April 06, 2012  |   By Paul Kelly

Plenty Of Changes Ahead In 2012 MotoGP Season

At first glance, little appears to have changed in the MotoGP World Championship in 2012.

2011 Red Bull Indianapolis GP winner Casey Stoner is back on his Repsol Honda after winning his second World Championship, with former Indy winner Dani Pedrosa again as his teammate. 2009 Indy winner Jorge Lorenzo and American Ben Spies are teammates once again at on the Yamaha factory team. And inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis GP winner Valentino Rossi and American Nicky Hayden return to form Ducati’s factory attack of World Champions.

Honda has been the quickest bike in preseason testing, with Yamaha right on its tail pipe. Ducati lags a bit behind but appears to be competitive.

So not much is new, right? Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again.

This is a season of big change for the world’s most prestigious motorcycle series. MotoGP launches to action Sunday, April 8 at the Grand Prix of Qatar, the first of 18 races this season. The fifth annual Red Bull Indianapolis GP is the 11th race, Aug. 17-19 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Most of the changes this season are technical.

The first new wrinkle is a switch to 1000cc engines for all bikes in the premier class. MotoGP used 500cc engines until switching to 990cc engines from 2001-06. Then concerned with rising speeds, the maximum engine displacement was reduced to 800cc from 2007-11.

But the 800cc machines were unloved by most riders and fans. They were slower than the 990cc bikes and required shorter braking distances, which led to fewer mistakes under braking and mind-numbingly high cornering speeds. The end results were more processional racing and more accidents in corners than during the 990cc era.

Nearly all of the riders have indicated they enjoy the larger bikes during preseason testing, as riders can use engine torque to correct problems in corners in more of a “point and squirt” style.

Riders with a World or AMA Superbike background – such as Americans Hayden, Spies and Colin Edwards and Brit Cal Crutchlow – could benefit from the 1000cc formula, the same size engine used in Superbike racing. Conversely, smaller riders such as the 5-foot-2, 110-pound Pedrosa could suffer on the larger bikes, which are more physical than the 800cc machines.

Straightaway speeds also should climb with the larger engines. Predictions of 225 mph in the speed traps on the long straightaway at Mugello, Italy, have been predicted, nearly 8 mph faster than ever. If that’s true, then speeds of 210 mph could be possible on the iconic front straightaway at Indianapolis.

Electronic aids such as traction control and wheelie control still will keep the 1000cc bikes from sliding and smoking the tires as much as the beloved 990cc machines, but the longer braking zones and higher speeds of the larger engines and softer tire compounds introduced this year by exclusive tire supplier Bridgestone should spice up the racing.

The second major technical change is the introduction of Claiming Rule Teams (CRT) machines to race alongside factory prototypes in MotoGP.

Carmelo Ezpeleta, the boss of MotoGP commercial arm Dorna Sports, promoted the CRT concept due to annual lease prices for satellite bikes climbing toward $3 million per season. Ezpeleta wanted teams to trim the bill for season-long competition in MotoGP to about $1 million by buying or building a prototype chassis and buying a production-based engine.

This new formula already has met its two main goals before the season started – reducing costs and increasing grid sizes. There will be 21 riders competing full time in MotoGP this season, up from 17 last year.

Nine of those riders will be on CRT machines, which feature prototype chassis and production-based engines. CRT bikes also receive special rules breaks, such as a larger fuel tank and a larger engine allotment for the season.

But there will be initial growing pains on the track for the CRT concept before it evolves into a bonafide replacement for satellite leases.

The quickest CRT machine during preseason testing was the Aspar ART of veteran Randy de Puniet, who ended up 1.821 seconds behind leader Stoner at the final preseason test in late March at Jerez, Spain. De Puniet’s bike uses an Aprilia chassis and engine based on the Italian manufacturer’s successful RSV4 in World Superbike.

De Puniet was just .022 of a second behind the slowest satellite bike, the Cardion AB Ducati of Karel Abraham.

The slowest CRT bike was the Avintia FTR-Kawasaki of Colombian rookie Yonny Hernandez, 4.126 seconds behind Stoner at Jerez. The remaining seven CRT bikes are three to 3.5 seconds off the pace, including the NGM Forward Suter-BMW of popular American rider Edwards.

But that gap figures to be trimmed during the season as CRT teams develop their all-important electronic systems and learn to adjust their chassis to the new, softer Bridgestone tires.

It’s unlikely that de Puniet or any CRT rider will threaten for a top-three podium finish this season. But de Puniet will beat a handful of satellite bikes at all points of the season, especially if Aprilia continues to accelerate development. It’s also possible de Puniet could grab a top-six finish in weather- or crash-affected races.

While the CRT bikes won’t challenge for victories, they will form an interesting race within the race this season. There also are interesting manufacturer battles within CRT, as Aprilia, BMW, Honda and Kawasaki each have production-based engines competing in the new formula.

CRT also will feature an interesting mix of veteran and rookie riders. British rider James Ellison and Italian rider Ivan Silva return to MotoGP, joining de Puniet, his Aspar teammate Aleix Espargaro and Edwards as CRT riders with MotoGP experience. Rookies joining the premier class through CRT include Mattia Pasini with Speed Master, Michele Pirro with Gresini, Hernandez with Avintia and Danilo Petrucci with Ioda.

While mixing prototype, satellite and production-based bikes into one race may be awkward at times this season, CRT is the future of MotoGP.

There will be more of these production-based bikes in 2013 and 2014. Ezpeleta’s ultimate goal appears to be eliminating satellite leases and building a MotoGP grid teeming with six to eight factory bikes and 16 CRT machines, further developed to be as close in performance to works bikes as current satellite machines.

While CRT will introduce an interesting new wrinkle to the premier class in 2012, the race for victories and the World Championship still will be fought on familiar ground – among the factory teams.

Repsol Honda appears to remain the top team in MotoGP. Stoner earned his second World Championship last season, his first year with the Honda factory team after a high-profile move from Ducati. Stoner was quickest in all three preseason tests this year, two at Sepang, Malaysia, and one at Jerez, Spain.

Not all is perfect with Stoner and teammate Dani Pedrosa, though. Both riders complained at all three tests about front-end chatter under braking due to the softer front tire introduced this season by Bridgestone.

Plus Yamaha appears to have closed the gap to Honda during the offseason. 2010 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo ended the Jerez test just .173 of a second behind Stoner, with teammate Spies fourth, just .715 of a second behind Stoner.

Lorenzo and Spies repeatedly have complimented the balance of the Yamaha M1, with Lorenzo saying this was his smoothest preseason of his five years in the premier class. Lorenzo also appears to have figured out management of the new Bridgestone tires as well as any rider. He completed a full race simulation at Jerez with metronomic consistency, turning nearly identical times for most of the 25 laps.

Ducati faces a stern challenge to recover from a disastrous 2011 season. The iconic Italian manufacturer went winless for the first time since 2004, with new signing Rossi finishing a season without a victory for the first time in his Grand Prix career, which started in 1996.

The biggest change for Ducati this year is abandoning the carbon-fiber frame that proved so diabolical on the GP11 bike the team used last year for an aluminum spar frame for its GP12 model, similar to that used by Japanese rivals Honda and Yamaha.

Rossi liked the feel of the aluminum-framed GP12 in January at the first Sepang test. But the team chased a bad setup at the second Sepang session and was 1.2 seconds behind Stoner, a similar gap to the nightmare last season.

A breakthrough came on the final day of the Jerez test late last month when crew chief Jeremy Burgess overhauled the setup on Rossi’s bike, and he pulled to within .953 of a second of Stoner.

Still, don’t expect miracles from Rossi or teammate 2006 World Champion Hayden, especially in the first half of the season. Ducati still is dialing out problems on both ends of their machine, as Rossi still feels instability in the front end and Hayden wants better rear traction. Plus Ducati officials have said major revisions of the bike probably won’t be ready until the Grand Prix of Catalunya in early June.

Ducati’s continued mechanical misfortune will provide an opening for Tech 3 Yamaha, which looks to return to its familiar perch as the top satellite team in the class after finishing behind Gresini Honda last season.

British rider Crutchlow has been the revelation of the preseason as he prepares for his second year with the team and in the premier class. He has been in the top six at all three preseason tests and ended up fifth at Jerez, just .805 behind Stoner.

Crutchlow came to MotoGP after competing in World Superbike, which uses 1000cc machines. So the aggressive Crutchlow feels more comfortable with the more powerful, heavier new machines this season in MotoGP.

Andrea Dovizioso moved to Tech 3 to team with Crutchlow after Edwards’ departure to CRT team NGM Forward. Dovizioso, who rode for Repsol Honda from 2009-11, also was fast on Tech 3’s Yamaha M1 during the preseason and will create a formidable duo that could challenge for podium finishes.

It also wouldn’t be a stretch to see either Dovizioso or Crutchlow become the first satellite rider to win a MotoGP race since Marco Melandri captured the 2006 Australian Grand Prix on a Gresini Honda.

SPEED will televise all 18 MotoGP races live in America in 2012. Fans also can follow live timing and scoring and watch live video at www.motogp.com.