Saving MotoGP Part 3 - Avoiding The Traps Of The Past

Over the past two days, we have examined the causes for MotoGP's current financial difficulties, and seen why most of the suggestions doing the rounds for fixing the situation are likely to do more harm than good. Today, in the final part of our examination of the state of MotoGP, we submit our own proposals which could form the basis for making the sport a great deal cheaper, and getting private teams back into the sport.

As explained in part one of this series, the biggest problem facing the sport is that horsepower, and with it, top speed, has become incredibly expensive. The best way to cut costs, then, is to make horsepower cheap again.

The easiest way of making horsepower cheap is the old-fashioned way, by raising engine capacity. There is no replacement for displacement, the old saying goes, and for years the quick way to more power has been to bore out the cylinders and add the cubic inches. But while an increase of engine capacity to, say, 1200cc would be a big improvement on the current situation, a braver step is necessary.

For under the current rules, the bikes are limited in two different ways: by engine capacity (800cc) and by fuel allowance (21 liters). Both of these factors can be regarded as having the same goal: to limit the energy output of the machinery. But if both factors perform the same function, why not simply drop one of those limits?

Removing the fuel limit might help make the racing more exciting, but it wouldn't help make the bikes any cheaper. Engine design would still chase the limits of what a given capacity is capable of, and with unlimited fuel to play with, that would make the engines even more high-revving and therefore fragile.

Bigger Is Better. Probably.

On the other hand, keeping the fuel limits while abandoning the capacity limits would offer many solutions to the problem of going fast. You could build a small capacity, high revving multi-cylinder engine with lots of peaky horsepower, and filled with expensive parts. Or you could build a huge V-twin with buckets of torque and mid-range, which will leave the high-revving bikes for dead out of the corners.

The danger of an unlimited capacity class is of course that top speeds can quickly get out of hand. But with a fuel limit in place, the cost of aiming at out-and-out top speed is that you risk burning through your fuel allowance before the end of the race. So the balancing act that is necessary between horsepower and fuel efficiency acts as a natural brake on top speed. And of course, the straights used at MotoGP tracks are rarely longer than three quarters of a mile, and so the faster you go, the sooner you have to start braking.

Naturally, there's no guarantee that tight fuel limits won't also fall foul of the law of unintended consequences, and still end up pushing costs higher, but at least with unlimited engine capacity, there are multiple ways of solving the problem, some of which are likely to be cheap enough to allow privateer teams to be competitive.

If top speed turns out to be a problem, then there is always a possibility to limit it artificially. It would be relatively simple for the organizers to fit a GPS speed sensor which could limit top speed to, say, 200 miles per hour. That kind of speed is achievable from most engine formats without pushing them beyond their limits. After all, it is easily within the reach of a World Superbike, costing upwards of 200,000 euros, and so factories - and more importantly, privateers - would be free to explore other ways of decreasing lap times.

The danger of limiting top speed electronically is that we force the engineers into the law of diminishing returns again. If the bikes are forced to top out at 320 km/h, or 340, or 360, then the trick becomes getting there as quickly as possible. The big guns can concentrate all their fire - in the form of huge budgets - on a single trick, acceleration, and attempt to dominate once again.

In an unlimited class, the first avenue that any team - whether manufacturing giant or privateer tinkerer - is likely to explore is increased engine capacity. But bigger engines mean heavier bikes. And heavier bikes are harder to stop, turn, and get off the corner. And so all the money saved on engine development would probably not be saved, but would be poured straight into weight saving, as the engineers examined every single nut and bolt for ways to get down to the minimum weight limit.

He Ain't Heavy ... Enough

And the current weight limit of 148 kg is pretty low for a multi-cylinder four stroke. Even during the 990 era, the factories had trouble getting their bikes down to the minimum weight limit, and consequently the factories spent a lot of money on exotic weight-saving materials. If cost-cutting is the goal, clearly the weight limits have to be examined carefully.

So in addition to making horsepower cheap, we should also make weight cheap, and raise the minimum weight limits by at least 10kg. That would leave the bikes below the World Superbike limits of 165kg, but be heavy enough to obviate the need for lots of expensive materials.

These two changes are likely to have another beneficial effect, and an unintended, if fortuitous, consequence. By raising weights you extend the braking zone needed to stop the bike for the corner, and give riders more room to start passing one another again on the brakes. And with an unlimited capacity, there is room for teams to build bikes with lots of mid-range, allowing more options on corner exit, and making it possible to make up for mistakes with throttle control again.

One of the few sensible measures to be proposed so far is the banning of carbon brakes. Despite the fact that MotoGP should be a prototype series exploring the best technological solutions to problems, carbon brakes contribute nothing to production motorcycles whatsoever. While fans may complain about the role traction control and electronics have played in ruining the racing, they have certainly made a big difference to road bikes, contributing hugely to the smoothness and throttle response of fuel injected bikes. So MotoGP should have at least some relevance to road bikes.

Indeed, a ban on carbon brakes might not even be necessary. It may be sufficient to demand that only a single type of brake rotors be used in both wet and dry conditions. Carbon disks are mostly ineffective in the rain, never getting hot enough to work properly, and giving a huge advantage to bikes with steel disks. And so teams could gamble on the whole season staying dry, or risk losing big during the three or four wet races which they are likely to face during the season. They may even encourage exploring ceramic disks, which are a good deal cheaper than carbon disks, but offer more performance than steel.

Dropping the restrictions on engine capacity, and limiting only the amount of fuel to be used for a race may open up options for teams to explore different ways of reducing lap times, but if the restriction on engine type - allowing only four-stroke engines to compete - is maintained, then MotoGP may still not be offering manufacturers a place to develop ideas and new technology.

The four-stroke gasoline engine is not the most efficient means of transforming fuel into horsepower. Diesel engines are 5-10% more efficient, while two strokes are pretty efficient too. When the capacity limit was stuck at 500cc, four strokes just couldn't compete, but without a capacity limit, both engine types would have a chance of competing. And if strict emissions limits were enforced, the playing field between all forms of engines could be kept level, without driving up costs. If someone can make a clean two-stroke, one which doesn't emit clouds of unburned hydrocarbons, why shouldn't it be allowed to compete? Similarly with diesel engines, if the particulate emissions can be kept to a minimum, why not allow diesels too?

New Energy

All this talk of various types of combustion engines is fine, but in reality, what is the gasoline that combustion engines burn? All gasoline represents, when you get down to it, is stored energy. And why should we choose one form of stored energy over another? Gasoline is currently the favored form of stored energy for vehicles, because it packs an awful lot of energy into small space, the so-called energy density. If we exchange the fuel limit for an energy limit, using the amount of chemical energy stored in 21 liters of gasoline (around 700,000 kJ) as a limit instead, we reward efficiency, and open up more opportunities for smart people in workshops to find ways of powering a racing motorcycle.

At some point in time, gasoline is going to stop being the way that vehicles - and that includes racing motorcycles - are powered. MotoGP has to take this development into account, and provide a platform for the manufacturers to work on these technologies for their future road machines. It would take a quantum leap in battery technology to create a battery which can store 700,000kJ in a space and weight small enough on a racing motorcycle. But once that quantum leap happens - and there are a lot of people spending a lot of time on battery technology - then electric motorcycles are going to wipe the floor with combustion engines.

The first signs of this change are already visible, with the non-carbon fuel TTXGP race due to be run at the Isle of Man this summer. And more and more manufacturers are presenting electric motorcycles at bike shows around the world - some just as design studies, some as actual prototypes. But electric motorcycles are coming, and probably sooner than we think.

Leave It Alone For Five Minutes

Of course, the biggest problem with MotoGP has been the continuous changing of regulations itself. The MotoGP bikes only lasted 5 years, before being replaced with an entirely new formula, requiring vast investment to design and build new bikes, and then make them competitive. Added to this is the imposition of a single tire, taking one factor out of the designers' hands, and forcing them to reevaluate their designs once more. For 2009, the bikes will have to be redesigned to make them suit the tires provided, where previously, it was the tire manufacturers designing tires to suit bikes and riders. What's certain is that it's a lot simpler and cheaper to produce a tire than to produce a chassis, and a swing arm, and suspension parts.

So even if the proposals made above were to be introduced, the short-term effect would be to raise costs once again, as the teams analyze the best way to exploit the new regulations, and find a way to go fast. But they would not necessarily have to throw their old bikes away: indeed, they could even offer those bikes for sale to privateers to run, while they get on with designing a new twin / triple / V8.

The best thing to do right now is, paradoxically, nothing. If Dorna, the FIM, IRTA and the MSMA can all just resist the temptation to keep meddling, then the teams will have a chance to catch up with each other. The law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in, and the bikes are getting closer in performance. Not due to the genius of the engineers, but because all of the easy power has been found, and the extra horsepower is getting harder and harder to find.

Suzuki and Kawasaki are a long way behind, but Ducati and Yamaha are no longer putting more and more distance in every year. Honda went from an awful machine to being as good as the Ducati and the Yamaha, and the 2009 version of the RC212V is looking like it could be the best bike on the grid. Encouragingly, it won't just be the factory Hondas which will be  good, the satellite RC212Vs are looking like they could be competitive, meaning more bikes could be in with a chance of running at the front of the field.

But despite it not being a good time to change the rules, it is a good time to announce the intention to change the rules in, say, 3 years' time. That would give manufacturers thinking of pulling out a window, a period in which they can consider their position, and allow them to stay in the series instead of going immediately. It would also give potential new recruits to the series an opportunity to explore the best way of exploiting the new rules, and try to build a competitive bike. As long as there's a chance of going fast at an affordable cost, the new entrants should come.

The point of all the suggestions made above is get around the three factors which have forced the costs of racing into the stratosphere. The combination of the law of unintended consequences and the law of diminishing returns has had a devastating effect the cost of racing, and given the factories too many opportunities to use the system in their favor. The above proposals have been thought out with precisely the aim of not falling into the same trap.

How To Prevent Cheating

For if we are to draw up new regulations, we must not fall into the same old trap again. The problem with most of the proposals made over the past couple of weeks is that they all assume that the participants in MotoGP want a level playing field on which to compete. Though outwardly, the manufacturers all profess to wanting a fair fight, given the opportunity, they would all fix the races to ensure that their bikes won.

So we have to assume that the first thing that the factories will do when presented with a set of rules is try to find a way to get around them, to cheat while still staying within the letter of the rules. When drawing up the rules, it is imperative that we bear this in mind, and think like lawyers, not like motorcycle racers. When reading a new set of rules the first thing anyone should do is to imagine ways of getting around them. We should be jamming sharp edges into every nook and cranny of the edifice of rules, and seeing if any of the bricks start to come loose. This way, we can try to ensure that the rules have been put together in such a way that the factories cannot simply spend their way to victory.

That means that for any problem, there should be more than one solution. The weakness of the current rules is demonstrated by the fact that all of the bikes on the grid use a four-cylinder engine. A combination of power delivery and maximum weights have forced the designers to accept the four as the best compromise, and this has seen all of the factories chasing each other up the same, increasingly expensive blind alley.

But as the factories all helped draw up the rules, they have no one to blame but themselves. Their perceived short term interest was to chase out the small fry, so they could concentrate on each other. Now, those decisions are coming home to roost, and the costs are rising beyond what even giant corporations like Kawasaki are prepared to bear. As long as the manufacturers are drawing up the rules with their own interests in mind, this will continue to be the case.

The proposals I have made above are all just that, proposals, and I do not presume that anyone at the FIM, or Dorna, or the manufacturers will be listening. But sometime soon, the Grand Prix Commission is going to present their solution to the problem of rising costs, in the form of more regulations. What I would like to see is a set of rules in which it is not immediately obvious how the factories are going to bend the rules in their favor. What I fear is that this is exactly what we are going to get. The fiddling continues, and Rome is starting to burn quite cheerfully now.


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I think a lower fuel limit is a good plan, but I don't buy the idea of the different engine configurations coming back.

Bans on strange materials are a good idea.

Who knows what will happen? Ultimately it's all about what the manufacturers want to do. When these rules have been fairly stable for a few years, cheaper bikes will be closer to expensive ones, but even the "cheap" ones will have air springs and trick electronics...

zoom, seems like that just flew over your head

that would truly make it a prototype series again, as always i hope that someone other than ryder is listening

The problem with many rules, and laws for that matter, is that by trying to express 'compliance' precisely, the intent of the rule is largely negated. I call it the 'Ban rope to stop suicide' syndrome and the rationale goes like this: 'We want to stop people committing suicide, many people hang themselves, therefore we will ban the sale of rope'. Obviously this is highly simplistic but one gets the general drift.

With modern computer-aided analysis, design and manufacturing capability, the production of prototype componentry is not ridiculously expensive. Parts that can be machined from billet stock on CNC machines can be designed, stress analysed and virtually-machined before a tool ever hits metal. I know from personal experience that a complete engine comprising some off-the-shelf componentry plus CNC machining can be taken from idea to metal for a few hundred thousand dollars. OK, that's for a V-twin, 100-hp (continuous) rating aero engine that spins at 2500 rpm., but getting top hp, revs, and lowest weight is more an exercise in design skill and experience than simply exponentially increasing budget.

John Britten demonstrated that a brilliant privateer on a ridiculously small budget by comparison could produce a world-beating machine. The major factories have an incredible advantage, of course, of a depth of knowledge of just how far one can 'shave' things like the stress factor on components before they break, but the laws of physics are the same for everybody. HRC cannot get more air to flow through a given intake volume by throwing money at it..

Intelligent compromise in the rules can assist in reducing costs or can cause them to escalate. For example, titanium valves are not obscenely expensive, they reduce mass in the valve train allowing higher revs with less stress on the driving componentry (chains or gears) etc. Say, allowing the use of titanium valves plus a rev limit that makes steel springs practicable should obviate the need to use pneumatics simply to be competitive. Ha! - one says - but the pneumatics became necessary to allow manufacturers to vary valve timing easily to achieve the fuel restriction / performance compromise. Um, not so - Ducati managed...

It seems to me that there are (at least) two major philosophical hurdles facing Dorna if it is to map out a viable future for MotoGp. The first is defining 'prototype' in such a way as to not cross the legal line in the sand with WSBK, still leave the machines as identifiably 'prototypes' in the mind of the public, but open the way to 'privateer' bike builders.

The second is to maintain the image of the sport as the premier class of motorcycle racing without imposing ridiculous economic penalties. One of the 'interesting' things to come out of Kawasaki's withdrawal is the fact of the 20m Euro contractural penalty: if Dorna could impose such a condition before granting a 'licence' to compete, how can ANY privateer manufacturer enter the game?

less is more (except in capacity)

i dig this proposal, i think it has tons of merit. i especially like the energy source related stuff as i've been a proponent of that sort of thing for many years.

of course the fact that this is such a K.I.S.S. proposal it would never even be considered. one thing that's pretty clear about Dorna is that they do not like to back up. they, like many other sports, pile rules on without considering removing rules. i can't remember the last time that a rule in gp racing was backed out...

I like the idea of unlimited capacity and unlimited energy. Motorcycles are still just two-wheeled vehicles with a finite ability to stay in contact with the pavement. They cannot put aerodynamic ground effects so effective and tires so adhesive that they could get around - say, Mugello or Phillip Island - without having to lift off the throttle. There is not an engine so strong that a bike could get to 400kph - even at Shanghai - because one drive tire and one brake tire aren't going to allow for that; it's just not going to be physically possible.

If someone developed an 1800cc V-6 motor with a 30 liter fuel tank, his rider would rarely, if ever, be at full-throttle, and even McCoy would have a hard time getting around corners. The thing would have a lot of fuel left over at the end of a race, so the formula would be thrown out by the team and manufacturer in favor of a better balance. Similarly, if you put a 125cc bike out there with enough throttle, brake, and suspension electronics on it that the rider simply has to lean at the proper points, the bike will not win against a 990cc era bike.

The difference between a great rider and a robot or GPS-based "traction control" package, is the ability to manage the bike beyond the simple traction limit. The governing body does not need to make rules about energy limits or speed limits; Physics supplies them for free.

In 2004, Honda occupied places 2-6 in the Championship, but the official HRC bikes were 4th and 8th in rider points (this also being Rossi's first year at Yamaha). This means that satellite teams could afford bikes competitive with the factory and Honda was willing to make and sell them, which pre-requires that the price was some form of reasonable for all involved. In just one year of being an engine customer for Honda (2006), Kenny Roberts' bike was instantly competitive at half of the tracks. A year later, all the money in the sport wasn't going to be enough for him to buy a competitive engine (well, I don't know if Ducati would have considered a deal).

One of the biggest details to change between '06 and '07:  throttle usage.  During the 990cc era, the riders spent surprisingly little time at full-throttle.  That flipped in the move to 800cc, and the bikes started running out of fuel.  This means that, if there were no limits, the manufacturers might end up congregating near the 950-990cc range and between 22-23 liters on their own accord.  And there are manufacturers currently not in the sport who are capable of doing that at an obtainable price.

As suggested above, if the rules stipulate that a bike must have the same hardware (except for tires) in all weather conditions, carbon brakes will go away automatically.  I think that's the best de-facto means of lowering top speed without setting an actual number.  Ironically, though, with so many pointing towards F1 as some kind of positive model, carbon brakes don't seem to be on the chopping block over there...

Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I think all of your advice is sensible, but I'd be amazed if MotoGP moves in a sensible direction. I'm especially keen on the idea of unlimited fuel and displacement since it would allow teams to run non 4-stroke engines.

However, I don't think that unlimited displacement, unlimited fuel and a top speed limit would cause manufacturers to focus on one trick. As far as I can tell, motogp bikes spend a fair amount of time governed by wheelie control. In order to obtain higher acceleration rates, manufacturers would have to shift more weight to the front of the bike or they would have to extend wheelbase.

Shifting more weight to the front of the bike may prove precarious since the new control tire prohibits Bridgestone from building a custom front/rear combo that would yield good handling. Similarly, lengthening wheelbase to increase acceleration rate would also have an adverse affect on handling. It seems the only way to improve acceleration would be to use extremely aggressive electronic suspension setups or to hire an oversized rider to act as a moving ballast. Bigger riders and better suspension developments are both good in my book. Electronic suspension tech should make it's way to production machinery. Bigger riders means that more than 20% of the population is physically able to participate.

Furthermore, if they made the move to unlimited displacement and unlimited fuel with a top speed limit, I think it would be practical and economical to attempt to impose a single transmission rule. Under the rule, a team would declare a transmission/sprocket-set at the beginning of the season and use it until year end. Besides cutting costs, it would force championship contending manufacturers to develop engine/transmission combinations that work at a wide variety of circuits. If the major manufacturers are required to build good "all-rounders" it would give smaller teams an opportunity to exploit weakness in the all-around approach and allow them to be competitive at certain venues. It would help break the current monotony in an equitable manner while providing for the occasional Cinderella weekend.

I'm not sure how a transmission rule could be enforced, but it would certainly cut production costs and make things slightly more eventful on raceday (hopefully). It would also reward companies that build bikes suited to all conditions, rather than rewarding the best tuner with the biggest budget.

Remember back when it was a two stroke class, & it was exciting every week and anyone could win?

A big limiting factor because of the ferociousness of these beasts was the tyres, they just could not handle the abuse, that's why they tried big bang engines, twin cranks etc all trying to get the power to the ground.

I say have a 1000cc limit, any kind of petrol, diesel, rotary, jet, electric, solar, whatever engine.
Limited by 20 litres of fuel.
A suitable agreed minimum weight limit?
Any kind of STREET/ TRACKDAY type available tyre (this will help us with better street tyres, hopefully) all manufacturers have opportunity to supply wet or dry tyres no sponsorship with tyres, let the teams buy whatever tyre best suits their bike or circuit on the day. This lets all the tyre makers involved to compete for the teams business and produce a tyre that will sell in the market place.
Let things like suspension be free, brakes can be anything including ABS as this helps us the public.
This year shows that they all have to build a bike to suit the tyres, and that is taking time to sort due to weather etc, but down the track we will get back to shredding tyres if they get rid of the electronics. I realise the traction control is there for rider safety and to avoid highsides, but as in society today, we need to put some responsibility back onto the rider to do his best with what he's got, and not make up for ones ability with a computer, that's not what sports about or the human endeavour, it should be measured by the human rider, not the computerized machine.
More and more in motorsport of all kinds, you have the pilot/driver/rider thanking their team for their preparation of the machine, thanking them for the computer program that allowed them to succeed. I would prefer a more basic playing field instead of having autopilots etc.
Basically, I think we need to go back in time, get back to basics, and have rules, guidelines that allow for genius and developement for the future, so in the future a team could be working towards a chassis that will accomodate a different drivetrain format.
We all want to see close racing, overtaking, competitive racing in any format, but it has to be a human and his management of the machine that is the outcome, not a machine with a human passenger, if it comes to that, it is a video game.
I want to get back to the situation that a rider has managed his tyres well enough to finish the race, this is racing!
If he abuses the tyres then he will not finish in good shape, if his suspension, engine package is good he will have a great overall package that helps him win the race.
Overall HP & speed is best left to the drag strip, a different sport, which is ruled by electronics and settings, driver input is minimal by comparison.

My 2 cents, probably get flamed, too bad!

Since they will pick at the rules, how about fewer rules.
Two wheels, that's it. Engine size and configuration, anything. Fuel type and amount, anything. Okay, the engines can't put out clouds of smoke that would be hazardous to riders following. Even allow refueling stops. Let the Laws of Physics level the playing field. Bigger engines and more fuel effects acceleration and braking. They will find their own limit. Amount of engines, forget about.
You could chase after banning those items that will probably never see the light of day in a production vehicle, such as carbon brakes and pneumatic valves but then again it opens up an area for the rule pickers.

Oh by the way, Dorna is not going to get my money next year. The reality of the fuel limits are that only very small riders have a chance of winning. Sorry Vale and Nicky and others you weigh too much, and it will only be worse next year.