2009 Moto GP Rules Changes
No one in motorsport is immune from the global economic downturn and Moto GP was particularly vulnerable due to the precipitous escalation in costs over the past few seasons. This offseason Kawasaki announced that they were withdrawing from Moto GP with immediate effect.
For Honda's part, when the announcement of the shuttering of the F1 team came down a shockwave of panic whipped through the Moto GP paddock as many feared Honda would bow out of Moto GP as well. Honda supplies 6 bikes in the championship so a withdrawal would have effectively killed the series. Luckily, Honda remains committed to Moto GP for the time being.
Nonetheless, Dorna and FIM jumped out of their seats to make some radical cost-reducing rule changes. The major change that fans will see is that one of the 2 Friday practice sessions have been eliminated, and the practice sessions will now be shortened to 45 minutes. Post-race Monday tests have been reduced in number to 2 for the entire season, and they are limited to test riders only.
After a long and protracted political battle behind the scenes Michelin has finally been forced out of the championship and Bridgestone will be the spec tire for at least the next 3 seasons. Each rider's tire allotment has been cut in half to 20 tires (8 fronts and 12 rears) and there will be no more qualifying tires. Bridgestone will be providing the tire supply to the teams for free, which should be a boon to the satellite teams.
The last major rule change is that after the Brno round in August, teams will be limited to using only 5 engines for the remainder of the season. If a team must use an extra engine the rider will be penalized 10 points in the championship.
Will all of these measures work? The free-to-the-teams spec tire will undoubtedly reduce a good deal of direct cost, as well reduce the amount of money teams need to spend on tire testing. Cutting 90 minutes of running time out of each weekend should save a good amount of engine-building costs. However, reducing the on-track time of the bikes may hurt spectator attendance, especially on Fridays where the Moto GP track time has been reduced by 60%. Hopefully the unintended consequences don't overshadow the projected cost savings.
Repsol Honda and the 2009 RC212V
For the 2009 RC212V Dani Pedrosa requested that HRC stick with the same design from 2008 and improve it, rather than building a new machine. Dani's reasoning was that he wanted to ride the same bike for 2 seasons because he had not done that in his tenure at Repsol Honda and each new bike brought along a time-consuming learning curve. Only time will tell if that is the correct approach. On one hand Yamaha did not do a big re-design of the championship-winning M1. On the other hand Ducati is fielding a radical new bike with a carbon fiber frame and swingarm.
In preseason testing Yamaha has been consistently near the top of the time sheets. So, at the moment it seems that improving the existing RC212V design is not necessarily a large liability. However, the M1 notched 10 wins, 14 podiums and 7 poles last season compared to 2 wins, 12 podiums, and 2 poles for the RC212V (1 podium from Dovi on the 2007 RC212V). To close the ground to Yamaha and Ducati, Honda may be forced to take more engineering risks.
The major challenge for Honda will be changing the bike to suit the character of the Bridgestone tires. While the Gresini Honda team has raced on Bridgestones for two seasons now, the Repsol Honda team only has a total of 5 races on Bridgestones. With the cuts in testing time and Dani's injury it will be a serious challenge for Honda to take full advantage of the Bridgestone tires the way Yamaha and Ducati have.
Pedrosa's Surgery, Re-Injury, and Surgery
According to several media outlets, Dani Pedrosa elected to have surgery performed on his knee in during this year's testing ban to repair damage he did to his knee last season at Sachsenring, which he later re-aggravated in a fall at Philip Island. However, it is reported that he did not inform his bosses at HRC, which was taken none too well. When he showed up for the first pre-season test at Sepang he still had not fully recovered from his surgery.
This would not have been a huge problem, except that he crashed again at the Qatar test, breaking his forearm and re-injuring his convalescing knee. Due to that crash Pedrosa had to have another surgery to fix the damage, thereby preventing him from doing any further pre-season testing. That blow could not have come at a worse time for Honda as they were already behind the performance of the Yamaha M1 and the Ducati GP9. Pedrosa's injury sidelined him for the remainder of the pre-season testing schedule leaving Dovizioso to complete the testing program by himself.
Furthermore, this injury could not have come at a worse time for Pedrosa's career. In 2007 and 2008 Dani has been far and away Honda's best performing rider, yet he did not come close to winning the title in either season. Dani has been the benefactor of HRC's full development attention and has been given all that he wanted in development. HRC even went so far as to agree to his request that all of his data remain private while still having access to the data from all of the other Honda riders. And when Dani had become fed up with the performance of his Michelin tires last season, he demanded to be switched to Bridgestones. This effectively ended HRC's 25+ year relationship with Michelin.
Given that backdrop, it is a critical year for Dani Pedrosa. It is the last year of his current contract, so he has to either deliver the title or come close to it. If he doesn't, HRC could very well replace him with someone like Jorge Lorenzo. Still, Lorenzo would have to outperform Pedrosa for it to make sense to make the switch.
Dovi Steps Up
Andrea Dovizioso has been a Honda rider for his entire grand prix career, winning a 125GP title and finishing runner up in 250GP twice in a row. However, in that time he's never had the benefit of the full might of HRC developing his bike. As a result, Dovi has had to ride much harder than most to achieve his results. Now that he has joined the Repsol Honda team it is finally his chance to show what he can do with the factory's backing.
Dovi's signing was not without a fair bit of political wrangling. Dovi and his management were well aware of Dani's number 1 status at HRC which in addition to guaranteeing him exclusive access to bike upgrades, gave him exclusive access to all of the data from all of the Honda teams. Because of this, Dovi secured assurances from HRC that he would receive equal support from HRC until the mid-point of the season. Whichever rider is ahead at that time will then receive Honda's focus as the number 1 rider.
While Dani's pre-season injury has put HRC on the back foot, it has been an opportunity for Dovizioso to take charge and mold the bike to his liking. Thus far the jury is still out as to the results of Dovi's development input.
Satellite Honda Teams
For 2009 the satellite Honda teams will all be campaigning the 2008 RC212V as raced by the Repsol Honda team last season. However, in an effort to extend the service life of the satellite engines and reduce costs, all of the satellite Hondas will have a redline 1000 rpm lower than the factory Repsol Hondas. The exception is Toni Elias who will start the season with essentially the same 2009 RC212V that Pedrosa and Dovizioso have. Toni Elias will take on the 'shadow' factory ride that in the past was occupied by riders like Marco Melandri and Sete Gibernau. He will be third in line for bike updates, which will be the best position he has had in his Moto GP career.
Playboy Joins the Paddock
Economic times are tough for all involved in the championship but LCR Honda was fortunate enough to land a big sponsorship for 2009 in the form of Playboy Magazine. Playboy is looking to boost its sales in Europe and what better vehicle to use than the sexy, exciting, testosterone-filled sport of Moto GP. Playboy logos won't be featured at the season opener at Qatar since pornography is verboten in the Arab world but look for the bunny at Round 2 in Jerez.
2009 Honda Moto GP Rider Line-Up
Dani Pedrosa - Repsol Honda
2008 Championship Position: 3rdd
2008 Wins: 2
2008 Podiums: 9
Strengths: Excellent breakaway pace once he's out front, much improved rain rider
Weaknesses: Still weak on passing, injury-prone
Goes fast at: Spanish tracks
Best Case Scenario: Combination of Bridgestone tires and HRC improvements to the RC212V give Dani the tools to get out front and ride off into the sunset. Rossi and Stoner are left fighting for scraps as Dani wins 8 races with at least 5 flag-to-flag victories. Shockingly is photographed smiling twice in one year.
Worst Case Scenario: Grows a goatee and starts openly criticizing HRC, earning himself persona non grata status. Honda takes Tady Okada out of mothballs and fires Pedrosa before the end of the season. Forced to go to the "other" world championship, Pedrosa does battle with the original disgruntled, goateed, former Repsol Honda rider. Falls victim to frequent wedgies from the WSBK regulars.
Andrea Dovizioso - Repsol Honda
2008 Championship Position: 5th
2008 Podiums: 1
2008 Best Race Finish: 3rd
Strengths: Excellent racecraft, can overachieve with less competitive equipment, good rain rider
Weaknesses: Lack of development experience, complains a bit when he gets roughed up by other riders *cough* Toseland *cough*
Goes fast at: Tight, twisty tracks
Best Case Scenario: Finally freed from the shackles of privateer bikes, Dovi shows the world that he is next big thing in Moto GP and brings HRC back to its winning ways. Finally gets the chance to beat arch rival Jorge Lorenzo on equal equipment.
Worst Case Scenario: Finds that the responsibility of developing a factory bike is too much. Doesn't go much faster than he did in the previous season on the standard bike. Tries out gheri curl product on his curly locks and has freak pit lane hair fire incident.
Toni Elias - Gresini Honda
2008 Championship Position: 12th
2008 Podiums: 2
2008 Best Race Finish: 2nd
Strengths: Willing to make daring, risky passes
Weaknesses: Crashes attempting daring, risky passes
Goes fast at: Contract time. Nothing like the threat of unemployment for motivation.
Best Case Scenario: Channels Portugal 2006 form repeatedly, becoming the first satellite rider in the 800 cc era to win a race. Gives Rossi night terrors about 'El Diablo'.
Worst Case Scenario: Crashes into other riders, shamed into taking a WSBK ride. Gives Rossi night terrors about 'Toni the Torpedo'.
Alex DeAngelis - Gresini Honda
2008 Championship Position: 14th
2008 Best Race Finish: 4th
Strengths: Daring, good outright speed
Weaknesses: Inconsistent, somewhat DeDangerous, most frequent crasher other than DePuniet
Goes fast at: Italian tracks
Best Case Scenario: Turns his potential into a few podiums. Makes the case for getting more upgrades and starts becoming a front running contender
Worst Case Scenario: Crashes a lot, runs up Gresini's carbon fiber bill, forces team into bankruptcy
Randy DePuniet - Playboy LCR Honda
2008 Championship Position: 15th
2008 Best Race Finish: 6th
Strengths: Good qualifier, strong outright speed
Weaknesses: Moto GP crashing champion 2 years running
Goes fast into: gravel pits
Best Case Scenario: Pulls a Stoner and turns his speed into podiums and perhaps a surprise win, becoming the first French rider to win a premier class race since...well, before he was born.
Worst Case Scenario: Gets distracted by Playboy-supplied umbrella girls. Decides to stop crashing motorcycles and starts a career in porn as the 'French Tickler'
Yuki Takahashi (Rookie) - Scot Racing Honda
2008 Championship Position (250GP): 5th
2008 Podiums (250GP): 3
2008 Best Race Finish: 2nd
Strengths: Overachiever like Dovi was in 250's
Weaknesses: Inconsistent, seems to be slow adapting to the Moto GP bike
Best Case Scenario: Consistently finishes in top ten, takes rookie of the year
Worst Case Scenario: Never comes to terms with RC212V, ends up getting replaced by Ryuichi Kiyonari or Hiroshi Aoyama as Honda's token Japanese rider