For The Sake of the Game [Updated]

12/09/2009 @ 2:51 pm, by Jensen Beeler27 COMMENTS


UPDATE: You can find Azhar Hussain’s response to this article on Brammofan.

Last week when I wrote my op-ed, I was content to say my piece on the issue of TTXGP/Mavizen conflict of interest, and then move along with other things. But considering the response the piece got, not only by Azhar Hussain himself, but also by others in the industry, as well as the recent announcements of Zero Motorcycles and Mission Motors entering the TTXGP racing series, I thought I’d give the issue another pass. Ignoring the name-calling, accusations of professional misconduct, and general pettiness that followed, I wanted to address and few things that have developed in this space, and why I’m still thankful the FIM split from TTXGP.

Somewhere in the words of last week’s op-ed piece, the notion was created that I had definitively found the reason why the FIM split from TTXGP; whereas the true purpose of my writing was to discuss the conflicts of interest at hand, and what it could mean to the landscape of electric motorcycle racing. I thought that point was clear with words like “While we may never know the FIM’s true reasoning in its resolve to distance itself from Azhar Hussain’s TTXGP series, I suspect…” and labels like “op-ed” instead of “news”. I was, however, of course wrong.

But perhaps part of the confusion stems from the fact the article’s publication coincided with a well-written article written by Ivar Kvadsheim (published here in English, and here in Norwegian). If you haven’t already read that piece, you owe it to yourself to do so. It not only provides some background on the issue, but also frames the argument of how the FIM’s rule book mimics, almost word for word, the one developed by TTXGP. If you’re looking for in-depth coverage on the growing electric motorcycle racing scandal, I suggest you look beyond this writing, and the gray box of A&R, you won’t find it here. What you will find here is a reaction to some of the responses I’ve seen about the conflict of interests at hand with TTXGP and Mavizen.

One of the rationales used by Hussain and others is that because the FIM knew and approved of Mavizen, this resolves the conflict of interest at hand, or at least mitigates it to obscurity. Assuming that this statement is true (it would seem to have been initially confirmed by the FIM, but now there seems to be some double-talk in this space), it still is completely irrelevant to how a conflict of interest is going to affect electric racing. If anything, such a development just makes the FIM as culpable as TTXGP, and only makes the issue larger in its importance, instead of smaller.

The reason for this is because the COI hinges on how the conflict affects the manufacturers and teams, not the sanctioning body and its promoter. The distinction being made here is the reason why COI’s are such an important issue for motorcycle racing. The sanctioning bodies, promoters, teams, and manufacturers all have competing interests despite the common goal of electric motorcycle racing (this is why you see these groups organized separately in virtually every other motorsport league). For a promoter and sanctioning body in a fledgling sport, there of course is great concern about having a full grid. Hussain himself acknowledges, and I don’t disagree with him on the point. Therefore from their vantage point, stacking the grid with bikes in anyway possible fits with the goals of their organization.

However for a manufacturer, this arrangement brings a number of problems, especially when the conflict is between those who make/enforce the rules, and those who provide the motorcycles (manufacturers, regardless if they run a “factory” team). During his response, Hussain actually brings up an example of how this conflict is already surfacing in TTXGP, and creating acts of impropriety:

“A key feature of the TTX02 is that the entire drive train can be swapped in the pit, allowing for pitstops. This is an exciting exploration that we want to build on and encourage others to follow. Having our own bike was the only way we could drive the agenda forward in a timely manner.”

I’ll avoid the finer arguments as to whether it is reasonable to have this rule in place in the first, but suffice it to say the majority of teams I’ve talked to about the issue have no desire to be swapping out battery packs in the pit lane. Let’s also take note that before Mavizen, only MotoCzysz had such provisions even built into their design. Creating a rule that allows the swapping of batteries allows for teams to either run fewer batteries (i.e. less weight) during a lap, or run with more power each lap (replenishing the depleted batteries at some point during the race, rather than provisioning a single set of batteries over the entire course distance). This could potentially be a huge advantage for a team that is able to take advantage of the rule, and what a happy coincidence that Mavizen is one of the two platforms currently capable of such a feat.

For the rest of the field, especially the teams who are centering their race bikes off production models, a complete redesign of their systems will likely be needed to take advantage of the battery-swap rule, and in a space that is still dominated by cash-strapped startups, the chances of such a redesign occurring approach zero quite quickly. This allows Mavizen and MotoCzysz a de facto advantage, even though de jure the rules appear neutral on their face. I have yet to hear Michael Czysz say that he plans to offer his e1pc to other teams as a possible racing platform, which means if a race team wants to take advantage of this favorable rule, their only option is the Mavizen bike being provided by Hussain.

Intent aside, the stage is already set for Mavizen to be able to predict and adapt to rules in a way that others cannot. This illustrates how easily something innocuous like a rule about battery swapping, likely made with good intentions, and can slip into a realm of impropriety, even if that wasn’t the intent of making the rule.

Diving deeper into impropriety gets into a more sinister perspective, and while I make no assertion of such acts, let us realize how important the appearance of impropriety can be in this situation. An element of racing, in any form, is pushing the rulebook as far as it will go. Often times teams will seek council from those who interpret the rule book, to find out whether or not they have crossed the line before actually taking part on race day. I can tell you as not only as someone who is trained in interpreting the law, but also as someone who has competed at the national level of small boat racing (I would argue sailing is the most litigious sport in existence), that there will always be differences of opinion on how a rule will be understood and applied, thus creating a constant battle to find where exactly the bright line shines.

In the case of TTXGP, let’s say a manufacturer has developed a new innovation to their powertrain, but believes it could be in violation of the series rules, what course of action are they to take? If this were a series like MotoGP, they would ask for a decision on the powertrain, as it pertains to the rule, from a 3rd party. But in TTXGP, the party handling that inquiry is the same party that’s developing competing technology. When those who make and interpret the rules are the same ones building within the rules’ confines, what stops someone from saying, “That’s a great innovation, we should have that in our bike too” or “This new technology is going to tip the scales in this manufacturer’s favor, we should reject this so we don’t have to compete with it”?

I don’t have to allege that something like this has occurred for there to be a chilling effect; the mere possibility it could occur does that on its own. In an industry that is defined by companies who are differentiating themselves primarily on their powertrain technology, it seems unfathomable to me that they would set themselves up to potentially hand-over closely guarded intellectual property, the basis of their competitive advantage, to a would-be competitor manufacturer.

With the recent announcements by Zero and Mission Motors, to enter into TTXGP, it brings to my mind a bit of worry about what these two companies have just signed themselves up for. Both Zero and Mission have based their businesses around their proprietary battery and motor designs, designs that they very well may have to disclose and defend to an organization that is directly linked with a competitor (Mavizen), and closely linked to a potential competing supplier (Agni).

With these two examples at hand, I honestly welcome a rebuttal as to how a conflict of interest doesn’t exist here in electric motorcycle racing, and why it isn’t an issue. The issue appears too cut-and-dry as it stands now. I’ve read the arguments made that such a COI doesn’t exist, because if it did then it would alienate the teams racing in TTXGP, or that the TTX02 isn’t a platform capable of exploiting the rules to their fullest and such there is not COI. I’ve also read comments that dismiss to issue of a COI as being completely without merit.

I’ll let my example of the battery-swapping rule stand on its own as a reason for why the second and third arguments are misguided, and focus on the first point instead. Despite being a fine example of circular reasoning, the hypothetical scenario proclaims the very issue I’m writing in the hopes of avoiding: the further fracturing of electric motorcycle racing. I think everyone is in agreement that the sport is too young for such divisions, why create those fissures further at this point in time?

I’ve heard the argument too many times that this COI was a necessary step to build a competitive field, and Hussain himself says it was necessary step to ensure the required number of bikes on the starting line of each electric motorcycle race. However, this line of reasoning does not change the fact that a dangerous conflict of interest is being created in racing.

Avoiding the question as to whether electric motorcycles are even ready for a racing series, the issue of seeding the field could have been avoided through other and better means. Instead of trying to provide a motorcycle that “take[s] away alot of the pain and costs for potential teams,” other incentives and cost supporting structures could have been put in place for the teams. Such aid could come in the form of transportation to events, revenue splitting, winner’s purses, etc. These are all things that other series put into place to help promote bolster their grids, but were absent from the TTXGP race at the Isle of Man.

In the end perhaps the most intriguing thing in this situation isn’t the fact that we’ve heard little from the FIM (and what we’ve heard seems to range throughout the spectrum of reason), but the fact Azhar Hussain hasn’t himself said the real cause reason for the FIM’s split from TTXGP. Content to sit on the sidelines, feeding information from his vantage point as he see’s fit, and teasing us lesser mortals with bits of information like:

“Lastly, I won’t share with you why the FIM did what they did. But it wasn’t because of this big discovery on your part. Totally the opposite in fact.”

I’m confident a simple explanation from Czar of Electric Motorcycles could settle this entire discussion rapidly, and enlighten us as to the inner-workings of what will be known as electric motorcycle racing’s first big scandal. Just as I’m confident such a statement hasn’t been made because the legal implications of saying anything but the exact truth on the matter, a problem which is conveniently alleviated by having the press make your arguments for you instead of stating them yourself.