Although there are many players in the game of grand prix motorcycle racing—riders, teams, manufacturers, organizers, the holders of commercial rights—the complexity clears up a bit when we separate the players in two groups: those who see motorcycle technology as the primary focus, and those who see motorcycle racing as secondary to the entertainment spectacle it delivers.
The Moto2 class clearly outlines the differences between these two opposing forces. By requiring a “spec” engine manufactured by Honda, engine development in the class is basically halted. Although Moto2 frames and suspension are “prototype,” minimum weight limits, spec tires, and racing’s inbred conservatism have conspired to make the various bikes almost cookie-cutter alike. For those who consider motorcycle racing the driving force behind advanced motorcycle technology, Moto2 is disappointing.
On the other hand, the reduction in costs resulting from the Moto2 formula has allowed more teams to enter the class, and the mechanical equality has made the racing closer. More participants and better racing action makes a better “show,” bringing more fans to the track, to the TV, and on the Internet. Cheaper, less-innovative bikes seem to have increased the entertainment value—and thus the financial value—of racing. This is a win for those on the racing-as-entertainment side of the equation.
Manufacturers typically fall on the side of advancing technology. Last summer at Assen, Honda/HRC racing boss Shuhei Nakamoto reportedly said to Herve Poncharal, head of the Tech3 racing team: “I don’t care about the show. We’re not here for [the show].” This statement has a raw edge, particularly coming from a Japanese manufacturer’s representative. It gives a sense that MotoGP’s commercial rights holder, Dorna, may be pushing the entertainment aspect to the detriment of other stakeholders.
Carmelo Ezpeleta, head of Dorna, hasn’t said (and probably never will say), “I don’t care about motorcycles.” But Ezpeleta’s actions speak louder than words. As rules governing hardware become increasingly restrictive, it seems clear that he’s committed to bringing down the cost of MotoGP racing in order to improve the show. Increasing minimum weights, decreasing the number of engines per season, reductions in fuel volume, and more restrictive rev limits are all intended to slow the factory prototypes and make less-expensive Claiming Rule Teams (CRT) bikes more competitive.
Is this working? Right now, MotoGP resembles a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, a bunch of parts patched together less than perfectly. The spectrum ranges from increasingly muzzled factory prototypes to “factory” CRT efforts (like ART/Aprilia) to independent satellite teams with varying levels of equipment and manufacturer support. During the first test of the 2013 season, at Sepang, almost a full 6 seconds separated the fastest factory prototype from the slowest CRT bike, calling into question the concept that more restrictive rules create closer racing—at least in the premier class.
Given the monster that MotoGP is becoming, it’s easy to understand Nakamoto’s frustration. At the same time, I’m sure he’s a realist. The show is extremely important to the racing equation—it’s what brings in the money that makes all this technological development possible. Ironically, data show that MotoGP fans are increasingly unlikely to be motorcyclists, but are following the riders and the action just as they would any other televised sport they might not participate in themselves. High-res video, on-board cameras, tracking cameras, and pit-box coverage have all made the broadcast racing experience more attractive to a non-riding audience. For better or worse, the motorcycle’s technical properties are becoming less and less relevant.
The current state of MotoGP is a series of increasingly complex compromises that hopefully allow all players to pursue their disparate goals in a mutually beneficial manner. Compromise makes it work for now, but it’s clear that the pressure to commercialize racing isn’t likely to abate.