MotoGP Budget And Regulations - Ruling Class

Can New Cost-Cutting Regulations Rescue MotoGP?

The current global economic slowdown has hit MotoGP hard. Plummeting motorcycle sales and the resulting decrease in revenue has the world's major motorcycle manufacturers scrutinizing their balance sheets line by line, looking for opportunities to cut back. Racing budgets--excessive expenditures offering relatively little in terms of concrete financial returns--are often construed as luxuries and are the first to be slashed. The consequences at the highest level of motorcycle racing have been significant already, as factories slow or stall MotoGP R&D;, sponsors check out and racing teams are forced to scale down and cut back.

Dorna Sports, the company that holds the commercial rights to MotoGP, has reacted to this new reality by radically restructuring series rules with a keen eye toward reducing costs. First was a move to a spec tire, with Bridgestone granted the rights as sole rubber supplier through 2011, along with a cap on the total number of tires available to each manufacturer throughout the season. Then in March, the FIM sanctioning body--prompted by Dorna--released revised technical regulations to restrict testing, reduce travel and simplify technology, all in the hopes of reigning in runaway costs.

Valentino Rossi jokingly suggested that the best way to save money would have been to keep the previous-generation 990cc racebikes. While the new regulations don't roll things back quite that far, they do demand more retrograde technology than we are accustomed to seeing on motorcycle racing's ultimate prototypes. Effective immediately, ceramic-composite brake materials are banned (though carbon-carbon brakes, which can cost as much as $300K per bike per season, remain legal), as are launch control and electronically controlled suspension. Rules will be even more restrictive in 2010 when variable exhaust systems, variable valve timing and lift, electronic steering dampers, GPS, auto/CVT transmissions and other cutting-edge components will also become verboten

In addition to increased technical restrictions, new limits on the number of engines and bikes will force teams to detune the power output in order to increase durability and longevity. Only six engines will be allowed for the entire season--new engines have to be sealed before use, and used engines will have the exhaust ports sealed at the end of each event. Additionally, no changing of parts will be permitted except for undefined "daily maintenance" items. Most controversially, riders will only be allowed one machine during each MotoGP event, with no back-up bike--which could make wet weekends especially interesting.

With less equipment available, testing opportunities will be greatly reduced to further cut costs. Testing will now be limited to eight days total over the entire season, teams will only be allowed pre-race testing at two tracks, and no later than 14 days prior to the race at that venue. Finally, the winter test ban will be extended until the end of January. In addition, though race weekends will remain three-day events (a proposal to cut races to Saturday/Sunday was rejected), total track time at each will be reduced, with limited practice and warm-up opportunities.

Some of these rules changes seem antithetical--why, for instance, do carbon brakes remain legal when they have no production bike application, while technology like variable valve timing and variable exhausts, which are production-relevant, are banned? It's clear that Dorna and the FIM had to make drastic changes to insure the long-term viability of MotoGP. Sponsors have been leaving the series for years without replacements stepping in, and with just 17 bikes on the grid at present (technically one less than the FIM minimum), the loss of any more teams or bikes would be crippling.

With only one 2009 MotoGP round complete at press time (the season opener in Qatar), it's interesting to note that, even with the cost-cutting measures in place, it was still the familiar faces of Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo atop the podium. There were some unintended consequences, such as Nicky Hayden going out for the Sunday-morning warm-up with a well-used front tire mounted on his million-dollar Ducati GP9, after he burned up his tire allotment by destroying two front tires in two separate crashes the day before. But for the most part, the racing remained unaffected.

In theory, decreasing costs should increase manufacturer parity, thereby improving competition. In an era when the premier MotoGP series seems in imminent danger of being outshined by World Superbike, and major manufacturers such as Aprilia, BMW and KTM eschew MotoGP to take part in SBK, this can only be a good thing for racing fans--who, it's worth remembering, are the very same customers who buy the bikes that pay the bills that support this sport.

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New rules mean Casey Stoner, along with the rest of the MotoGP paddock, will have to get through the final seven rounds of '09 on five engines.
Nicky Hayden's 130-mph Qatar high-side showed the ugly side of rubber rationing. Will we be seeing more of the ambulance this year?