MotoGP: Lucio Cecchinello Weighs in on the Rookie Rule

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MotoGP’s 2013 Silly Season is one of the most complicated in many years. Though the retirement of Casey Stoner has opened up the market, the real complication lies with two factors, and the way those two interact. The issue can be summed up in a single question: what are we going to do with Marc Marquez?

It has been clear for some time that Marc Marquez is going to be one of the hottest properties in MotoGP in 2013, the Spaniard expected to graduate to the premier class at the end of this season. Under normal circumstances, this would not be an issue, but the situation that MotoGP finds itself currently in means that we are a very long way from normal circumstances.

The combination of the global financial crisis and the radically depleted field, a consequence of the cost hyperinflation the switch to 800cc caused back in 2007, has meant that the series finds itself in a period of transition, with the return to 1000cc machines just the first step in a major rules shakeup.

The scale of the proposed changes – a rev limit, a single ECU, one bike per rider, a cap on lease prices, and a limit to the number of bikes each factory can provide – means that discussions about the rules are ongoing, the situation changing at each Grand Prix as the haggling and horse-trading between the factories and Dorna continues.

Marquez was expected to fall victim to the Rookie Rule, the provision introduced when Ben Spies entered MotoGP in 2010, preventing a rider from going straight to a factory team in his first season in the class. Both HRC and Repsol, the Spanish oil giant who have backed Marquez throughout his career, have made no secret of their preference of putting Marquez directly into the factory Repsol Honda team.

The Rookie Rule prevents this happening, leaving Repsol and Monlau Competicion, who run Marquez’ Moto2 team (and the 125cc team he raced in before that) casting about for alternatives. Their preferred option, if Marquez cannot go straight to the factory team, is for Monlau to move up as an independent satellite team running Marquez as the sole rider. The team would be backed by Honda, and Marquez would have full factory-spec equipment at his disposal.

But that itself poses a problem. Under the current proposals, which look very close to being finalized, each manufacturer will only be allowed to supply a maximum of four riders with bikes in 2013, two riders in a factory team and two riders in satellite teams.

With the direct route into the factory team blocked, Marquez causes a dilemma, for Honda, and for the satellite teams involved: placing Marquez with either the San Carlo Gresini or the LCR satellite teams will cause problems with the teams’ existing sponsors, and if Marquez brings his own team of mechanics with him, then it would also mean satellite teams breaking long-standing relationships with mechanics already working for the teams.

Likewise for Honda, if HRC grants Repsol and Monlau’s wish of creating a separate team for Marquez, that could mean being forced to take away a bike from one of the two Honda satellite teams.

To hear the perspective of the satellite teams themselves, I spoke to Lucio Cecchinello at Barcelona, owner of the LCR Honda team currently fielding Stefan Bradl in MotoGP. Cecchinello and Gresini are the parties in the most difficult situation, and though Cecchinello pronounced himself a supporter of the Rookie Rule, he was clear that the current set of circumstances made the situation even more complicated than it would normally be.

“The rookie rule was created to support the independent teams,” explained Cecchinello. “Before, manufacturers would always pick up the best young riders of the intermediate class, and this gave the independent teams less credibility with sponsors. So to try to support the independent teams, Dorna and the IRTA committee decided to create the rookie rule.” The aim, Cecchinello explained, was for the independent teams to benefit from the increased exposure that signing high-profile youngsters would provide, and to help them to secure better sponsorship deals.

The problem comes when this one-size-fits-all rule runs into the practicalities of riders coming through the kind of system that has produced Marc Marquez. The Rookie Rule was introduced in part to cope with the case of Ben Spies, who came into MotoGP with the backing of a manufacturer and their domestic distributor, Yamaha USA.

With little in the way of sponsorship baggage and coming from outside the series, Spies could easily be placed in the Tech 3 Yamaha satellite team, and then promoted to the factory squad the year after. Marquez, however, is different: the Spaniard is a graduate of the Monlau Competicion organization, and has been brought up through the ranks by Repsol since he first entered the series in the 125cc class. This means that unlike Spies, Marquez brings a large amount of baggage, in terms of both team and more importantly, in terms of sponsorship.

That creates complications for satellite teams such as LCR, Cecchinello explained. “I have existing sponsors, like GIVI, like ELF, who have supported us for many years, and in that case, I don’t see a very easy way to work together with Repsol, especially ELF, for example. ELF have invested a lot of money in our team, so we want to keep them.” Cecchinello currently has a two-year contract with Stefan Bradl for 2012 and 2013, meaning that he could not simply drop Bradl in 2013 without creating massive complications.

Bradl signed with LCR expecting to have a Honda RC213V for two seasons, and any changes to that situation would mean renegotiating contracts. “We have a two-year contract with Stefan Bradl, and for me to stop working with Honda, I would need either to renegotiate the contract with my existing rider, or I need to try to find a way out of working with Stefan Bradl.”

Even adding Marquez as a second rider, expanding his team to two satellite Hondas, would be complicated, especially if the stipulation that each manufacturer can only supply four bikes stays in place. “This would mean that Gresini would have to stop, to give his bike to LCR, which I don’t think is going to happen,” said Cecchinello, adding that the same would be true if Marquez were to go to Gresini as a second rider. Gresini would face the same kind of sponsorship problems that LCR did, Cecchinello explained. “Gresini would stop working with Castrol, with San Carlo that they have a historical cooperation with their sponsor, and the rookie bring the sponsor in a project that is only for one year.”

The fact that Marquez is destined for the factory team – and the fact that everyone in MotoGP knows this – means creating a lot of disruption for minimal gain. Even allowing Monlau to enter Marquez as a separate team does not benefit the championship long-term, Cecchinello said. “I also agree with the Dorna and IRTA position not to accept a team that would be set up just for one year, you know, because also this is not serious. ”

Though the idea of the Rookie Rule was good, the practicalities of the matter make it very difficult, Cecchinello said. “Of course, we must understand that this kind of rule has a meaning and is logical when we [the independent teams] can take an advantage from this rule. If this rule creates a disadvantage to the independent team, I think is correct to reconsider this matter. The problem is that it’s difficult to say “this is the right direction”, because every time, the situation changes. So maybe in some situations, the rookie rule is good, and sometimes it could create a problem.”

“We did this rule to protect the independent teams,” Cecchinello explained. “At this moment, there is a specific situation that can create a very tough situation for sponsors, manufacturers, teams, riders. This situation can also happen again in the future.” From his perspective, the problem was caused by the stipulation that the factories can only produce four bikes for next year, Cecchinello said.

“So my wish at the moment is that we should all sit together and either open the door to the manufacturers to implement more bikes on the grid, and then Honda will produce just one bike more for [Marquez].” This itself created further complications, however: “But also, I understand for Honda it means they will lose time, as they need to find another rider for just one year only, probably,” Cecchinello said, referring to the fact that a vacancy will have to be created in the Repsol Honda team for Marquez to move into in 2014, after his rookie year, making it difficult to find riders to fill that space.

Overall, the Italian team manager was happy with the rule, but the complexities of dealing with a rider like Marquez remained. “I think that it’s a fantastic rule, but at this moment, for this specific situation, in particular for the two independent Honda teams and the Honda factory, it’s a big mess. So, I don’t want to say that the Rookie Rule is not good and we need to change it, but let me say that at this moment, what is happening to LCR and to Gresini and to HRC, and also to the team of Marquez is a little bit uncomfortable rule.” It was not just a problem for Honda, Cecchinello was keen to add: “By the way, maybe some manufacturers would not be happy if we ask to change this rule, but from the other side, let me say that it could be in the near future that Yamaha or Ducati could find themselves in the same situation, you know?”

MotoGP’s Rookie Rule has had great benefits for the satellite teams in MotoGP. Tech 3 obtained the services of Ben Spies for a season, and Gresini had the ideal figurehead in Marco Simoncelli, until the Italian was tragically killed in an accident at Sepang last year. For single, relatively unattached riders, the rule works perfectly. For riders such as Marc Marquez, who have been nurtured and prepared for MotoGP with the backing of a solid educational and sponsorship structure, it is a much more difficult fit.

If the limit of four bikes per manufacturer is to be introduced for 2013, it is hard to see how the Rookie Rule can be maintained without it turning against the teams it is intended to help. The simplest solution would be for the introduction of the four-rider limit per manufacturer to be delayed. With doubts over the number of satellite Ducatis that will be appearing on the grid for 2013 – the satellite Pramac squad faces an uncertain future at the end of this season, and Karel Abraham of the Cardion AB team has been deeply unhappy with the GP0 version of the bike he has been given to ride – allowing an extra Honda onto the grid, for a team with the means to pay for it, seems like common sense.

Photo: © 2012 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.