It's been a tough season so far for MotoGP, with the withdrawal of Kawasaki before the start of the season, the Japanese factory finally yielding to pressure from Carmelo Ezpeleta and Dorna to provide machinery and limited support for a single season for Marco Melandri. Then came the rider switch at Team Scot, Gabor Talmacsi stepping in, bringing Hungarian oil money to rescue the team which was close to financial ruin.
Now, another dark day for the series, as Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team has just announced that they will be pulling out of MotoGP with immediate effect. The reasons given for the withdrawal are unsurprising - the global financial crisis - but the announcement came as a shock to Sete Gibernau. In the press release, the Spanish veteran stated "The person most surprised by this decision was me. Everyone in the team worked hard to keep the project on track. On a personal level, it was a brave gamble, taken with the hope of building a successful project which would achieve targets we had set for ourselves as each Grand Prix passed."
Gibernau said he was very disappointed that the project had foundered at this stage. "It's truly a pity that we are forced to abandon the project at this stage, just when we were convinced we were on the verge of achieving the results we were looking for. I'd like to thank the team, my personal sponsors, the fans and all the press, the treatment I have received, which has repaid in full the hard work and efforts which I have put in to return to racing after two years out of the World Championship. Your support has made me be happy to be racing in MotoGP again," Gibernau added.
Though the withdrawal of the Grupo Francisco Hernando is a shock, due to the suddenness of the decision, it is not much of a surprise. The press release put it down to the effects of the global financial crisis, stating: "The motive for this decision is the crisis which has affected the global economy. The Grupo Francisco Hernando has decided to invest exclusively in its primary role in the construction sector as a promotor and constructor, focusing all of its economic efforts in this area."
The surprise was more that Francisco Hernando decided to invest in the project at all. The Spanish construction sector is in absolute freefall, after a housing boom unrivaled anywhere in the world collapsed, leaving vast tracts of undeveloped and partially developed projects unsold and uninhabited. The housing surplus in Spain is predicted to be in the region of half a million units for the foreseeable future, a huge number in a country of just 40 million inhabitants. Hernando, like so many other construction companies, has found himself holding huge areas of land which have plummeted in value, financed using leveraged loans from Spain's many regional banks.
Initially, the GFH team bore the logos of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country in West Africa run by one of the worst dictators in the world. Francisco Hernando was engaged in building a vacation resort in the African nation, where Spanish is widely spoken, as it is a former Spanish colony. The team received a visit from a heavily guarded African dignitary at the IRTA test at Jerez, but within a couple of races, the Equatorial Guinea sponsorship quietly disappeared, with no official explanation forthcoming. According to the respected Spanish newspaper El Pais, what happened was exactly what you might expect when doing business with ruthless dictators: The expected support of Teodoro Obiang, Equatorial Guinea's brutal dictator, never came, and a spokesman for the government denied that Francisco Hernando had been awarded any licenses to embark on construction projects in the African country.
The team continued sporting just the name of the Grupo Francisco Hernando, but even that was built on sand, as it has transpired. With Francisco Hernando - a man with an already dubious reputation and a long history of legal difficulties, as both his Wikipedia entry and the special page maintained on the site of El Economista attest - running into increasing financial difficulties, forced to sell back a large number of apartments to the banks who financed the project, the team that bore his name was doomed to failure.
The withdrawal of Gibernau cuts the MotoGP field back to just 17 for the rest of the season, and doubts hang over the size of the field next year. As we have discussed here almost ad nauseam, the switch to the 800cc formula has been disastrous to MotoGP, in terms of expense, spectacle and excitement. Rumors in the paddock are starting to circulate that change is afoot. The realization has dawned, it would appear, that the rules will have to change, and an alternative will have to be found to the current formula. GPone.com floated the idea of a two-tier system, with the current 800cc bikes remaining, but facing 1000cc bikes based on production engines, something along the lines of the new Moto2 class. While over at Superbikeplanet.com, columnist Evan Williams suggested that a return to the 1000cc formula was the most likely path to be followed.
Here at MotoGPMatters.com, we hope that our suggestion for a truly unlimited class be adopted, the only restriction one based on fuel, and if necessary, on emissions. After all, the announcement of a new racing series for electric bikes points the way to the future, and at some point in the not too distant future will make the current combustion engines completely obsolete. Although our suggestion meets with some sympathy in the paddock, unfortunately, the manufacturers are less inclined to support it. And while the manufacturers control the rule making body, through the MSMA, they will be working to secure their own success, rather than risking their reputation at the hands of upstarts with a bright idea and a set of machine tools.