2011 MotoGP Misano Preview

Gearing Up for an All-Alien Weekend – Again

MotoGP correspondent Bruce Allen previews the Misano round of the 2011 season. Check back on Monday for the full report of the San Marino Grand Prix.

After a productive Sunday in Indiana, Casey Stoner leads the shock troops of MotoGP to the scenic shores of the Adriatic Sea for Round 13. Enjoying a comfortable lead in the standings, the Australian could just hang out on the beach with his beautiful, slightly pregnant wife and leave the sturm und drang to the mortals. Fuggedabouddit – Stoner looks to return to the Misano podium for the first time since 2007.

Since they began running the 800cc bikes at Misano, the Aliens have enjoyed themselves immensely, with the exception of Stoner. His win in 2007 was a bit of a fluke, as Rossi crashed out early and Nicky Hayden’s Honda was misbehaving, leaving the American to finish a miserable 13th. In 2008, however, it was Rossi, Lorenzo, Toni Elias and Dani Pedrosa leading the way. 2009 was Rossi’s year again, trailed by Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Dovizioso, while Stoner sat out with a tummy ache. Last year, it was Pedrosa, Lorenzo, Rossi and Dovizioso, with Stoner finishing 5th. There seems to be a pattern emerging here in the tiny Republic of San Marino …

Which brings us to 2011. The Repsol Honda team figures to put their three riders in the top six, with HRC a mortal lock for the Constructor’s Trophy this year. Yamaha’s bosses Lorenzo and Ben Spies will challenge, as they did last week at Indy, but the Misano layout favors the Hondas, with their superior acceleration exiting the turns. And Marco Simoncelli, the fourth factory RC212V, will undoubtedly fare better on home cooking than he did in Indy, where his tires, and general lack of experience, failed him. Former aliens Rossi and Hayden will arrive farther back in the pack, to their continuing chagrin. The dream team of Rossi and Ducati has become a full-blown nightmare, and the horror show will be on full display in front of 50- or 60,000 partisans.

Predictability is Part of the Problem

MotoGP, as a racing league, has more than its share of problems. Despite the presence of some of the most amazing machines on earth and the most talented and fearless riders in history, MotoGP is not a healthy, growing business. For the fans who attend races, buy gear, and occasionally read this column, it’s way too easy to predict which riders will finish where. While predictability is something of a problem with most racing leagues, it seems more pronounced in MotoGP than anywhere else. Take the current factory Honda and Yamaha teams and Valentino Rossi out of the mix – when was the last time someone else won a race? Back in 2007, when Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi both snagged wins. The sport was in far better shape in 2007 than it is today.

As I see it, from an American perspective, the failure of MotoGP to capture the interest of American racing fans, who number in the millions, is largely due to marketing. Dorna, the Italian company that owns the rights to MotoGP, has proven itself adept at attracting sponsors, but does next to nothing to attract fans. Last week’s event in Indianapolis was a great example. Most of the area surrounding Gasoline Alley and the media center was blocked off, leaving fans to wander around the infield. At the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, these areas are wide open, allowing fans to get close to the drivers and the garages. American racing is all about identifying with pilots, not manufacturers or countries of origin. And Dorna, with their European point of view, doesn’t get this.

The funniest line I’ve read recently on this subject appeared on Crash.net this week. In an article about the likely exit of MotoGP from the Speedway, the writer claimed, incorrectly, that “Ben Spies, Nicky Hayden and Colin Edwards enjoy fairly high profiles in the United States.” Sure they do, among the portion of the public that gives a rip about moto racing. Outside of that small group, maybe one in 20 Americans could tell you who Nicky Hayden is, and a fraction of those could identify either Spies or Edwards. Put another way – there were almost 200,000 empty seats at the IMS on Sunday. As Yogi Berra famously pointed out, “If the fans want to stay away from the ballpark, how you gonna stop ’em?”

So What’s the Answer?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a single answer to the problems facing MotoGP? Even as a relative newcomer, I recognize some steps Dorna could take to grow their sport, at least in the premier class. (The Moto2 and 125cc classes are far healthier, with larger grids, rare processions, lower costs for teams, and less podium predictability.)

  1. Go where there are people with money
    Do we really need four races in Spain? What about South America, India, Korea, eastern Europe? There are plenty of monied people in these countries who would eat up MotoGP. 140,000 people come to Brno each year to watch the race. (I would suggest, however, that it does need three races a year in the U.S. if it ever wants to gain a toehold in the American market. And yes, I’m from Indy – so kill me.)
  2. Stop charging admission on Saturdays
    Open the gates on Saturdays for practice and qualifications and let people see how amazing these guys are. I recall the first time I saw Alex de Angelis on a Friday in August 2008 doing 200 mph down the main straight at Indy, and I was mesmerized. I think most people, especially auto racing fans, would accept MotoGP if they could get a small, riskless taste.
  3. Handicap the expanded premier class
    Expanding the grid from 17 to 22 bikes next year won’t help a thing if the same four or five guys continue to win every week. It’s clear from the early testing we’ve seen that the new CRT bikes are going to get lapped regularly. So MotoGP should do what folks have been doing in horse racing for years – handicap the field. Run qualifications the way they’ve always done. But on Sunday, start all the non-CRT bikes a lap down. If Casey Stoner wants to win a race, he’ll have to lap the fastest CRT bike.

None of these ideas, by itself, will save MotoGP. Fixing it is up to Dorna, the FIM, the teams and the sponsors. Ultimately, the sport will have to address these issues or face extinction, possibly some kind of merger with World SuperBike. If MotoGP wants to remain a freestanding league and call itself the best of the best, doing nothing is not an option. (Ed: Got your own ideas on how to fix MotoGP? Let us know in the comments!)

Your Weekend Forecast

Conditions in San Marino look sketchy at best this weekend, very un-Riviera-ish. It’s going to be hot, with temps hovering around 90°F. Worse, there’s a good chance of rain on Sunday. Worse yet for the fans, none of the Ducati riders has a prayer of standing on the podium. Sia sempre così umile…

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