Cycle News - Archive Issues - 2000's

Cycle News 2005 08 31

Cycle News is a weekly magazine that covers all aspects of motorcycling including Supercross, Motocross and MotoGP as well as new motorcycles

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Page 94 of 95

By MICHAEL IN "HE PADDOCK Scan A tittle Dwindling stood there beside Brands Hatch, paying my annual respects to World Superbikes, thinking the wrong thoughts. I've been marked down as hating World Superbike, which of course I don't. Why would I? It's a great series, full of human beings and hard chargers, improved (rather unexpectedly) by control tires and dumbed-down technical regulations that have taken it closer to its production bike roots. I earned this opprobrium only by pointing out these roots, compared with the loftier nature of purebred hand-built prototype Grand Prix racing. (Perhaps I did so rather frequently.) The range of riding skills displayed by the Superbikers was wider than you'll see on a MotoGP grid, but there was still plenty of it. Just one thing was missing, a certain magic. The Superbike field was without Valentino Rossi. This immediately begs another question: What will be left of MotoGP when Rossi goes? We will find out fairly soon, it seems. The amazingly talented Italian's skill and personality has brought GP racing to a far wider audience than ever before. But on current betting, Valentino has two more motorcycle years in him at best, before he vaults on to the next stage of his career. My concern was valid enough, but irony was at work. Valentino's victorious switch to Yamaha enabled him to prove that the rider is more important than the machine. But at the same time, other events were unfolding that proved not exactly the opposite, but that without the machines, motorcycle racing wouldn't be much fun. And that the threat of disappearing machinery is a far more acute and longterm concern for the pinnacle of bike racing than the already grave knowledge that soon Rossi will be gone. The circumstances in question were those surrounding the relationship between KTM and Proton Team KR. Or, by the end of the summer break, the nonrelationship, for KTM has pulled the plug on supply of engines. This was rather unexpected, it seems, to Kenny Roberts and the remaining members of his once much larger team. A team which has gone from being the dominant force in the Soocc class with Yamaha and Wayne Rainey in the early 19905 through a slow and frustrating process of shrinkage and decline, as the maverick triple World Champion of 1978, 1979 and 1980 (a veritable Rossi of his time) moved into manufacturing his own bikes to challenge the Japanese hegemony. In the simplest terms, overambition ultimately proved Kenny's undoing. In detail, it was the switch to four-strokes that broke the camel's back. With the I two-stroke triple the team was at least almost there, and it still holds some SOOcc two-stroke records, albeit (as always) one season too late. The move to four-strokes was a different matter. The V-five was a brave but doomed attempt. Now King Kenny found himself spending vastly more money to be considerably less competitive. Thank heavens for the deep pockets of faithful sponsors Proton. The weakness of the two-stroke project was always in getting the engine built, in spite of all the race engineering expertise surrounding Kenny's nice, new base at Banbury in England. The initial task was hard enough, but the sort of continual modifications and development required by top-level racing were subject to either horrendous costs or extensive time delays - when you're dealing with the same suppliers as FI, quick service costs FI-style rates. If this was so for the relatively simple two-stroke, how much more so for the vastly more complex V-five. It remains a basic truth of racing: If you want to build your own engine, you need to have your own foundry and engineering facilities. And up against Honda, even that's not in itself enough, as Suzuki and Kawasaki and for a time also Yamaha were able to demonstrate with painful clarity. Roberts' crew were able to do well what they could do well - the chassis side was always strong. Then Kenny took another expensive step, recruiting former F I design guru John Barnard to commission an elegant but very expensive carved-from-billet chassis for the V-five. It had all the hallmarks of a fine racing motorcycle but never had to deal with the quantities of horsepower that might have proved its true worth. By the end of last year, Roberts had had enough. He told me how much he enjoyed the passing of each his long-established racing team, not to mention the small matter of a franchise contract with Dorna until the end of next year - all combined to persuade Kenny to give it another go. As we know, it's all gone horribly wrong. In the middle of the summer break, and by means of a press release, KTM informed the world and Team Roberts simultaneously that they were quitting forthwith. The dust has to settle on who is to blame for what. At present, Team Roberts say they are owed money by KTM, and legal action may ensue. Since KTM contracted both rider Shakey Byrne and the Michelin tires, Proton is now left without either of these important commodities. And though they have a few old V-five motors knocking around, with the flyaway GPs coming up, they're going to find it hard to contest every race of the year. It mayor may not be the end of the long-standing, once-dominant King Kenny's independent team. As ever, a handy sponsor could save the day. They are talking with other engine suppliers - a resumption of talks, in the case of Ducati - and there are potential Japanese suppliers, too. And the F I firm IImor has expressed an interest in making a 2007 800cc motor - though the Roberts team would have to get through 2006 first. As long as there are possibilities like these, there is always hope. The biggest reason for KTM's unexpected endplay lies in the preceding paragraph - the 800cc engines of 2007. The decision to switch to that size rendered their V-four instantly redundant. It had been considered feasible to cut the size to the 900cc originally planned for 2007, but when the Honda-chaired MSMA changed their minds with less than two years to go, all those plans went out of the window. So KTM had a point. To continue, it would have had to start again. Blata is in the same position. Their projected V-six hasn't even turned a wheel or been seen in public, but assuming it is finished and developed by the end of 2006, it will be as dead as a dodo. Aprilia is already gone. Team KR is tottering. Blata-WCM is present only as a grid-filler. Racing is now more than ever in the control of the big factories - and they (it seems) are more than ever under the sway of Honda. Oddly, MotoGP racing handed all the power and influence on technical rules to the manufacturers, via their MSMA organization. This is a different approach from F I, where the FIA (the FIM equivalent) dictates the regulations - rather controversially, as it happens. It's also the opposite of World Superbikes, where the MSMA walked out in high dudgeon a couple of years ago, fed up at World Superbike's incessant tampering with the technical regulations and the fact that their own recommendations were ignored. A couple of years later, all the manufacturers have crept back into World Superbike, albeit covertly in the guise of importer or dealer teams. In Mo~~ where specialist prototype ~fucturers should be expected to flourish, they are instead being driven out. Who will be next to go? Suzuki? Kawasaki? Ducati? There's a happy home for them over at World Superbike, if they do decide to switch. CN race, "because it's one step closer to putting these bikes in the museum." When Proton withdr",w their big-bucks backing, he was ready to quit altogether, and admit himself beaten. Circumstances conspired against this. A rescuer of sorts was at hand - an engine supplier. It was KTM, with a hitherto still-born V-four that slotted very handily into the existing chassis and proved highly promising in tests. This, and the racing bug plus, of course, his premises and equipment at Banbury, aforementioned remnants of CYCLE NEWS • AUGUST 31, 2005 9S

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