Should MotoGP bikes be sold?
13 January 2009
Kawasaki's withdraw from MotoGP has prompted a range of suggestions to help improve the health (read grid size) in MotoGP, which could feature just 17 bikes in 2009 pending the outcome of efforts to hand the ZX-RRs to a privateer team.
In order to help retain the remaining four MotoGP manufacturers (Honda, Ducati, Yamaha and Suzuki) and attract new future entries it is necessary to know what MotoGP offers manufacturers.
There are arguably two main reasons why a factory might want a MotoGP presence:
1) As a proving ground for the development of future technology.
2) As a marketing exercise to improve brand awareness and prestige.
The problem is that neither of these attributes is unique to MotoGP - Superbike championships can offer both (to a lesser degree) for a fraction of the cost.
But MotoGP's biggest problem is this: If a factory enters MotoGP it will spend tens of millions of dollars a year designing, developing and racing a motorcycle it will never sell - at least in the case of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and (previously) Kawasaki.
That is a hard case to put to a board of directors during difficult financial times - particularly if track success is not forthcoming - and probably prompted Aprilia, BMW and, in future, KTM to chose WSBK instead.
However Ducati - the smallest and most commercially aware of the MotoGP manufacturers - was quick to realise that, in order to justify a MotoGP presence, it needed to make money directly from its Desmosedici, even in the 'good times'.
Ducati, which entered MotoGP in 2003, unveiled the Desmosedici RR (road replica, pictured) in 2006 with the first deliveries made the following year. By June of 2007 Ducati had received 1,200 orders for the machine, which at the time was worth around 68 million Euros (£46 million) in business. Each RR costs around 55,000-60,000 Euros (depending on time of order).
So, in an effort to drive down costs and increase MotoGP's business relevance, why not require all MotoGP manufacturers to either:
1) Build at least, say, 100 road-legal replicas of their grand prix prototypes (technical similarities and allowable differences roughly as per the Desmosedici RR) for public sale by the start of the following season. The aim of this would be to limit the cost of each MotoGP machine and the types of technology used, with the added bonus of a sales income.
2) Or, for manufacturers wishing to use MotoGP to influence their future mass-produced Superbikes, prove that all significant parts/technology on their grand prix prototype (cylinder configuration, valve actuation, chassis and gearbox materials etc) have already been transferred, or will be transferred by the following season, from MotoGP to at least 3,000 production bikes.
Any major new MotoGP parts/technology would need to be present on the annual road replica (1) or transferred to a new Superbike model (2) once raced in MotoGP for a certain amount of time, perhaps 18 races (one full season) to allow room for experimentation and the dropping of unsuccessful technology.
Acceptance into the following season's championship could be dependent on successfully completing either of the above.
Rule changes would doubtless be needed, but Ducati's ability to successfully adapt its GP racer for road use proves it could be done. It would also stop investment in technology unsuitable to road bikes (such as pneumatic valves).
Such rules might also help strengthen MotoGP's position against WSBK since MotoGP would be showcasing future road machines, a more financially viable definition of prototype racing than at present, whilst WSBK would continue to feature bikes already on public sale.
There would probably eventually be some overlap, with some of the MotoGP-derived road machines eventually appearing in WSBK, but as long as the bikes were raced in MotoGP first (and were therefore prototypes) this should not be seen as a problem.
An alternative option, moving in the other development direction, is to allow 'production-based prototypes' into MotoGP (similar to the new Moto2 class), something FIM president Vito Ippolito is expected to publically suggest.
Other suggestions, such as a tightening of the technical regulations, have already been widely suggested and would probably be more effective in the short term.