Kawasaki: Testing, But Not Racing?

Uncertainty continues to cloud Kawasaki's future in MotoGP. Despite the official announcement on January 9th that Kawasaki would be withdrawing factory support from MotoGP, rumors continue to rumble on that there will be Kawasakis on the grid when the season starts, with some sort of private team structure running the bikes.

These rumors have been fueled by the private test currently underway at Eastern Creek in Australia. Test riders Olivier Jacque and Tamaki Serizawa are continuing work on the 2009 version of Kawasaki's ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP bike, lapping the track on Friday and Saturday. The official MotoGP.com website has video of the bike being tested, and is adamant that the bike will be run by a private team in the coming season.

Indeed, this is what Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is working towards. In an interview with the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Ezpeleta stated that a private team structure was almost ready to go, the only problem being the question of building new engines and developing the bike. Kawasaki told Dorna that they only have enough engines for a quarter of the season, and no money to develop the bike. But the Spaniard had a solution for that to: Ezpeleta had found an engineering facility in France that is willing to take on the work from Kawasaki, build engines and continue development of the ZX-RR.

The only stumbling block is that Kawasaki have to accept these conditions and agree to turn the bikes over to the French firm. In exchange for this, and allowing the bikes to run during 2009, Ezpeleta told Gazzetta dello Sport, Dorna would be willing to allow Kawasaki to withdraw from the contract they have with the MSMA to run bikes through 2011.

The alternative is to sort the case out in the courts. Ezpeleta made it perfectly clear: "If they don't run the bikes, I'll take them to court." A court case - most likely to be held in the Spanish courts, as the country where Dorna is based - would be both expensive and raise unwelcome publicity for Kawasaki, but it is potentially even more dangerous for Dorna.

Though Dorna is a relatively wealthy organization, its financial resources - and therefore its legal recourse - is dwarfed in comparison with the multi-billion dollar giant that is Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The Japanese firm is likely to attempt to crush Dorna, and spend its way, if not to victory, then at least to a stalemate.

But even if Dorna were to win such an action, the damage could prove potentially fatal. The immediate problem would be that Kawasaki would simply refuse to participate in any Dorna-organized racing series again, seriously weakening those series. But it would also make the other manufacturers think twice about their contracts and relationship with Dorna. If the manufacturers believe that their freedom to act is too severely restrained - and therefore potentially very expensive - more of them may choose simply not to play along.

MotoGP cannot afford to lose another manufacturer. Court cases against factories that leave the series are likely to make them think long and hard about racing with an organization that saddles them with huge legal fees. Ironically, the steps with Dorna is taking to protect MotoGP in the short term may end up fatally wounding it in the long term. When contracts come up for renewal in 2011, the factories will be a good deal less willing to play along with Dorna.

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Not to mention the big four has the cultural habit to school together and not play ball when threaten. Like the instances against Max Biaggi, causing him to lose any potential ride in MotoGP, which in the end turns out better now that he is in WSBK.

Remember back in 2 strokes, when the big four lost interest and pour money in WSBK leaving tobacco company to rule MotoGP? Who's gonna take over this time if the Big Four leaves? Dorna is not helping by threatening to sue....A public apology might help soften things up now.

What, one wonders, was the quid pro quo offering from Dorna that enticed the factories (at least) to sign up to such an onerous penalty provision? It must surely have been attractive - but if Dorna cannot deliver on that attraction, then one suspects it, too, will be in breach of contract and rapidly on the receiving end of the ire of none-too-sympathetic manufacturers.

Expostfacto is playing a fairly dangerous and probably rather short-sighted game by cracking the whip so publicly, at least. This has the smell of desperation to me; perhaps he is trying to buy time but he's put a heck of a lot of his chips on the table on one throw...

I do not know how many of you follow US open-wheel racing, but Carmelo Ezpeleta is starting to remind me of Tony George. When IndyCar split and Tony George formed the IRL (opposed to CART), it was well known that Tony Goerge was "funding" several teams in order to have full grids. Carmelo Ezpeleta seems to be doing the same here. Does this resonate with anyone else? Rusty Bucket?

Strangely enough, there is even a parallel tax evasion case!

The initial "charter" for the IRL was thrown out in about 2 years (except for the speed limits), and Tony George was immediately using revenue from the Indy 500 to fund teams from anywhere in the world he could find to fill up the grid for the rest of the year (which wasn't very long back then).  At that time, at least, there were two chassis constructors and two engine manufacturers.  Within a couple years, he was also fielding his own teams on the grid...  and still is. 

The loose equivalent would be for Carmelo to "buy" the Kawaski and/or Ilmor teams and run them under a "Dorna" livery, or the host race's sponsors, or anything like that.  But then what about development of the bikes?  If they ever got competitive enough to win, claims of interest conflicts would surface immediately, quickly followed by concern from the MSMA members.  Conversely, a rider taking a deal for such an "opportunity" would be signing up for mid-pack to back-marker status and would likely be derided as the "development rider" for "the series" (meaning:  Bridgestone, or worse, additional spec parts proposals).  I hate to admit it, but someone does come to mind for that scenario...

Similar to F1, very little good can come from imitating them.  (For those who don't know...  the IRL is now a spec series.)

otoh what's the point of contracts if they are constantly broken. i think before blaming ezpeleta for this one, one should consider that kawasaki made commitments to the sport possibly closing the door on other projects that may have gotten dorna's financial help (or kawi's near non-existant sponsorships) had they not been "locked in". they are leaving two popular riders without a ride. they are potentially starting a domino effect of withdrawals. and they are making the sport extremely unattractive to sponsors.

now granted we don't, and probably never will, know the exact contents of the contracts. it's quite possible that factories have many escape clauses and kawasaki may well be fighting for one.

i'm not ezpeleta's little friend, i think dorna has mismanaged motogp in a very similar way that the world economy has mismanaged it's finances. shooting for growth instead of sustainability dorna was struggling with the series even before the banks started to panic at the start of 2008.

but i'm not about to give kawi an "all clear, good luck buddy" pass. the sport is run by three organizations, one of which, the MSMA, has to take part of the blame in any mismanagement of the motogp. kawasaki are members of the MSMA.

Peter Wright, at this year's SAE Motorsports Engineering Conference, showed a plot that summed up the challenge that motorsports faces today. It was a plot with entertainment (sound, fury) on the y-axis and sustainability (safety, environment, economy) on the x-axis.

I attended the SAE conference this past December and heard it "from the horse's mouth". SAE has a policy of not publishing transcripts of panel sessions in order to ensure confidentiality and freedom of expression. That is probably why you do not see any transcript of paper. However, if you want to know a little more of what he and others said, please feel free to cotnact me. Kropotkin has my contact information.