Financial Trouble In Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, And Spain | When Pigs Fly | Drawing the Line

By James Parker, Photography by Andrea Wilson

If you follow world news you already know about the European debt crisis, and how the Euro, the common currency that was supposed to level the economic playing field, hasn’t done much leveling. A group of countries in the Eurozone—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, or “PIIGS”—are in deep financial trouble and increasingly need help from the more financially solid countries like Germany. What’s evolved is an unequal union, a two-tier system that really doesn’t function as planned.

In a strangely parallel development, the motorcycle racing world now has its own PIIGS crisis. In 2012, the MotoGP series began a two-tier structure with the introduction of the Claiming Rule Teams (CRT) category. These are less expensive bikes intended to fill out MotoGP grids by making MotoGP-class racing affordable to more race teams.

Like the Euro, the new MotoGP arrangement was planned with the best of intentions. Using production-based engines and prototype chassis, the CRT bikes would cost about one-fourth as much as the factory prototype bikes, which, by decree, must be completely different from production models. There would now be more than 20 bikes on the grid, making for full fields after years of shrinking numbers. No one expected the first CRT bikes to match the speeds of the factory prototypes, but perhaps the CRTs would occasionally get in among the big boys, particularly in wet races.

But halfway into the 2012 season, it’s as if there is a firewall between the prototypes and the CRTs. The CRT bikes aren’t slow. They are full racing motorcycles, maintained by impressive teams with real credentials. But they are up against the world’s best, and it shows. They don’t match the factory prototypes and are not nearly as close in performance as was hoped.

Because CRT bikes use production-based engines, it’s useful to see how they stack up against World Superbike hardware that uses similar engines. At Assen this summer, both WSBK and MotoGP qualified in similar (dry) conditions. The pole-sitting MotoGP prototype was 1.7 seconds faster than best Superbike. The best CRT time was 0.4 seconds slower than best Superbike. So the times were: MotoGP,  WSBK, CRT.

Superbike and CRT engines are similar, but Superbikes can use more engines in the season than the 12 engines CRTs are limited to. Superbikes must use stock frames, but many parts are not stock, which means that the prototype frames and carbon brakes used on the CRT bikes are about the only pieces separating the two series, and the closeness of their times confirms this.

While the MotoGP organizers intend to try to equalize the performance of the prototypes and the CRTs in future seasons, it will likely be done by slowing the prototypes rather than by making the CRTs faster. Standard ECUs, reduced rev limits, and several other measures are being considered to help bridge the performance gap.

But looking at the relative performance levels of MotoGP and WSBK, it’s not going to take many restrictions (on performance or cost) to bring MotoGP lap times within striking distance of Superbikes. If their bikes aren’t faster than Superbikes, where is the distinction in MotoGP as the ultimate World Championship?

If indeed MotoGP doesn’t have to have the ultimate hardware or the fastest bikes, and Superbikes and MotoGP bikes are on a converging course anyway, why not run Superbikes with stock-appearing bodywork in WSBK (stick-on “headlights” are to appear in WSBK next year anyway), while MotoGP could run the same bikes with different, non-stock looking race bodywork and carbon brakes? The cost savings would be dramatic.

Economics is really at the root of the two-tier structure of MotoGP, just as it is in the larger Eurozone crisis. And just as the very existence of the European Union is at stake in that crisis, the continued existence of MotoGP in its current form depends on getting the rules and the details right. A dozen years into the Euro, the project is in trouble. It’s too early to tell about the MotoGP/CRT union. Just how do you make pigs fly?

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