When I wrote about the difficult situation MotoGP finds itself in with respect to the new front tire Michelin is developing in an attempt to address the increasing problems with tire temperature and pressure, the immediate response, especially on Twitter, was "MotoGP should just ban ride-height devices and aerodynamics". While this is a charming notion, it is also utterly impractical. To paraphrase a quote from a movie about ill-thought out decisions, those commenters were so preoccupied with what MotoGP should, they didn't stop to think whether they could.
If you talk to independent team bosses, they have no love for either aerodynamics or ride-height devices. Similarly, senior officials within Dorna and IRTA have expressed a dislike for both technologies. If they could, they would get ride of ride-height devices tomorrow, and aerodynamics shortly after. Even a severe restriction on aerodynamics would be welcomed.
What Dorna would like to do, and what they can do, are two very different things, however. The formal process for changing the MotoGP technical regulations has been set out in detail, and simply do not allow Dorna to change the rules.
Making the rules
First, a quick refresher on how the rules are made in MotoGP. Proposals to change the sporting and technical rules are put forward to the Grand Prix Commission. The GPC has four members: the FIM, as sanctioning body; IRTA, representing the teams; the MSMA, representing the factories; and Dorna, as series promoter. Dorna chairs the body.
Votes on changes to the sporting rules are made by simple majority, with Dorna having the casting vote in case of a tie. In practice, proposals to change the sporting rules come from the teams and Dorna, with input from the FIM, and are discussed with the factories. The aim is to make changes unanimously, and Dorna works closely with the MSMA to get them on board with changes. But if they cannot do so, Dorna, IRTA, and the FIM can usually get through votes on their own if they need to. That is a last resort, however.
Changes to the technical regulations are different, however. The MSMA have a veto over the technical rules, as part of the five-year contract the factories have with Dorna for participation in MotoGP. The caveat here is that they only have a veto if the MSMA are unanimous, i.e. all six (or from next year, five) factories have to agree. In practice, this means that proposals to change the rules are only submitted with the prior agreement of the MSMA.
Keeping everyone in the loop
To this end, Dorna's Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli spends a lot of his time discussing the future direction of MotoGP and the technical regulations with the MSMA. Changes to the rules are discussed at length first, before being submitted to the GPC.
The MSMA can also put forward their own proposals, and again, if the proposal has unanimous support of all of the manufacturers participating, the GPC will accept that proposal.
What this means in practice is that the manufacturers in MotoGP control the technical regulations, as long as they are unanimous. As stated, this is part of the contract factories sign with Dorna for each five-year period (the current period started this year, and will run through 2026).
Why do the factories insist on control of the technical regulations? Because the biggest thing they want is stability of the rules. Each rule change means extra effort is needed to adapt their bikes to the new rules. And extra effort means extra resources, in terms of engineering, personnel, and as a consequence, money.
Adjusting to rule changes tends to be a multi-year effort as well, with lessons learned in the first year being incorporated and refined in subsequent seasons. Small changes can be made from year to year, or even within a year if sufficiently insignificant. But factories want advance warning of major changes which will significantly impact bike design and behavior, and want them kept to a minimum.
The agreement the factories have with Dorna is that major changes will only happen at the start of a new contract period. For example, the switch to 800cc capacity was introduced in 2007, after the first MotoGP contract period ended. The switch back to 1000cc came in 2012 in the following period. Fully spec electronics were introduced in 2016, a year before the start of the new contract period, but that was a process which had been underway since 2012, and the introduction of the CRT class, which became the Open class, which brought in the spec ECU.
There were no major changes to the technical rules for 2022, in part due to the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the next big change will be in 2027, when MotoGP will switch to fully carbon-neutral fuels, with a switch to 40% carbon-neutral fuels from 2024.
All for one and one for all?
What does this mean for Dorna banning ride-height devices or aerodynamics? They could submit a proposal tomorrow, but it would be rejected by the MSMA forthwith. Dorna simply doesn't have the power to do so. (Though there may be a loophole, but more on that later.)
That holds true as long as the MSMA are united. And the once-unbreakable unity of the MSMA is now extremely precarious. We have already seen with the front ride-height devices that five of MotoGP's six current manufacturers wanted to get rid of them, and so a proposal from Dorna was accepted by the GPC, because the MSMA were not unanimous.
Even here, though, Ducati, as the only dissident voice, were thrown a lifeline, and given a year's reprieve. Instead of an immediate ban, which was what most parties wanted, the ban was postponed until 2023.
So is MotoGP stuck with ride-height devices and advanced aerodynamics for the foreseeable future? Probably, though there are possible avenues for change to happen.
Let us start with rear ride-height devices. Dorna could not unilaterally submit a proposal to ban rear ride-height devices and get it passed, but as with the front ride-height device, there is a clear split inside the MSMA.
On the one hand, Ducati believe it is a technology they pioneered and which gives them an advantage. They do not believe they should be punished for their innovation within the rules. But on the other hand, the four remaining MSMA members see no clear use for ride-height devices in production bikes. On a road bike, they can achieve the same effect more efficiently and effectively using electronics to control ride height, instead of the massively complex system of plumbing used to get around the ban on electronically controlled suspension in MotoGP.
At the Technical Directors press conference at Aragon, both Aprilia and KTM expressed their opposition to the technology. "Our general thinking about these devices is to possibly ban all of them as soon as possible," Aprilia engineer Romano Albesiano said. "It's just a complication, something that will never reach production. The rules ban the possibility to make a proper rear device."
KTM's Sebastian Risse agreed. "I agree with Aprilia. The one really outstanding not to be used is the ride-height device, because this technology is actually behind what could be implemented in any street bike anyway." Electronically controlled preload and damping, adjusted on the fly, is already a commonplace on many premium road-going motorcycles, so chasing the same effect through hydraulics was pointless.
Could a ban on ride-height devices happen? It looks entirely possible. It won't happen for 2023, but there is reason to be optimistic of it happening in 2024.
What about aerodynamics? Here, the situation is different. The factories and the riders see the benefits of aero, and would be unhappy to lose them. The wings have given riders much more feel at the front in braking, the front wheel staying stuck to the ground. They also make it easier to control the bike in the straight, the wheel now on the ground instead of in the air.
And aerodynamics has progressed so much that the factories have a much better understanding of the technology. What started as anti-wheelie is now transforming into ways to improve corner speed, braking, as well as exit.
In contrast to ride-height devices, aerodynamics is an area where there is direct transfer to technology to street bikes. Ducati's Technical Director, Davide Barana, set out how the Bologna factory had used the lessons learned. "It's an important area," Barana said. "The proof that it is important also in motorcycling is that we transfer our technology also into production bikes. Our Panigale was the first bike with the winglets, and also our Multistrada V4 was developed with the same group that developed the MotoGP bike, using the same tools, the same simulation tools, wind tunnel capabilities, to not only get the performance but also to assess as much as possible the comfort of the bike. For example, the Multistrada is not a sports bike but a touring bike. For Ducati, it's a very important asset and we will try to keep it as it is."
The enormous progress made in understanding aerodynamics is now visible on the bikes. What started with simple wings near the nose of the bike to keep the front end down has grown into something far more complicated. Upper wings, to control wheelie. Side pods, to provide stability and downforce while affecting the agility of the bike less. Ducati's lower air ducts to reduce pressure and create downforce while the bike is leaned over. And Aprilia's new wide lower fairing, which creates a kind of ground effect in the corner.
The use of aerodynamics has been limited before, when wings were banned and looped aerofoils replaced them. That change was made without approval of the MSMA, because of the sole provision to change the technical rules without them. That change was deemed to be necessary on safety grounds, which came along with a number of other stipulations, such as a minimum radius for leading edges.
That safety exemption could be applied again, in some cases. For example, physical stresses on riders' bodies have grown so great that arm pump surgery is almost compulsory to be competitive. The bikes are braking so late, in part thanks to aerodynamics and ride-height devices, that riders are constantly having to deal with 1.5G or more on their forearms, while also still trying to operate front brake and throttle with the subtlety necessary to go fast.
If Dorna did want an opening to restrict this kind of technology, then the physical safety of riders could be it. But they would still have to try to sell this argument politically, and get the MSMA members to at least accept its validity.
So, to answer the question we began this with. Can Dorna ban ride-height devices and aerodynamics? No, not unilaterally. But that does not mean we are stuck with the technologies forever. There appears to be a majority inside the MSMA to ban ride-height devices in the short term. But aerodynamics appear to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.
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