Sometimes decisions are a long time in the making. Tech3’s decision to leave Yamaha and sign with KTM may have been made in the space of a few months, but the genesis of that choice, the process that made it all possible is ten years in the making.
If MotoGP hadn’t switched from 990cc to 800cc at the start of the 2007 season, if the ban on tobacco sponsorship in sports hadn’t been enforced from 2005, if the financial system hadn’t collapsed under the weight of tranches of “ninja” loans, Tech3 would be a Yamaha satellite team for the foreseeable future. Whether they wanted to be or not.
How did MotoGP get to a place where Tech3 could switch to KTM? To make complete sense of the story, we have to go back to the end of the last century.
Through the last 1990s, the popularity of Grand Prix racing was waning, while the World Superbike series went from strength to strength. The manufacturers were losing interest in the 500cc class, as two strokes were gradually disappearing from the road.
Big-bore four-strokes were the flavor of the month among motorcycle buyers, and the factories were investing less and less in their two-stroke racers.
The manufacturers expressed an interest in racing four-strokes in the premier class, and Dorna sketched out a contract with the MSMA, the organization representing the manufacturers, and MotoGP was born.
From 2002, 990cc four-stroke machines would enter the class, and go up against the 500cc two-strokes. (The 990cc capacity was chosen to avoid any perceived encroachment onto the territory claimed by World Superbikes, then owned by rival promoters the Flammini brothers, which had bikes with a maximum capacity of 1000cc at the time).
From 2003, MotoGP would be completely four-stroke, the two-strokes banished forever. The agreement was made for five years, Dorna promising stability in the technical rules to allow the factories to get a return on their investment.
There are a lot of reasons to visit Barcelona. It is one of the greatest cities in the world, a triumph of the architectural movement known as Modernisme, a vibrant center of culture, a place where you can eat, drink, and sleep well, after a day spent gazing mouth agape at some of the most remarkable buildings created by human hands, and human minds.
Once upon a time, the Montmelo circuit was also a good reason to visit the city. A track full of fast, sweeping corners challenging riders and bikes in equal measure.
That was before the aging asphalt turned the track greasy in the summer heat, and the repeated abuse from fat F1 tires left the surface rippled and bumpy, cracked and patched.
Tragedy struck with the death of Luis Salom – probably the victim of a wayward bump sending him flying towards a patch of gravel-free run off – and the Safety Commission (consisting of MotoGP riders, Dorna, and the FIM) decided to neuter the second half of the track, removing one of the fastest and most furious final sections on the calendar. There is little left to love about Montmelo.
I asked several riders whether it would be possible to race in Montmelo next year if the track had not been resurfaced. The response was unanimous. “No.”
Worse than that, Bradley Smith explained how the Safety Commission had grown impatient with the circuit, which has been singularly unresponsive to their requests to adapt the track to make it safer. Hopefully, MotoGP would not return, Smith told us bluntly.
“That’s finally what it comes down to. This is the only track on the calendar that’s not actually reacting to Safety Commission / rider / organizer’s requests. So at some point, you have to give them an ultimatum, and I think that this is the last year that they’ll be in that situation. We have enough people that want us to go race there, we don’t have to come here.”
Last year, at Jerez or thereabouts, I had a chat with Livio Suppo about the insanely early start to MotoGP’s Silly Season that year.
Suppo bemoaned the fact that so many riders were switching factories so early, with contracts signed as early as Qatar (in the case of Bradley Smith and Valentino Rossi), and the ensuing hullabaloo surrounding Jorge Lorenzo, and whence he was bound.
“Normally, we start talking after a few races, in Mugello or so,” Suppo said. “You want a few races to see how strong a rider is.”
While last year’s Silly Season was nearing its close at Mugello last year, it seems that 2017 is taking a slightly more normal trajectory. This year, Mugello may have seen the early conversations, which kick off the period where riders discuss their future options.
And Barcelona was the first race where they started to discuss – or more accurately, hint at – those options publicly.
Why is this year’s Silly Season so much later (or so much more normal) than last year’s? Put simply, it’s because last year, every single factory rider was out of contract, and every factory seat was up for grabs.
This year, all the factory seats are still taken for 2018 (or at least, unless a factory boss decides that one of their riders is grossly underperforming), and there are only the satellite bikes at stake.
Fewer seats are available, and those which are available have less money attached, and less chance of competing for podiums and victories. All that combined leads to a lower sense of urgency when it comes to negotiations.
MotoGP Silly Season is nearly at an end. With the confirmation that both Jack Miller and Cal Crutchlow will be staying in their seats for 2017, the list of possibly vacant grid slots grew much shorter.
Those that remain empty are growing ever closer to being filled, leaving only three seats open, and one seat still completely free. So, it is time to take a look at the current state of play.
With the announcement that Aleix Espargaro would be joining Aprilia for two years, the last of the factory seats was filled. The factory rides filled up quickly in 2016, starting with Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith at Qatar, and culminating eight races later at Assen with the signing of Espargaro.
The timing of the Aleix Espargaro/Aprilia announcement was peculiar to say the least. Making a major announcement that a rider had been signed to a factory rider – a signing everyone already knew about – on the Sunday night after one of the most remarkable MotoGP races in recent memory was guaranteed to achieve the absolute minimum of media coverage.
“I am not a very happy man,” Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro.
Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal’s problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat.
Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki’s GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract.
Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.
The news that KTM would be building a MotoGP machine has been public since the beginning of August. In an interview with the German website Speedweek, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer confirmed that the Austrian manufacturer would be building a V4 MotoGP machine ready for the 2017 season.
KTM’s MotoGP plans were confirmed again last weekend at Misano. KTM’s head of motorsport Pit Beirer told the MotoGP.com website that they would indeed be building a MotoGP bike, and that work on the machine had already started.
The bike, Beirer told MotoGP.com, would be a V4, would use a steel trellis frame, just as their Moto3 machines do, and would be kitted with WP suspension. Design work on the bike was already underway, with the bike scheduled to make its debut on track “at the end of next summer,” Beirer said.
There would be no prospect of an early entry, however. The bike is to be prepared for the 2017 season, with testing going on from late 2015 onwards. The bike would be designed around the Michelin tires, which will be replacing Bridgestone as the spec tire from 2016 onwards.
The bike would also be designed with the spec electronics and unified software package in mind, which is also to be compulsory from the 2016 season.
MotoGP’s Claiming Rule is set to be consigned to the history books. At the next meeting of the Grand Prix Commission at Barcelona, a proposal will be put forward to abandon the claiming rule altogether.
With the advent of the new distinction, between MSMA entries and non-MSMA entries, the need to claim an engine ceased to exist. The demise of the claiming rule opens the way towards the leasing of Yamaha engines to private teams without fear of those engines being claimed by other factories.
The claiming rule had been instigated at the start of 2012, to allow the grid to expand. At the end of 2011, with the departure of Suzuki, and both Honda and Ducati cutting back the number of satellite bikes they were prepared to provide, numbers on the MotoGP grid looked like falling to as low as 13 or 14 bikes.
The switch back to 1000cc engines meant a rich spectrum of engines was available to custom chassis builders, to produce affordable race bikes. To allow such teams to compete with the full factory efforts, such teams were allowed extra fuel (24 liters instead of 21), and double the factory engine allowance, 12 instead of 6.
To prevent new factories from taking advantage of the loophole, the MSMA members – the factories involved in MotoGP – retained the right to claim the engine of such teams. Hence the name, Claiming Rule Team or CRT.
After Shuhei Nakamoto was just talking last week about some of the technical details of Honda’s MotoGP production racer, HRC has released a photo of the RC213V-derived race bike testing at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit.
Small in resolution, and taken with little zoom, the photo gives us few new details about the coming HRC production racer (that’s the point though, right?), but we do know that the still unnamed machine will cost roughly €1 million, be devoid of HRC’s “seamless” gearbox and pneumatic valves, and will come with Nissin and Showa components.
The real question about the 2012 MotoGP season may be this: will the switch back to liter engines, and the rules that accompany that change, mean that non-factory teams can compete for the championship? Consider Alex de Angelis, shown here at the Sachsenring in 2009, hanging off his satellite Honda in typical style, and the fact that he was 2nd in the 2003 125cc championship, and third in 2006 and 2007 as a 250cc rider, but only had one podium in two years in the premier class.
Since the switch from 2-stroke 500s non-factory teams have not had much of a chance at taking the title, and for a rider on a satellite team the only realistic goal has been to be the Best of the Rest. We will almost certainly see a larger grid in 2012, but will the advantages the Claiming Rule Teams have (more fuel per race, more engines per season) mean they will be in a more competitive position?
I hope that riders such as De Angelis will find themselves competing for more than a few points each round, and will have a greater chance to show they belong in MotoGP before being demoted to another class or series.
In a somewhat bizzare move, the GP Commission is set to discuss the possibility of bringing 1000cc race bikes to MotoGP a year earlier than previously agreed upon. A proposal set to be put forth on Friday by IRTA President and Tech3 Yamaha boss Herve Poncharal would allow for 1000cc motorcycles to race in MotoGP in 2011 rather than in 2012 as was planned because of the alleged need to fill the grid from its current 17 bike total.