Is the MotoGP Show Killing Technological Spearheading?

A lot of things are changing in MotoGP, but it looks like not every manufacturer is exactly happy with this, and Honda has always been the most vocal of the MSMA against too many changes that Dorna brought to the premiere class.
Just before the end of 2013, Honda's Shuhei Nakamoto was not at all shy to remind everyone that the Japanese house planned to retire from MotoGP racing in case Dorna made spec software mandatory.

Since it's been more than once that Nakamoto-san mentioned this potential radical move, I kind of figure that there's something stirring at Honda, and his words are not just worthless blabbering.

Dorna imposed the spec Magneti Marelli ECU and datalogger as a mandatory part of the electronics package for the MotoGP from 2014, and there are a lot of rumors concerning standardized software from 2017 or so.

The reason? Offering a better show. That is, by leveling out the differences between the MotoGP entrants as far as bikes and the technology beneath the fairings are concerned, and thus increasing the competition.

This should, in turn, make MotoGP races tighter and thus make the whole series more attractive for everybody, from those who buy online subscriptions to watch the races, to people who fill the grandstands, watch the TV broadcasts and all.

Dorna also aims at reducing the costs of the actual racing programs of both Factory and Open Class teams, making it easier for new teams to battle the big boys.

While this goal could have a justification, trying to level out the whole industry sounds a bit silly. It's like asking a fast athlete, who has enough resources to train and develops the best running gear to run slower, just because the others can't keep up with him.

Now, back to Honda, if someone imagines that HRC is in MotoGP just for the kicks and the racing pleasure, then they're wrong. The racing program is more research and development than cramming cups and framed diplomas in a shiny glass cabinet: it's about better bikes, fans, customers and marketing.

You might be surprised to learn that such racing programs are feeding results in commercial vehicles, and many of the technologies and new parts present in every new model year bike are more or less derived from such R&D.

The engineers who, by the way, are wrecking their nerves during the winter break, are paid to deliver results... technological solutions for better, faster, more economical motorcycles. Becoming better engineers and designers, these fellows also find a clearer purpose, which in turn, drives them onwards, like a snowball effect.

And speaking of motorcycles, MotoGP racing is probably the best research laboratory ever: it used to have almost no limits, and only discreet rules as far as development was concerned. Even more, it came with the perfect real-life testing grounds: direct competition.

Far more than simply testing new technologies and setups all by themselves, Honda (and the rest of the factories) pitted their newest, best machines against their rivals', and have been able to measure their success in countless other ways than simply winning a race or a championship.

Winning then turns from simple nuts and bolts into a symbol, a symbol fans and customers love and to which they adhere. It grows passion and it drives a small part of sales, and it helps things move more smoothly.

Now, taking all this away in the name of the greater show might not seem to cut it, or at least HRC says it doesn't. It appears like Honda holds software way too dear and would rather quit racing if they can't use their own code.

Now, without taking sides in this affair, I cannot think about the fact that MotoGP prototypes are far more than the software running them. These bikes have a modular geometry, a ton of other sensors that gather immense amounts of data on a wide range of variables, from fuel consumption to mixtures, brakes and whatnot. Could Honda's secret lie with the ECU software? It's hard to tell now.

From where I stand, one more thing seems to slowly become clearer: Ducati seems to tread a new path. While Preziosi opposed the spec ECU, Dall'Igna doesn't see it as an obstacle, and this might indicate that Ducati established a different set of goals for the near future.

They learned that the current bike cannot compete shoulder to shoulder with Yamaha and Honda. Even more, Ducatis have been given a hard time by the two satellite teams of the Japanese makers.

So I dare speculate that Dall'Igna is trying to play by the long-run rules and come up with a new (possibly a whole new bike, as himself declared) meeting all the proposed regulations for the future.

There's a very small chance to see Ducati battling Honda or Yamaha for podiums in 2014, but with 3 seasons of constant development of a bike to play it cool with Marelli ECU and software, Borgo Panigle might have a noticeable advantage in case Dorna's dream comes true. And Honda and Yamaha will have to work hard to bring their bikes to spec...

Honda leaving MotoGP over the ECU software will mean no more access to the “mad scientist playground,” no more racing glory to be transferred to the road bikes, and seeing the premier class dominated by Yamaha and Ducati, possibly with Suzuki chewing on the cake, too, in case their new in-line 4 machine becomes the dream boat they hope it would.

If Honda hopes to block Dorna from making spec software mandatory, then all the members in the MSMA must vote against the proposal and I doubt Ducati will. Then, it will be up to Honda to make a decision for themselves and sort out the matter. However, with Suzuki and possibly Aprilia planning factory entries in MotoGP, we might even see Dorna "suit yourself" Honda...

It's hard to figure out exactly which option tips the scale to a better future. The fact is that, in case Dorna does no give up their spec software idea, top-end ECU research will be slowed down.

Not that I fancy too much electronics on a motorcycle, though...
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