Saving MotoGP Part 2 - How To Encourage The Cheats

Yesterday, we examined why MotoGP turned into the bottomless pit which swallows money, and looked at the mistakes which made this result inevitable. Today, we'll be examining the suggestions being put forward to fix the situation, and get spending in MotoGP back under control, and picking them apart looking for flaws in their logic.

The proposals being put forward come from all around the motorcycle racing world, from seasoned veterans and respected thinkers in major media outlets, to the purest of noobs in every racing corner of every motorcycle discussion board around the internet. The ideas vary from the brilliant to the absurd, with all shades in between. But there are a few common themes which keep reoccurring, and which need to be looked at more closely.

The most common proposal for reducing costs is to limit the role of electronics. There may be a lot of good reasons for wanting to do this - to give more control back to the rider, for a start - but the one thing this suggestion will not do is reduce costs.

For the reason that it won't cut costs, look no further than the lessons of reducing engine capacity to 800cc. Beyond the practical difficulties of limiting electronics, the teams would simply spend more time looking for ways to circumvent the spirit of the law, while balancing on a razor's edge on the right side of the letter of the law.

The Workaround

The most well-known example of this is the attempt by the AMA to ban traction control. The Yoshimura Suzuki team found a way to get around the restrictions - imposed by banning the use of front wheel speed sensors - by doing some clever calculations using comparisons of throttle opening, rear wheel speed and engine speed. This way, the team was able to build a traction control system that passed every single technical inspection it was subjected to.

Likewise, attempts to reduce the role of electronics - by banning GPS, traction control, launch control, etc - will simply spur teams on to find a way around them. If GPS is banned to stop the teams using separate engine maps for different parts of the track, then the engineers will simply use braking marker points (clearly identifiable on data traces) to do the same job. If traction control is banned, then development time will be spent developing a "passive" traction control system based on comparing gear selection, rear wheel speed, engine speed and throttle opening. Add in braking data, and you have a decent basis to start building a rudimentary but refinable traction control system.

For anyone still unconvinced, take a look at Formula 1. That series hoped to stamp out traction and launch control by introducing a single ECU, built to the specifications supplied by the FIA. But from early in the season it was clear that the teams were violating the spirit of the law, and using engine maps to get around the launch control ban. If you don't believe that is possible, watch the video below of the start of the Formula 1 race at the Hungaroring. The cars leave the line in full control, with little or no wheelspin, and without leaving clouds of smoke behind. Nobody stalls off the line, and they're all quick off the line. That is all thanks to launch control, despite being officially banned.

What's worse is that banning the easy route - the option to purchase off-the-shelf systems from Magneti Marelli, for example - merely means that teams have to pour more time and development into doing traction control the hard way. Instead of working on refining the existing systems, they have to spend hours and hours of dyno time working out engine maps and strategies for creating a de facto traction control system that will pass the technical inspection. More engineers are needed, and once again, it's the factory teams which come out ahead, as they have the budgets to throw manpower at a problem.

The only way to effectively ban traction control and limit the electronics is by removing the electronics from the bikes altogether. That means a return to mechanical points and cable-operated carburettors. But if the FIM imposed that kind of restriction, there's no incentive for the manufacturers to take part at all, as the R&D justification for motorcycle racing is dead and buried. 

If The Cap Fits

Another common idea is a budget cap: placing a limit on the amount any one team is allowed to spend in a year. It's an idea that has been tried in many sports, as a way to try and keep costs within the bounds of the reasonable. But while it may work in sports which revolve around athletes, in motorcycle racing - where the machinery is an important component of the costs - it has a significant weak spot.

For motorcycle racing requires motorcycles to race. And motorcycles come from manufacturers. And manufacturers have a huge manufacturing base outside of racing in which to bury costs. For example, if you were a manufacturer running a factory team, and had a budget cap imposed by the racing authorities, then the first thing you would do is start looking for ways to get around that. You might use your distributor network to transport the parts needed by your factory race team, for example, charged at well below market rates. You could outsource the engine development to your in-house R&D department, again charging only a nominal fee.

Without the FIM having full access to the complete accounts of the motorcycle manufacturers - and employing an army of accountants to go through them with a fine tooth comb - the factory teams will remain well under the budget cap, while the manufacturers continue to spend the same amount of money on racing that they ever did. But instead of doing it openly, they will build giant Enron-type financial constructions in which they can bury the costs. It took a knowledgeable insider to finally blow the whistle on Enron, as audits by accountants never found any problems with the energy giant's accounts. The limited resources of the FIM are unlikely to do much better than the massed powers of the SEC.

And once again, it would be the satellite teams and privateers that would suffer under a budget cap. With the exception of Pramac, they don't have huge distributor and manufacturing networks around the world in which to build giant financial constructions which they can hide their costs in. The satellite teams would be forced to respect the budget cap, while the factories continue to spend.

Superbike Spending

There's an interesting parallel with World Superbikes here. Many commentators have pointed out that Superbike racing is vastly cheaper than MotoGP, and have pointed to WSBK as a model for MotoGP to follow. And it's true that Superbike development budgets are just a fraction of what they are in MotoGP, with figures in the very low millions of dollars, rather than the tens of millions which MotoGP swallows.

But there's a very good reason for this, and one that is easily overlooked. To build a World Superbike machine - even a factory bike, such as a Xerox Ducati - first, you need a production machine to start work on. And the budget for the design and development of that production machine does not come out of the budget of the race team, it comes out of the budget for the manufacturer's sports bike department. The teams are presented with a machine which is maybe 75% of the way to being a full-fat race machine, and are left with a lot less development to do.

But there's plenty of evidence that those are built with racing in mind, at the very least. Indeed, a number of journalists have remarked on the harsh nature of Ducati's championship-winning 1098R machine, and described it as very tiring to ride, despite it being very fast. It was clearly designed with racing in mind, with a lot of input from Ducati Corse, but because it's a roadgoing machine and designed to be sold to the general public, the basic development costs of the bike are borne, eventually, by every Ducati lover who is willing to hand over the substantial amount of cash which secures for them an extremely desirable object.

MotoGP bikes don't have that luxury. MotoGP bikes are prototypes, by force of the very regulations that govern the series. That means that all of the costs, right down to the bolts holding the engine in the chassis, come out of the MotoGP racing budget. Every decision, from rake and trail to valve angle and frame wall thickness, is taken by the MotoGP racing department, and is paid for out of the MotoGP racing budget.

Diamonds Are Forever

Yet another proposal often put forward to reduce those budgets is to extend engine life. The theory is that if the engines can be made to last much longer than the 300 or so kilometers they are currently good for before requiring a rebuild back at the factory in Japan, then that would save large amounts of money in air freight and maintenance costs.

That seems like a fairly logical conclusion, and there is no arguing with the fact that not sending the engines back to Japan as often would save a lot of money. The problem is, how do you go about ensuring that engines last longer than a single race weekend?

The simple answer is that you detune the engines, accepting a loss of horsepower in exchange for longer engine life. That would definitely be a lot cheaper, but it also opens up opportunities for more devious manufacturers. If everyone else is detuning their engines, then obviously you stand a greater chance of winning if, instead of detuning your engine for longer life, you pour even more money into making your engine last in its current state of tune, or perhaps with even more power.

By spending more time and money on design, stress analysis, exotic or unusual materials, and thousands upon thousands of hours of dyno time, you can beat any rivals who were stupid enough to try and obey the spirit of the rules, rather than the letter of the rules. And by trying to reduce the costs of MotoGP, the rule makers actually end up making it more expensive.

Instead of just spending a fortune building an engine which is tuned to the edge of self-destructing, the manufacturers will spend two fortunes: One to build an engine tuned to the edge of self destruction, and another getting that engine to last for 3 or 5 race weekends. Any savings made in shipping engines back and forth to Japan is lost in yet more development, and costs will continue to rise.

They tried this in Formula 1, and costs just keep on rising in Formula 1, despite engine freezes, spec ECUs, minimum engine life of two race weekends, and many, many other ideas. If you're looking for ideas to cut costs, Formula 1 isn't it.

So if budget caps and limits on electronics aren't the answer, what is? Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, we'll examine a few proposals which could help to make racing cheap again, and might just help save MotoGP.

Tweet Button: 

Back to top


What about restricting the teams to a single fuel map for the duration of the race? You could ensure that the ECU is only capable of holding a single map and give the user no way to change it. They should also admit that they are wrong and go back to the 990cc bikes. Even though they have made investment into the 800cc bikes, it does not make sense to pour good money after bad. Everyone has acknowledged that the 800cc formula has not slowed anyone down and that they are more expensive to run since the tires require more development, it costs more to find power, etc.

Another thing that may allow additional competitors to enter the fray is to relax the restrictions on homologated parts so that new teams (ala Moriwaki) can build a bike based loosely on production parts that can be sourced inexpensively.

I'd love to see some way to get Michael Czysz and his C1 on the grid, maybe that would get the manufacturers to stop the navel-gazing for a bit and try something radically new.

Applying Occam's Razor to the regulations problem would lead to the logical conclusion that the simplest and best solution might be to remove them altogether. As a participant in premier prototype racing, determine what size, configuration, etc. that you and your engineers feel will be the fastest, build it, and go racing. Small, agile and light; large displacement, heavier, with more horsepower; you decide. The one stipulation to be that enough examples have to be made available to privateer teams under a regulated financial agreement such that the manufacturers would be forced to govern their spending. Even if you call it prototype-production racing, the variety of machinery and the deeper fields would certainly lead to great racing.

I am looking forward to the solutions offered in the next article. I don't see how you can reduce rising costs, though. R&D is expensive and you can't stop the haves from using their resources to beat the have-nots. It's been a problem since motor racing began. Maybe there is a way to roll back budgets in some measurable way, but I don't see it.

I am always impressed with the deep thought that goes into these articles.

One way to reduce costs would be to have "universal" part numbers that any manufacturer could buy from whatever mfr is making it. As it is, there can be NO PARTS WHATSOEVER that are on production bikes. That means washers, bolts, brake lines, wheels, oil filters, et. al. have to be custom. Little BS parts ALL have to be custom. So long as the manufacturer provides these parts to ANY other manufacturer that requests them with a one week lead time (at a reasonable price determined by the association), all these parts should be allowed to be used. This could be extended as far as they want to include forks, carbs (if no FI), or anything on the bike.

No, this won't be a large change in the price of things nor affect R&D much, but it could definitely reduce some of the "silly" costs that go into a prototype machine.

i would like a passive traction control on my bike, how long do you think it would take to have that trickle down? :)

Your comment on WSB comparative costs is spurious. Ducati has always built an expensive bike for homologation. The 1098R is a A$60,000 bike in Australia, at least 3 times the cost of the best of the Japanese competition. If that doesn't help with the development costs I don't know what does (seeing as they routinely sell their entire production run).

Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki develop their 'R' bikes for the masses and sell thousands of them. They have always done so. The biggest saving for the manufacturers in WSB is that they do not directly run the teams, doing so via an importer or agent. Without doubt they support those teams with some money, but the tuning techniques are all relatively straightforward and widely understood and therefore far cheaper. Some of those teams then recover costs through selling their technology (Ten Kate for example).

Motogp has made a huge rod for its own back. How it removes that is going to be a challenge as the established players will not want to give up any advantage that has made them successful.

I also can't help believe that some of Motogp's issues are its own sense of grandeur. The difference in atmosphere (and pretentiousness) between WSB and Motogp (at least at Phillip Island) is stark.

Here's hoping that Motogp manages to pull through. And that both WSB and Motogp succeed as separate entities.

My point about WSBK is exactly the same one you've just made. The manufacturers defray the costs of developing their World Superbike machines by selling that machine to private individuals. They can't do that with MotoGP bikes. As a consequence, all of Honda's MotoGP budget is spread out over 15-20 bikes, of which they can lease 8 (in pairs, of course). Honda will never get the 50-100 million it spends on MotoGP back from the money raised by leasing bikes to 4 riders. 

The mention of Occam's Razor got me thinking. Why not bring some of the smaller teams that have expressed an interest past or present in competing and ask them what would need to change in order for them to be able to keep up?

Let me preface my comment by saying that I take no real issue with your arguments here; however, your point about Enron misses the fact that the financial world had been de-regulated and under policed for so long that they were sort of free to do whatever they wanted. I don't think the SEC was really policing them to any great degree. My opinion on that doesn't make your point any less valid though.

I am somewhat new to MotoGP and your site has brought me a better appreciation for its artistry and beauty. I thank you for that. These deeper articles are very well written.

great series david, this latest part is especially all encompassing. you've managed to capture all the major arguments that have been bandied around and addressed them intelligently as always.

i would like to point out that "cost reduction" is a silly idea in sports, especially ones where technology is involved. to win The Tour, you used to be able to enter and race a true street bicycle, these days you need ten thousand dollar carbon frames and a hundred thousand dollar support team to even have a chance.

personally i think that the engine life rule is an excellent idea because i think it has extremely useful real life benefits (discovery of new manufacturing processes, compounds, etc.) - just as motogp should continue to tighten fuel loads to help develop fuel efficiency.

but as you eloquently point out, every new rule introduced since the 990 era has managed to raise the costs of racing and made the racing itself uneven. which makes the racing less exciting. which makes the sponsors less likely to want to sponsor the show. which makes the teams scream for cost reduction... and round we go

There's nothing wrong with the idea of extending engine life. As you point out, it has some excellent real-life benefits. I was just pointing out that doing it as a cost-cutting measure is foolish, as the only thing it is going to do is drive up costs further. 

good stuff K.

I think as you aptly pointed out in so many words; the solution, if you want cost containment you have to take the factories out of the direct mix. You do that and they have no incentive as they already have product to sell, that is their profit center, doing some limited expense racing project would be of little interest.

The R&D aspect of MotoGP is what is of interest to them. And let's face it, if they did not have MotoGP they would probably spend more on R&D than they do GP racing. And would the real world test be as valuable to them without the competition element? I know it is expensive, but so is running a significant and valuable R&D department. It is too bad that others cannot compete with the manufacturers on that front. The loss of tobacco and taboo companies has had an ill effect on the sport too. It will work itself out as it has always done in the past.

One rule, displacement is all that should be mandated in GP in my mind. Whatever they can do after that is what makes GP racing the best in the world. HP rules are just too easy to get around with the electronics they can use to manipulate; that it is not even worth trying that. Getting all crazy with rules and the insanity of trying to enforce them, will be more of a detriment in the long run.