Infront, Dorna, & Bridgepoint: Where The Coup Came From, And What Next For World Superbikes?

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Sunday was a big day for World Superbikes at Magny-Cours. Not just because the 2012 title was settled in what was a fascinating showdown, helped in no small part by the weather, but perhaps most of all because on Sunday morning at 9am local time, Infront Motor Sports CEO spoke to the media for the first time since the announcement that Bridgepoint, the private equity firm which owns both Infront and MotoGP rights owners Dorna, has decided to bring both series under a single umbrella, and that umbrella is to be Dorna.

That news has sent a shockwave through the motorcycle racing world. The World Superbike paddock is hardest hit of all: the mood there is somber, with everyone from Infront staff to team mechanics fearing the outcome of what amounts to a coup by Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. Optimists are few, especially as Ezpeleta is one of the most reviled characters among denizens of the WSBK paddock, because of what he represents: the perceived arrogance of the Grand Prix paddock, and a culture which is anathema to everything which World Superbikes stand for. MotoGP is truly the Beatles to WSBK’s Rolling Stones.

There is some justification to their fears. WSBK, in the person of Paolo Flammini, has been holding out on requests from MotoGP’s organizers to impose further restrictions on development of the WSBK machines, bringing them much more in line with the Superstock-style regulations proposed by FIM to harmonize regulations at the national level. He does so with good reason: the manufacturers currently racing in World Superbikes have made it very clear that they have no desire to see any further restrictions on tuning and bike modification put into place.

Given WSBK’s increasing reliance on manufacturer teams – though blessed with six different manufacturers, teams without some form of manufacturer backing are finding it increasingly hard to survive, leading to shrinking grids and gaps opening between the factory-backed and privateer squads – keeping the factories happy is becoming ever more important. WSBK does at least have the freedom to change the rules without factory interference, something which was until recently unthinkable in MotoGP.

But Flammini has a list of further crimes to his name, at least seen from the perspective of Dorna. Selling the rights to organize a race at the Buddh International circuit in India at a bargain basement price, right in the slot where Dorna had hoped to set a MotoGP race, was not well received in Dorna. India is a crucial motorcycle market – millions of new units are sold there every year, and offering a marketing opportunity to the factories still in MotoGP is one thing Dorna is trying to do to placate the factories as Dorna imposes a spec ECU and a rev limit on the class in 2014.

In response to those changes, Honda is threatening to leave MotoGP and concentrate on World Superbikes once the spec ECU – Honda’s biggest bugbear – is introduced. The first signs of a shift are already visible: HRC will be providing engines, chassis updates, and most especially, electronics systems for the Ten Kate Honda team from 2013 onwards, signs that Honda is preparing a full factory effort in the near future. That is most likely to come when Honda introduces its new V4 sportsbike based on its current RC213V MotoGP machine. Those close to that project consistently use one phrase to describe that bike: game changer. That effort represents a massive shift in the balance of power between the two series.

And so Dorna – or rather, Carmelo Ezpeleta – has seen fit to act. Though sources report that this move has been several months in the making, the timing of the announcement is at the very least remarkable. Normally, a major announcement such as this would be made in December, when Dorna, InFront and the FIM have enough distance between themselves and the media to handle enquiries in their own time. Instead, it came a few days before the finale to the World Superbike season, and ahead of the annual season-ending dinner, a special affair this year celebrating 25 years of the championship.

Was the timing of the announcement a direct insult, an attempt at getting the Flamminis and Paolo Ciabatti, Director of the WSBK championship, to hand in their notices in a fit of rage? Possibly. A clear-out of the top management level would make it easier for Dorna to seize control of the series. However, losing senior management would also leave Dorna with a problem: they do not have the staff ready to step into the Flamminis’ shoes, and any move which looks like a coup would see an immediate end to any hopes of cooperation with Dorna from the rest of the paddock.

This weekend’s WSBK meeting is not the only event of significance in the coming days. Next week, upon his arrival in Japan for the upcoming MotoGP round at Motegi, Carmelo Ezpeleta is scheduled to have meetings with senior staff from all three Japanese factories looking at competing in the 2014 championship about the technical regulations to be introduced from that season onwards. It is believed that Ezpeleta will explain to the factories that a rev limit set at 15,500 RPM and a heavily controlled standard electronics package are to be introduced, whether the factories like the idea or not.

This move is necessary both to close the massive performance gap between the factories and the private teams – both satellite and CRT – and reducing the costs in the championship which have spiraled to unsustainable levels. Ezpeleta’s message is simple: you are welcome to compete, but you will compete under our regulations, as the regulations which you drew up drove costs completely out of control.

From the outside, the announcement by Bridgepoint that Dorna would be in charge of both the MotoGP and World Superbike series looks like it has its roots in a conflict which has little or nothing to do with WSBK itself. WSBK is caught in the crossfire between Honda and Dorna, over their battle for the soul of the MotoGP series. Is it a technological arms race, as HRC would like to see it, or is it entertainment for the masses, as Dorna is trying to position it, in an attempt to boost the revenues from MotoGP and prepare itself for the day when Valentino Rossi finally hangs up his helmet.

That does not mean that the Flamminis and their confidantes will not take umbrage at their treatment, or even that their treatment was intended as a gross insult. How Paolo Flammini sees the situation, and whether he intends to stay on to run the World Superbike series, as the Bridgepoint press release implied he would, we will find out soon. Much will surely depend on exactly how Dorna intends to change the series.

Quite honestly, there is little about World Superbikes that even needs changing. In contrast to MotoGP, where Bridgestone are supplying tires that are detrimental to the spectacle, Pirelli provide rubber to the teams that allows the riders to put on a real show. The Superpole format works well, especially the twist of only giving riders two sets of qualifiers for three Superpole sessions, and the two-race format on Sunday is a massive hit with motorcycle racing fans.

WSBK’s only real weakness is an inability to market the series as it could be, and to sell itself short when it comes to TV rights. Several parties have tried to secure rights to supply internet streaming for the World Superbike races, but the current TV contracts make that almost impossible to secure. With better TV coverage and some form of internet streaming of the races, allowing audiences to follow the series in territories where the races are not shown live on TV, these gaping holes could be quickly fixed.

What World Superbikes does not need is a MotoGP makeover: the accessibility of the paddock and riders – paddock access tickets are sold at a very reasonable price, and WSBK riders will stop and chat freely with fans – is one of the series’ most endearing features, and the WSBK paddock feels like a small Italian village, where everyone knows each other and rivalries are relatively petty. MotoGP may generate a lot more money, but that money serves mainly to create distance between the riders and the fans, and the paddock is a good deal more business-like and, yes, just plain cold.

The risk of a Dorna intervention is that they kill the soul of World Superbikes, sending it over the edge into a terminal decline. That is a massive risk to take, and could be a very expensive one indeed, if circuits and TV companies were to start suing Dorna should the WSBK series die. The smartest move Dorna could make is to leave WSBK well alone, seeking only ways of extracting more sponsorship and money from the series.

That, however, requires the management team to stay in place. We shall soon find out whether Paolo Flammini is inclined to lend a helping hand to the organization which he set WSBK up against ever since MotoGP was taken over by Dorna back in 1992. There will be plenty of gazing at tea leaves in that time.

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