Saturday is going to be a big day for MotoGP. Obviously, there will be the thrill of two Spaniards fighting over pole in front of tens of thousands of crazed local fans, but in an office inside the paddock, a meeting will be held which is set to decide the future of MotoGP. For on Saturday, the Grand Prix Commission is due to meet to - ostensibly at least - finalize the regulations which will control the sport from 2012 onwards.
The outlines are clear: MotoGP will consist of three different types of motorcycle:
- Prototype 1000cc bikes, limited to 81mm bore, 21 liters of fuel and 153kg minimum weight
- Prototype 800cc bikes, limited to 81mm bore, 21 liters of fuel and 150kg minimum weight
- Bikes run by "Claiming Rule Teams" - basically, 1000cc bikes based around production engines in prototype chassis - limited to 81mm bore, 24 liters of fuel, 153kg minimum weight. The teams will also be allowed to use 12 engines during season, as opposed to just 6 for the prototype teams.
The devil, of course, is in the detail, especially of exactly what constitutes a "Claiming Rule Team". Both Aprilia and BMW are being named as possible engine suppliers for Claiming Rule teams, with engines based on the RSV4 and S1000RR powerplants. And here is where the trouble starts. The MSMA - the body representing the motorcycle manufacturers - are terrified that new manufacturers will test the waters in MotoGP by supplying privateer teams with specially prepared engines and chassis. BMW has already been linked with Suter - though BMW has strenuously denied any involvement - and this is exactly what the factories are afraid of: Factories using the privateers as a development front for their efforts.
The problems with the new rules are self-evident: Apart from the difficulty of explaining to casual fans why there are three different types of bikes on the grid, and exactly what those differences are, there is also the question of defining just what a Claiming Rule team will be. The idea is not new - after a race, one team will be able to purchase the engine of another for a fixed price, yet to be decided but likely to be in the tens rather than hundreds of thousands of euros - but actually making such a system work fairly is deeply problematic. The possibilities for cheating are endless, and the value of an engine is questionable. After all, without the chassis - not available for claiming, as the concept currently stands - the engine is of little use. Teams will not just be able to slot an engine they purchase into their own chassis, as even if the chassis is using an engine based on the same production unit, it is likely to be modified to such an extent that stiffness, mounting points and any number of factors simply won't be the same.
Such is the complexity of the problems facing the Grand Prix Commission that it actually seems unlikely that a complete set of rules will be agreed on Saturday. The rules had been due to be finalized in December last year, but the MSMA - charged with drawing up MotoGP's technical regulations - came no further than announcing that the bikes would have a maximum of 1000cc, 81mm bore and 4 cylinders.
The decision was postponed to another meeting, this time of the MSMA on its own. That meeting also failed to draw up a complete set of regulations, merely agreeing to the rough outlines of the three-tier structure described above. The following meeting of the Grand Prix Commission was scheduled for Motegi, but had to be moved when the race in Japan was called off due to the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, making flying to Japan nigh on impossible. Instead, the Grand Prix Commission will meet here in Jerez, on Saturday.
Yet the chances of the MSMA putting forward a complete set of regulations to the Grand Prix Commission seem fairly slim. As veteran American journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out in an excellent and in-depth article over on Speed TV recently, the MSMA seems to have lost its way. At the time of the switch from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes, the manufacturers had a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve in MotoGP, but the switch to 800cc - imposed hastily in reaction to the death of Dajiro Katoh at Suzuka - has been little short of disastrous. Grids have emptied, costs have skyrocketed and all but four of the manufacturers have pulled out.
All of Dorna's pleas to provide more bikes for the premier class have fallen on deaf ears, the expense of running bikes that depend so heavily on electronics for both their speed and their management of the 21 liters of fuel they have at their disposal precluding any expansion. The factories are keen on the electronics, because it provides them with a huge amount of R&D data which is directly applicable to their road bikes, something confirmed to MotoMatters.com by HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto.
Noyes speculates - with good reason - that if the MSMA don't come up with a solution, then Dorna might decide to follow in the footsteps of FGSport (now Infront Motor Sports, the organization that runs World Superbikes), and simply take over making the technical rules themselves, which they are entitled to do as the current agreement expires at the end of 2011. However, Dorna finds itself in a far more difficult situation than FGSport did at the time they changed the rules for World Superbikes: production motorcycles could be homologated by the FIM independently, without reference to the manufacturers. And so teams could run the bikes themselves, without requiring support from the factories. More importantly, perhaps, Ducati stayed in the series, providing both factory backing and the bulk of the privateer machines at the time. There were still plenty of bikes out racing, despite the absence of the Japanese manufacturers.
If the Japanese factories did pull out of MotoGP - or at least, Honda and Yamaha, who are most committed to the 800cc formula and who supply the bulk of the bikes on the grid - there are no quick replacements to fill the grid. As 2012, the deadline for the introduction of new rules, draws near, the time that any privateer effort wishing to run a modified production engine has to get the bike up to speed grows ever shorter, and with it any hope of being competitive. Dorna, the FIM and IRTA - the teams association - are caught between a rock and a hard place. They cannot keep leaving the technical rules to an MSMA which is bereft of ideas for making the series affordable, but they also cannot afford to take that authority from the MSMA, at risk of the series collapsing due to empty grids.
There is, of course, a chance that the MSMA have finally found a sense of direction again, and will put forward a set of plans on Saturday which are simple, coherent and allow them and the teams to put the 20 to 22 bikes on the grid that Dorna and the FIM are so very keen to see. But judging by the omens we have had so far, that is not looking very likely. This could drag on a while yet.