With the 2013 MotoGP season just a few hours away, it's time for a quick recap on the rule changes which come into effect this year. Though the technical rule changes are minor - slightly more significant changes are to be made for 2014, but that is a story for another day - the change to qualifying is significant, and will have a real impact on all of the practice session, albeit indirectly.
So here's what has changed for 2013:
The engine allocation for the MotoGP prototypes has been dropped from six engines per rider per season to five engines. The request for the reduction came from the factories themselves, in pursuit of further engineering challenges applicable to production bikes.
The reduction in engine allocation is unlikely to have a drastic effect. In his championship year in 2011, Casey Stoner only used five engines all season, and in 2012, Jorge Lorenzo managed relatively comfortably after losing a brand new engine at Assen in a first-corner crash. Even the penalty imposed on Valentino Rossi for taking an extra engine in 2011 was down to his desire to use a different frame, one for which his original engines did not have the necessary mounting points.
Yet there are a few signs of concern. There were rumors of reliability issues in the Yamaha garages at the Sepang tests, as the Japanese factory tried to balance performance with reliability. It is better to blow up engines during testing than during a race weekend, of course, and the problems could well have helped pinpoint issues which guarantee engine longevity with one fewer engine.
The minimum weight for the MotoGP bikes has been increased once again, from 157kg to 160kg, as was originally planned for the 2012 season.
The addition of three more kilograms is unlikely to make much difference for most of the factories. Honda spent most of the first Sepang test sorting out where to put the extra weight, while Yamaha was already fairly happy with where they had to put the extra weight. Ducati had struggled with the previous limits, and switching to 160kg means they will make the weight easily, and save some money into the bargain.
Qualifying - Radical Shake Up, But Similar Outcomes?
The biggest change to MotoGP this year comes in qualifying. The last big change to the rules came in 2005, when the original two one-hour qualifying sessions were dropped, and replaced with a free practice session and a single QP to set the grid.
From this season, qualifying for MotoGP becomes a three-stage affair, in effect. The original hour of qualifying is replaced with an extra half hour of free practice, and two fifteen minute qualifying session, split between the faster and slower halves of the grid. Here's how it works:
Though all three free practice sessions are still just that, free practice, at the end of FP3, the riders will be ranked by their best time set in any of the three sessions. The ten riders with the fastest times will automatically qualify for QP2. The remainder will take part in QP1, where the top two will go through to QP2, while places thirteen and beyond are distributed among the remaining riders.
Other than the two fastest riders in QP1, the difference in times between QP1 and QP2 will not be taken into account. No matter how fast the time set by the third fastest rider in QP1, he will start from 13th spot, no matter how fast the rider in 12th was. In theory - and given the weather which MotoGP has had over the past couple of years, most likely in practice too - if it rains just before QP2 starts, then all of the riders in QP1 could end up being faster than all of the riders in QP2, yet still start behind the men who had qualified for QP2.
The two riders who qualify for QP2 via the second-chance mechanism of taking first and second in QP1 start QP2 with the slates wiped clean. If their QP1 times were faster than the fastest time set in QP2, then that is tough luck, only their QP2 time will be used to assess their grid position.
What at first seems complicated is really just formalizing the previous reality of qualifying under a set of rules. The first half of qualifying was always more about working on set up than anything else, and so spinning that off into a thirty-minute FP4 session makes sense. Splitting the remaining half hour into two fifteen-minute qualifying sessions means that both groups of riders face a far less busy track when trying to set their flying laps, and there will be much less of the dangerous tail-hanging which has blighted some sessions in recent years. Having two sessions means that the slower riders and the faster riders will get more exposure, with each group getting the director's undivided attention for fifteen minutes.
The new system will only apply to the MotoGP class. The Moto2 and Moto3 classes retain the existing system of a single QP session to determine the order of the grid.
Penalty Points System
A system of penalty points starts this year, formalizing the system of warnings which had previously been applied. In 2013, Race Direction has the option of imposing penalty points on any rider who breaks the rules or endangers another rider. They can impose between 1 and 10 points for each infringement, and points are added up during the season. Once the rider in question has amassed 4 points, they will start the next race from the back of the grid. Once they reach 7 points, they will start from pit lane. Should they collect 10 points in total, they will be issued a single-race ban.
Once riders reach a total of 10 or more points, and have served their race ban, they will have their points reset to zero. Points are only valid for the current season: any points amassed during the 2013 season are dropped after the final Valencia round. Everyone starts a new season with a clean slate.