MotoGP: Technology Worth Boring Racing?

June 21, 2011
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
Contributing Editor |Articles |Articles RSS

Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Round 10 of the 2010 MotoGP Championship at Brno.
Advanced electronic aids may be what separate current MotoGP from its tire spinning glory days. Are these ‘aids’ truly necessary?

Readers who have followed MotoUSA within the last week and caught the opening act of this multi-part feature on the state of MotoGP and its 2012 rules package know exactly where I stand on the issue ( MotoGP Editorial: Can 1000cc Save the Day?). A couple thousand words spent venting about the topic surely saw to that. The new rules are sadly a case of too little too late. Simply going back to 1000cc engines, with the current heightened state of electronic aids is going to do little more than drop lap times. The Grand Prix racing commission is skirting the real issue and trying to sell the idea that an additional 200cc will be the path to good racing as a remedy to the criticism leveled by an ever-mounting number of industry insiders and fans alike, who are restless by the lack of exciting racing on the track. The sub-20 rider grids and racing that’s starting to look like the Macy’s Day Parade… Even the most die-hard fans will open their eyes.

Anyone who thinks the solution to this problem, and the magical path to added excitement, is merely increasing today’s 800s by 200cc, well… They should contact me immediately for an incredible offer from a Nigerian business associate of mine (but act now as this life-changing opportunity will not last long!). In fact, I think some of the higher ranking officials in MotoGP’s inner rule-making fraternity are already some of his best clients.

I find it perplexing that an extra 200cc is somehow going to overpower all the expensive electronic aids that are keeping both wheels in-line 99.9% of the time on the 800s. Yet it seems the GP brain trust fully believes that bikes will, overnight, again be a handful to ride, spinning and sliding into and out of every corner. In short a return to the glory days of 500cc GP two-strokes, where only the very best of the best will be able to master these beasts and at the same time produce close racing, with 10-rider groups swapping the lead right to the checkered flag.

Lorenzo on the start grid  awaiting his meet his GP history - Sepang 2010
MotoGP remains the habitat for road racing elite, but shrinking grids have been the hallmark of the 800 era.

In today’s electronic era the new 1000s are simply going to be faster 800s. So while we will see lap records broken, once the teams have time to get everything dialed in, I doubt we will see much else (except more broken bones, as the added speed will likely equate to even bigger crashes when they do happen). But the reality is that setting new lap records won’t appear much different from your living room couch. Think about it for a second: Even if the existing lap records are blown out of the water by a massive amount, we’re talking upwards of two seconds a lap (huge by today’s standards and also very unlikely), the naked eye is going to perceive little-to-no change on television, or even in-person at the track.

This is because spread out over an entire lap, two seconds breaks down to mere tenths in any one visible section, making the difference between the 800s and 1000s almost impossible to notice. As such, it would appear the 17-rider parade may continue (unless the new ‘claiming rule teams’ idea takes off, but that discussion will have to wait until the next installment).

In fact, I happened upon a recent video on the internet of Sir Valentino Rossi himself testing Ducati’s new 1000cc Desmosedici GP12 at Mugello. Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple stylish wheelies, and the few seconds where the cameraman shook the camera to try and artificially produce the effect of instability, the new Italian GP stallion looked very, well… un-stallion-like; both wheels remained nicely in-line almost the entire time. I wonder what happened to those 120 mph two-wheel drifts that they promised? If Ducati couldn’t find enough footage to fill a 30-second ‘highlight’ reel with action-packed clips after a full day of testing, I fear GP fans may really be in trouble.

As I continued to explore the many benefits of the amazing world wide web (I’ve been looking for weeks now and I still haven’t found the end), I happened to stumble upon a similar video of one Mr. Casey Stoner testing the ‘new’ Honda 1000. This short clip even included a quick blurb from the ‘07 world champ on his initial impressions of the 2012 Honda, where he said it, “feels good to be back on a 1000, to feel that power again. Even in the upper gears where the 800 ran out (of acceleration) the 1000 keeps on building (speed). It was nice to feel it accelerating hard and sliding again.”

With its advanced electronics  power engine and friendly chassis its no wonder why the S1000RR is the best sportbike of 10.
MotoGP electronic technology may have trickled down to enhance production sportbike engineering, but is it taking all the fun out of professional racing?

Wait. Hold on. Could my entire argument be completely wrong? Did he say the magic “sliding” word? Was simply adding 200cc the answer to tire-smoking glory and edge-of-your-seat action? Several action clips of him riding the new Honda followed, of which I had a rather close look — over and over and over again. And either I’m legally blind, or this “sliding” Stoner speaks of may just be a tad bit exaggerated. I guess even world-champion GP riders still speak in the international language of bench-racing from time to time.

The flip side to this argument is that these same GP electronic developments are directly responsible for the latest major advancements in sportbike technology, already seen on several of the recent liter-bikes. Say hello to the “trickle-down effect” at its finest. MotoGP-derived may be overused by today’s legions of two-wheel PR men, who hope to implant into a consumer’s grey matter the belief that their motorcycle is even remotely linked to the multi-million-dollar machines ridden by their GP heroes. But while cynics may be skeptical of these claims, in the case of electronics the latest crop of sportbikes prove there’s quite a bit of truth to the argument.

The irony of it all is that just when a good bit of cutting-edge MotoGP tech trickles down to road bikes in a timely manner, it turns out to also be responsible for making the racing from which it came progressively less and less exciting for the fans to watch. And these are the same fans who the manufacturers are trying to persuade into buying the new-and-improved road bikes, so they then have the money to fund future racing, which will in turn help the development of tomorrow’s street bikes… (confused yet, because I am). Quite the vicious circle, eh?

A recovering Jorge Lorenzo pays a visit to Indonesia to promote a new sponsor.
The popularity of racing helps fuel interest in the sport and sales in the showroom floor. Making the product on the track entertaining should be the highest priority.

The speed at which the technology wheel has been turning is extraordinary. Less than a decade after these electronic rider-aids first hit the scene in Grand Prix racing, showroom-stock bikes are coming equipped with multi-stage traction and wheelie control straight from the factory. These systems are now advanced enough to employ wheel-speed and lean-angle sensors, accelerometers, loads of engine and throttle position read-outs, and in some cases even gyros, all working in conjunction with each other to detect when the rear wheel slides, and in some cases even predict future losses in traction. This is all done with the aim of maximizing corner-exit drivability and reducing the amount of crashes when pushed closer and closer to its limits.

These systems have been an option on Ducati’s 1198 for several years now, while coming standard starting last year on the higher-end BMW S1000RR and Aprilia’s RSV4R. And for 2011, we now see the first Japanese bike get a true TC and wheelie control system in the form of Kawasaki’s all-new ZX-10R. In fact, for this year Aprilia has released a factory-option Launch Control (LC) system on its flagship RSV4 sportbike. (They must have also recently hired a skinny little man with coke-bottle glasses and a pocket protector that says NASA on it, because who else would have called the system ‘launch control?’) These are systems so advanced that Superbike teams of a mere five years ago would have been green with envy and happily paid tens of thousands of dollars for them. That was the beginning of the TC era in Superbikes and everyone was in a mad scramble to get a leg up on the competition. 

In my opinion, what this technology has done for the street world is a great thing. How can one fault a system that allows a wider variety of riders the ability to experience the thrills that these amazing motorcycles are capable of with an ever-growing safety net? And if riders don’t like the electronic aides, just press a button and turn the entire system off. This is yet another prime example of how quickly racing can advance riding for the general public. But when some of these developments come at the cost of the entertainment produced by racing itself, then we have to reevaluate the situation.

Jorge Lorenzo  #99  and Dani Pedrosa  #26  battled for the lead in both the original race as well as the restart at the Sachsenring circuit.
After weighing the pros and cons, technological regression may still be the only answer to level the playing field.

The bottom line is without exciting racing the fans will stop showing up and watching it on TV, or supporting those companies involved in the sport. And without the fans and their support (i.e. money), motorcycle racing will lose even more ground. This is why when considering the options that either (a) the series intervenes and implements regulations with a slight degree of technological regression or (b) that there could soon be no racing at all, then I think the decision is pretty simple. It is time for the FIM to step in and make some hard decisions in the name of better racing…

But that’s not all, oh no. Be sure to keep tuned-in to these pages for the third and (probably) final installment of this MotoGP editorial. We will take a look at what exactly these new “claiming rule” teams are all about, as well as detailing what teams, and possibly even what riders, will be using one of these hybrid prototype/production-based bikes (by the time you read this the FIM should have already announced the final rules and confirmed teams for the 2012 season). Not to mention the elephant in the room: Was this rule put in place to truly enhance the sport of MotoGP, or is it simply a last ditch way for series organizer Dorna to ensure they stay above the 17 full-time rider minimum mandated by the FIM? Considering the fact that if they are unable to meet this requirement they could face extreme intervention or possibly even lose the rights to the series and its promotion completely, the Spanish media giant has an awful lot riding on this new rule. But was it the right one?

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