competitor.
Even though he’s only 23-years-old, Barbera has been racing within the Grand Prix circuit in the 125 and 250 classes since 2002. This year he joins the Paginas Amarillas Aspar squad as the solo rider.
In contrast to Yamaha and Ducati support teams, Honda has three factory-supported satellite outfits: San Carlo Gresini Honda, LCR Honda MotoGP, and the Interwetten Honda MotoGP Team. The San Carlo team rider line-up includes Italians Marco Melandri (No. 33) and Marco Simoncelli (No. 58). While both riders are new to the team they both have plenty of Grand Prix racing experience. Melandri has raced for multiple manufactures and has been in the series since ’03. Meanwhile, even though this is his first season in the premier class, Simoncelli has raced at many of the GP tracks since ’02.
Both the LCR and Interwetten teams field just a single rider. LCR rider, Randy de Puniet, has considerable experience in Grand Prix racing and joined the premier class in ’06 with the now defunct Kawasaki factory team. This is the Frenchman’s third season and his best so far with the LCR Honda team, recording consistent top-10 finishes at nearly every round.
Japanese rider Hiroshi Aoyama is another rookie entering MotoGP competition for the first time this year with the Interwetten Honda group. Similar to Rossi, Aoyama is also recuperating from an injury suffered at the British GP.
Italy holds two Motorcycle Grand Prix events each season, with one being at the Mugello circuit pictured above.
The 2010 MotoGP season is comprised of races held at 18 racetracks across the globe. Venues are selected based on homologation requirements set forth by the FIM.
No round on the calendar is the same and each circuit offers a unique history, distinctive atmosphere and one-of-a-kind layout. From a night race held under the flood lights in the middle of the desert in Qatar to the majestic old-world beauty of Italy’s Mugello racing circuit to our own little slice of paved heaven at California’s Laguna Seca, MotoGP is truly a global event.
Considering both its huge motorcycling population and number of riders in the series, Spain hosts four races - the most of any country. Italy and the United States are up next with both countries holding two Grand Prix, though technically the second Italian GP is at the Misano circuit in San Marino. The European countries of the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Holland, and Portugal also all host one race. Furthermore races are held in the Middle East (Qatar), Malaysia, Japan and Australia to make up a worldwide series.