According to this Dec 21, 2007 press release (pdf) from the Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme, the Permanent Bureau has decreed the following:
2) Motocross Classes: as of 2010, single cylinder engines will be used in MX1 and MX2 and multicylinder in MX3, whether 2 or 4-stroke (open concept). The cubic capacity will be 250cc in MX2, and up to 650cc in MX3. Discussions are currently being held about the cubic capacity in MX1. A decision should be taken in the next three months. Concerning the MX2 class, a maximum age limit of 23 years will be introduced. Moreover, a World Champion will be allowed to defend his title only one time (in the following year).
3) The FIM Junior World Championship will have an additional class as of 1.1.2010: 65cc. All the classes (65cc, 85cc, 125cc) will be exclusively 2-stroke.
I think this is a move that’s long overdue. I’d prefer that there not be a specific technology decreed, even for the tiddler classes, but I’m glad to see this happening. For far too long MX has been run as a corporate organ for the Big 4 Japanese mfgs. We can only hope that AMA/DMG/NPG follow suit.
A rule whose time has passed
The idea of granting 4-strokes a 2:1 displacement advantage (30% in MX3) was fine 20+ years ago, and was intended to prompt the development of competitive 4-stroke engines. That purpose has been served. But for at least the last 10 years the net effect has been to kill all 2-stroke technical development. This, I have been told, was at the behest of Honda, who have been dedicated to eliminating 2-strokes from the market since shortly after Soichiro’s death in 1991.
The end result has been a very cloistered, cozy, little world of coopetition for the Big 4 in MX. They leisurely roll out technology as it suits their budgets, without fear that anyone new will come along and rock their boat. Now that may change. We have long needed technical rules that foster innovation and invite new players into the sport. One of the reasons so many of us are not interested in modern bikes is they are so damn boring – not an ounce of personality amongst a warehouse full of them.
The myths of modern marketing
We have all heard the anti-2-stroke arguments — 2-strokes can’t compete anymore, 2-strokes can’t meet emissions standards, 2-strokes are too hard to ride, etc. Many of these “everyone knows…” comments started in a Honda marketing department and their pervasiveness should serve as a lesson to us that just because a major motorcycle manufacturer says a thing is true, doesn’t mean it is. Thanks to Honda and their motorcycle keiretsu we are well past the point where even general comparisons between 2-stroke and 4-stroke MX motors are valid. You simply can’t compare a technology that hasn’t been developed for a decade in any meaningful way to the state-of-the-art in another technology. It’s nonsense.
In conversations with a well-placed industry engineer I was told that the real issue for Honda (who, ironically, have declared they will produce no 2-strokes after 2010) is intellectual property – they don’t own any patents on two-stroke technology. So, like any big, market-dominating company, they attempted to kill off what they could not control. It appears they have failed.
Which is better?
This does not mean that the different designs don’t have relative advantages and disadvantages. In a Cycle News editorial titled “R.I.P. Two-Strokes? Not So Fast” (Cycle News issue #26, July 2, 2008, pg 60) Michael Scott discusses the 2-stroke situation in the context of the dissolution of the 250GP road race class. He lists a number of the well-documented, legitimate differences in the 2-stroke vs 4-stroke debate — simplicity via fewer moving parts, lighter weight for a given displacement and, typically, better power/performance at the smaller displacements. Scott interviews Aprilia two-stroke engine designer Jan Witteveen and notes that modern technologies have brought two-stroke fuel efficiency, emissions, and performance well into the modern era. Modern direct injection significantly lowers the amount of oil needed in the cylinder, and there are already 2-stroke engines which meet stringent Euro-3 emissions standards. With newer materials like ceramics and carbon fiber the need for oil injection may soon be completely eliminated.
Witteveen is, understandably, a 2-stroke advocate and insists, “There is definitely a need for the two-stroke motorcycle engine, particularly in small capacities.” He recently designed the innovative Maxtra 125 for Chinese company Haojue and is currently working on a rather secretive project for the future of the 2-stroke engine. It is likely the emerging markets (like China) that have driven the realization that 2-strokes are not only viable, but necessary. Cost matters in these markets and 2-strokes have, historically, been cheaper to design and manufacture.
It will be very interesting to see how this all plays out. I’m curious why this rule change hasn’t seen more conversation on this side of the pond. It has to be pissing the Big 4 off, having spent millions developing, marketing, and selling the mythical advantages of their 4-stroke race bikes. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t favor 2-stroke over 4-stroke. What I favor is choice, free market policy, innovation, competition, and variety. MX has been the cozy playground of the Big 4 for nearly 30 years. It is the role of the FIM/AMA to safeguard the future of motorcycling for all of us, not just for a handful a big corporations. It’s high time they gave us an environment that encourages new players to get in the game. This is an important step in the right direction.
I look forward to the new discussions that should come out of this change. For the first time in a long time we might actually get new blood into the MX marketplace. At the very least we can begin to have productive discussions about engine technology and what the future might hold. It’s great to throw off the stifling blanket of corporate market speak that has controlled our choices for decades. We can only hope the US sanctioning bodies follow the FIM’s lead.