The start of a new year, and though there is little going on in the world of motorcycle racing in the first week of January, there is still enough to fill our weekly news round up. Here's what happened this week.
Hoax of the week: Ezpeleta to lose CEO job at Dorna?
It seemed like a huge scoop. Bridgepoint, the major shareholder in Dorna, were looking to oust Carmelo Ezpeleta as CEO, according to Paolo Gozzi, World Superbike correspondent for the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. Gozzi claimed that Bridgepoint executives were unhappy with Dorna's handling of the Rossi affair at the end of 2015, and of the financial results for 2014 and 2015.
Unfortunately for Gozzi, the entire story was incorrect. Italian website GPOne.com asked Ezpeleta about it, and his response was typically dry: "Is it April Fool's Day in Italy?" Though he did not want to dignify the claims with a response, his answer was simple. "There is no truth in this whatsoever."
That the story is inaccurate should be immediately obvious. However you feel about the outcome of the 2015 MotoGP championship, the affair undeniably sparked a massive increase in interest in the championship, and in the sport. All of a sudden, MotoGP was back in sports bulletins in countries outside of Spain and Italy, and in the sports pages of newspapers, not confined to the specialist press. Google Trends, which measures interest in subjects based on search trends, shows a big increase in interest in MotoGP in 2015, with a massive spike around the period of Phillip Island, Sepang, and Valencia. More importantly, the drop in interest after the end of the season was to a higher baseline than in previous years, suggesting that interest in MotoGP will be higher in 2016 again.
More interest means bigger audiences, which means better TV deals and better sponsorship deals. That means more money for Dorna, and a bigger return on investment for Bridgepoint, the private equity fund which owns Dorna. Ezpeleta is more likely to be commended by Bridgepoint, rather than sacked. Despite the fact that the success of the series had more to do with Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez than Carmelo Ezpeleta.
Penalty points system to be reviewed
One part of the fallout from Sepang does look set to become reality. As I have written here before, the way in which points accumulate and expire is to be amended. Speaking to GPOne.com, FIM president Vito Ippolito said that this issue will be addressed at the next meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, due to take place on 4th February, the day after the Sepang MotoGP test.
Ippolito raises the issue which sources inside Dorna have also discussed with MotoMatters.com: Valentino Rossi currently has four penalty points, one picked up at Misano for riding on the racing line during practice, and three for the events at Sepang. The Misano penalty point expires on 12th September, 2016, a year after it was awarded. That would leave Rossi on three points during the Aragon, Motegi and Phillip Island rounds. If he were to pick up a single point before the Phillip Island race, he would have to start from the back of the grid again.
That form of double jeopardy, where a rider could receive the same punishment twice, needs to be addressed, Ippolito said. Dorna sources have indicated to me that their preferred solution would be to have the rules adjusted so that riders would only receive the same punishment once, the next punishment coming when they exceed the next limit. In the case of Rossi, he would not start from the back of the grid again if he were to gain four points in total once the Misano point expired, but he would be forced to start from pit lane if he racked up an extra four points between Misano and Phillip Island in 2016.
Ippolito is in favor of a broader review of the penalty point system, preferring immediate penalties to be imposed. Ippolito is also in favor of a change in the roles within Race Direction, with the current four-person team issuing penalties for the more obvious infractions, such as jump starts, pit lane speeding, ignoring a blue flag, etc. But problems which were a matter of judgment, such as dangerous riding, would be judged by a separate body, either a single judge, or a board of experts.
This issue is far from settled, with opinions varying widely in Dorna, IRTA, the FIM and among the manufacturers. There may not be a clear decision at the Sepang Grand Prix Commission meeting, but a new system will have to be in place for the start of the 2016 season.
VR46 now selling Yamaha MotoGP merchandise as well
Since his run in with the Italian tax authorities, which Valentino Rossi settled by paying €35 million in back taxes, Rossi's business empire has gone from strength to strength. One of the smartest moves was to produce his own merchandise, and expand it to include other racers, including that of his arch rival Marc Márquez, as well as Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow.
Now, his merchandising company, VR46 Racing Apparel, has won the contract to produce souvenirs, T-shirts, caps and other paraphernalia for the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team, the factory team which Rossi himself rides for. The deal makes sense for both parties: VR46 has both the production facilities and the distribution network in place to maximize licensing income for Yamaha, while at the same time increasing turnover for VR46. It will also allow Yamaha to expand their range of merchandise available to fans, while concentrating on their core business of racing.
The announcement was met with a certain level of paranoia in some sections of the Spanish media, who claimed it was a sign that Rossi was seeking greater control within Yamaha, and that it made Jorge Lorenzo's departure to Ducati for 2017 more likely. That seems entirely improbable. VR46 Racing Apparel operates almost entirely outside of Rossi's control, the Italian still completely focused on racing. The fact that Rossi continues to produce merchandise for Marc Márquez, contrary to fabricated reports in Spain at the end of last year, shows that this is purely a business undertaking, rather than an arm of political control.
Nakamoto – "We still haven't been able to build a less aggressive engine"
HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto is enjoying something of a busman's holiday, spending the first part of January in South America following the Dakar Rally, where Honda have fielded a full factory entry with Joan Barreda and Paulo Gonçalves. Spanish sports daily Marca seized the opportunity to ask Nakamoto a few questions about MotoGP and Honda's F1 program while he was there.
The most interesting part of the interview centered on the progress – or rather, lack of it – HRC had made with the engine of the RC213V. "We are focused on building a less aggressive bike," Nakamoto told Marca, "we are trying various things, but for some reason, we have not been able to build a better bike than the one we had last year. The engineers are analyzing the reasons, and we hope to have a solution before the start of the first race."
Nakamoto's words echo the complaint of all Honda riders at both the Valencia and Jerez tests at the end of 2015. The new engine HRC brought to those tests had a very similar character to the 2015 bike. That engine was universally slated for being too aggressive, making it hard to control wheelie and wheelspin on corner exit, and engine braking on corner entry. The 2016 engine has more bottom-end power, which should make it more manageable, but it remains extremely aggressive. The issue is complicated by Honda's failure to get to grips with the new unified software supplied by Dorna. As neither Yamaha nor Ducati are having too many problems, that seems to be an issue more with HRC than the electronics themselves.
That Casey Stoner interview
With Casey Stoner now officially a test rider for Ducati, an interview with the Australian has been doing the rounds of various websites. The way that story has oozed across the internet is itself instructive of the way journalism often works among some sections of the media.
The interview originated with Australian journalist Colin Young. He spoke to Stoner at the end of 2015, and sold that interview to a number of publications, including the British weekly Motorcycle News. He also sold it to the Italian magazine Motosprint. When Motosprint was published, several Italian websites picked the interview up, and wrote stories for their websites, making generous use of quotes from the interview (beyond what in most jurisdictions would be regarded as fair use). English-language websites then picked up the stories on the Italian websites, translated the Italian quotes back into English, and published web stories of their own.
For those who are interested in seeing the original quotes – on why he switched from Honda to Ducati, on his expanded role as a brand ambassador at Ducati, on how he believes that Marc Márquez and his crew felt threatened by his role as a test rider, and much more – MCN are intending to run a series of stories over the weekend on their website including much of the interview as it appeared in their newspaper, plus a little bit more.
Spanish April Fool's Day is in December, or why Pedrosa and Rossi won't be going to Suzuki in 2017
Every year, a ritual unfolds, which sees English and Italian speaking websites fall into a terrible trap. On 28th December, strange and wondrous stories start appearing in the Spanish press, and, in a period when motorcycle racing news is very thin on the ground, non-Spanish sites leap eagerly on them, and spread them far and wide.
A few hours, or perhaps a day later, the non-Spanish sites then have to either publish a retraction, or update their stories to acknowledge that they had been caught out, and that the story was not true. For the 28th of December is the Dia de los Inocentes, the Spanish equivalent of April Fool's Day. And like the rest of the world, it is a day on which the media likes to plant spoof stories, the best of which are based just enough in the plausible to make people fall for them.
So no, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi won't be signing for Suzuki in 2017. And that video you saw of Marc Márquez doing a backflip? That was fake too.
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