Cross Purposes | DRAWING THE LINE

The conflicting goals of MotoGP class rules.

It's a phrase not heard much any more, but "working at cross-purposes" is a perfect description of what's happening in MotoGP these days. One purpose that Dorna—the MotoGP rule-maker—has been pursuing for years now is to increase participation in its premier racing class. The primary obstacle to participation in MotoGP is money, so making racing less expensive has been goal number one. Restrictions like weight limits and eliminating exotic materials have already lowered costs; Dorna's latest directive is to cut electronics costs by requiring the use of specified ("spec") hardware and software.

The problem here—the cross-purpose—is that Honda doesn't agree with this strategy. (Some critics say "the factories" don't agree with Dorna, but it's mostly just Honda.) Honda has said consistently that its primary purpose in MotoGP is to develop new technology and train its engineering staff. Honda has even maintained that, should Dorna mandate spec software that limits the opportunity for innovation, it might leave the series entirely.

For the time being, Dorna has compromised: The spec ECU is required, but spec software is optional. As a result, there are currently two classes in MotoGP: "Factory," which allows free software development but limits fuel volume to 20 liters per race and allows only five engines per season; and "Open" entries that must use spec software but get 24 liters of fuel and 12 engines over the season. An extra bonus for Open bikes: a different rear tire that may give an added performance edge.

Cross-purposes exist within the Open class as well. At Dorna's urging, Honda has developed a price-controlled "production racer" version of its RC213V (called the RCV1000R, and costing more than 1 million euro) to help fill the grid. Yamaha—with a special dispensation by Dorna—has taken a different path to support the Open class and will lease (not sell) engines very near Factory specification, including pneumatic valve springs, to be housed in independently constructed prototype chassis (but will provide temporary use of 2013 frames and swingarms to get this effort off the ground). A third manufacturer, Ducati, was presumed to be a full-Factory team but at press time was openly considering abiding by Open rules, enticed by the potential benefit of 24 liters and 12 engines. Such complexity!

If Honda's "production racer" and Yamaha's lease-engines showed equal promise there would be little or no conflict, but early testing indicates Honda's RCV1000R may be as much as 1.5 seconds per lap slower than the leased Yamahas. Honda is publicly displeased with the situation, noting its bike was built to the letter and spirit of Open-class rule. Yamaha, on the other hand, not only avoided the expense of building a new production machine but also appears to have jumped ahead of Honda in the Open-class race.

Although Honda might trail in the Open category, it could have an unassailable advantage in Factory competition. Why? Honda lobbied hard for the 20-liter fuel restriction, so it's not hard to imagine that modeling suggested that goal would be more difficult for its competitors to achieve. Yamaha certainly seems to be having problems with the fuel limit in early testing. Second, Honda is ahead of the others with its seamless gearbox technology, which allows clutchless downshifts and extremely smooth corner entries. Yamaha has a seamless gearbox but still requires the clutch for downshifts. Will Honda dominate in 2014 like it did last year?

The complexities and complications of the current MotoGP situation are a direct result of the fact that one set of clear rules has not been possible for some time now. Dorna's desire to see more teams compete more equally and for less money seems to be in blatant conflict with Honda's corporate desire to advance engineering and technology progress by dominating the racing series. Dorna's many compromises have kept Honda in the series so far, but at what cost? Must they always work at cross-purposes?

Mgp 2013 11 12 Valencia Nickyhayden 5386
Is Honda's influence in MotoGP the tail wagging the dog? Lackluster pre-season testing of the RCV1000R, shown here under Nicky Hayden, suggests that Big Red doesn't always get its way.