Morality Play

Story by David Booth//
August 29 2023

So sorry to do this to you, but this month’s column will be a morality play. Like so much of today’s politics, sports are being divided by conflicting calls for equality and equity. Now, one could write an entire column — okay, entire books — on the difference between the two but, in essence, the former represents the equality of opportunity while the latter lesser understood — is the equality of outcome. 

In even simpler terms, so much of the discourse that divides us these days is simply whether you believe we should always just let the better man win or whether we are better served by ensuring that everyone arrives at the same place — and at the same time and speed — no matter their ability. It is the fundamental question of our time and, I suspect, the cause of much — Hell, all — of the polemics that so divide us.

But what’s this got to do with motorcycling, Dave? We don’t pay you — or subscribe to this magazine — for dime-store ethics lessons.

Well, the only reason that I bring it up is because exactly this question is dividing motorcycle racing into two very disparate camps right now. One camp currently believes in the equity side of things — i.e., futzing with the rules to guarantee close racing — while a (loud) minority wants to err on the let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may side of the equation.

The latest battleground is MotoGP and the question at hand is whether Honda and Yamaha — now so desultory in their results that they’d shame the “Open Class” bikes of old — should be granted concessions. For those not familiar with the intricacies of motorcycling’s premier division, such concessions are nothing new to MotoGP. 

In order to entice new manufacturers to the party, like Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM, Dorna has offered advantages — unlimited testing and the ability to develop engines throughout the season — to entrants new to the series that they might better compete with the established players. In a nutshell, the concessions allowed the newbie to get up to speed more quickly.

It worked. Suzuki won a title not six years after first rejoining MotoGP and Aprilia and KTM, though not yet champions, are series front-runners. Nor has there been much, if any, pushback against making things easier for those just entering — or re-entering — a competition. Who amongst us can argue with the concept of giving a leg up to the guy — or gal — just starting out. 

The call for Honda and Yamaha to be granted similar concessions, however, is a completely different animal. For one thing, neither company is even remotely new to racing or the series. Indeed, of the last ten championships, they have won all but two titles and of those two outliers, one — in 2020 — was Suzuki which has, of course, since left the series. In other words, save for Bagnaia’s triumph last year, Honda and Yamaha have owned modern MotoGP racing. 

More importantly, both are very much the architects of their own demise. Yamaha, for one, has long stuck on the concept of moderating power in a quest for “rideability.” It also seems intent on sticking with its traditional inline-four engine. Both, after all, worked in the Valentino Rossi era.

Unfortunately, the last few years — including Fabio Quartararo’s fabulous 2021 title run — have proved that neither works. Ducati, by far the best bike on the grid, has proven that mega amounts of horsepower — and the traction nannies needed to harness it — is the winning formula. It would seem Yamaha will either have to change to a V4 or risk perennial midfield results. 

So, in essence, the question, at least for Yamaha, comes down to this: if they have to build an all new engine design — if memory serves, the company’s last V4 was the mid-‘80s Venture touring bike — is that worthy of some form of concession? Perhaps. The concept of Yamaha being a “newbie” could at least be argued though, considering Yamaha’s vast experience in MotoGP, fairness would seem to dictate reduced concessions compared with those completely new to the series.

On the other hand, I think any concessions to Honda would be misplaced. Honda, to cut to the quick, has fallen from grace as a result of its own laziness and complacency, the first because they won the championships with such consistent ease and the second because it could rely on the greatest rider of his generation, Marc Márquez, to make up for its lesser machines. Indeed, not only did this last lead to the aforementioned complacency, but, in engineering the RC213V specifically for the Spaniard, they made their motorcycle all but unrideable by anyone else. Absolutism has no place in discussions this complicated, but I, for one, don’t find the company deserving of any legs up.

Besides, I’m not sure concessions will help. Frankly, Honda doesn’t seem much interested in winning championships any more. Oh, they go through the motions — hiring Joan Mir and Alex Rins, for instance — but the company seems so preoccupied with entry-level motorcycles and zero-
emission electrics that top-level racing seems like, well, an afterthought. The company’s CBR1000RR, for instance, is sucking badly in World Superbike. And compare the company’s development of big-bore motorcycles to the incredible effort Ducati puts into its production superbikes. No wonder one is at the top of racing and the other in its basement. 

KTM CEO Stefan Pierer is, according to a recent article, “very concerned” that Honda will drop out of the series as Suzuki did. I agree with him. More to the point, if they really are ready to give up not even four years after their last championship — and six of the last 10 — then perhaps the sport is better off without them. 

For whatever it might be worth, that’s where I stand on this morality play.


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