In The Paddock

Michael Scott | May 8, 2018

Mediocre is Better

COLUMN

Regular readers will need not reminding that I have always deplored Dorna’s dumbing down of MotoGP. Standard electronics, limited number of cylinders, limited engine numbers, frozen engine design, fairing design, control ws. It’s beneath the dignity of the premier world championship.

A series, after all, that has given us such variety, from lumbering singles to the glory of the Guzzi V8, by way of Honda fours, fives and sixes; and a whole generation of whooping two-strokes, before the marvelous 990s ranging from Aprilia’s in-line three to Honda’s unique V5.

In The Paddock | Mediocre is Better

But even an old curmudgeon like me has to admit, with grudging admiration, that in terms of Dorna’s stated aims, it’s really worked.

Big chief Ezpeleta was determined not just to reduce the general cost of racing, but to cut the natural advantages to the big spenders. To bring the factory teams back within sight of the independents squads, the descendants of the grid-filling privateers of days gone by.

Three different winners, indeed, three different podiums, in the first three races proves that leveling the playing field has at least made the racing less predictable.

Some of the more impressionable youngsters are even prone to talk of a new golden age.

You could put it another way

It has given the mediocre the chance to be exceptional. And made the exceptional more mediocre.

To be called “mediocre” in MotoGP is far from an insult. The guys coming 18th or 23rd are still exceptionally talented, though it has always been easy to disregard them.

The margins are very small, and under the new prevailing conditions getting smaller. In the opening round under the Losail floodlights, for instance, the top eight were covered by just over seven seconds. And three of them—Crutchlow (fourth), Petrucci and long-time leader Zarco (seventh and eighth)—were from non-factory teams.

Another example: just look at Tito Rabat—a real no-hoper for two years on a Honda. He’d won a clear Moto2 title before moving up to oblivion. Did this mean that his talent was wanting? Now on a Ducati, something has clicked and he’s a serious top-10 charger. Second Ducati, forsooth, in Texas, beating Jack Miller, which is not something he did very often when they were Honda teammates.

And look at Suzuki, and their rider Andrea Iannone.

Last year—hopeless.

This year—blimey.

Not very much has changed for The Maniac: perhaps a relatively minor tweak to the bike’s power delivery and (already excellent) balance, and the rider being just that tiny bit less maniacal than previously, partly thanks to the focus brought by his highly competitive teammate Rins. Plus the threat, albeit still distant at this early stage, that his place in the team isn’t so secure.

But these small changes have made a huge difference to his and the bike’s potential. Likewise to teammate Rins, a second-year rookie on the podium in the Argentine.

Last year, sympathetic rival manufacturers agreed to return Suzuki’s “concession” status for the down-table newcomer entrants (also KTM and Aprilia), with free engine development, more engines, and much more freedom to test.

Three races later, they have cause to regret their generosity, while with two podiums Suzuki is in danger of losing these privileges.

Fortunes transformed.

But the narrow margins are demonstrated also by the other “concession” runners, Aprilia and KTM, neither yet a serious threat. Not far off, but not close enough. Those little tweaks are not easy to find, and finishing closer to the leaders but still out of the points is small consolation. It’s still a difficult game.

So which is better? Does my distaste have any real-world relevance? Or should I just shut up and enjoy the spectacle, abandoning any thoughts that racing has any importance beyond itself?

The old days offered high-level technical competition, with exciting (albeit expensive) progress, much of which was important to motorcycle technology at large, in the “racing improves the breed” mode. Engineers could learn specific lessons, and at the same time be trained in solving problems under pressure. But success was reserved for factories with the biggest budgets and cleverest engineers, and for three or four lucky riders.

The new world offers a more mundane but closer brawl, with the bikes increasingly falling behind even road bikes (for example, the nifty twin-clutch transmissions offered on some Honda street bikes are banned in MotoGP, obliging designers to develop arcane and basically irrelevant seamless shifts instead)?

Personally, I miss the clever stuff. But I’m enjoying the racing, happy to see the likes of Crutchlow in a position to win races, and the battle for all the championship points much closer than when the factories had a free hand.

In any case, generally, the same people still win. Nowadays, not by nearly as much.

But don’t let the dumb-down go much further. CN

 

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Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.

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