Michael Scott Column - Mar 2009

As the storm clouds gather over the pits of MotoGP, Mike Scott tries to make sense of a crazy world that is going into meltdown.

Posted: 1 March 2009
by Michael Scott

More a business than a sport, MotoGP had a grim festive season and a bleak start to the new year. Along with the rest of the commercial world.

The news that Honda was to pull out of F1 sent shivers down the spine, now Kawasaki’s stealthy withdrawal has inflicted a serious flesh wound. Stealthy? The team staff members were told on December 29 (Happy New Year, guys). But so far nobody else has been told a thing.

The departure of the Greens is a major shock, with all sorts of dimensions. Starting with some 30 teamsters, from director Ichiro Yoda and manager Michael Bartholemy to the catering staff. And three riders, counting tester Olivier Jacque.

John Hopkins switched to Kawasaki last year for big money after five years with Suzuki. Crash after crash left him battered, as he felt obliged to try too hard to make up for the bike’s shortcomings.

Over-riding is rather a speciality; Hopper’s always been on second-string bikes. The Suzuki lacked grunt, but (possibly as a result) had a faithful chassis, and he could get away with it. The Kawasaki’s biggest problem in 2008 was handling, and now he couldn’t.

New team-mate Marco Melandri moved to Kawasaki for 2009 after serial disaster at Ducati. He hoped to reverse the accelerating melt-down of a glittering career, including five MotoGP wins and a 250 title. In that respect, it has gone seriously wrong.

There is the factory side. Kawasaki has never quite got the point in MotoGP. The factory stepped in rather tentatively in 2003, and is now stepping out in the same way. In between times, top results were never forthcoming, with just three second places, for Shinya Nakano, Randy de Puniet and Jacque.

The major factor in the decision is obviously the financial crisis. But Kawasaki is a giant corporation, and could doubtless have found other ways to save money, if its MotoGP team had been bringing home the bacon. It wasn’t, so it was axed.

This leads to the question most worrying to GP management – who will be next? Will the domino effect kick in?

The loss of Kawasaki will drop the MotoGP grid to a sparse 17. It could easily get smaller still. Bike GP racing is different from F1 in that the whizzo racers have a direct link to road bikes. The involvement of the factories is more than just promo flim-flam: there is clear technical advantage.

As a result, the World Championships have always been in thrall to the factories. But they have also survived without them. The Italian factories pulled out en masse (except for MV Agusta) in 1957 for financial reasons – leading to a long sterile patch when a pair of MVs won everything by miles, and the rest pottered along desperately far behind, on terminally outclassed Manx Norton or Matchless singles.

Then the Japanese factories (rising fast through the smaller classes) pulled out in 1967, when restrictive new technical rules put a stop to runaway engine development. They soon came back. How do they stand now? Which factory is favourite to follow Kwacker down the tubes?

Suzuki is the prime candidate, with results like Kawasaki’s ever since Kenny Roberts Junior won the title in 2000. It often seems that Suzuki is only in GP racing to go through the motions. But it’s been there for a long, long time: Suzuki is a racing stalwart compared with easy-come easy-go Kawasaki. Departure would strike much deeper.

Honda? It’s already withdrawn from F1. Will the bikes go too? GP racing has been a backbone to Honda since its TT debut in 1959; but Honda is a willful company, led the 1967 Japanese withdrawal, and didn’t come back for more than ten years. Honda’s commitment to racing is deep, but not to be trusted.

Yamaha, riding high with Valentino Rossi, is likely to keep with the programme just as long as it possibly can. Ducati and Stoner likewise – though the relatively tiny Italian factory is much more vulnerable to bad financial weather.

Maybe they’ll all soldier on. Or maybe things will get so bad that they’ll all pull out. History suggests that the World Championships will survive, but it is hard to imagine what form they would take this time around. The current formula doesn’t lend itself to privateer machinery.

On the other hand, all those old Manx Nortons and Matchlesses will still be eligible. In South Africa, I found myself on the site of Westmead, the old Natal GP circuit where motorcycle legend Garry Hocking met his death. He’d quit bikes abruptly in 1962 after two World Titles, because of the frequent deaths. Picked up by F1, he was practicing in a Lotus when he crashed fatally six months later.

Nice to see he is remembered there, even if only on a single road sign on Hocking Place, on the industrial complex now on the site.

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