With the crowning of MotoGP’s youngest ever world champion, the restructuring of regulations for 2014, and WSBKs sharing GP’s organisational umbrella, it seems prescient to take a look at Dorna – sole rights holders to motorcycling’s two most prestigious race series.
Dorna acquired the rights to GPs in 1992 – in other words, seemingly in perpetuity. 2036, the actual date of expiry, still seems a distant prospect… The nature of that deal, which has had such a profound effect on motorcycle racing, is something Bg is currently investigating. In motorsport the series rights holder exercises a level of practical control which seemingly exceeds their job description, sometimes by an alarming distance – as F1 observers can all too readily affirm. For example, Dorna see themselves ‘at the heart of MotoGP’ – forget the bikes and the riders - and in the person of Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO, are the dominant force in ‘evolving’ GP regulations, a role which should be the mandate of the FIM (the governing body) in consultation with IRTA, the teams and technical suppliers union. (Don’t bother checking IRTA’s website for clarification – you have to be an accredited full member to access anything beyond a minimalist home page: MI5 are literally more accessible online.) But interests overlap, to the extent that in reality, these organisations appear to enforce Dorna’s writ. It seems incredible that over a twenty one year period the combined financial muscle of Honda and the other manufacturers hasn’t resulted in a break away, with the formulation of their own series – and the ability to market the rights to the entertainment that they themselves effectively provide. Make no mistake: those rights are where all the power and wealth still resides. Control them, and you become the sport, and not simply a conduit. Riders and teams come and go. Dorna, it seems, are forever, and Honda are not about to challenge their authority anytime soon.
Vested interests reign supreme in motorsport, and the story of Honda’s relationship with Dorna is like a long standing soap opera, complete with dodgy plot lines, heroes and villains, tantrums and reconciliations – sometimes it has been hard to see where one company ended and the other began. As long as GP’s are seen by the manufacturers as being a viable proposition, they are going to be reluctant to call time on the status quo: old Japanese proverb say better the devil you know…. However, the question of viability goes right to the heart of current arguments about new regulations. These proposals have an added complicating factor in Dorna’s acquisition of the WSBK series.
If you effectively own both MotoGP and WSBK and intend to keep them alive as separate entities, the one sane policy has to be for both series to retain their individuality as racing events. Thus while a degree of logistical unification makes sense – i.e. selected meetings with superbikes supporting the main GP event – the bikes themselves would remain totally different, with no dilution of ethos, as has been the case in both series. It would be brilliant entertainment and guarantee what WSBK has been missing: a live audience (a point argued by Bg in previous Dorna related features). The problem is how to establish those separate identities, and it is here that Dorna seems to have got wires crossed.
above: the main restriction on this baby was the pilot. But not in this case……..
Dorna’s GP policy has been driven by an attempt to keep down costs. The problem of this approach is twofold. Firstly, any restriction of thoroughbred GP bikes undermines their prototype status and top dog context, a problem recently enhanced by the inclusion of CRT bikes and the inevitable and often unfavourable comparisons made with WSBK machines. CRTs were predictably damaging to the image of GPs, as superbikes were often faster at the same circuit. Even Moto 2 machines threatened CRT times, which did no favours at all to the series as a whole. The raison d’etre of the premiere class is that it represents the very best in technological development. Right now, that isn’t happening: to take a single example, GP factory machines have increased in minimum weight, another sad consequence of misguided regulations.
Secondly, the factories themselves don’t want a cost cutting exercise to muzzle their technological development, expertise and superiority. Dorna’s worry is that open class GP’s would see a radically reduced field. But in 2013, the sharp end the field has in any case been reduced by default: the top four or five bikes have consistently been the same ones. And no one cares – as long as those four or five are competitive with each other. Muzzling them to close the gap with the also rans can only devalue the product. And if you devalue the quality of the GP bike, you are simply pushing it conceptually closer to…… a superbike. Which is the one thing Dorna shouldn’t be doing, because WSBK racing has two serious problems: cost effectiveness, and that missing audience.
Just as the right answer to GP’s identity crisis is to reinforce the prototype concept, superbikes also need to go back to their roots – as production racers, with the emphasis firmly on production. Stuart Higgs, BSB race director, intuitively figured this out a while ago and the move away from high end, bespoke electronic control systems to a standard ECU with relatively limited functionality, combined with tuning restrictions, has done more to make the series a compelling spectacle than changes to the race format. WSBK racing needs to follow this lead. The closer a superbike is to the product you can buy at your local dealer, the greater the connection to the fan base.
In one important sense, WSBK hasn’t changed hands at all. Infront, the previous series promoter, is owned by Bridgepoint, the private equity company. Who also have a controlling interest in…. Dorna. Bridgepoint were becoming alarmed by declining WSBK viability, and simply shifted control from one company in their portfolio to another, a switch which generated fresh investment in Dorna – points generally missed by the motorcycle media at the time. Whether this consolidation signifies a corporate determination to see both series succeed on their own terms or not is a moot point. But Bridgepoint are not a proposition to be taken lightly, and if either series goes under, it wont be an intended consequence. It’s all down to Dorna’s management retaining that key distinctive ethos in both series. Recent decisions – including the re-writing of GP’s 2014 rules to further limit unrestricted prototype advantages vs the field – suggests that this particular nettle has not been properly grasped. Next year WSBKs are saddled with the two races in one format that bedevilled GPs. Instead of CRTs, WSBK gets an evo class, basically stocker lumps in a WSBK chassis. A far saner proposition would have been to start modifying the superbike spec towards BSB style regulations, which would have reigned back extravagantly escalating costs (which had become totally out of proportion to the original concept of production racing). Instead of which, we have no cost control and an unnecessary new class which will doubtless simply provide a moving chicane for the big boys to negotiate, in much the same way CRTs detracted from the GP prototypes. Thus for next year, the series which desperately needs rigourous economic controls has none – while the one which needs the freedom that defines it is restricted.
Far from seeing the 2014 regulations restore GPs to a single class, we’ll actually have three classes in one race. The CRTs have gone in name, but teams and personnel all too familiar from CRT days will still be there, and still be running uncompetitive machinery. They just wont be called CRT entries anymore. At the other end of the scale, the ‘factory’ entries will be running thoroughbred M1s and RCV213Vs, but – inevitably – shackled: restrictions being on fuel allowance and the number of engines that ‘factory’ bikes can use, along with a compulsory ECU. In return, the factory bikes have a free hand at programming it. Meanwhile the second division – the RCV1000Rs, plus the decaf M1 privateers - make do with control software, but get a more generous engine and fuel allowance. Whether or not this amounts to shifting deckchairs on the Titanic, or represents a brave new world where prototypes can still exist and thrive in a financially and technically restricted ‘real world’ form, remains to be seen. Dorna need to get back to basics: de-restrict GP prototypes, and move superbikes closer to stock, putting both events on the same card whenever it makes logistical sense. It would certainly make for a great weekend’s racing….