Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MotoGP stakes a claim

I'm not sure that they've finalized the wording yet, but it seems that MotoGP is staking a big part of it's future on 'Claiming Rule Teams.'

This is a move calculated to control costs and thus add a few new -- desperately needed -- teams to the grid. The hope is that independent chassis suppliers (like Eskil Suter's outfit) will supply race-ready frames that can be fit with production-based 1,000cc engines, creating a nearly plug-and-play MotoGP-eligible racing platform. Costs will be controlled, because any team choosing to compete as a CRT will be able to claim any other CRT's motor for a fixed price.
I reckon this lot knew how to deal with ornery claim jumpers. Whether or not the new CRT rules will trigger a gold rush of new teams to the MotoGP grid remains to be seen. It could work as hoped, but only if the rules makers learn the lessons of history.
The idea's an extension of a venerable tradition. In the 'Continental Circus' era, Manx Norton production racers, and Matchless G50 motors in Seeley frames were the foundation of the 500GP class, even though it's now remembered for the exotic Italian multis that won almost all the races. Twenty-five or thirty years later, in what's now fondly recalled as the heyday of 500cc two-strokes, if a team couldn't get (or afford) full-factory support the alternative was leasing a Yamaha V-4 motor and putting it in a French-made ROC chassis. Honda even briefly made and sold an 'affordable' 500cc twin in small quantities, which was pretty much a direct admission that they'd priced lease costs of the NSR500 v-4 motors out of reach of even well-sponsored privateers.

So, production-based machines in racing's premier class; that's not been a problem historically. Except for one thing, that I'll get to in a minute.

Claiming rules have a slightly more checkered history in motorcycle racing. I'm not sure if or when Grand Prix racing's had claiming rules, but there's been claiming rules on the AMA's books for most of the AMA Pro Racing period (they may go further back, I'm not sure; I'm in Florida for a funeral and far from my reference library.) The thing was, while there was a written rule enabling any entrant to claim specified components from any other competitors' bike for fixed prices, there was an unwritten rule in the paddock that ensured anyone making such a claim was forever ostracized.

I can't remember the details of the last AMA claiming 'scandal', so I might be getting the facts wrong, but I'll give you the right impression -- maybe some Backmarker reader can track down the details and make a comment at the bottom of this post. Anyway, I want to say that it was about ten years ago, that a privateer at Daytona claimed a factory superbike team's Ohlins fork. The claiming rule, at the time, specified a price of something like fifteen grand for it. The team went apeshit, and various people muttered things like, "He may get that fork, but he'll never be able to buy so much as a brake pad ever again..."

When cooler heads prevailed, the team said, "Look, we'll supply a brand-new Ohlins unit of the same type," but as I recall, the privateer stuck to his guns and got the fork. Even though his claim was clearly within the rules, there was a general sense of affront that he'd gone through with it, and doing so made him a pariah in the AMA Pro Racing paddock. His story was that he'd repeatedly asked Ohlins to sell him a full superbike-spec fork, offering to pay the list price for it, and they'd consistently come up with reasons why they couldn't do so.

Steve Atlas recently predicted that the MotoGP claiming rule "will be a cluster[-fuck]." I think he was anticipating more problems like the one described above, where the rule's application is fraught with internecine politics.

So will the Claiming Rule Team idea work?

As a hack historian, my first thought on this is that affordable, serially produced equipment has almost never been fully competitive in the top Grand Prix class. That's the catch I referred to earlier. Those fondly remembered production-based Manx Nortons and Seeley G50s got their asses handed to them by unobtainable Gileras and MV Agustas. Ditto the ROC-Yamahas and Honda twins, which couldn't touch the factory fours.

That wasn't a huge issue in the '60s. The guys with Manx Nortons could still earn decent start money from organizers who needed big grids to satisfy crowds at their tracks; a large field of bikes, including some that were a lot slower than the factory 'multis,' ensured that the crowd always had something to look at. That's not much of a factor in an era when most of the MotoGP audience watches on TV. You don't need a big field as much, because the cameras are going to follow the leaders around the track and ignore the backmarkers anyway; television fans always have something to watch and never stare listlessly at an empty track. And the guys with Manx Nortons could also make good money racing for start money and purses at non-championship races every weekend. There won't be anywhere else to race your CRT-spec MotoGP bike.

Nowadays, there's not a business case to be made for a team, if they're condemned to bikes that can't even dream of finishing above mid-pack. So the 'production' aspect of the new rules will work only if the balance being struck (extra fuel capacity, less-strict durability rules, and claiming price) will allow CRTs to field competitive bikes.

An extra challenge here is that in an era of traction control and other sophisticated electronic rider aids, even defining 'engine' is tricky. The hard parts; cases, cylinders, heads and reciprocating components are still pretty easy to specify, but those play less and less of a role in the bike's performance with each passing year. Having the engine without the ECU and software that controls it might not do a claiming team much good. It's as if, back in the '60s, a privateer could have claimed Agostini's crankshaft after the Senior TT. It would be interesting to see it, and it would certainly piss off the Count, but it wouldn't do anyone any good without everything that surrounded it and made it work.

And, for the claiming rules to even have a chance of working, teams have to be able to apply them without fear of reprisal.

It should be possible to make the rules work. Although they haven't worked in American motorcycle racing, claiming rules work fine in other sports. For example, horses change hands after almost every 'claimer stakes' horse race, and no one holds a grudge.

We'll see if the proposed claiming rule works to add some much needed depth to MotoGP grids. (Although I've argued that television reduces the incentive for big grids, no one thinks a race with 12 finishers is a good thing; especially when Moto2 races are barn-burners that make the premier class seem boring by comparison.)

The claiming rule is part of a complex set of issues that will reshape MotoGP over the next few years. The relationship of MotoGP to Superbikes is germane, as is the news that MotoGP's owners may in fact end up being stakeholders in SBK. Those are topics for future posts...

1 comment:

  1. Kenny Sr. did use the ROC chassis in 93 and or 94 IIRC. He was pissed Yamaha wasn't making changes fast enough, this was step one on his way to striking out on his own.