Would Honda Really Quit MotoGP over a Spec-ECU?

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The 2014 MotoGP season marks a key point in the evolution of Grand Prix racing. Next season, all entries in the MotoGP class must use the Magneti Marelli standard ECU and datalogger as part of their hardware package. For the first time in history, electronics have been limited in motorcycle racing’s premier class.

It is a small victory for Dorna and the teams; however, only the hardware has been regulated. All entries must use the standard ECU, but the choice of which software that ECU runs is up to the teams themselves.

If a team decides to run Dorna’s standard software, they get extra fuel to play with, and more engines to last a season. If a factory decides they would rather write their own software, they are also free to do so, but must make do with only 20 liters to last a race, and just five engines to last a season.

The difference between the two – entries under the Open class, using Dorna software, and as Factory option entries using custom software – is bigger than it seems. Open class entries are stuck with the engine management strategies (including launch control, traction control, wheelie control, and much more) as devised and implemented by the Magneti Marelli engineers, under instruction by Dorna.

Factory option entries will have vastly more sophisticated strategies at their disposal, and manufacturers will be free to develop more as and when they see fit.

The freedom to develop electronics strategies has been a deal-breaker for the factories throughout the four-stroke era. The change in capacity from 990cc to 800cc in 2007 vastly increased the importance of electronics in the overall package, with more and more money going into both the development and the management of electronics strategies.

The combination of a vast array of sensor inputs, fuel injection, and electronic ignition has meant that vehicle control has moved from merely managing fueling to dynamic and even predictive engine management. Engine torque is now monitored and managed based on lean angle, bike pitch, tire wear, fuel load, and a host of other variables.

So it comes as no surprise that Honda is already making threatening noises over the regulations due to come into force from 2017 onwards. Dorna intends to remove the freedom for factories to use their own software from 2017 onwards, with all bikes using the same, spec, Dorna-supplied software, as currently being developed for the Open category.

Indeed, the reason that the ‘Factory Option’ to run their own software was called ‘Factory Option’, is because options are much easier to remove. Dorna’s goal is to cut costs, make the racing more spectacular to watch, and reduce the gap between the factory teams and the independent teams.

For Honda, removing their ability to write their own software is unacceptable. Speaking at Valencia during the post-race tests, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto made Honda’s position perfectly clear.

In response to a question from myself on what Honda’s response would be to being forced to use spec software, with all entries run under the single, Open category rules, Nakamoto was unequivocal.

“All Open class, with only production racers, it is 99% certain that Honda will stop racing,” he told the press conference. “No reason to continue to race. For Honda, machine development is quite important. The MotoGP platform is very very good for machine development,” Nakamoto said.

But would Honda really go through with their threat to pull out of MotoGP if electronics are banned? Or is this just posturing in the run up to negotiations which are set to begin in earnest in the middle of this year?

To find the answer to that question – or perhaps more accurately, to make an educated guess at an answer – we first have to examine the reasons why Honda go racing. There are three main reasons for HRC to be in MotoGP: research and development; marketing; and to train their engineers.

Research and development is the reason most commonly given by manufacturers when asked to justify their participation in racing. A large part of the budget for the racing departments of all the major manufacturers comes out of the corporate R&D budget, with engineers pursuing the opportunities provided by racing to test new ideas and materials.

Much can be learned, in chassis design, in engine layout, in frame and swingarm flexibility, in the interaction between suspension and chassis, and, to a very large degree, about throttle response and making an engine easy to control within the confines of a set of regulations. The areas in which factories gain knowledge are manifold: material science, chassis geometry, chassis flexibility, engine control strategies, the list goes on and on.

Marketing is also a major factor. Racing provides exposure to a global audience, and increases brand awareness, and can play a key role in positioning a brand. Though MotoGP bikes are not on sale to the general public, there can be no doubt that racing helps factories market and sell their bikes.

The popularity of MotoGP replica paint jobs, whether it be Repsol Honda Fireblades, Nicky Hayden replica Ducatis, or the vast numbers of scooters sold in Asia with Valentino Rossi liveries underline the marketing power of the sport.

The old adage of ‘Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday’ does not appear to hold true, however: despite a recent dearth of success in either MotoGP or World Superbikes, Ducati sports bikes continue to sell in large quantities, while Aprilia RSV4s are almost impossible to shift.

The importance of racing for the marketing efforts is evident from BMW’s participation in World Superbikes. The German brand came to WSBK to rid itself of its staid and boring image, BMW riders carrying the nickname ‘the pipe and slippers brigade’ throughout the English-speaking world. BMW’s objective in participating in WSBK was to project a more sporting, youthful and sexy image.

The fact that BMW’s S1000RR is one of the world’s top selling sports bikes proves that they have achieved that aim, without winning a WSBK title, and despite limited success on track. The marketing power of racing helped shift the public perception of BMW, and helped them increase their sales.

Ironically, when you ask factories what their return on investment is from racing, in terms of both marketing and R&D, they will not give you an answer. I know, because I asked.

The answers I did receive left me wondering whether the manufacturers even know themselves. It was understandable that factories refused to share absolute numbers, but they also would not tell me whether racing gave them more in terms of R&D or in terms of marketing.

The nearest I ever got to an answer was from Suzuki team boss Paul Denning, before the factory pulled out. “If we only went racing for the marketing it gave us, it wouldn’t be worth it,” he told me in 2010.

Underlying the responses I got was a sense that factories went racing because racing is what they do, and not necessarily because of the returns it brought.

Racing offered much more than just pure financial benefits: it channels the passion of both fans and manufacturer employees, giving them all something to both cheer for and aspire to. It acts as a binding factor, inspiring loyalty and enthusiasm, among both staff and customers.

Which brings me to the third reason Honda – and the other Japanese factories – go racing: to train their engineers. Japanese manufacturers like to rotate their engineers through various departments to keep their minds flexible, and prevent them from getting stuck in particular trains of thought. The racing department is one of the most important steps in an engineer’s career.

Here, engineers learn to think quickly, to analyze problems rapidly and work through solutions. They learn to think on their feet, and not get trapped in familiar patterns of thinking. In the extreme environment which racing creates, their ideas are tested beyond the boundaries of their own imagination. Racing finds a way of breaking and stretching boundaries in ways which engineers and designers are unable to conceive of.

So if Honda were to pull out of racing, they would lose the benefits from all three of those areas. Such a decision would revolve around whether the loss of the ability to develop their own software strategies outweighs the benefits gained from R&D in other areas, marketing and training engineers. Where does the balance lie?

Certainly, the loss of electronics R&D would blow a huge hole in Honda’s exploration of ideas which could transfer to road bikes. The most important lessons learned from racing is not so much in terms of traction control, but more in maintaining a predictable throttle response and smooth power delivery with limited fuel, and at part throttle. As emissions regulations grow ever stricter, learning more about how to run an engine as lean as possible without the rider noticing is crucial.

However, losing the ability to write their own software algorithms to handle this area may not be the loss which Honda would have us believe. MotoGP would still provide a vast amount of data on fuel usage, controlling fuel/air mixtures, and managing throttle response, just from gathering the data from the racers. They may not be able to test their software ideas on track, but they will at least still have the input data on which to base their ideas.

What’s more, electronics is not the only area in which knowledge is gained. There will still be plenty to be learned about chassis geometry, frame flexibility, material usage, and a host of other areas. Lessons of mass centralization, engine packaging and aerodynamics will remain just as important as they are now.

And with less control over engine management strategies, engineers will focus on developing engines with a more user-friendly power delivery instead. Instead of relying so heavily on electronics to manage torque outputs, they will have to focus on fundamental engine design. Those factors are just as applicable to road bikes as the electronic management strategies currently being applied.

The loss of marketing opportunities if Honda were to pull out could possibly be compensated by marketing offensives in other areas. Triumph, for example, does very well indeed without racing, relying instead on the strength of its model line up and a strong marketing strategy.

Would Honda lose out to Yamaha if they were to pull out. Shuhei Nakamoto refused to be drawn on this when I asked him at Valencia. Would Honda be willing to stand idly by and watch Yamaha or Ducati snap up the MotoGP title year after year? “I don’t know Yamaha or Ducati’s opinion, I can only say Honda’s opinion,” was Nakamoto’s cagey reply.

The one area which Honda could not compensate for if they pulled out of racing, however, would be in its training of engineers. No other environment can replicate the high octane pressure cooker of a racing department. Speed is of the essence, both on and off the track, and most especially, a flexibility of mind.

Racing teaches engineers not to get trapped, to think outside the box, as the jargon has it, to search for new, simple, inventive, and quick solutions to problems they didn’t realize they had. Working towards a common goal helps provide the motivation that ensures that everyone working under those conditions can stay sane, and not burn out quickly.

It is essential to have a reason, otherwise you simply cannot maintain that level of intensity.

This would prove the most costly loss to Honda. Pulling out of MotoGP would leave Honda with nowhere to train its engineers. However, with Honda due to make a return to F1 – albeit in a limited capacity, as an engine supplier to McLaren from 2015 – this could provide still provide the training they would be losing. Of course, whether a spell designing F1 engines would help train motorcycle chassis engineers is open to question.

On the face of it, it appears that Honda have too much to lose from pulling out of MotoGP. So why make the threats? HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto is not given to making empty threats, but he is also a man of formidable negotiating talents. Since arriving as head of Honda’s MotoGP program, he has consistently outmaneuvered Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, despite much cajoling from the Spaniard.

Nakamoto has conceded little of importance, only losing out a couple of times. Honda badly underestimated KTM’s commitment to Moto3, building a bike to the spirit of the rules, where KTM created a de facto factory team, and destroyed Honda’s Moto3 effort. Honda also badly misread Ducati at the end of 2011, when the manufacturers’ association MSMA failed to reach agreement on a weight increase.

Those defeats aside, Nakamoto has managed to resist Ezpeleta’s attempts to persuade him of the importance of improving the entertainment factor in MotoGP. Indeed, when asked directly by Dennis Noyes at the end of 2012, Nakamoto replied that providing entertainment was not Honda’s business, nor their responsibility.

The last time Dorna threatened to impose a spec ECU and software on MotoGP, in the run up to the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Honda always managed to parry their objections.

Yet there is reason to believe that this is a battle which Honda will eventually lose. The defection of Ducati is key: under current rules, the MSMA can only reject proposed rule changes by a unanimous vote. The previous Ducati Corse boss, Filippo Preziosi, was clear that a spec ECU was unacceptable.

New boss Gigi Dall’Igna sees the situation differently, telling reporters at Valencia that he believed the Open category (with the spec Dorna software) was the future of MotoGP. Where previously, the MSMA be counted on to rubber stamp Honda’s position, HRC now faces internal opposition from another MSMA member. Honda will have to make their own decision.

Honda’s internal policy could also work against them. HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto has been in his position since early 2009, and will be entering his sixth season as HRC boss. His time at the head of HRC is limited, and when decisions come to be made and contracts come to be signed, Nakamoto could well be gone, moved to another part of the company.

In his place will probably be someone with less experience than Nakamoto, and certainly someone less hardened in the continuing battle between Dorna and HRC. Shuhei Nakamoto is arguably HRC’s most successful and powerful leader since Youichi Oguma; he leaves big boots to fill.

If Nakamoto leaves before the contracts and regulations for 2017 are finalized, Honda will have a hard time stopping the imposition of spec software. It will take a very strong leader to convince Honda to pull out of MotoGP. Nakamoto has that power; whether his successor will is open to question.

In the past, Honda’s threats of withdrawal have also been backed by the sparseness of the grid. When Dorna and Honda were negotiating over the 2012 rules, there were just 17 bikes on the grid. The CRT bikes helped to fill the grid, but they also provided enough leverage to convince Honda and Yamaha to supply lesser spec equipment to private teams.

Honda agreed to sell its RCV1000R, and Yamaha is leasing M1 engines and chassis. With Suzuki looking set to return in 2015, and Aprilia talking of a radically improved MotoGP effort, the grid is looking stronger than ever. In 2011, a Honda withdrawal would have killed the series; in 2017, MotoGP looks very capable of surviving Honda pulling out.

Will HRC make good on their threat to pull out of MotoGP if they lose the ability to develop their own electronics? I would argue that they would lose much more by doing so than by accepting a spec ECU in the premier class.

There is still plenty of R&D left to be done, even without electronics development, and MotoGP remains a strong platform for marketing and for training engineers. Honda will do everything in its power to get its own way, but if they don’t, I believe they will eventually back down and stay. But then again, I’ve been wrong before…

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.