The 2022 MotoGP season starts in less than a week, and I’m well excited about it. In fact I’m probably more excited about it than I’ve been about anything in quite a while. And so are all my mates (both of them), who simply refuse to talk about anything else at the moment. It was during one of our weekly lager-lubricated MotoGP chats that we got on about Kawasaki’ and how it’s a shame that we haven’t seen them on a GP grid, in an official capacity, since 2009.
And despite all of us being big MotoGP fans (and me being a bit of a self-confessed Kawasaki fan-boy), none of us really knew why they disappeared. So, in exchange for a round of drinks, I promised them I’d use my journalistic skills, as well as my long list of contacts in the motorcycle industry, to get to the bottom of it.
And I knew just the bloke to talk to. Martin Lambert, PR Manager for Kawasaki Motors Europe, has been at Kawasaki for 25 years. There’s nothing the man doesn’t know about Kawasaki; in fact, if you let him, he could literally bore you to sleep with chat about the Eitaibashi Bridge, one of Kawasaki’s oldest bridges. Yawn.
We’re not interested in that though. What we really wanted to know was why on earth did Kawasaki, who had one of the best looking, best sounding, best performing bikes on the grid, decide to pull out of MotoGP. So I called Mr Lambert up, and had a chat…
44T: Before we start talking about MotoGP, can you tell me why a company like Kawasaki, who make massive ships, big bridges and huge turbine engines, want to go racing in the first place? Preferably without using boring marketing speak like ‘Racing’s in our DNA’.
ML: Ever since the days of the Ninja ZX-7R, Kawasaki as a company has liked the idea of superbike racing. The basic ethos of it being modified street bikes has always struck a chord with the Kawasaki factory. It comes down to the fact that you can pick a bike out at random, from the factory warehouse and turn it into a championship winning World Superbike. And the bike in the crate next to it, might find its way into a dealership showroom, then somebody’s garage at home.
Superbike racing is great in that way, because we’re racing one of the bikes that we want to sell. But it’s not just about the Ninja ZX-10R, it’s about developing a brand as well as our technology. It’s easy to see the technology that we’ve developed on the race track when you look at a ZX-10R, but a lot of that technology and a lot of those developments quickly find their way onto other models in Kawasaki’s range. When you’re working on a superbike, you’re not just working on making it go as fast as possible, you want it to handle well, be easy to ride, be reliable. Those are all things that any manufacture wants their bikes to be, and a big part of why we go racing.
And obviously the idea is to be as successful as we can be on the racetrack, in the hope that that translates to motorcycle sales.
44T: So the idea is to win on Sunday, sell on Monday?
ML: Well yes, but it’s not really as simple as that in the world we live in today. It’s a much more drawn out process. Think of it this way, if we were to withdraw from WSBK, the effect that has on sales wouldn’t be immediate. In the same way that if we decided to go MotoGP racing, even if we were really successful, we wouldn’t all of a sudden double sales of ZX-10RRs, overnight.
And you’ve also got to consider the fact that the motorcycle market today, is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Particularly in the UK. Take the Isle of Man TT, 20 years ago on Douglas Promenade during TT fortnight there’d be sportsbikes, as far as the eye can see. Now, there’ll be adventure bikes, touring bikes, naked bikes, you name it.
So we’ve got to recognise that when Jonathan Rea goes and wins on a Sunday, on his ZX-10RR, it has to be about more than just selling ZX-10RRs on the Monday.
The brand value of going racing has always been important, but it is even more so nowadays. It’s about showing off what Kawasaki are about as manufacturer, rather than just how brilliant the ZX-10RR is.
And you have to remember that we’re not just trying to sell bikes in the UK. There are massive markets at the other side of the world; Malaysia, Indonesia, places like this. Forget about selling one ZX-10R on a Monday after JR dominates on a Sunday, think about all the people rushing to their dealer in the far east to buy a Ninja 250 on the Monday. That’s a much, much bigger market with hundreds of thousands of bikes being sold, rather than tens of thousands.
44T: So talk to me about MotoGP then? If racing is so important for a development and a brand point of view, why pull out of MotoGP?
ML: It’s an extremely complex beast, and obviously at the time the decision was made to withdraw from grand prix racing (circa 2008) the world was in a massive financial crisis.
I don’t know how other factories fund MotoGP projects and I don’t know how much sponsors are putting in, but it’s a serious amount of cash. And I also don’t know how they get a return on that investment, it’s something that’s very difficult, or almost impossible to exactly quantify.
There’s all sorts of ways you can ‘justify’ the cost of going racing, in a board room, if you need to; for example you can say X amount of people will watch the race on television and the industry standard for converting that into a monetary value is such-and-such a formula, then we can say that the TV coverage is worth so-many-thousand-pounds, per weekend to each of the manufacturers. It’s a very dark science though.
44T: So if Kawasaki did the sums and decided they could make MotoGP racing pay, we might see them back on the grid at some point?
ML: That’s a question that’s impossible to answer definitively. The terms of reference and the considerations that surround it are not just to do with the cost. The world is changing and transport as well as the way we think about it is developing – and racing has to follow that. You’ve seen Formula E in Formula One for starters, that’s not to mention all the electric motorcycles that are appearing and Kawasaki’s research into things like hybrid and hydrogen power.
So there’s more and more different fuels being explored and engine types being developed other than traditional gasoline. To stand any chance of accurately working out whether or not MotoGP would be viable for Kawasaki, you’d have to know what MotoGP is going to look like, and indeed the world, in five or ten years’ time. And with the world changing as much as it is right now, that really is impossible.
It’s a question and an answer that’s not black and white, it has to relate to the market, and to the world, both of which are changing. Because let’s face it, if any new manufacture decided to get into MotoGP racing now, it’d probably be a year or two before they even got on the grid, a few more years before they started to be competitive, and it might be a few more years after that, that they started to see any real benefit from their decision to go racing. By that time, the world might have changed immeasurably, and the factors that influenced their decision to get back into racing, might not exist at all, any more.