The recent MotoGP test at Sepang, Malaysia, provided the first real chance to see how the new rules for 2014 have changed the structure of the class and how the performance of the various machines compares. Since 2012, the class has been filled out with bikes under the CRT (Claiming Rule Team) clause, which ostensibly meant production-based engines in prototype chassis. However, this year the Claiming Rule has been dropped and a new two-tier structure introduced.
The new rules separate the entries into an Open category (replacing CRT) and those running under the Factory Option. Factory bikes are limited to five engines for the season and 20 litres of fuel (down one from last year), while Open bikes are allowed 12 engines and 24 litres of fuel, the same as the CRT bikes were last year.
New this year, all bikes must use the control ECU supplied by Magneti Marelli; Open teams are required to run Dorna-supplied control software in the ECU while Factory teams can use their own software. Open teams will have rear tires available one step softer than the control Bridgestones supplied to the Factory teams. And finally, Factory teams must homologate their engines before the season and cannot make any changes to design or construction during the year. Either the five engines must be submitted and sealed before the season begins, or one engine with sample parts to be used for comparison throughout the year must be submitted.
There was a lot of behind-the-scenes politics, bargaining and coercion to get to this point but essentially the factories want so desperately to use their own electronics software that they are willing to take all those penalties – fewer engines, less fuel, harder tires and frozen engine design – to do so. There is a very real danger that an Open class bike, given all those advantages, could be quicker than the Factory machines, and this is almost what transpired at Sepang: Aleix Espargaro, aboard an NGM Mobile Forward Racing FTR-Yamaha, posted the fourth-quickest time at the test behind only Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.
Certainly, part of Espargaro’s stellar performance is his own; he was the class of the CRT field last year on the Aspar Aprilia ART. And part of his performance was due to the softer tires available that may not last race distance.
“We are still struggling a lot when the tires drop down,” Espargaro pointed out in a Forward Racing release after the test. That said, the FTR-Yamaha is a 2013 Yamaha M1 engine, frame and swingarm with FTR accessories – essentially a factory machine running control software. With just a quarter second separating the official Yamahas and Espargaro’s Open machine, it appears that the proprietary software may not hold the advantages it has long been purported to have.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Open/Factory divide is the Ducati team’s options at this point. While Andrea Dovizioso and new recruit Cal Crutchlow showed promise during the test, the team is still struggling with the Desmosedici. Yonny Hernandez, riding for the satellite Pramac team, will compete under the Open rules and reports from the test indicate that Ducati may also enter its official riders as such. With more engines for the year and the ability to update the engine specification rather than homologating one design, Ducati would be able to speed development significantly.
Even though the current Desmosedici uses a twin-spar aluminum frame and the engine is not a structural part of the chassis as it once was, it’s clear that the engine’s layout and structure very much play a part in how the chassis works. This gives Ducati even more incentive to enter under the Open rules, and could prove especially beneficial as the year goes on.
Ducati has until the end of February and the second Sepang test to make a decision. No announcement has been made yet, but Espargaro’s performance last week will have certainly made the Open category an enticing option for the company’s struggling MotoGP team.