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GP Week : Issue 38
S OME people go racing to escape the real world. Sometimes the real world comes to get you. That’s what happened to MotoGP over the northern winter. The international financial collapse has left racing picking up the pieces. The response was rapid. But with contracts and regulations already in place for 2009, there wasn’t a great deal to be done. A February summit meeting slashed practice (MotoGP’s four hours and 20 minutes cut by one-and-three- quarter hours), banned electronic launch control, and put a plan put in place to extend engine life. And the usual business class travel for major team pit and other staff is a thing of the past. More drastic proposals are in place for next year. Likely rule changes include a compulsory three-race service life for each motorcycle, two-day instead of three-day race meetings, and only one bike per rider. And riders’ salaries are expected to be cut in half. But will the changes really save money? And will they be enough? The answer to the first question is definitely yes. As for the second … that nobody knows. For one, it’s a moving target: what financial shocks remain for the world at large? As veteran former Suzuki teammanager Garry Taylor said: “You’ve got to believe there’ll be some that don’t make the start of the season, and more that won’t make the finish.” Taylor, now the man behind the Chinese 125 Haojue project, explained how currency fluctuations had thrown financial planning into total disarray. And added ominously: “I wonder how many teams will find that the promised sponsorship cheque just won’t arrive. After all, if a company is in trouble, they’re not going to tell the team.” Race director Paul Butler echoes the uncertainty. “It’s very uncharted territory. I don’t think anybody realises how rough it might get. The factories are belt- tightening big style, because Japan’s in serious trouble. And there lies the rub.” Butler also speaks for the paddock at large, however, when he continues: “The thing is, people will always go racing, therefore there will always be a market. The oil crisis of the early 70s was fairly major, and coincided with the aftermath of Honda pulling out. People 40 were basically racing production bikes. It didn’t involve the same amount of money as today, but there were still professional racers, making a living, and there was an industry supporting it. “So it will go on. “We’ve never had a product that has been so well exposed in terms of television, and with a global superstar. That is the glue that is holding it together right now. Fingers crossed.” In fact, amid the doom and gloom, sponsorship in the top class has actually rallied slightly. Not only has Spanish billionaire property magnate Francisco Hernando stepped in to back Gibernau’s new Ducati team, and not only has Rizla finally agreed to spend another year with Suzuki after pulling out of the British Superbike championship, but extra backing has come from Monster energy drinks, going from a lower level with Kawasaki last year to become team title sponsor for Tech 3 Yamaha. Team owner Hervé Poncharal, who is also president of teams’ association IRTA, is happy for himself. “It will give us a bit of stability, and during this tough period it’s good to see a company wanting to stay.” But in his IRTA role, he is an advocate of major changes, already long overdue. The credit crunch, he insists, hasn’t changed anything – merely thrown it into sharper focus. “For 20 years we had the tobacco industry putting all their communication budget into motor sport – car and bike. I remember in 2000 after my team won the 250 title we had three offers: one from Gauloises, one from Phillip Morris and one from West. At that stage the tobacco industry was putting a lot of money into the sport. Sometimes there were more people wanting to invest than the possibility to invest. “It was like a golden era. But it created inflation in our overall costs, including technical costs and way of life. Nobody complained, because until they left we could match the costs. So nobody thought it was too expensive. “Once they left, we still kept the same costs, but we didn’t find anybody to replace them, for the whole grid, at the same level.” Measures taken for 2009 were as much as could be done. It will be more severe in 2010 … for the riders as well. “I am sure that riders whose contracts end this year will find they might have to reduce by something like 50 percent. This is what we’ve been discussing amongst ourselves. We can’t carry on living at the same level when the income is down by 50 percent.” The fat days are over, for the foreseeable future. Poncharal seizes on what positives he can: “We need to use the difficult time to be thinking, and trying to get a new format. If we are cheaper, we can also maybe find more companies. For me, I need eight million (Euros) to go racing. And I know I will never ever find that much. But if tomorrow we can reduce the overall cost by 50 or even 60 percent, then we will be looking for less for sponsorship. And I know a lot of companies that would like to join MotoGP, but at this moment it is too expensive.” He is also a supporter of the reduced testing. Until last year, with fierce competition between tyre companies, it had been necessary to run up to four full race simulations each weekend, just to test tyres. Testing was similarly almost completely devoted to tyre tests. As