Two years after starting the blog which would eventual morph into MotoMatters.com, I felt it was time to quit my job and do this full time. It seemed like the perfect moment to pursue my dream of writing about MotoGP for a living, so I handed in my notice to my erstwhile employer and prepared to strike out on my own. That was late August, 2008.
Two weeks later, on September 15th, Lehman Brothers collapsed, kicking off the Global Financial Crisis which would plunge the world into recession. My timing turned out to be absolutely terrible.
Why am I looking back to 2008? Because the financial crisis sparked by the collapse of the US housing market and the worldwide banking system would have a profound effect on motorcycle racing, and would go on to shape MotoGP as it is today. It would create the conditions where there were six manufacturers racing in MotoGP. It would also reshape the politics of MotoGP to put Dorna in a much stronger position to cope with Suzuki's decision to withdraw from the series.
What will Dorna do and how will they handle Suzuki's withdrawal? To understand their current position, you need to go back to 2008, and the aftermath of that terrible September.
Lessons from history
MotoGP had already been struggling. After the triumph of the fire-breathing 990cc four strokes, culminating in perhaps the most memorable season in the history of grand prix racing when Nicky Hayden pipped Valentino Rossi to the 2006 championship against seemingly impossible odds, the switch to 800cc MotoGP machines had been a disaster.
Ducati had realized that speed would be at a premium, and the factories were engaged in a war of electronics to manage the incredibly peaky engines being built in pursuit of rapidly increasing levels of horsepower. The simultaneous change to tire regulations – tires to be selected before the weekend, playing into Bridgestone's hands by removing Michelin's ability to produce tires tailor-made for the conditions based on Friday practice – had made the racing processional. Costs were spiraling out of control, and interest in the series was waning.
In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, MotoGP manufacturers examined their priorities. At the end of 2008, Kawasaki announced they would be pulling out of MotoGP. With the global economy in the state it was at the end of 2008, that was not a surprise. The Japanese factory was spending over €60 million a year for extremely modest results, John Hopkins finishing the year in 16th overall, his teammate Ant West two places behind him.
The Kawasaki withdrawal was a bombshell. But MotoGP came very close to sustaining what would have been a fatal blow at the time. Honda Motor Co held board meetings at the very highest level to discuss its future in motor sports. At that meeting, they decided to pull out of F1. It is said there was a strong push to pull out of MotoGP as well, but, according to rumor at the time, they felt that they needed to be racing motorcycles, as that was in line with the company founder Soichiro Honda's legacy.
That winter proved to be a defining moment in the history of motorcycle racing. MotoGP continued, though in severely diminished form, the field down to 17 bikes in 2011, Suzuki cutting back to a single bike that year, before withdrawing completely the following season. But it also sparked a series of changes which would revolutionize grand prix motorcycling, and create the incredibly healthy grid we have in 2022. It would see the return of 1000cc bikes in the premier class, and the replacing of the 125 and 250cc classes by Moto3 and Moto2.
In many ways, the timing of my decision to quit my safe job was risky. But the advantage was that I got to be in the paddock in one of the most interesting periods of its history, and talk to a lot of the people involved in the changes to the series, to understand their motivations and how and why certain decisions were made. That gives me some perspective on the current state of the series, and how the shock news that Suzuki will be withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of the year.
(As an aside, it is curious that there has still been no official announcement from Suzuki corporate headquarters, neither to confirm nor to deny they are pulling out. Golden Week, the week of holidays in Japan, ended on Wednesday, but Suzuki are yet to issue any kind of official statement at all.)
The withdrawal of Kawasaki and the talks held with the Japanese manufacturers accelerated a series of processes inside Dorna and within MotoGP. Carmelo Ezpeleta had flown to Japan with senior Dorna staff to meet with Kawasaki, and found themselves to be relatively powerless to change the Japanese factory's mind. Threatening them with breach of contract, Dorna extracted a promise by Kawasaki to support a one-rider team for the 2009 season.
That resulted in the birth of the Hayate team, as the remnants of the Kawasaki program put together a one-rider campaign with Marco Melandri, with Andrea Dosoli and Ichiro Yoda leading the team. It proved to be successful, Melandri outperforming the results of the factory Kawasaki team from 2008, but the Hayate team came to an end at Valencia in 2009.
Why had Dorna been unable to prevent Kawasaki from leaving? Since 2002, Dorna had signed five-year contracts with the manufacturers racing in MotoGP, but it was the manufacturers who held the upper hand in negotiations. The contracts were signed with the MSMA as a body, rather than with individual factories. That meant that Dorna could put pressure on the MSMA, but could not deal with factories directly.
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