The 2017 MotoGP season has begun and we can already see the effects from the changes to the rider line-up. Shock-waves are rippling through the entire field, those effects are rattling everyone, none more so than Rossi, Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa. The moves by Lorenzo and Viñales have greatly changed everyone’s pick for favorite to win the 2017 Championship. Rossi was perhaps expected to be the lead rider for Yamaha, and whispers that Lorenzo’s move was because of that very same reason, but tests and Qatar show Rossi is not the favorite anymore. Lorenzo himself had long been in the top of people minds as a possible challenger for the championship, but this year; as he has suffered badly in preseason tests, and as Qatar clearly demonstrated. Pedrosa as well, while riding a top level full factory Honda, will not be a contender in the 2017 season. While many riders may be preparing for a good year, it is Viñales that most reporters and media outlets are reporting as the new sensation, the new “Marquez” if you will, and say he is the favorite to win the championship. Viñales supremacy during testing was reported as “Amazing” and “Incredible”. We wonder… is Viñales really that great? Is he so different? Is this just rhetoric to sell magazines and bring in subscribers and likes? Is his performance really that amazing, or is there something else going on here?
It is this question concerning Viñales performance that has led me down this road and therefore, I would like to take a moment to explore a question which has long plagued motor-sports. The main question, the biggest question in the sport; “What is more important in a championship the pilot or the machine they control?” As fans we applaud the riders, they are the stars they get the glory and the media coverage. The riders are the focal point of the sport and while some fans are loyal to the bikes themselves, generally it is the riders that are credited with the awards and honor in winning. Yet somehow all of the evidence supports the hypothesis that riders themselves are not the most important factor in race outcomes. Even the governing bodies in the sport seem to understand this fact and in order to see who really has the best skills in upcoming classes they create rules that require the use the same equipment, equipment that is issued by random drawing at each event. Clearly, the powers that be understand the importance of the machinery and do their best to control for equipment when they create rules and strive for equality. We are not going to debate the efficacy of the junior class competitions, nor will we debate the on-going efforts to tighten the gaps between teams and riders. Rather point to the evidence that especially in the top level classes of WSBK and MotoGP, machinery is the first and foremost factor in deciding who wins and who loses.
There are many, many amazing and talented riders in MotoGP, and even more that have come and gone throughout the sports history. It should be easy for anyone to understand the clear and simple truth of the sport; not everyone can get a ride with a top level factory team and without it the chances of winning a championship are next to nil. The great rider dilemma is that there just are not that many seats available, and a rider wants to ride, or earn money as a professional they have to take what they can get. For most riders that means taking a ride on a non-factory team. As dedicated fans, we all know the history of MotoGP, Yamaha and Honda have dominated MotoGP for years. While there have been times when one manufacturer or the other has dominated the sport, of the last 30 years, or since 1986, on only three occasions has a manufacturer other than a Yamaha or Honda won the championship. Two wins for Suzuki wins in 1993 and in 2000; and a single win for Ducati in 2007. That is 0/30 or 0% for non-factory teams, and 3/30 for other factory teams. Those numbers clearly suggest that the primary factor in winning is not the rider, but the machine. It would be ludicrous for a person to claim it is just pure coincidence and that all of the best riders have been on Honda or Yamaha. When the truth is that a rider may be the most amazing and brilliant rider on earth, but if that pilot is not on a full factory ride, they will not win the championship. Further, even if a rider is on a fully supported manufacturer team other than Honda or Yamaha they only a 10% chance to winning, even with the full financial and technical support of a manufacturer.
As further proof that equipment is more important than the rider let us take a moment to consider the current situation of former Champion Jorge Lorenzo. Jorge is a 5 time world champion who was lucky enough to ride for years with the full factory support of Yamaha Motor Corporation. Those championships are as much the result of Lorenzo’s ability as they are of the bike. Now Lorenzo has changed teams and is riding a Ducati, and the result? It looks like there is no chance that Lorenzo will be challenging for the Championship. As great as his skill set is, without the top bike, he is just another rider in the lineup. We have seen other great riders make the switch to Ducati only to see their race results plummet. Rossi, Crutchlow, Hayden and others, have all tried and failed to tame the powerful but unstable Ducati GP bike. The fact that even Valentino Rossi, hailed as perhaps the greatest of all time could not get a win on the Ducati, clearly demonstrates that there are many great riders in the premier class just wilting away on lesser equipment. Rossi’s inability to win a race wasn’t because he was no longer a fantastic rider, but simply because the machine he was on was nowhere near as good as its Japanese rivals. As we would find out, as soon Rossi returned to Yamaha he was on the podium and then won his first race since leaving the team. Rossi’s failures should have been enough to keep nearly everyone away, but obviously, no so for Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo said he wanted a “new challenge”, bringing to mind the old adage, be careful what you wish for as you might just get it. We think he as more challenge than he bargained for.
Dorna and the FIM obviously recognize that there are substantial inequalities between bikes in the sport and in 2012 began the implementation of a series of rule changes that they believed would increase the competitiveness in the field. Rules that included the Claiming Rules Teams (CRT), standardized electronics, limiting tire choices, fuel levels, and banning winglets; all moves to limit new development and more so limit the ability of Yamaha and Honda to dominate. All these steps taken with little success. Again, I repeat, I do not wish to digress into the debate over the effectiveness of the rules as this article is not about the political or business aspects of those rules but rather focus on the facts surrounding results and machinery. However, these facts illustrate the significant disparity between machines and manufacturers, and the uniformity of greatness of the riders in the field.
There are so many examples that illustrate why machinery trumps rider skill but we will only explore two examples. Firstly, I pose a hypothetical scenario, let us say for example, that Casey Stoner had not retired at such an incredibly young age, what would have been the plight of Marc Marquez…? Marquez was touted as the future of the sport when he arrived and quickly adapted to Stoners old Honda. If Stoner had not retired when he did and Marquez wanted to move to the premier class he would had either went to GOnFUN, LCR or would have had to change manufacturers and went to Tech3 Yamaha. Truthfully, we would not be talking about him the way we are now and he surely would not have three MotoGP titles under his belt.
Secondly, Let’s explore this example a little farther. The case of Marc Marquez is very much like Stefan Bradl. If we compare Marquez, winner the 2012 Moto2 Championship, to Stefan Bradl, the 2011 Moto2 Champion, we can see that Marquez was just extremely lucky in comparison. Bradl was less fortunate and has struggled in a variety of 2nd tier teams with lesser equipment. Bradl who was just as great of a rider as Marquez has now found himself demoted down to WSBK and has ended up with a completely new and untested machine in the 2017 Red Bull Honda CBR1000rr. Bradl’s chances of winning a race is tiny and his chance of becoming a champion, ever again, have nearly passed completely out of possibility. So, is Marquez greatly superior to Bradl? Absolutely Not! In 2011 Bradl placed higher than Marquez in 7 of the 16 races in which they both competed, but Bradl is not considered to be as nearly as great, and his legacy will be greatly under reported.
Which brings us back to Viñales and Lorenzo. Much like Marquez’s rookie year Viñales now finds himself on a incredibly superior machine, and appropriately so, is showing the kind of domination Marquez demonstrated when he first arrived on a truly superior machine. With Marquez it was Stoner’s weird and bizarre retirement that made his rise to the top possible. For Viñales, it is Lorenzo’s weird and bizarre switch to Ducati that made his opportunity possible. Without the freak team change by Lorenzo, Viñales would be rotting away in Suzuki, that is until they tired of him and sent him packing down the ranks and switched him out with someone different.
Team bosses and managers will say they understand the riders dilemma. They do! In fact they take advantage of the riders dilemma all the time, they have to, as business managers their goal is money and advertising sponsorship. Riders come second to revenue, and even riders themselves are at the mercy of the pound and dollar. At a basic level riders are people, they need to earn a living, they have families, and they have debts to pay, and there is no money to be made in the junior classes. Riders have to move up, they have to work, and each undoubtedly, hope they can show their skills and move up. In an ideal world riders would show their potential on lesser equipment and move to factory teams. However, that has not been the case. Top teams nearly always choose younger riders from lower classes or riders that have been in MotoGP no more than a year or two at most. When Jorge Lorenzo decided to go to Ducati who did Yamaha team bosses choose as a replacement? Not Aleix Espargaro, not Pol Espargaro or Bradley Smith, although both all have shown great ability on lesser equipment. They chose a second year rider Maverick Viñales.
The sad fact is very few championship pilots have the opportunity to ride championship the best quality bikes. The list of great riders that never had a chance is very long, even among the riders in the current MotoGP line-up. Few riders will ever have had the chance to win the Championship. Instead of counting those who have not, we will count those few that have had a chance… In the last fifteen years for Yamaha, Rossi, Lorenzo, Spies and Edwards for Honda Marquez, Pedrosa, Stoner, Dovizioso and Hayden and that is it. Only 9 riders in ten years have had a chance to win, and only 5 of those have actually won over the last 15 years. No other riders in the current field have had a chance to win the championship. So when we hail the next lucky son-of-a-gun as a hot commodity, let us remember that all the riders as just as good.
With so much evidence supporting machine over man in the question of “man or machine”, can anything be done to change the situation? Should anything be done? This is the trickiest of all questions, because in a perfect world, all of the top riders would be riding a prototype Yamaha or Honda. Everyone would have the same equipment. Only then will we really be able to determine who is the best rider. If every rider was on a Yamaha M1, we would know without a doubt who had the best skill set, but to be a premier class competition the bikes would have to be faster than WSBK, and someone would have to foot the incredibly large financial tab for that equipment. Sponsors could still cover travel costs, salaries and other expenses but the motivation for Honda and Yamaha would be far less. Under the current regime the competition between them fuels the industry while it only gives bragging rights and supports their marketing campaigns. A change to a single manufacturer would require the primary sponsor to reevaluate their marketing strategy, but perhaps the rewards would be substantial. For now all we can do is promote the idea and continue to watch.