Europe vs Japan: Why European Factories Are On The Rise And Japanese Manufacturers Are In Decline

For nearly half a century, Japanese motorcycles have dominated the premier class of motorcycle racing. Since Giacomo Agostini switched to Yamaha and beat his former teammate Phil Read on an MV Agusta in 1975, Japanese manufacturers have won every single rider championship bar one, Casey Stoner's 2007 title won with Ducati. Honda, Yamaha, and to a lesser extent, Suzuki, ruled grand prix racing with a rod of iron.

But that control has started to wane over the past few years. Since the return of 1000cc four strokes, European manufacturers have slowly started to assert themselves in MotoGP. Ducati started the shift after Gigi Dall'Igna took over as head of Ducati Corse, Andrea Iannone winning the first race for the Desmosedici in 2016, six years after Casey Stoner had departed the Italian factory, and their winning ways with him.

The following year, Andrea Dovizioso would win six races on the Desmosedici, and go on to challenge for the title every year through 2019. KTM were the next to succeed, getting on the podium for the first time in 2018, winning multiple races in 2020, and winning every year since then.

Aprilia have been the last to join the party, Aleix Espargaro taking the Noale factory's first podium in 2021, and their and his first victory in Argentina earlier this year. With Espargaro currently second in the championship to Fabio Quartararo, and Maverick Viñales now also having had two podiums on the RS-GP, the Aprilia is now truly a competitive package.

The rise of the European factories has gone hand in hand with the decline of the fortunes of Japanese manufacturers. Ducati, KTM, and now also Aprilia are taking more and more podiums from Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki, and even forcing them out of the top ten.

That decline has been particularly marked this year. At the season opener in Qatar, six of the top ten bikes were Japanese, with Pol Espargaro taking third spot on the Repsol Honda. In Indonesia and Portimão, half the top ten were riding Japanese bikes, with Fabio Quartararo winning the race in Portugal for Yamaha. Austin and Jerez saw four Japanese bikes in the top ten, with Alex Rins and Fabio Quartararo finishing second respectively in those races.

Since Le Mans, there have been three or fewer Japanese bikes in the top ten, however. That has been particularly severe in the last three races, with just two bikes in the top ten at Assen and Silverstone, and only race winner Fabio Quartararo in the top ten at the Sachsenring.

There are certainly mitigating circumstances for some of these numbers. Though Marc Marquez was still riding either injured or in pain, he was consistently capable of finishing inside the top ten. Beyond Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha riders have struggled, Andrea Dovizioso failing to adapt to the Yamaha M1, Darryn Binder coming straight from Moto3 to being a rookie in MotoGP, and Franco Morbidelli seems to have lost his mojo ever since injuring the ligaments in his knee last year. If Quartararo crashes or struggles, Yamaha are out of luck.

Only Suzuki have provided any kind of consistency, with Joan Mir and Alex Rins regulars in the top ten, and Rins having made a couple of podium appearances. But they, too have had their problems, especially since Suzuki announced they would be withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of this season.

Why have the Japanese manufacturers been struggling so badly in recent years? At Silverstone, Andrea Dovizioso had a very clear explanation for why the European factories appear to have grown much stronger in recent years. "It's not from now. I think this change started in the last five, six years," Dovizioso told us. "It’s clear. The structure of the European manufacturers is completely different to the Japanese, and how much the Europeans are pushing and how many risks the Europeans are taking is completely different to the Japanese. That changed MotoGP completely."

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Comments

Thank you D. Emmett very insightful.

I'm wondering if Yamaha will have a satellite or junior team in 2023 or any time soon? Without one Yamaha will only have two bikes on the grid. That's less data for the boffins to analyse and work with. Slower development. As Gigi the gadget man says if your not developing faster than your competitors you will never catch up.

Where to for Fabio Quartararo if the M1 becomes less competitive?

Europe on the rise as Japan declines. No Suzuki next year. No Dovizioso after Misano.

Who else will miss out when the music stops?

How was the ride to the RedFlagring?

^ Hiya! I see a 2nd Yam team in the works, bet Dorna changes its tune re only adding Factory to replace Suzuki and soon. Crystal ball says the Yamaha is about to rebound too. Honda not so sure, eh? What say you there?

Mutterrers, do you fancy a Morbidelli <--> Torak seat swap? (I do!)

FYI sent an email connecting you and Damo D999, both fabulous people going to the P.I. Round. Wishing I could join you.

Enjoy Austria Steve!

Sometimes, despite the constant awareness that motorcycle travel requires, I figure things out when riding that weren't apparent before. David, have you been mentally writing your analysis on your GS this week?

You mention communication with engineers, and quote Aoki, but even Aoki, in his Nishimura interview, said that development proceeded much faster when he learned to communicate in the engineer's language, not the rider's language. And he was a Japanese talking to a Japanese.

Also, to state the obvious, Europe's rise will continue next year with only two Japanese manufacturers and, if I'm counting correctly on my fingers, only six Japanese bikes.

Was a cool little video. I really liked seeing how much they all trust one another and how much it is a team effort. Noice 😊

Stuff like this is why I love this site and David Emmett's take on things. Terrific article.

Great article David and a fantastic last paragraph quote, that's why were all hooked. 

For a good number of years, Ducati has been accused of being the manufacturer who 'develop bikes in a direction dictated by engineering, and don't make enough use of the feedback offered by riders, both MotoGP racers and test riders.' Stoner said it when he was a test rider, Dovi said it while exploring new lines on the outside of any corner above 1st gear.

Although it might have been more of an 'in weekend testing' problem Ducati gave themselves a difficult start to this season by ignoring the rider and pushing on with their engineering program. To be fair their early season issues were small when compared to Peco's win it or bin it since Jerez and the first 5 races of the season were neither here nor there for any manufacturer in terms of results. However, whilst the difference between finishing 30s back and a DNF might not matter when you are finishing 30s back...what about when the difference is between podiums and 10th ? Podiums do matter.

Ducati have only one rider on a GP22 who can actually deliver the required speed with some consistency. He can't finish races with the same consistency at the moment but lets say he's a work in progress ! I love Miller to bits but Miller fast yes, Miller fast enough this year ? (Viva Miller) Zarco ? Martin ? (AWOL this year) Marini ? Currently Peco is the only one who looks like taking wins on a regular basis....except for the old bike and Bastianini. Hard to draw conclusions about what is rider, what is bike but I think it's very interesting that the old bike, the 'yesterday's problem' bike is the only other Ducati that has, although also inconsistently, looked unstoppable in races. The super impressive rookie Bez ?....GP21.

I'm not so sure about the conservative approach of Japanese manufacturers. Yamaha yes, it's a long story. Honda ? Honda used to roll out a new approach every year. One of their strengths used to be an almost constant conveyor belt of new engineers, new eyes, new ideas. I wonder if that long run from Doohan to Rossi changed their ways. The Marquez years may have seemed very similar but they switched the motor and this year seems fairly radical. I think if you take two manufacturers. One fields twice the number of bikes as the other, lets say 8 versus 4. That manufacturer's bike also on average suits more riders than the other manufacturer's bike. It's only going to look one way. If it's 2 versus 2 and your bike sucks you will drop 2-3 places. If it's 8 versus 4, you drop 8-11 places. Of course there's actually 24 bikes and they're all very close. Small changes in the fortunes of manufacturers are making big changes in position. If next years Ducati is a little less friendly and the 2 Yamaha more friendly then maybe Ducati could win with Peco but the 'other' Yamaha jumps up 7 places. Suddenly the Ducati is the one rider bike again. Small gaps, small changes, big position changes.

Also worth noting, when compared to previous years, there was no KTM, there was mostly no Aprilia and there was no Ducati for 30 years. In 1975 there were 2 MVs, 1 Konig in 3 races only and 1 Harley in 1 race. They were hugely out numbered by Yamaha and Suzuki. Even had a Kawasaki for one race. In 1976 it was pretty much a Japanese grid and remained so throughout the 2 stroke era with the only real European competition coming from Cagiva and later Aprilia, small numbers. Not having any real competition leads to Japanese domination. Next year, no Suzuki, only 2 Yamaha and 4 Honda leading to an 18 vs 6 split next season. For every Japanese bike, there will be three European bikes. One step back will equal a multiple down.

Taking a break from writing a long paper about a 'way of working' problem. I am so crushed by the synchronicity of this article's appearance to my problem that I have no more intelligent comment - Except, thanks WaveyD for a great comment. And good day to the rest of you!

The Japanese, particularly Honda, have been hardheaded for decades. Lawson attributes his success in 1989 directly to working with Erv Kanemoto, rather than riding for Rothman's HRC. According to Lawson, HRC would never have let him fix the NSR's chassis problems, and Gardener has basically confirmed with all of his complaints about Honda over the years. The language barrier has also always been an issue, including during the eras of Japanese dominance. 

The causes related to resurgent European factories seem relatively straightforward. Dorna created a formula, homologation system, and schedule of concessions that attracted European factories, and Dorna seemed particularly keen to build bridges with Aprilia and KTM after (effectively) booting them from the GP paddock by creating Moto2 and Moto3. Dorna probably also sweetened the pot by negotiating directly with the factories instead of negotiating with the MSMA collective. Furthermore, the European factories have embraced an F1 philosophy regarding race performance--if the pilot cannot do something, build an automated control system that will do it for him. In the case of MotoGP, the riders cannot keep the front end down at high speeds, nor can they generate enough aero drag in the braking zones so Ducati started putting wings everywhere, and now Aprilia is experimenting with ground effect side fairings. In MotoGP, the rider also lacks the ability to compress and unload the suspension sufficiently to transfer substantially all weight to the front wheel or rear wheel during braking and acceleration. The European manufacturers introduced active ride height devices to access performance the rider could not. 

Dorna let the European factories back in the premier class paddock. The Europeans brought F1 aero engineers and chassis engineers with them. Now MotoGP is fighting for its life again, just a decade after Dorna managed to fend off the cult of electronics. Poor Dorna. Everybody they sleep with gives them a venereal disease. 

"Why can't we have racing like the good old days!". Totally agree with you, all the hard work has only postponed the inevitability of progress, and as F1 showed us 30 years ago, technology brings speed but hurts 'racing', in the shoulder-bashing, line stealing way that I think we all enjoy (to a point). It's been said to death in these sections recently, but the tech cat is out of the bag, and the rulebook will have to chase to keep it in control and continue to push engineering in to new areas of development around the rules. Emerging technology quickly can shake up the pecking order. Hopefully, Dorna can learn from F1 years ago, and slow the technologies that limit 'the show', whilst keeping manufactures and engineers happy with other projects and development to come.

You mentioned it, though I haven't seen much discussion around it - Aprilias ground effect fairing. It's something that I'm intrigued by, dynamically - lean it a bit harder and the thing will hook up even better??

Sorry mate, I disagree. When I read all this stuff about how good the MotoGP racing was before aero and the current technology I think we must have watched different races. The MotoGP I watch now is so much better than it used to be. Many are quick to point the finger at technology, but it seems to me a lot of the problems associated with the perceived lack of overtaking is simply because the racing is now so close. The grid is no longer filled with mediocre riders paying to play on uncompetitive bikes. It wasn’t that long ago that one of four bikes on the grid was going to win. These days even the slow bikes are competitive (except for the Hondas without MM93). Remember all those processional races where whoever starts from pole wins the race? Boring! Yes we do still occasionally get them, but we also get MotoGP that resembles Moto3 with some incredible tight racing. Let them embrace technology and push the boundries. 

The gifted rider needs the skill and speed to get around the bike in front of them. If they can’t then they/us can blame the motor, setup, aero, tyres, or whatever. But the performances from guys like Quatararo, Bastianini, A Espargaro, and MM93 reminds us the rider makes it happen. As a side note it seems to me that the riders should be able to have a lot more practice days to get used to their bikes. They should be able to get dialled into the bike before the season starts, not during the season.

 

I would say that when the riders say aero makes overtaking more difficult then that's good enough for me. Nobody says it makes it easier, they either say it makes it more difficult or they say very little beyond it's 'ok'. The divide runs along the line of teams who are generally understood to have a good aero advantage. Politics, I guess it works both + and -.

From the outside I'm constantly puzzled. Whenever I think aero will hurt the race, it turns out to be a great race with lots of close order battles. So, I think there's much (understatement) I do not understand (I know F-all). I keep trying though.

My current state of not understanding is that the aero is not making a huge difference in the turns, makes sense. These are fast bikes but there's not many fast turns. Yes, on a given circuit this turn is faster than that turn, that turn is the fastest turn, this, that, nonetheless, so often, 1st and 2nd gear turns. The Ducati has more wings than KFC but limits on the dimensions of the bike mean that actually it doesn't have much aero. For that amount of aero to make a big difference the speed needs to be very high. At lower speeds it makes a difference, yes, a monster elephant...no. The high speeds are reached when there are no turns, very high speed very quickly. Then aero makes a big difference and that's where the riders say they have issues with the aero. Might also explain why aero did not hurt Mugello or Silverstone. Mugello has huge speed on the run to T1 but it also has a thousand different lines through braking into T1.

Currently it's not that big a problem. I'll change my mind tomorrow. I'd like the wings gone but it's not killing the battles at the moment. Given the size of the bikes I'm not sure it has the chance to. We'll see. One thing is for sure. The tight field we have now is the result of the rules, the result of limitations on technology, the result of boundaries set and not exceeded. I do worry about where aero may go but it's not anywhere near there yet. It doesn't resemble F1 in the slightest thank god.

Oh and I don't think the ride height devices appeared because of something the riders could not do. They increase the potential of the bike in certain contexts. A rider cannot do what the machine cannot do no matter how hard they try. Bed time story.

MotoGP is not embracing technology. In fact, the series has specified, homologated, and or banned a plethora of technologies, since creating the MotoGP concept. Despite this objective matter of fact, many fans are prone to attribute close racing to technological proliferation. This pervasive non sequitur is creating mass confusion. 

MotoGP as a regulatory institution is at war with technological proliferation. Engines are heavily regulated. Chassis construction is nearly uniform, and restricted to conventional metallurgy. Suspension and brakes are virtually spec. What Dorna have failed to prevent existing technologies from being repurposed as a rider aid. In the "good old days" the last 20m of the braking zone for Turn 1 was owned by the riders. It separated the champions from the pretenders. Only 2 or 3 riders from any given generation could be relied upon to compete in that space. What the manufacturers have done is use ride height devices and wings to make the last 20m of the braking zone more accessible. Instead of 2-3 riders, it's a half dozen riders who can now compete a world championship level. The same thing has happened with the first 20m of the acceleration zone, when the bike is on the edge of the tire. It once separated the champions from the pretenders, but then electronics started modifying the rider's throttle input, and controlling the pitch of the bikes, and ride height devices helped control the weight distribution and torque available to fight wheelies. Instead of 2-3 riders having world class throttle control, it's at least a half dozen. 

There is no great technological advancement in the current era of MotoGP. It is merely corporations attempting to usurp the role of the rider and exert increasing amounts of control over the race results. That is a LAME sociopolitical trope as ancient as our species, and it's tragic that so many fans are desperate to slop themselves on the Animal Farm. 

My impression is that racing in Japan itself is a lower standard than it used to be and is mainly in classes unrelated to MotoGP and Moto2.

Showing in Japan used to be a possible route for Australian riders to be seen and they used to have an All Japan 500cc championship until 1993 where the bikes would be close to works.

Even this year's Suzuka 8hr seemed a detuned effort in comparison with its previous status and factory commitment.

....you hit the nail on the head, David, in your last two paragraphs: without Casey, Marc, and Quat, the Jap factory's would be no where! If you take them out of the equation, since 2010, who wins the WC? HRC especially, like to tout their engineers as a cut above the rest, when all they have ever done (since '10) is hire the best rider. Marc would win on a 3-legged goat, or I should say he HAS been winning on a 3-legged goat. And it doesn't appear that HRC/Yam are going to change much of anything, from a factory/engineering side.

Including 2010 it would look like this...

2010 Lorenzo, Yamaha. 2011 Lorenzo, Yamaha. 2012 Lorenzo, Yamaha. 2013 Lorenzo, Yamaha. 2014 Rossi, Yamaha. 2015 Lorenzo, Yamaha. 2016 Rossi, Yamaha. 2017 Dovi, Ducati. 2018 Dovi, Ducati. 2019 Dovi, Ducati. 2020 Mir, Suzuki. 2021 Bagnaia, Ducati.

It gets messy if we want to look deeper. Lets take 2010, the top 5...Stoner, Lorenzo, Dovizioso, Pedrosa, Spies. All Honda or Yamaha. Top European bike was Rossi in 7th. So if we included Lorenzo in the list of riders we need to exclude then that makes Dovizioso champion but that's on a Japanese bike. So how does that sit with Dovi 'winning' in 2017 ? 2010 was a long time ago.

We should exclude Rossi too, he is after all, a legend. That would be good for Pedrosa, until we exclude him for being too alien, which is nice for 2016 world champion Vinales and yes finally Ianonne champion 2015.

How about 2017 Dovi's first 'title'. Without Marc then Dovi wins. However, as the 2nd best Ducati is 7th in the points then maybe we could say that without Dovi, Ducati would be nowhere...well 7th...in which case we need to remove Dovi to get a good feel for the bike ?

2018 2nd best Ducati was 8th, 2019, 6th.

Things have looked better for 2021 and 2022.

I'm only joking around, the idea of distilling bike from rider is a road to bedlam.