Off-track issues suggest season of transition
I was asked a question on Twitter last week by @robostarred, who said this: "Is MotoGP a credible sport now? Given [there are] only 3 manufacturers left, and road bikes [are] now being used."
It is an interesting and a contentious question that is being asked as much inside the paddock - from riders to journalists - as it is among fans, as premier-class grand prix motorcycle racing moves away from 100% prototype racing in 2012.
However, the first thing to point out is that the Claiming Rule Team (CRT) bikes that are being prepared in readiness for next season - the ones that will fill the grid in the not-too-distant future - are certainly not road bikes.
They remain largely prototypes, albeit currently with tuned Superbike engines, and although they have made a predictably slow start to life in testing with inexperienced riders on board, they will soon be lapping quicker than any production model at most circuits.
Already, in his first test after signing to ride Aspar's Aprilia-powered CRT bike (which is currently just a slightly modified version of the RSV4 Superbike), Randy de Puniet lapped just 1.6 seconds off his qualifying time on the Ducati GP11 at the Spanish Grand Prix earlier this year.
The more that chassis is adjusted and adapted to work purely on a circuit, as opposed to public roads, the faster the bike will become, not to mention engine updates etc.
The fact there will be only three factory teams in Honda, Yamaha and Ducati taking part next season just goes to underline why Carmelo Ezpeleta, the CEO of the sport's television and commercial rights holders Dorna, is making the right move in taking such drastic action now.
World champion Jorge Lorenzo struggled to encourage a title sponsor last season. Photo: Getty
Of course, an ideal world would see a grid full of factory-supported prototype machinery but the withdrawal of Suzuki follows on from that of Kawasaki in 2008 and Aprilia in 2004, and any further disengagement from one or, heaven forbid, all three of the remaining factories would pull the rug out from beneath the championship completely.
Last season the Yamaha factory team, with the number one plate and world champion Jorge Lorenzo on board, could not encourage a title sponsor, while Ducati are still bankrolled by a tobacco company which could be forgiven for cancelling its standing order if the team were to experience another campaign as disappointing as 2011.
The concept of CRTs is aimed at moving away from a championship between factories, instead opening it up to teams, just as Formula 1 has done, with the likes of Brawn GP, McLaren and Red Bull enjoying great success in recent seasons.
In much the same way, motorcycle manufacturers will become engine suppliers to MotoGP teams and, although there will still be the possibility of factories running their own "official" teams, future regulations to limit engine performance and, more critically, that of the electronics packages will further reduce their advantage.
Drastic rule changes are always met with scepticism but in my experience they are soon forgotten about once the racing starts, especially if they are to the benefit of the spectacle, as has been the case in F1.
The fact is that the current format of MotoGP is no longer cost-effective in today's economic climate, as the withdrawal of the aforementioned factories proves. As well as the huge expense of producing motorcycles that cost the best part of £1m each, manufacturers face the additional outlay of research and development, administration, logistics and personnel costs, which send their outlay soaring well above £10m per season.
A CRT team could, in theory, run for as little as 20% of that amount, with much of their outlay recouped by the share of television monies that Dorna distributes among private teams (factory teams do not receive a share), as well as sponsorship and hospitality packages.
There are also sure to be further incentives being offered by Dorna to encourage new CRT teams to sign established names such as Colin Edwards (Forward Racing), Anthony West (Speed Master) and De Puniet (Aspar Team).
When I recently spoke with Paul Bird, the owner of Paul Bird Motorsport, I asked him about the financial implications of his decision to withdraw from World Superbikes to join the CRT revolution with a single rider entry in Cumbria's James Ellison next season. He could barely stop himself from laughing. "Don't worry, it works out," he grinned.
These are changing times for MotoGP and it may be hard for the purists to take, but a radical shift has been needed for some time. Ezpeleta's priority is to defend his business interests, which thankfully for us fans represents the long-term health of the sport, and his idea is being embraced by the teams - if not the factories - with the paddock's two biggest outfits, Gresini and Aspar, already signed up, and Tech3 beginning work on their own chassis.
Like their four-wheeled counterparts in F1, MotoGP bikes of the future may no longer be the fastest two-wheeled machines man can design but they will still be the fastest motorcycles on the planet raced by the fastest riders.
In the meantime we face a transitional season or two that may well give further ammunition to the naysayers as the new bikes struggle to be competitive. However, there can be little doubt that CRT represents the future of MotoGP. By 2013, hopefully we should once again be talking about the racing, not the politics.