Reduced to three official manufacturers supplying twelve bikes in 2012, MotoGP will rebound with five manufacturers and 25 machines next season.
Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki had contested the final 500cc World Championship in 2001, before being joined by Aprilia, Kawasaki and Ducati during the new four-stroke 'MotoGP' era.
But Aprilia departed at the end of 2004, followed by Kawasaki (2008) and Suzuki (2011). All cited financial reasons and Suzuki's exit, combined with declining satellite entries, left MotoGP with a major problem. There just weren't enough bikes left on the grid.
Of the 'independent manufacturers', precursors to the CRT and Open class, only Team Roberts and WCM made the transition to four-strokes. With spiralling costs, both were inevitably forced out (as was the short-lived Ilmor effort).
The end result was that MotoGP faced a 2012 season with just twelve bikes, divided equally between Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. The response was to boost the grid with modified Superbikes, competing under newly scripted Claiming Rule Team (CRT) regulations, with technical concessions to help them get somewhere near the pace and occasionally embarrass the slower Factory bikes.
Nine new machines duly joined, but the class had plenty of critics, Casey Stoner raising the issue of CRT during his retirement announcement.
“The championship this year is separated. The first of the CRTs comes into parc ferme after the race and qualifying. It's clearly separating them. This isn't a two [class] series. This is [one] MotoGP championship,” said the double world champion. “This is a prototype championship. People can say all they want about the past, that it started out as standard machines and progressed to prototype machines. Now we're just going backwards.”
While Stoner and MotoGP commercial rights holder Dorna Sports may have disagreed on the definition of a prototype, they agreed on the need for one set of rules. But Dorna's vision was very different to the pre-2012 regulations.
CRT was the first step in Dorna seizing the technical initiative away from the manufacturers, whose regulations had taken MotoGP to the brink of grid-shrinking disaster.
“The basics of motorsport are the combination of entertainment and technology. In times of crisis, if we cut back on something, it must be in technology, not the entertainment,” Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta said at the time. “The problem is that, for the manufacturers, the priority has always been the technological development. This development and technology has made the cost of the bikes too high [and] created an issue with competition, because the motorcycles running up front are so superior."
Dorna began applying pressure on the factories to supply competitive customer machines for a target price of one million euros, with CRT upgraded to the more potent 'Open class' for 2014.
This brought two significant changes. The first was a standard ECU, long resisted by the manufacturers. Although only for the Open class, once on the grid it seemed only a matter of time before it would spread. Speeding up the process was the other major change, removal of the Claiming Rule.
This cleared the way for Factory machines to join the Open class simply by fitting the standard ECU, thereby unlocking the range of benefits originally intended for privateer CRT bikes. In other words, the entire MotoGP grid would eventually choose to race as Open class for performance reasons. Ducati immediately attempted to make the change.
With the writing on the wall, the Grand Prix Commission - Dorna, IRTA (team), MSMA and FIM - thrashed out a last-minute agreement prior to the start of this season, which included a standard ECU for all from 2016. Since choice of ECU is all that defines a Factory or Open bike, the move to a single ECU should also mean one set of technical rules for the first time since 2011.
Those to-be-announced 2016 regulations won't be a continuation of the present Factory class, which heavily restricts areas such as race fuel and engine changes, but ”somewhere between Open and Factory”
. For Honda and Yamaha, this would mean fuel and engines will increase for the first time since limits were introduced. All manufacturers will share ongoing development of the new ECU software.
While the rules have focussed on how to provide affordable and competitive customer machines, MotoGP has also attracted two returning manufacturers for 2015 - Suzuki and Aprilia.
Suzuki began testing a new 1000cc bike just a few months after its exit, and thus seemed destined to return regardless. However Aprilia did appear swayed by the direction that Dorna has pushed the technical rules, the factory having first been tempted back by the chance to run a modified version of its RSV4 Superbike in CRT.
Aprilia is significantly upgrading its ART for next season, with a new bike in 2016.
With the former CRT bikes having served their purpose, all 25 entries next year will be official machines supplied by Honda (four Factory, four Open), Yamaha (four Factory, two Open), Ducati (four Factory, two Open), Suzuki (two Factory) and Aprilia (two Factory, one Open).
For comparison, there were 20 manufacturer bikes during the 2004 season.
'Cost not related to rules, but interest in the championship'
A key principle of the post-2011 rule changes has been cost reduction. Repsol Honda team manager Livio Suppo is sceptical about whether regulation changes can ever force a serious reduction in costs for those that design and manufacture the bikes.
“I think Dorna is doing a good job and I would add also Dorna and MSMA because altogether we are trying to reduce the costs. It is not easy,” the Italian said. “Every time there is a competition between manufacturers it is a kind of 'dream' to be able to really reduce the costs.
“In terms of cost reduction I don't think the new rules of 2016 will reduce the cost a lot. We need to always [differentiate] between the running costs and the R&D costs, and to reduce the R&D costs is in my opinion almost impossible.
“Filippo Preziosi [who led the design of Ducati's MotoGP machine from 2003-2012] taught me years ago that the [R&D] cost is not related to the rules, but related to the interest in the championship.
“Formula One is a good example. When they stopped doing tests [to save money], they started developing the simulators and now I think they spend crazy money on the simulators. This is normal if you are in a competition and you want to win. If you cut this or say you cannot do this, the engineers will do something else.
“That is competition. So I think to speak about competition and reduction of costs is kind of a mistake in my opinion. But if you speak about reducing the running costs of the team and giving the teams more balanced [equal] technical support - I mean machines - this is something that we are reaching.”
The number of MotoGP manufacturers is due to reach six in 2017, when KTM makes its debut.
“I think Dorna have done a great job, next year we are going to have two more manufacturers taking part, then KTM has announced that they want to participate from 2017,” said Ducati Corse sporting director Paolo Ciabatti. “I think also the cost is kind of manageable for the satellite teams, at least in our cases.
“I think we are moving in the right direction. As Livio said, as a manufacturer once you take part in the championship, if you want to win - which is the final aim we all have - you have to invest [in R&D]. So keeping those costs under control is more complicated.
“I think the common [ECU] software should avoid maybe some extra work at home for the electronic engineers. Because in the end we know that whatever we bring on the table is available also to our competitors. So I think once we are happy with the general software and the way it works, maybe on that side we could slow a little bit down.”
While the three continuing manufacturers praised the upturn in MotoGP's fortunes, no-one pinpointed any specific changes as having been most effective.
“I think in general Dorna is doing a good job to try to manage the entire show,” said Yamaha Racing managing director Lin Jarvis. “If you compare MotoGP to four years ago, the number of bikes and teams on the grid, basically we are full now and we weren't a few years ago.
“So that means that Dorna somehow has been able to manage the situation, maybe with the regulations, maybe with their [financial] support. The championship in my opinion is looking pretty healthy now and I see an optimistic future.”
'Not easy if you are looking for sponsors in Europe'
While MotoGP is again proving attractive to manufacturers, sponsorship remains a challenge for many teams.
Despite winning the 2010 world championship with Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha couldn't attract a title sponsor for the next three seasons, until Spanish pay TV company Movistar came on board.
However Jarvis feels it is non-European sponsors seeking to tap into MotoGP's global appeal that now offer the best opportunities.
“A few years ago we were struggling, I think many teams were struggling, to get commercial support - sponsors and partners,” Jarvis confirmed. “In our case we feel there is a lot more interest coming, also from these sources outside Europe.
“I think the sources of funding from Italy and Spain has dried up considerably over the last few years, but the sources of funding from other places and the motivations of other markets have improved.
“So our team for instance is in much better shape now, but that is not because of the European market but because of the global popularity of the sport. We have new sponsors from Kazakhstan and Japan looking at the global markets. So yes I think the popularity of the sport is bringing extra players into the game.”
Ciabatti admitted that Ducati lost sponsors following Valentino Rossi's return to Yamaha, but said its prospects have been improving after a more effective 2014. The Italian team is also focusing on global companies.
“After Valentino left we obviously had a difficult season. Now Ducati is competitive again and we have an easier job to convince new sponsors to jump on board,” Ciabatti said. “Not easy if you are looking for sponsors in Europe, because as Lin said here it is not so easy, so we are also looking at companies who are basically global and with interest in Asia or South America.
“It's not easy, but it's easier than it was one year ago.”