MotoGP blog: MotoGP in crisis

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Kawasaki’s bombshell decision to quit MotoGP was a wake up call of Big Ben proportions for the racing world.

Well for MotoGP at least, which had previously seemed impregnable to the global economic crisis that has seen Kawasaki join the likes of Honda’s F1 team, Subaru’s World Rally squad and Woolworths!

I don’t particularly blame Kawasaki despite it signing a contract assuring everyone that it would be involved until the end of 2011 at least.

As the bean counters sit in more and more fraught budgets meetings in Japan, it is inevitable that somebody in the Kawasaki boardroom would start wondering whether a rumoured outlay of £40m to finish last was a worthwhile exercise.

It is surprising given that Kawasaki has no major presence in World Superbikes but finishing last every week could be argued to be detrimental to the brand.

It is hardly a major shock though given the current economic climate where established and once highly profitable organisations are calling in the administrators faster than you can say credit crunch.

And frankly in MotoGP the wounds are all self-inflicted.

And the biggest perpetrator in my view is the Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association (MSMA), an organisation that operates at a level of secrecy to shame James Bond.

With no public accountability and a reluctance to speak in public that would embarrass the most hardcore recluse, the manufacturers have contributed to their own downfall by sanctioning rule changes that just forced costs to escalate.

Rules have been introduced that have been detrimental to the factories chequebooks and equally as destructive on the sporting spectacle.

Without a global economic crisis to focus the minds this plan seemed justified. But the onset of financial doom has shown the fancy free spending sprees that MotoGP embarked on was an exercise akin to driving a JCB on thin ice.

The switch from 990cc to 800cc forced the manufacturers to invest more money when the quest to bring in new investment was becoming increasingly harder.

The test now is how MotoGP reacts. This is a golden opportunity now to learn from F1 and implement sweeping changes to preserve the sport.

The FIA recently sanctioned a raft of changes to slash budgets in F1 to save the sport from disappearing into a financial chasm. MotoGP has to do the same.

Motorcycling’s equivalent – the FIM – though has nothing like the same influence and power over major decisions, particularly when it comes to the rule book.

A major weakness of Carmelo Ezpeleta’s strategy has been to transfer too much power to engineers and the result is the prospects of a 17-rider grid in 2009.

Hardly value for money for a TV and live audience, and with barely any new investment coming into the sport, the future doesn’t look particularly rosy. If teams can’t rely on sponsors to form a big part of their budget, then making racing more affordable is the only option.

The big issue too is that if you try and dumb down the MotoGP rules to slash expenditure then you are left with World Superbikes. So for how much longer can the two co-exist?

If minds were already focused on cost-cutting, the budgets will be dissected with microscopic scrutiny from now on.

Another test of Ezpeleta’s mettle will be how he deals with Kawasaki’s quit and run tactic.

If Kawasaki did agree a deal to supply bikes until the end of 2011, then the punishment for reneging on the deal must be swift and severe. Without it, what’s to stop another factory following suit.

I bet Ezpeleta is privately seething at Kawasaki, not least because it is well known that Dorna has invested heavily even in factory teams to safeguard the number of entries.

A Dorna mounted financial rescue package would also be dangerous territory for Dorna to tread.

By bailing out Kawasaki, Ezpeleta would open the floodgates, and justifiably the likes of Suzuki and Ducati would be banging his door down looking for their own slice of the kitty.

This week’s crisis meeting in Japan is a watershed moment for MotoGP.

Viable plans to sustain and increase grid numbers have to be thrashed out. Engine development might need limiting, electronics might need cutting, rev limits might need introducing, riders wages might need capping, cheap and competitive lease bikes might need to be mass produced, the calendar might need hacking.

It’s a brave new world we must all accept, even the MSMA, though they won’t tell you that.

What do you think of the current impact of the credit crunch on MotoGP? Post a comment below.

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Matthew Birt

By Matthew Birt