Shuhei Nakamoto Interview: On CRT, Spec ECUs and Cost-Cutting in MotoGP

With the cost of racing exploding out of control, factories pulling out and teams unable to afford the rising lease prices demanded for a satellite bike, proposals and rule changes have been coming thick and fast to try to contain costs in MotoGP. The Claiming Rule Teams regulations have already seen the grid expand to accommodate teams running machines using production-based engines, and Dorna, the manufacturers, the teams and the FIM are discussing a range of proposals to cut costs further, including a mandatory standard ECU and a maximum rev limit.

At the Valencia tests in November, spoke to HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto about how Honda views these proposals, and whether he believes they will cut costs. As the leading manufacturer in the MSMA, the association representing the factories in MotoGP, Honda has a powerful voice in the negotiations, and in the past has been instrumental in pushing through rule changes. Now that the MSMA appears to have lost its monopoly on writing the technical regulations for MotoGP, Nakamoto, along with the other factory bosses, is having to offer counterproposals to the suggestions put forward by Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta.

We first asked Nakamoto what he thought of the CRT concept itself, and the HRC boss was remarkably positive. "I think the CRT concept is a very good idea," Nakamoto said, adding the caveat that it was too early to make any real judgment, as at the time we spoke to Nakamoto, the CRT machines had only just taken to the track for the first time.

But the idea of having constructors build chassis and factories build engines, following the practice common in Formula One, would not work, Nakamoto warned. "This is impossible," Nakamoto said. "In F1, 80% of the machine performance is decided by aerodynamics. Everyone focuses on having very good aerodynamics performance, not just downforce, but other aero characteristics as well. Once they have good aero performance machine, 80% of machine performance is decided," the HRC boss explained. "But motorcycle is different. Aerodynamics is maybe less than 5% of machine performance. On a motorcycle, the most important thing is the chassis, the swingarm. To make a very good chassis, you need a lot of experience. For the constructor, they can make an average level of chassis, but I think it will be very difficult to make a competitive machine," he added.

So it would possible for a constructor to get to maybe 90% of the performance of a factory prototype, but the really difficult part, the final 10%, would only be possible for manufacturers?

"Yes," Nakamoto replied. "But even manufacturers are struggling to find the last 10%. In the smaller classes, the situation is a little different, like Moto3 next year and Moto2. It is a little bit easier. In the smaller classes, engine performance is very important. Of course the chassis is also important, but in the smaller classes, the balance between engine and chassis is more towards the engine. For the MotoGP machines, it is the chassis side which is more important," Nakamoto explained.

This was in part because a difference of 5 horsepower in the MotoGP class was not as significant. The difference betweem 230hp and 235hp was nowhere near as significant as the difference between 50hp and 55hp. "If you have, say, 200 horsepower or 200 and something horsepower, the difference in lap times will be a maximum of one tenth. But in the 125s, if you have 2 horsepower difference it's a big difference in lap time. "

Nakamoto was steadfast in his opposition to imposing standard electronics, repeating his opinion that without the ability to develop electronic strategies, the factories would lose interest in the MotoGP series. "My position on this has not changed," Nakamoto emphasized, while pointing out that at the same time, they were sympathetic towards attempts to cut costs in the series. "Of course we understand Carmelo's concerns about costs," the HRC added. "This is not only a problem for Carmelo, it is also for us as manufacturers as well. At this moment the racing costs are very, very high. Only the manufacturers can continue to race, and we are losing competitors. This is very much the worst case scenario for us, we need to have competitors. I'm more than happy to speak about cost reduction, we as manufacturers have to think deeply. But technical area is where the manufacturers must think, this is not Carmelo's job, I think."

A standard ECU was not a good solution, Nakamoto argued, saying that it could possibly make racing more expensive rather than cheaper. In this respect, there were lessons that could be learned from Formula One, Nakamoto argued, lessons that he himself had learned at first hand while running Honda's F1 program. "In Formula 1, I understand the need for a common ECU," he explained, "because in Formula 1, while the regulations clearly said that traction control was banned, many teams were trying to use some kind of traction control. When the FIA engineers tried to police this, they couldn't. But with one single ECU, they could police the traction control ban. That I understand."

But having a spec ECU had not made racing cheaper, Nakamoto said. "At that time, we as Honda were racing in Formula 1 with the common ECU, but at that time we spent a huge amount of money, a huge part of our budget on the ECU. That budget was much more than we originally spent when we were using Honda's own ECU, because we had to understand the software being used, and how to write code for it. So it was a huge job." Having a spec ECU would make things more difficult for the manufacturers, as it would take them longer to understand all the ins and outs of the system. "It means you take more time and more resources, and this means a bigger budget," Nakamoto explained.

A rev limit, on the other hand, was something that Honda would be perfectly happy to live with. "Something like a rev limit, we are happy with, because this we can police. Every machine has a data logger, and we can check, like in Moto2 now." The solution to cutting costs in MotoGP was not merely to impose a rev limit and spec ECU, however, and it was up to the manufacturers to come up with proposals to help cut costs. "We have to think a little bit more," Nakamoto said. "Just imposing only an ECU and only a rev limit will not make big cost savings."

Over the winter break, and at the Sepang tests, the MSMA has had time to come up with proposals of their own to cut the cost of competing in MotoGP. Once the teams, factories and Dorna gather again at Jerez next week, they will be able to put those proposals to Dorna, and try to reach some kind of agreement. Carmelo Ezpeleta has set a deadline of May, and Jerez is expected to be a crucial moment in those talks.

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All we hear about is cutting costs, cutting costs, cutting costs. Why is know one talking about increasing revenues?

Surely there are opportunities to increase revenues. How many countries currently show MotoGP on free to air TV? Couldn't Dorna off low rates to open new markets? I have never heard an official verbal promotion of a Sponsor in MotoGP by riders, teams or Ezpeleta.

When will this obsession with cutting costs end? When they are riding off the shelf 1000's? The past decade or more the business world has been the same....cut costs! In my pinion it is just lazy. The real skill in business and promoting is to increase sales, increase revenues. A quality sales and marketing strategy does not require the BEST product. Just about every leader in every market segment got there without the best product. Once again it is just lazy blaming the quality of racing for poor revenues. What is unforgivable is that Dorna itself talks down its own product.

Maybe if quality journalists such as yourself started asking questions of the people inside MotoGP what they are doing to promote the sport and increase its growth then perhaps they may start doing something about it rather than engaging in the dismantling of the sport that we are now seeing.

I agree 100% with Mental Anarchist. The weakest link in MotoGP's chain has been Dorna's inability to promote the sport to new area's of the world and new demographics. They really are "resting on their laurels" here. The fact they won't open up and show MotoGP for free in certain parts of the world shows how little money they actually make. It's sad really.

I'll ask the average person on the street:

"hey, do you watch Formula 1?"
"well, do you watch MotoGP?"
"What is MotoGP?!?"

There's the problem.

After being involved at the highest levels of professional motorsport, anyone would have to take on board Nakamoto-san's opinions. Growing revenue is not so easy in todays economic climate.

Well, the factories have their position and they will not stop defending what is considering yours, the problem is than the people want spectacle not the race converted in a procession, also part of the fault's and lack of emotions dorna have his part too, centering too much the series in europe and dont looking elsewhere where MotoGP can be establish also added damage, the first attempt will be maded in 2013, but am think than the new calendar has arrived some late.

Why, because SBK is pushing hard for bring new circuits, Moscow raceway seems to be ready, a new circuit in indonesia, well to be exactly an old circuit but the intention is there. but in dorna's part, 4 spanish circuits for long time, well its good to see jerez, aragon, catalunya and valencia but becomes tedious, for at least dorna tried changed estoril for portimao, ¿But what the fan received?, again in estoril. now the damage is too high and the series are in intensive therapy.

The point where motoGP can do something to revive is the example of Moto2 has offered, but ill like to say than Moto2 would be more better than is if Dorna lift the single manufacturer engine restriction, the people want to know if the R-6 engine, ZX-6 engine, GSXR-600 engine and also MV Agusta 600cc engines or other engines of the same displacement of another manufacturer can equal or be superior to the CBR600 engine but what we receive, again the CBR600 engine in all the bikes, it's not a bad engine but would increase interest in the people and some mecanics fans will have telling you something like this

"CBR600 engine, not, ZX-6 Rocks" or something like that in essence interest. Moto2 is cool but lifting the single brand engine and would add more interest. for MotoGP the try is the CRT, the detail is than CRT has arrived some late and the adaption time will be long an that is problem. the manufacturers have now too much power, a power than now Dorna's want to reclame it back.

Ban TC (majority of it, keep a small level for highsides) because it hasn't stopped accidents. Reference Rossi's broken leg (cold tyres yes, but TC couldn't save the day), Pedrosa's many injuries, remember Lorenzo in China highsiding to the moon, Depuniet's broken leg, etc, etc? TC doesn't prevent injuries. It is necessary right now because the bikes were designed around it. If they had to build a bike without it, they could quite easily. As Dennis Noyes used to talk about the 4 stroke powerband ended the nasty high sides and power delivery issues of the 2 stroke powerband. So TC didn't solve anything, it just reduced the lap times. The linear 4 stroke powerband eliminated the snap power of the 2 strokes. This is the real factor in reduction of injuries but as we've seen over the 800 era, TC's injury prevention is a myth.

We don't watch this sport and cheer for mfr's, well most don't, it's the riders we cheer. And it's the rider's right wrist that should be the traction control, not a computer.

I hope Carmelo pushes for a control ECU and a rev ceiling. I don't believe Nakamoto about the costs of coding around a spec ECU at all. They'll have to spend some time and money initially, then it's done. I would expect him to yell development cost for a spec ECU, etc, he works for a mfr, and the largest one.

A clear sign that it's a good idea is when the mfr's start barking about it. A spec ECU and rev ceiling would allow mfr's like BMW to join, Aprilia to return, etc. Honda doesn't want it because they'll be unable to outspend their competitors like they did last year.

I hope Carmelo sticks to his guns and implements it. Let Honda and Yamaha deal with it. The sport is too expensive and continues to be so and electronics is what have driven the sport's cost up exponentially. Before this series was so 1's and 0's dominant, satellite bikes were affordable. The mfr's are exactly like politicians, they are going to say and do what is best in THEIR interest, not the sport. The MSMA has controlled the technical regulations for years and years and it's high time they get a dose of their own medicine for a change. We dealt with it as fans as Honda pushed for a displacement reduction, rigged the first four stroke 1000cc class with an equal weight penalty for 5 cylinders, same as a 4. I'm sick and tired of the mfr's dictating this when (Yes I vehemently disagree with Nakamoto) they should not being making the rules. An independent party, looking after the quality of the sport should make the rules and the mfr's should accept the challenge.

Mental, if the bike's costs come down so will the sponsorship dollars as the bill won't be so high. While I think CRT's are necessary I'm not a fan of them, and I'm still sore over Aprilia, Kawasaki, and Suzuki leaving the sport due to the costs going to the moon.

I believe, that a spec ECU and rev ceiling are solid answers to this problem. Costs will go down, mfr's will return, and since the bikes will be cheaper, sponsors will be easier to obtain. I've met Nakamoto and I can tell you that the fans aren't on his mind.

Using a 1000cc formula with rev limits and spec-ECU would be awesome to behold, assuming the fuel capacity was raised to 24L for all competitors. The spectacle would be comparable to WSBK, but without production homologation quotas, even more manufacturers could dip their toe into the waters of GP. I think MotoGP would generate so much interest that the Moto2 formula would have to be changed to channel surplus manufacturers into another class.

I do wonder about the possible drawbacks, though. The 2005 Yamaha M1 was the standard-bearer for 24L 1000cc competition, and I think MotoGP design philosophy would return to 990cc paradigms. The manufacturers would have to redesign their bikes (not cheap), and if forward weight bias became the winning ticket, the V configuration could be a casualty of war. Furthermore, the MSMA are not in favor of an open sport so I wonder if 1000cc-revs-ECU is even a realistic formula.

Nakamoto says he is in favor of a rev limit, but he almost certainly wants to maintain the 21L fuel capacity. The rev limit would only stop the manufacturers from wasting large sums of money to increase peak revs at 81mm.

TC's injury prevention is a myth

This is a pretty big call. Do you have any soild evidence that traction control does not prevent high sides that could cause rider injury, or is it just speculation? You point to a few high sides as proof of the failure of TC to prevent injuries, but do you have any idea how may times TC systems have intervened to prevent high sides that could of caused rider injury? One would think the number of actual high-sides would have to be compared to the number of high sides prevented before you would be able to declare TC based injury prevention a myth.

Well I mentioned my source, Dennis Noyes. It's been a few years but he wrote a number of articles about TC, and debunked the myths. If you don't know who he is ask around, his GP knowledge is unrivaled having covered the series for decades. He knows these riders, bikes, and the changes over the years as well as a factory tech and is impartial and honest. Along with David, he's one of the few left that will dispense with the bs and actually tell you the truth even if it isnt popular to say so.

The factories try to sell TC as a safety measure but all it is, is tenths off a lap. TC took away skill from a rider's hands and put it in their own R&D and laptop jockey's hands. It was a way for them to take a % of control from a rider's wrist and put 1's and 0's in there instead.

2 strokes were nasty beasts. The 4 strokes came in 2002 and changed power delivery. TC hasn't saved Rossi or Depuniet's legs, Pedrosa's shoulders and half his body, or Jorge's ankles. If you've watched this sport since the smokers the 4 strokes took away most of the injury problem. TC's importance in this sport is greatly exaggerated as the bikes were completely designed around it. If it was so great and worked as well as Japanese employees barked about it then Simoncelli might still be with us, DePuniet and Rossi wouldn't have broken their legs, Pedrosa and Colin wouldn't have busted their shoulders, I could go on. It doesn't stop injuries. Hell Lorenzo backed off in practice last year and wasn't in the right gear for the tc. Instead of hauling the minerals into the
turn he had backed off. He grabbed some throttle in the wrong gear and the tc chunked him because it didnt understand........some safety device. It didnt do anything for Dani when his throttle stuck open and he was starting to chase down Lorenzo for a season ending 2010 battle for the championship late in the season.

If the mfr's want to be honest their "safety" money would be better spent working with Alpinestars, Dainese, Kushitani, on safety suits that have sensors on the bike. Dainese, A* have very limited budgets compared to the mfr's of these beasts. Honda wants very little to do with a suit maker on safety because it would require money. They are in the interest of their own interests first and foremost, safety, riders, and the sport in general are secondary at best.

Honda and Yamaha can bark all they want about electronic development in this series. They've already both threatened to take their ball and go home if radical tc changes are implemented. Both companies have enough $ to test tc on their own, on their own privately owned test tracks on production bikes. TC in MotoGp is a technical advantage, nothing more. When the entire bike is designed around it, of course it's necessary. How about we actually, realistically, cut costs for all the bikes? That would be a F1 like standardized ECU. A change that would bring back mfr's in this sport. Honda and Yamaha will never endorse this because they'd prefer things as they are, they have a monopoly on it. And they will fight in their own interest and battle tooth and nail to keep it that way.

And to answer your question, in Dennis's articles, he added up high sides from year to year, and did some math on the subject. The data didn't favor tc's myths. Here is one recent article, if you dig you can find his tc series.

F1 proved it was impossible to ban TC without imposing spec hardware. Just how do you imagine it would be possible to ban most TC but retain some that acts to prevent high-sides? Are you able to even define the difference?

Another jewel David, thanks! Mr. Nakamoto gives us a great insight on some things.

For what its worth, my proposal for new Motogp rules would be.
Go back to 800cc for full factory prototypes with high technology (as per 2011)
Also allow factories to run 1000cc low tech machines (control ECU and rev limit) but with the proviso that they must sell replica bikes to private teams for a set price (1 million euros has been mentioned by Dorna), the 1000`s can be prototype engines or road based.
And allow private teams to run 1000 engines from manufacturers not involved in Motogp (i.e BMW at the moment) but still with the ECU and RPM controls.
This formula in my view would keep the factories who can afford the pursuit of high technology happy, yet at the same time encourage factories with smaller race budgets to get involved and still stand a chance of some success. The same goes for private teams. If the gap is still too large between the high and low tech machines, reduce the capacity down from 800 to 750 or even lower.
I can see some flaws in my proposed formula,but i think the basic frame work of this is fairly sound, that's my view anyway!

Funny, I thought Nakamoto said the expensive bit was the need to write new software to interpret the standard F1 ECU?

Umm.. why wouldn't the ECU package include a standard diagnostics package for a laptop? And simply not allow deviation from it?? Scrutineers would connect to each bike at the end of a race and download who and how it accessed, disqualifying breaches.

Seems like a silly argument to me. You can spend a fortune designing a new mouse trap, but do you?

Smoke and mirror Honda/factory talk again. The biggest advantage they have is the ECU and they will not relinguish it without a fight.

Nakamoto said the F1 ECU was to block traction control. You can do that by building ECU hardware without the sort of inputs required for TC: high resolution front & rear wheel speed sensors for example. You could also physically separate the data-logging functions from the engine control functions, so eg wheel speed and lean angle could still be logged and used for both regulation by the controlling body and set-up by the teams, but not for real-time TC.

However allowing the software to be user-written seems a useful compromise to still allow engine development.

That said, if it's really so hard for the Honda engineers to port their non-TC code to a different box... they need better programmers :)

Just have to do it without getting caught, THAT is the trick. Even at AMA level Bazzaz managed to hack (or write beautiful algorithims) to include traction control with a stock ECU, nobody could prove it but everyone knew it was being done. So there is where all the time goes in working out the limits of the system and the work-arounds. Furusawa let it slip that Yamaha for many years had been using predictive algorithims that did not need all the sensors.
Blown diffusers showed in FI (as well as bendy front wings) that no matter how good you write rules some smart cookie figures out a way around them.
Genies don't like going back into their bottles.

The stock ECU also works in F1 because F1 has effectively standardized the engine (Moto2 as well). It'll be a sad day when we lose the Vs in GP racing. F1 is rich people's NASCAR at this point, any time there's some kind of out of the box thinking, it's generally outlawed within a week or two.

The "cost" that everyone wants to "cut" is payroll.  That means sending people home to do something else, or telling them to find a different line of work and cut their paycheck altogether.  In racing terms, that means being able to do the same work on the bike with fewer people in the garage and/or fewer engineers at the factory.  Or, conversely, making so many adjustments off-limits (be they mechanical or electronic) that fewer employees are necessary.  The cost of the parts (like valve springs) is not significant.  The cost of designing the parts is substantial; the cost of implementing them is higher.

A RPM ceiling will not have an impact on that front.  The bikes already have a de-facto ceiling with the rules package as it is now (bore limits and engine-life requirements).  The teams will not send someone home or re-task their people because the engines are capped electronically.  It would, in reality, rearrange the priorities for the engineers at the factory, but not cause any of them to be dismissed from a lack of work.

More importantly, as has been discussed many times here over the years, any time the word "limit" appears, you can immediately translate it with the phrase "increase priority for higher corner speed", which is a natural pursuit in racing anyway.  In allowing the formula to grow back to 1,000cc, and with the fuel limit the way it is, the priority is for usable torque lower on the tach, which obviates the need for a rev limit.

The same is true for a spec ECU.  Engineers and data techs will be required for these tasks, if a team wants to win - or even improve - regardless of how many limits are introduced.  This is why Nakamoto can say the costs of F1 did not go down.