The Rookie Rule, A Paper Tiger


At a press conference held today at Jerez, FIM president Vito Ippolito and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced a range of rules aimed at two goals: Cutting costs and making the sport more attractive as a spectacle. We have been over the oxymoron of changing rules to cut costs ad nauseam here, so we will not continue to flagellate that particular moribund equine any more than is necessary - and frankly, that horse probably does need a little more flogging, just to make sure it is truly dead. Instead, we shall concentrate on another change, one aimed at helping the private teams in the series.

That rule is of course the ban on new entrants into the series joining factory teams. Under the new rule, any rider eligible for Rookie of the Year - that is, any rider who has not previously been entered as a full-time rider at the start of a MotoGP season - will not be allowed to join a factory team in their first year of MotoGP, and will instead have to serve an apprenticeship at a private or satellite team, before stepping up to the very top step of the very top series. The rule, drawn up at the behest of IRTA, is aimed at helping out the private and satellite teams by giving them a shot at signing the big, marketable names which will help them attract sponsorship.

On paper, this is an excellent idea. In theory, big name entries into MotoGP such as Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista and Ben Spies would help the private teams find the sponsorship they need so that they can afford to stay in MotoGP. It stops the factory teams from poaching the top talent, and means that the private teams will get the publicity they so badly need, and quite frankly, broadly deserve.

But like all ideas which sound excellent on paper, this one is unlikely to survive its meeting with cold, hard reality. For the fact remains that the factory teams call the shots in MotoGP, for the simple reason that they pay the piper. The budgets which the factory teams have - between 2 and 10 times the size of a typical satellite team, mean that not only can they afford to pay whatever it takes to sign the big name rookies, but also, they can afford to circumvent the rules by setting up their own "satellite" teams which are all but factory in name. 

The likely outcome of the new rule will be the acceleration of a trend already underway. The satellite teams are moving ever closer to the factories as it is, under pressure of costs, and control over technology. As the costs of leasing a MotoGP bike continue to rise, satellite teams need guarantees of competitiveness to be able to attract sponsors, and the only way to ensure competitive equipment is to get factory level bikes and support.

But the factories guard their technology jealously, and are responding to the satellite teams by providing factory-spec machines as asked, whilst at the same time bringing the teams ever more closely under the wing of the factories themselves. The difference between the factory team and a satellite team is rapidly disappearing, the satellite team becoming more and more like a junior team, rather than a truly independent organization.

The Tech 3 Yamaha team is a prime example of this, the team run by Herve Poncharal edging ever closer to Yamaha Racing year by year. But the most blatant example of this trend is the Pramac Ducati team, which Factory Ducati team boss Livio Suppo has repeatedly referred to as the factory's junior team, and a place for young riders to serve an apprenticeship. The true privateer team is gradually disappearing.

As factories bring their satellite teams ever closer, they are also exerting more and more control. The manufacturers are already dictating rider choice to a large extent, but they are also involved in appointing team management, in finding sponsors, and eventually, they will end up controlling every aspect of their satellite teams. In effect, there will no longer be a single factory team, but rather each factory will have multiple teams, one to contest the championship with, and one to nurture young riders until they are ready to contest the championship.

And so this rule, propagated by IRTA, is likely to end up sounding the death knell of the satellite teams. Independent team managers will be thrust aside, in favor of people who the factory believes will be capable of taking on a role at the factory team one day, following the same pattern the riders do. Eventually, the satellite team will be nothing more than an extension of the factory squad, and a training ground for riders, managers and crew alike. Far from helping satellite teams, this rule will finally kill them off.

If anyone doubts that the outcome of the new rule, there is a precedent in history, as's Paolo Scalera pointed out during the press conference. Back in 2000, Honda had an official factory team, consisting of Tadayuki Okada and Sete Gibernau running under the Repsol Honda banner. But they had also signed a young rookie by the name of Valentino Rossi, and needed a place to put him. 

So they created the Nastro Azzurro Honda satellite squad, possibly the most talented satellite team in history. Rossi immediately got Jeremy Burgess as crew chief, and along with Burgess came the rest of the newly retired Mick Doohan's Australian crew. According to the letter of the proposed rules, Rossi had joined a satellite team, and Honda would have fully complied with its obligations. But in terms of the spirit of the law, the Nastro Azzurro Honda team tore up the rule book, brutally raped, then spat on its grave. The Nastro Azzurro Honda team was a satellite team in the same way as a Ducati 1198R is a cheap motorcycle: The Desmosedici RR is more expensive, so the 45,000 euro 1198R must be cheap, right?

The aim of the new regulations, as with so many of the new rules, is laudable: To help the satellite teams attract more funding by offering them the ability to sign big names. But the real world is likely to make a mockery of the rules. In the end, they will be nothing more than a waste of paper.

The Rookie Rule is likely to share the same fate as the rule banning launch control which was to be introduced this year. After being told by MotoGP's technical director that the rule is impossible to police, the FIM and Dorna have quietly dropped the launch control  ban. The MotoGP rule book, it would appear, is full of paper tigers.


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The possible upside- and I think it only marginally possible, as I believe this proposal is daft - is that the factories would hopefully ensure at least two more competitive bikes on the grid in addition to the full-fat factory team.

At the moment though, that only adds 2 Suzuki bikes, and of all the manufacturers, Suzuki are conspiculously absent from the junior classes, unless they take an option on the Moto2 class. Intuition says Suzuki aren't going to enlarge their particfipation in MotoGp unless the world financial situation - and the Japanese one in particular - stages a phoenix-like recovery into rude good health in the next 6 or so months.

So, short of ensuring that formaldehyde is not placed on any banned substances list, Loris would be riding well into his sponsorship by a denture-cream company and Chris Vermuelen would probably take over from Shane Warne as the champion of hair-replacement franchise sellers if Suzuki are to continue to field a team.

This proposal has the hallmarks of a late-night boozy bright idea, up there with deep-fried custard pizza.

There is fortunately a presedent that says it's a good idea. In the late 80's the late Ken Tyrrell gave a unknown French/Italian Jean Alesi a test in his F1 car and promptly signed Jean to a watertight 10year contract. Which like speculative mining shares is really worth nothing until you strike a rich vein of what ever your search for, talent in this case . The F1 establishment had to take notice when Jean hounded Ayrton Senna for a whole GP at Monarco. It cost Ferrari a packet but Tyrrell went on for a quite some time free of sponsorship woes, due to Ken's dilligence and foresight to sign him to that contract.
If I have a competitive bike I speculate and sign a young unknown, and he performs very well, if the factory teams want him they will have to pay out his long contract.

TwoStroke Institute - your Ken Tyrrell (of blessed memory) example is noteworthy. It represents a unique opportunity for a satellite team to "bag" a future star and then either keep him/her and use that as leverage to get better equipment or sell the rider to a factory and be financially solvent for years to come.

At the same time, I need to agree with Rusty Bucket - are there ANY satellite teams? The satellite teams will quickly become junior teams. Even though the "rookie" will be on the junior squad, you know that the paycheck will come straight from the manufacturer. If FIM / Dorna did an audit to regulate team budgets, that might keep this under control, but that possibility doesn't exist. The suggestion in F1 has been met with derision (sp?).

This rule would not be as silly if there actually were any satellite teams.  The problem with the dearth of privateer teams goes back to the decision (by the factories) to price them out of existence in the change to the 800cc/small fuel tank formula. 

While perhaps noble in its intention, this new rule (and all of the others)does not address the actual reason the privateer teams are gone, and therefore won't help bring them back.  These people are so averse to admitting they've made a tragic mistake, they keep trying to whitewash the "problem" that they have to redefine so as to avoid its discovery.

There is another way this is likely to play out that is even more likely to kill off what remains of MotoGP: rider moving from Moto2 into WSBK.

Dorna created a class that will be far more smilar to WSBK than the 250s and then the put a huge speed bump to riders' career progress. If I have the option of rider for LCR or Ducati Corse in WSBK, where do you think I am going to go.

Rider talent is the one place where the class can defend against the growing popularity of WSBK. Now, they just made themselves a lot less attractive.

I really have trouble understanding the logic behind the rookie rule.... let the private teams employ the riders that are most likely to cause the most damage to the bikes finding the limits in a new championship before letting the factory teams cherry pick the cream of the crop? And this is supposed to help private teams?