The Future of MotoGP?

Story by David Booth//
March 19 2024

Last year, I created something of a hullabaloo when I postulated that Honda or Yamaha — or, in a worst-case scenario, both — might quit MotoGP. Both had seemingly given up on racing, barely developing their racing motorcycles — RC213V and YZR-M1 respectively — suffering terrible public humiliation in the motorcycling press, mainly a result of the withering criticism dealt to their respective top riders, Fabio Quartararo for Yamaha and, of course, Marc Marquez for Honda.

It was trials of the latter that had me betting that, of the two, a Honda withdrawal would be the least surprising. The company has been very much spoiled with its racing success over the years and, more importantly, has traditionally been very much of the belief that its engineering abilities were more important than the quality of rider to said success (it is said to have allowed the GOAT, Valentino Rossi, to leave for Yamaha in 2004 just to prove that point). The company is, shall we say, prideful to a fault. The fact that Marquez, generally acknowledged the best rider of his generation, was saying the opposite would not have sat well.

Well, as it turns out, I was right about the first point, but wrong on the second. Instead, if I were a betting man — and, on this one, I might make an exception to my no gambling rule — I now think it’s Yamaha that’s about to go out with a whimper. I could cite all sorts of justifications — the aforementioned bad press, the fact that not even loyalist Rossi wants to campaign a privateer team Yamaha or the fact that Yamaha’s engine, an inline four, is a dinosaur in MotoGP.

But such evidence is, as lawyers are wont to say, circumstantial. The real trick to proving something, as every TV cop storyline has long educated us, is to determine the motivation. If that be the case, the recent news circulating the European press that the company is discontinuing its iconic YZF-R1 in Europe — the result of stringent Euro5 emissions rules — leaves absolutely no motivation at all for Yamaha to continue racing.

As much as we enthusiasts might like to think differently, the fact remains that there are only two reasons for a major multinational to spend millions on something as seemingly frivolous as racing: either to market the production motorcycles they sell or to improve the performance of those same motorcycles. That’s it, that’s all. Any other reasoning is an attempt to romanticize what is, at its core, a decision based simply on dollars and cents. There’s even a catchy catchphrase to describe the rationale: Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.

Except that Yamaha, with the demise of the R1, will have nothing to sell. Or at least nothing to sell to people who care about racing. So, while it is true that, as many motorcycling outlets point out, that the R1 will continue to be sold in many markets including our own, according to Yamaha Canada, it remains the case that Yamaha won’t be selling an R1 in the one region — Europe — where MotoGP racing really and truly does sell bikes.

Yes, we North Americans have the COTA race to fall back on, but, to be blunt, it is poorly recognized and hardly noticed as a motorsports event in the US of A. Anyone thinking that Yamaha is going to spend the tens of millions of dollars it takes to get Fabio Quartararo to what appears to be probably another tenth place in the final standings so they can sell maybe an extra hundred or so R1s in North America needs to give their heads a shake. We’ve seen this before; Suzuki lost interest in its full-sized four-cylinder sport bikes and soon made the same harsh calculation that MotoGP simply wasn’t worth the investment.

Nor is there much argument for the justification that Yamaha might, like it did with the R6, continue to sell the R1 as a track-only product. Again, the numbers don’t work. It’s also unlikely that the company’s latest sporting offerings — the R7 and much anticipated R9 — would benefit much from MotoGP marketing. Both are supersports — not superbike — motorcycles and the folks that buy them unlikely to be diehard racing fans.

That also brings up the prospect that Yamaha might also dump, as Suzuki did, World Superbike as well. After all, Yamaha just lost the series’ top talent — Toprak Razgatlıoğlu — presumably because it refused to spend sufficient money developing their motorcycle and BMW, with more generous coffers it would seem, were. Leaving WSBK, however, is more of an unknown. On the one hand, the R1 is homologated until 2028. On the other, again, why would Yamaha continue spending millions racing a motorcycle it will no longer sell?

So, where does this leave us? Funnily enough, exactly where we were about 60 years ago. That’s when European marques dominated racing before fledgling Japanese brands, younger and hungrier, came along and ate their lunch. These days, it’s European marques — BMW, Ducati, Aprilia, Triumph and, more lately, KTM — back at the forefront of racing, mainly because they still understand that what they race successfully on Sunday will sell on Monday.


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