Peter Clifford Interview Part 1 - "There's No Commercial Reality In MotoGP"

Ever since Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta started talking about using production engines in MotoGP bikes, one name has come up again and again in any discussion of this subject. That name is WCM, and the team manager of the time, Peter Clifford. had already spoken to Clifford at the IRTA test in Jerez, where he gave us a potted history of the WCM project, but after the Grand Prix Commission announced that MotoGP would be returning to 1000cc, with no restrictions on engine provenance and a bore limit of 81mm, we went back to Clifford to get his opinion of the changes. After all, if there's anyone who knows the real cost of turning a production bike into a MotoGP bike, it's Peter Clifford and his team. The discussion was long and very interesting, and so we have split the interview into two parts. Part one is below, while the second part will be published tomorrow. 

MM: When Carmelo Ezpeleta first came up with the idea of using production engines, your name and the WCM project was raised by just about everybody, because basically what they're talking about is allowing you to do what you could have done back in 2003. How do you feel about that?

PC: Well, it's just very humorous isn't it? It was so obvious that that is what needed to happen, but at the time, there was enough machinery at the sharp end and the factories were all keen to have a go at it, so the few people that were left out of that loop, no one cared very much about them. That's just the way it goes, though isn't it.

But it was so obvious that it didn't require many of the factories to realize how expensive and difficult it was, and there were always bound to be some factories that were going to lose out. And surely they could realize that it was an awful lot better to have a WCM fighting with a Team Roberts or whatever behind them, than it was to be the last factory bikes. And as soon as Kawasaki became the last factory bikes, they pulled the plug on it. And Suzuki very nearly did the same thing. There'd be no reason to do that, no need to do that if there had been 10 privateer machines at the back fighting for the lower places.

MM: How do you think the rules will work out? There's the 81mm bore limit which seems to be in place of a hard rev limit, they want to limit engine speed [to limit costs] but they can't bring themselves to say we're not going to rev more than 16,000rpm...

PC: Well presumably, to do that hard rev limit would require a standard electronics package and the factories won't allow that. Otherwise, how would you really control it? You could say "oh, you're not allowed to" but how do you really measure it, because you'd just have an electronics package that only revved under 16K when it was under test conditions. You know, electronics are woefully difficult to control, as they found out in Formula 1.

MM: Do you think the 81mm bore limit will work that way?

PC: Well it doesn't stop you revving, it just makes revving more expensive.

MM: It might make higher revving bikes more expensive, but will it make MotoGP affordable? Herve Poncharal has told me that they want to cut the costs in half and make racing 50% cheaper.

PC: That's all very well, but Herve doesn't want to run one. Like any sensible team manager, he wants to have the factory bikes and let a load of other people run these. Because they're not going to be cheap and they're not going to be competitive. They'll be cheaper than leasing a factory Honda or something, that's for sure. It's very simple, what this idea is: It's a very easy way to get into the sport if you want to. But it's no route to be competitive.

Because like everything else, there's a law of very aggressive diminishing returns. You'll be able to get on the grid with virtually a production bike, but that isn't going to get you very far.

MM: So basically you could get on the grid for - pulling a figure out of thin air - say less than a million euros ...

PC: Oh, much, much less than that! Of course what it doesn't reduce is the travel costs and all that, but literally you could get on the grid for a few hundred thousand euros. But that doesn't get you around the world, those travel costs are still the same.

You know, our bike, even as the FIM banned it, there was almost nothing left of the original engine really, we had rebuilt everything. For Harris Performance Products to start making the rolling chassis, they had to build it around a lump that they knew. They couldn't wait for us to build a prototype engine before they started building the rolling chassis, otherwise we would never have made it to the start of the season. So we had to shortcut it, and that's why we went the route we did. But there was nothing left of the original engine, there were almost no R1 parts left in it.

MM: Last time I spoke to you, you said all that were left over were the holes for the mounting points ...

PC: Well that's right. Originally when we went to Japan we used the original castings but all the internals were changed, all the valves, all the springs, all the con rods, all the gearbox internals, the crankshaft, pistons, because we had a different bore and stroke as well, ours was 76 x 54.5 - I don't remember what the standard one was [74 x 58 - MM], but ours was different anyway - new electronics, and everything.

The WCM engine

And we achieved a certain level of performance, but that was as close as you could get with that kind of expenditure. We would be three or four seconds off the pace; well, if we threw another million euros at it, we'd be two or three seconds off the pace. To cut that three seconds to one or two seconds, you'd have to throw five million euros at it. And then the last second is the most expensive, because to get that second, you've basically got to do the same as the factories, so you've got to spend tens of millions of euros. As I say, it's a really aggressive law of diminishing returns.

As I think I've said to you before, the point is that there's no commercial reality in Grand Prix racing. The factories are not there for commercial reasons, it's boardroom rivalry. So there's no commercial reality in terms of the costs and the income that you can gain from it for a private team in terms of sponsorship or anything else. That remains true even under this model: We ran for three years without a glimmer of sponsorship, and even under the new model, well of course there isn't going to be any sponsorship. It's not just we who struggle, all the other teams struggle, all the midfield factory teams struggle. Suzuki don't get realistic sponsorship, nor does anybody else. The fact that there will be more machinery available doesn't make it practical to go racing unless you're very, very rich.

Q. So it's still basically going to be a rich man's hobby, unless you're a factory.

PC: Well I think even for the factories it's a boardroom hobby. I really do. They don't see it in terms of, "we'll spend 50 million on MotoGP and we'll get 50 million in increased sales," I don't think they do at all.

MM: So you don't think it justifies its investment in terms of either marketing or R&D?

PC: Well, marketing figures, you can read them any way you like, can't you? It's such an imponderable that a factory can say, "well it's good for our company name." And when you have a tremendously successful season like Yamaha have had, then of course for the general overall Yamaha image it's great. So maybe they can say that it's good for the image, and Yamaha since the 1960s have built their reputation on racing, very much so.

Of course, interestingly, they did an awful lot of that with the TZs, the 250s, the 350s and the 750s, and I'm sure that made commercial sense for them because they were selling them and everyone else was racing them for them. I bet you they wish they could go back to that kind of era. But you just can't do that with a four stroke. They're just too expensive to run, the only cheap things to run are two strokes.

Going back to your point about rev limits and all that sort of thing, the other thing that's expensive and which the privateer is not going to have any access to at all are the driver aids. They are horrendously expensive, but that's what gives the Japanese their advantage and they're not going to give that up. So they will refuse to have rev limits that will require a standard electronics package, because they know that that's their advantage. And that's why they also won't allow the banning of traction control and that sort of thing. Now if they did, that would give the privateer a much more level playing field, because then there's no point in having huge horsepower outputs because the riders can't use it.

MM: The other thing that Dorna controls is that they now have a spec tire, and rumors in the paddock suggest that Bridgestone has been testing tires aimed at reducing tire performance.

PC: But it can perform as well, even it is not as good a tire, because the electronics package will overcome the problem to a certain extent. That's what the electronics thing is all about, isn't it?

MM: So you can't get rid of traction control just with crappier tires, to put it bluntly?

PC: Yes, that's right. Of course, in an ultimately extreme case, you can, but the whole point of the traction control has always been to cope with tire degradation and that kind of thing, hasn't it. So the fact that you put a slightly less performing tire on isn't going to suddenly shed ten or twenty horsepower. The electronics package to a certain degree will manage that situation. And the Japanese are not going to give that up, because they know that they've put so much money and effort into that, that no privateer, no matter what bike he starts off with, can match that. That's totally out of reach.

MM: It's quite obvious that you believe that there's no way that privateers are going to be able to compete, but is it still worth it?

PC: Well if you're doing it for fun or because you want to go Grand Prix racing, then yes, it does allow people to get on the grid, as I say. If you just want to go there and make up the numbers, and you know, a lot of people could have fun doing that.

MM: It seems to me that one of the reasons for the move to allow production engines and get more bikes on the grid is that it allows the factories to not produce so many satellite bikes, so they can save money by only spending on the factory teams and dropping the satellite teams.

PC: Well that's right. I'm sure that Honda, as the major supporter of the satellite teams, are getting tired of it. And you know, it doesn't do them any good at all, it just costs them time and aggravation. If the bikes are not competitive, the satellite teams complain "oh we're being hard done by," and if Honda try and make all of the satellite bikes competitive, of course the problem is that they can't make Dani Pedrosa's bike more competitive. So he loses out at the sharp end, which is what they care about, their number one factory rider, because they're getting so much grief from the bottom end which they don't care about at all. So much better to say, rush off and get a CBR engine and go racing with that.

MM: Do you think this will actually fill the grids or not?

PC: It all depends on how many mad people there are out there with money to burn who want to go play at being Grand Prix racers. I mean, there haven't been a huge number of people stepping up and saying "Me! Me! Me!"

MM: So you haven't had Bob MacLean phoning you up and saying "We're going back."

PC: [Laughs loudly] No, no! And I haven't been phoning him and saying "Bob, we really have to do this."

MM: And no one has contacted you asking for advice, asking how to go about this?

PC: You mean phoning up and asking how not to do it? No, I mean it's not rocket science is it, it's just a lot of hard work and money, and there's a lot of people know how to do that.

James Ellison on the WCM

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and someone who appreciates two strokes.

The 125s: the last bastion of perfect motorcycle racing.

One man on two wheels driven by one cylinder over two strokes.

Fascinating stuff as usual, David.

At least the new rules will let guys with money to burn get into the series without as much aggro as WCM got.

Great read as always. I like reading what PC has to say b/c he always provides a practical interpretation of the sport and it's purpose.

BTW, David, you got some love from Dennis Noyes on in part 2 of his current K.I.S.S series of articles.

I saw that Dennis Noyes had put in a link to the articles, and sent him a note thanking him. For those wondering what the KISS articles are that phoenix1 is referring to, here's Part 1, and here's Part 2.

How much is known about the new control tire? Is it worse than the current tires b/c Dorna are literally forcing them to change the compounds? or are Dorna manipulating some design aspect of the tire in order to reduce performance (i.e. overall width, weight, or profile)?