2013 Assen MotoGP Wednesday Round Up: Of Weird Wednesdays, Difficult Ducatis, And MotoGP's Long Term Future

Wednesday at Assen is always a rather odd day. At most rounds, Wednesday is a travel day, and the paddock regulars spend the day in airports, planes and hire cars. But because the race at Assen is on Saturday, the events that normally take place on Thursday such as the pre-event press conference, happen a day earlier. That leaves everyone with the racing equivalent of jet lag, their bodies and minds 24 hours behind events. Mentally, we are all prepared for a day of torpor and inaction. What we are greeted with is a day of rushing around to talk to riders, team managers, and anyone else foolish enough to cross our paths. Mind battles physical reality, and both come out losers.

Even focusing on the upcoming race is hard. Rolling into the circuit under bright skies and cheery temperatures - not warm, but not freezing either - feels slightly surreal after having studied the weather forecasts for the coming days. While race day is likely to be dry, Thursday and Friday look like being full wet days. What that means is that practice may not be much of a guide to what actually happens on race day, rendering practice and qualifying relatively meaningless.

Ducati, at least, will welcome the rain. "The rain is bad for the fans, but it's good for Ducati," Nicky Hayden quipped, though he was not entirely happy with the situation. The Ducati goes very well in the wet, despite still struggling in the dry. Though a wet race may act as a placebo - though perhaps an analgesic is a better metaphor - in easing the pain of the Ducati riders, the fact of the matter is that Andrea Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden, Andrea Iannone and Michele Pirro, still taking the place of the injured Ben Spies, are starting to run out of options.

Their patience is starting to wear thin. Though both Dovizioso and Hayden are effusive in their praise for the work already done by the factory, their criticisms are starting to become louder. Hayden told reporters that although the work done so far had been admirable, it was maybe time to change tack. So far, Ducati had been working with stiffness, experimenting with different stiffness in various parts of the chassis to help cure the pumping of the rear suspension. "Maybe stiffness isn't the problem," Hayden suggested. He reeled off a list of other areas to explore - weight distribution, engine balance and shape, engine location - adding that although he was not an engineer, he felt these were at least areas that needed some serious thought. He may well be right, of course, but while stiffness can be changed relatively easily - a 'small matter' of producing a modified frame - changing weight distribution, and especially the engine layout, is a much more time-consuming and difficult process. Back at Ducati Corse in Bologna, the engineers are working themselves into the ground, but they still have twenty years' work to catch up on.

While Ducati is working for next year, the focus at the highest levels of MotoGP is on the future, and especially the future of the series once Valentino Rossi, the series' major media draw, retires. With Rossi gone, the series will have to start producing some real entertainment if it is to attract the attention of the casual viewer, and though Marc Marquez is fulfilling part of that role, he will never be able to compensate for the loss of Rossi, MotoGP's ace in the hole. What is needed is good racing, something which the current rule set, drawn up mainly to please the MSMA, does little to facilitate. The combination of custom-written software and draconian fuel limits places a premium on flowing, economical lines, wonderful for the purist, confusing for the casual fan.

The rules are locked in for the next few seasons, at least until the current contracts with the manufacturers expire at the end of 2016. From 2017, bigger changes could be on the cards, and to get an idea of what those changes might be, I canvased opinion from among those involved in long-term planning for the future.

Dorna, the FIM and IRTA have two basic aims, I was told, and the path to achieving them is already clear. The first aim is to level the playing field, which means creating a single set of coherent rules, as MotoGP had in the past. The second aim - and one which is complementary to the first - is to spice up the racing, and try to make it more exciting to watch, without detracting from the sporting element. Striking a balance between the purity of the sport, and the spectacle it involves, is a very tricky one indeed.

The first target will be tires. Bridgestone have done an outstanding job at producing tires which combine both astonishing levels of performance and amazing durability. Until this year, it was not uncommon for riders to be setting their fastest lap of the race in the last few laps, something that was unthinkable in years past. As perfect as the tires are, they do not serve the purpose required by Dorna, and so the series organizers have been putting pressure on the Japanese tire manufacturer to make their tires easier to use. Bridgestone have made a big step this year, but more is required.

Dorna have the perfect leverage, to persuade Bridgestone to modify their tires. The single tire contract runs out at the end of 2014, and the first sets of discussions are being held with interested suppliers. Dorna is very happy to continue with Bridgestone, but they also have several other suppliers interested. No names were mentioned to me directly, one source saying simply "You can imagine for yourself which companies might be involved." The mention of Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli failed to extract a denial, and given the companies' respective history in the sport - Michelin were MotoGP's top dogs for many years before the advent of the spec tire, Dunlop also have long MotoGP experience, as well as being official suppliers to Moto2 and Moto3, and Pirelli are already involved as a single tire supplier in World Superbikes.

With suppliers lining up for the job of single tire supplier, Dorna can pick and choose the best offer they get. Their main objective is to have a tire which is both extremely reliable, and much easier to ride, perhaps with some degree of predictable degradation. Getting the most out of the tire should not be the sole purview of a handful of racers in the world; anyone good enough to be racing in MotoGP should be able to extract (near) maximum performance from the tires.

With a more amenable tire, the next target will be to level the playing field. The spec ECU was a step in the right direction, but the concession that factories would still be able to use their proprietary software on the spec ECU means that the gap between the factory teams and the non-MSMA entries - the category which replaces CRT next year, though many of the CRT machines will remain - will stay the same. The combination of proprietary software, 20 liters of fuel, limited engine allocations and the development advantages conferred by a factory team means that even in 2014, the racing will be much the same as it is this year.

To remedy that situation, the plan is to demand that factories supply more bikes, and of more or less equal spec, to all of the teams on the grid. Six bikes per manufacturer would be ideal, though the question is whether a smaller manufacturer such as Suzuki would be able to supply that number of bikes. Factory and satellite teams will have nearly identical equipment, the development gap between the two levels of machinery being carefully monitored and strictly policed.

The major tool Dorna has in their tool chest to achieve this goal is through the electronics. By 2017, Magneti Marelli will have four years' experience in MotoGP, with a wide range of engine configurations, and the spec software package should start to be closer to the proprietary software produced by the factories. The factories will not have stood still, of course, but the gap should be much smaller, and the level of performance the spec Magneti Marelli software provides should be sufficient to persuade the factories that they can live with the spec software. 'We need to get the spec software to the point where they are willing to accept it,' one source told me.

Once the spec software is in place, then other rule changes will follow, changes which will loosen the stranglehold the factories have on the series. With spec software, Dorna can easily impose a rev limit, which will make the engine durability regulations (which mandates that riders can use only five engines for a series) much easier to achieve for factories entering the class for the first time. And with a rev limit, the parsimonious limit of 20 liters of fuel can go as well. The fuel limit serves to limit performance, as well as giving the factories an engineering challenge to chase. The fuel limit has been a particularly poor performance limit, as both top speeds and lap records continue to be broken. A rev limit is a much more logical way to achieve that, and it has the added benefit of bringing the engineering back within reach of any factory who wishes to try. The fuel limit is a major factor in keeping Suzuki away until 2015; a rev limit would not.

The danger, of course, is that the factories simply refuse to accept spec software, and threaten to leave if it is imposed upon them. The last time Carmelo Ezpeleta made the same threat, that he would impose standard software, the manufacturers threatened to walk. Ezpeleta blinked first, but he did get the spec hardware in place, which was half the battle. By 2017, the series should be stronger, and the breadth of competitors should be broader, meaning that MotoGP could afford to lose one or two manufacturers.

But this is a threat which has always hung over Grand Prix racing, almost from the time it began. Factories decide all the time that they gain nothing from racing, and decide to pull out and do something else. In recent years, there have been Suzuki, Kawasaki, Aprilia and Ilmor. Go further back and MV Agusta, Norton, Moto Guzzi, Matchless, and even the mighty Honda have walked away from Grand Prix. The factories can survive without racing, it is merely a marketing and R&D opportunity for them. The teams can do nothing without racing. Without racing, there are no teams.

2017 is a long way away, however. Much can change in the intervening period, but there is a clear path to the future. Whether the proposed changes will make the racing any closer remains to be seen; put the entire field on identical bikes, and the same four men would be fastest. But by bringing Grand Prix machinery closer to something a mere mortal could ride, the advantage those fabulous four (or maybe five) would have would be much smaller. Big change is still afoot in MotoGP, but it is still some way off.

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Succinct, if slightly depressing article.

It hammers home the point that we tune in to watch a 3-4 man show every race. Not for lack of talented riders. There are certainly riders in the field that would challenge for podiums and wins on a good day were the machines more equal.

I always felt that the 800cc formula wasn't the big mistake everyone thought it was. The advent of 'software' racing was the real culprit. These processional races in the 1000cc era seem to reinforce that idea.

I have to say it, but I tune in less and less to the races now and without change that will happen more and more.

If the hardcore fans like ourselves are tuning out, the mainstream will surely be looking the other way en mass soon

I'd call myself a pretty hardcore fan - went to my first 500cc GP in 1992 - and my enthusiasm for staying up late on Sunday nights is definitely waning... it's almost easier to just head in here after the race and see what order the top guys finished in this time.

I want to see guys like RdP having a shot at podiums. All that man needs is a comparable bike and he'll be right there.

Thankfully we still have Moto3 and Moto2 for a bit of slash and burn motorcycle racing!

Once again I ask, when was the last time three riders (or four if you count Rossi) of this level had the capability of winning any race? I would say last year before Stoner had his accident.

Even during the much loved 90s, only one or two guys could ever hope to win a race, let alone a championship. And don't get me wrong, I liked Gibernau and Melandri but they weren't up to Rossi's standard. Not to mention the current crop of riders.

I agree the fuel limits are the biggest culprit of processional races, but that shouldn't let you miss the fact that the current crop of top riders are of astounding talent.

On the surface, 2017 looks like another showdown between rev limits and fuel capacity limits. However, other options are available. The most trendy option, at the moment, is fuel flow limiting, which will be adopted in F1 and WEC P1 (LeMans) for 2014 (rumored for IndyCar in the distant future). Fuel-flow-limiting would level the horsepower playing field somewhat, but thermal efficiency would still be an integral part of front-running. Unfortunately, fuel flow limiting has a great deal of complexity. The old mechanical fuel flow limiting devices are ineffective with modern fuel injection. Common electronic fuel flow sensors cannot handle the vibration and g-forces of motorsport. The future method is ultrasonic sensors, but to make them work, you need a huge wad of cash, a long developmental lead time, and a competent technical partner who can program the fuel flow software to adjust for temperature, fuel attributes, etc. The FIA and its commercial rights companies have the cash. MotoGP probably does not.

If MotoGP pursue fuel-flow-limits as a compromise, they will have to find a clever low-cost solution. This is where MM might enter, imo. Nakamoto already pointed out that a spec ECU isn't necessary to impose a rev limit so I'm not convinced that Dorna want a spec ECU and spec software for rev limiting purposes. A spec ECU is a very convenient way to impose a rev limit, and I suspect the spec software will hobble the "CRTs", hence the casual elimination of another 1L of factory fuel, but spec ECU isn't necessary for rev limiting. However, if MM were able to create some clever software for fuel management perhaps it could be paired with revised fuel-injection-system homologation procedures, and MotoGP could have a somewhat primitive fuel flow limit for a fraction of the ultrasonic sensors. Perhaps they will get lucky, and the technology will be quite affordable by 2017.

Perhaps the GPC are not tired of the war waged over fuel capacity limits or rev limits. Perhaps the money is still ugly and Dorna are willing to push forward at any cost; however, I think they will be lured towards compromise by new sanctioning methods. Negotiating the details will be difficult, since fuel flow limits can be administered in many different ways, but it seems like the best way to keep the current manufacturers and add a few more.

The problem is that constraining energy inputs, absolutely or instantaneously, turns efficiency into the winning factor. The marginal costs of efficiency gains increase such that every extra bit of efficiency gain becomes ever more expensive. Fuel flow limiting would be little different to absolute-fuel limits, surely? The biggest factories would win, and the racing would favour the most efficient, perfect and consistent lines? As now...

I don't understand your point. If they use rev limits, volumetric efficiency will determine who wins. The only way to eliminate the benefits of efficiency is to performance balance or spec the engines. Is that what you are advocating?

Limiting fuel flow is substantially different than fuel capacity limits. Fuel flow limit loosely regulates horsepower, which means the GPC could discard the bore limit, the cylinder limit, and even the capacity limit, though I suspect they would retain 4-cylinders and 1000cc max. If the fuel capacity was 24L, the goal would be to run as much fuel through the engine as possible during the race, while improving thermal/volumetric efficiency of the entire rev range. It would be like 990cc racing, but with a horsepower limit to keep the bikes within the confines of the track runoff. Fuel flow limiting is also backwards compatible so the manufacturers could literally run 990s if they were so inclined or they could run the current 81mm engines.

If the sanctioning equipment is sophisticated enough, the GPC could use the F1-method for regulating fuel flow by modulating flow with rpm. The engine regulations would stay as they are now, and the manufacturers would work to exploit small advancements in TE. This arrangement would contain the factory advantage, but it might not keep the factories interested.

Fuel flow is much different than fuel capacity, and each fuel flow limiting method has its own unique effects.

to put a cap on the size of fuel injectors. When folks turbocharge NA engines for big power the fuel injectors always have to be upgraded. They could mandate spec injectors to get around any goofiness.

Personally I think all the pussyfooting around the issue is kind of pointless though. Dorna just needs to impose a horsepower cap. There's no reason for there to be a 20 MPH difference on the straights between the slowest and fastest bikes. It wouldn't be everything- Ducati has the most powerful bikes on the grid by far- but it would definitely make things more interesting.

Mention for 5 years that it takes too long to change the engine and frame and presto! It just took 5 years plus whatever time it really takes. Shame on Ducati (and now Audi) for the grandest foot shuffling exercise in the history of motor racing. It seems that everyone but themselves understand that the weight distribution and/or geometry is off. Remember that all iterations of the current bike are 2009 spec rendered in aluminum and with the engine bored out and rotated rearwards. If I read one more article on how hard they are working...

Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.

I am a fan of cutting edge technology in motorcycle racing which is being stifled by the current set of motogp rules channeling development down a single path. The solution? Capacity limit, a wheel at each end, otherwise run what you brung.
I have fond memories of the ELF project in the eighties that explored the possibilities of Single sided swingarms and Funny front ends a.k.a. hub centre steering. This project was successful enough to get the backing of Honda and a rider of the calibre of Rocket Ron Haslam. How about the fabulous machine created by John Britten in the early nineties. That machine had more inovative technologies included in it than we have seen in decades in motogp. It was ultimately stopped in its tracks because it didn't comply with the rules for any world championship class.
We need an open class for prototypes that encourages the search for different ways to win. Nobody will ever beat the heavyweights of motogp if they are forced to follow the same path, but alternative technologies just might have a chance

"Mind battles physical reality, and both come out losers."
Amazing, David. I can't help but admire your skills as a wordsmith. They further elevate your very insightful and knowledgeable articles.

Fuel flow - I would be interested to hear why that would produce better racing.
It sounds a lot like speed/power limiting to me and a bit like those 56mph trucks you get on motorways. Relatively good acceleration, but all max out at the same point and follow each other (MGP doesn't have 4 mile straights for the overtakes). Excuse the analogy - I'm not trying to be sarcastic but it’s the only one I can think of.
Ducati's honeymoons are becoming tiresome/frustrating. This is an area where more communication and honesty and less blandness would help their position. The task they have to produce a competitive bike is not to be underestimated and it seems a little like trying to come up with a recipe that tastes exactly like Coca-Cola. If they told us the general direction/strategy would they be revealing their hand in technology terms? I don't think so. Everyone likes a trier. No-one wants prevarication.
I recall Burgess commenting that they needed new crankcases to allow the power take-off point to be moved and allow 'tuning' of chain force etc., as well as a longer swing-arm.
Dorna's honeymoon is over-long and those new regulations need to be brought in ASAP - as in Just Do It. If a greater freedom from regulations or the need to snoop on teams or slap seals on kit is desirable (Yes, please – how much does that cost?) then please get on with it. Investment? Sure, but look to the future, not the past. Better to invest in something worthwhile (from a racing perspective) than just (poorly) replicating/repeating manufacturing R&D that is being done elsewhere (car industry/F1).
Whilst the ‘unfairness’ of the tyre wars was talked about I found that it added some spice to the mix and it did produce some good racing. Limiting tyres and engines just means bikes get parked up and the fans get to watch empty tracks.Qualifiers are a spectacle.
Make the rules simpler; perhaps award supplementary points to teams that use new technology, lead laps, qualify well etc. Pay them for points won - level the financial field. Give the tail-end Charlie’s something to aim for that can get them air-time. Feature them in TV coverage. If a team can say “we will get you X air time/other media exposure ” sponsors can value that and it will influence investment – tell me a marketing or finance person who doesn’t need a payback projection for big spend. Guarantees work better than guesses.

Fuel flow limiting is not necessarily a way to improve the racing, but it is a way to deregulate. If the current fuel regulations are maintained, and fuel flow is regulated in 1 second (or shorter intervals), the GPC could eliminate the bore, cylinder, and displacement restrictions. They could eliminate the fuel capacity restriction.

If you wanted to use fuel flow limiting to make close racing, you could keep the engine regs as they are, and vary max fuel flow with rpm. This would level the playing field, particularly if fuel capacity restrictions are eliminated.

Fuel flow is a malleable regulation b/c the unit of measure is everything. Measuring fuel flow per race is just a fuel capacity limit. Measuring fuel flow per millisecond is a loose cap on max hp (similar to bore limit). Measuring fuel consumption per rpm is a much more strict form of hp controls. Measuring fuel per lap is a sort of hybrid between fuel capacity limitations and hp limits. With GPS and other tech, you could eve limit fuel flow by sector or the track. Very complicated, but with great potential, imo.

Limit every manufacturer to no more than 45% of the field and no more than a 90% tie up with another manufacturer. Therefore at least 3 tyre, brake, suspension manufacturers and not all yamahas on öhlins brembo Bridgestone combo. Parts supplied to be of equal spec and distributed to teams by dorna. The no 90% tie up would prevent everyone one Bridgestone running brembo and öhlins mix. The manufacturers could be required to arrive at each gp with enough to supply the full 45% of their allocation. With riders requesting which parts they want before the previous round, priority choice given to riders finishing in top 10 for 3 consecutive rounds with same manufacturer. All for a fixed price.

I'm not convinced increased regulations is the way to go. I haven't followed F1 too closely but didn't the increasing technical regulations eventually drive the factory teams out? Imagining a motogp grid comprised solely of CRT bikes makes me shudder.

Also haven't the regulations lead to increased engine costs and subsequently the teams all buy their engines in rather than create their own? But in F1 that's okay because aerodynamics, DRS, KERS, TERS and suspension are what sets the teams apart. For obvious reasons MotoGP can't really integrate any of those factors, so it comes down solely Chassis because engines, tyres, suspension and ecu are all bought in right?

So it is logical that these regulations will send MotoGP down the line of Moto2 and Moto3. Which sure is much more competitive racing, but it's hard to say it's still MotoGP.

Just my opinion.

There was always the possibility of anyone winning. Gary McCoy comes to mind. The were other one time winners over the years who nailed a set up or some other anomaly happened. Not possible today.

The rule book is too thick. Old think is holding it back. Technology should be getting cheaper. Reduce the rules and someone will find a way to make a bike go faster around the track.

MotoGP's problems and their solutions seem pretty straightforward to me. 20-30 MPH difference between fastest and slowest bikes? Cap horsepower (but not the displacements or transmissions to utilize it). Spec tires killing development? Let teams develop their own tires just as they do their own engines, chassises, transmissions, aerodynamics, electronics etc. Factories threatening to take the ball away if rules don't favor them? Let them leave! Factories have come and gone while the sport remained; and in any case it may be better for the sport if there are no factories- just suppliers. If someone wants to put a Honda motor in a Yamaha chassis on Michelin tires they should be allowed to do so. Plus taking factories out of the equation takes out the huge sums of money spent on development which no goofy rules or specs will ever be able to "fix". Taking the role of complete development away from factories and into the hands of teams may make the bikes less technically "perfect", but it will enable riders who could win if not for imperfect machinery to win as all the machinery would be imperfect.

If not this change though then at the minimum enable teams to get custom tires. That is like ground zero.

"Until this year, it was not uncommon for riders to be setting their fastest lap of the race in the last few laps, something that was unthinkable in years past."

In the 990 era it was not uncommon for Rossi to set the fastest lap of the race in the final laps. On Michelins.

Or were you thinking further in the past?