Melling Makes Sense of MotoGP

July 17, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Early on during the GP at Estoril where Casey Stoner would go on to win.
Most of us don’t ride at MotoGP speeds on the highway, so what are the actual real-world applications of prototype racing technology on the everyman rider?

Other than a very few certain truths in life, such as Cal Crutchlow proving that MotoGP riders have the same size cojones as a fit Hereford Bull, trying to make sense of what is happening in motorcycling’s premier racing competition is almost impossibly difficult. In fact, it is driving us inside the bike industry crazy with frustration, so goodness only knows what the paying customer is thinking.

Let’s start with the facts. As always, I expect to be challenged by our lovely readers on many parts of this story but please acknowledge that this first bit at least is hard, empirical evidence.

MotoGP is an expensive exercise for manufacturers. Honda’s own figure, as reported by HRC’s Vice President, Shuhei Nakamoto, is an eye watering $62 million.

A manufacturer just starting off in MotoGP should expect to have $100 million to spend in their first year, spent mainly trying to get the electronics to function properly and the chassis to behave optimally with Bridgestone tires.

The facts confirm this analysis. In World Superbike, BMW has spent three years – and a fortune – attempting to make its electronics behave properly and Ducati isn’t exactly succeeding in making an effective chassis in MotoGP.

It’s also worth remembering that, worldwide, the sales of sportbikes are plummeting and MotoGP is a marketing tool which is primarily aimed at this ever shrinking sub-set of the motorcycling community

If you are skeptical about this view try asking 20 GP questions of the riders attending the recent Laconia Bike week. Then you will really know how distant motorcycle sport is from cruiser fans.

Even in sportbike mad Britain, the only growth area in big bike sales is the Adventure Tourer sector. As an AT enthusiast, will you choose to buy, or not buy, the latest BMW GS1200, or Triumph Adventurer, because Valentino Rossi is having a bad time in MotoGP? Do you even know, or care, what MotoGP is?

Dorna Sports recently signed with ADAC in Munich ensuring that the German MotoGP will take place at Sachsenring until 2016.
Tens of millions of dollars are still spent in MotoGP, but for how long?

GP racing as a spectacle is also becoming increasingly unattractive to spectators. At the recent British round of MotoGP at Silverstone, attendance was around 15% down. Take our all British hero, Cal Crutchlow, out of the equation and you would have knocked at least another 15,000 off the already poor gate.

A key argument for continuing to participate in MotoGP is that the technology filters down to improve road bikes. However, the contention is not only specious but fatally flawed – and again this is fact.

Responding to Dorna’s frantic efforts to close the performance gap between prototype bikes and CRT machines, Honda’s Shuhei Nakamoto said: “…companies are only interested in making the machines go faster. For me there shouldn’t be a regulation governing the engine weight or size”

Mr. Nakamoto was supported by Lin Jarvis, of Yamaha, who added: “We are here to race and provide a show, but we are here to develop useful things for our business. If the rules are too restrictive, then a lot of the reason for being here as a manufacturer fades away.”

Neither of their observations can be supported in the real world. Anti-wheelie, traction control and quick shifting mechanisms are of zero use to the 99.999% of road riders who don’t ride a hyper sports machine to its limit on public highways.

If you don’t ride at MotoGP speeds on the public roads God has already pre-installed very effective anti-wheelie and traction control devices: they’re called a right hand and a brain.

If you really do need traction control and anti-wheelie on the road you have an immediate problem which can be identified as facing a prison term – and the longer term issue of getting killed.

Carbon brakes are of no use either. Road riders need steel brakes which work effectively.

The only real technological leap which is of value to most riders is ABS – and this is the one which has not come from MotoGP.

Carbon fiber frames, the ability to change power modes on the fly and ultra-sophisticated suspension just do not count for most of us.

Moto 2 action at Mugello.
Moto 2, where, despite the flashy color schemes of different teams, bikes look and sound nearly identical in the brief moment spectators in the stands get to see the action.

These are the facts, now I move on to opinion – though heavily supported by fact. The first fact is that there is only one big attraction at MotoGP and that is the main class itself.

Moto 2 is a very poor relation – and with good reason too. On TV, the awesome cut and thrust of close combat racing looks spectacular. However, at the track – where the spectator sees the riders as they pass once every 100 seconds or so – the spectacle isn’t there. The bikes all look the same, and sound the same, and the control electronics mean that all the riders brake and change gear within millimeters of each other.

This situation is inevitable with a Honda control engine, a control ECU and a defined, anorexic weight limit. Clearly, if the teams are so tightly constrained, the end result cannot be anything but an identical homogenous look, sound and feel.

If Moto 2 is bad, the deserted grandstands tell the whole story about Moto 3. Even for a racing junkie like me, this series is achingly, painfully dull. The bikes are far too controlled, too physically small and simply too unexciting. For sure, their tiny riders are wonderfully gifted, and a joy to behold for the aficionado, but the racing is excruciatingly formulaic with absolutely zero appeal outside those supporting a specific rider.

The big problem is that Dorna always lags behind finding a solution because they don’t understand racing and they don’t understand, or even like, racing spectators. And before anyone criticizes this statement look how spectator attendances have plummeted in the last five years – in parallel with the number of racing participants.

CRT machines have not been the disaster I predicted they would be in terms of rider safety. I was correct in terms of CRT riders being lapped and equally accurate in my assessment of the speed differences. What I didn’t take into account was how heavily Dorna has come down on the CRT teams in terms of preventing them from blocking the prototype machines. CRT bikes head for the outfield at the merest hint of a prototype bike in their region of the track and I am reliably informed that this is because Dorna have really sent the boys with the brass knuckles round to the CRT teams to issue the “advice.”

Colin Edwards and Forward Racing may make some serious mid-season changes to the bike to try and become more competitive.
Colin Edwards marking time aboard his BMW/Suter CRT, the former World SBK champ and factory GP rider reduced to fighting for the table scraps left by the 2012 prototypes.

In truth, the CRT bikes have added very little to the show. The competitive bikes have been, as I predicted, the two factory Aprilias of Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaró. The only sad thing is seeing such a very fine rider as Colin Edwards bumbling round on a bike whose natural home is a garbage dump.

So, where do we go from here? Let’s start where MotoGP shouldn’t go – and that is accepting Honda’s offer to sell – not lease, note – 10, 20 or even 30 near(ish) replicas of the bike ridden by Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. The cost will be around $1.25 million including a year’s supply of spare parts – which presumably means at least six engines and heaven alone knows how many sets of forks, wheels, fairings and so on as a result of the CRT riders’ ambition outweighing their talent – to paraphrase the immortal Stoner when Vale lovingly T-boned him.

Potentially the Honda looks to be a real bargain if you bear in mind that Ducati recently sold Stoner’s very second-hand, two-year-old GP10 for $320,021 – and that deal came with a five-year contractual ban on running the bike written into the sales agreement.

However, the devil is in the detail. First, the motors would be steel valve spring versions of the RC213V, rather than the pneumatic variants which factory riders use. That’s not a big issue since the engine would still make good, competitive power.

Now for the very, very, very fine print. Owners of the new, shiny and very impressive RC213V replica would have limited access to the ECU and equally limited access to programming it. In other words, if you ever get near the factory bike’s performance, the Honda electronics’ mafia will stomp all over you and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

This is not the only problem. Dorna would have a full grid – but only at the long-term detriment of motorcycling’s premier race class. Here’s why;

Currently, Honda supplies around 75% of the engines in Moto 3 – and I have already said how deadly, mind-destroyingly boring this class is. They provide 100% of the engines for Moto 2. What is the show going to be like with maybe 90% of the entries in MotoGP as Hondas? We might as well have the Triumph Cup which at least is honest, because it doesn’t try to hide the fact that it is a one-make series.

So, what is the answer? Dorna clearly read MCUSA because they intend following our recommendations to implement a control ECU probably for 2014 and certainly by 2015. We have been pressing for this change for a number of years.

Repsol mechanics get Casey Stoners bike ready for the battle at Mugello.
HRC’s plans to produce of a lower cost version of its RC213V.  Will the CRTs be swapped for grid of second-tier Hondas?

Shuhei Nakamoto and Lin Jarvis claim to want MotoGP to feed back into improved road models. This is a laudable aim and one which meets with my full approval. However, carbon brakes and 240 horsepower engines are not relevant to anyone – except a GP rider. Here is what should happen.

First, make Moto 3 a class for full-sized bikes and normal human beings. Set the minimum weight for the bike and rider at 370 pounds. This would be a rider weighing 140 pounds without riding gear – that’s a decent size for an athletic, standard issue human being – and a bike of 230 pounds – a credible weight for a modern racing motorcycle without having to spend a fortune on exotic materials.

Define a minimum length, weight and height so that the bikes being raced on the track bear some resemblance to those in the showroom rather than looking like mini-motos with big wheels, as is the case currently.

This would allow fit young men and women of a normal, athletic build to participate instead of the present situation where only tiny riders, who are substantially smaller than average, can be competitive.

Finally, make the bikes have 500cc, single-cylinder engines with a single choke fuel injector of a maximum 32mm bore. The 32mm maximum choke size would automatically restrict power, and rpm, and equally automatically demand that manufacturers develop high power, low fuel consumption motorcycles.

The technology developed would feed back into small capacity motorcycles which would be ideal for new riders – and with which they could identify. High power, low fuel consumption engines would be a genuine contribution to the development of motorcycles not only to meet the increasingly stringent demands of Western legislators, like Euro 4 emission levels, but also to address the needs of Third World clients where fuel consumption is a prime demand in their developing markets.

To stop electronics crippling the show, I would insist on a control ECU whose sole purpose would be to feed fuel to the engine. No anti-wheelie; no automatic blipper for downshifts; no quick shifter for upward gear changes; no launch control; no traction control. Let the riders show their skill and interpret the conditions and their motorcycle, so that every bike looks and sounds different.

Lorenzo eventually got out front at Silverstone  earning his third consecutive victory of the season.
Racing should showcase rider skill and their ability to interpret conditions, as opposed to giving up much of the ride to electronics and technical features.

If Messrs Nakamoto and Jarvis really want GP racing to feed back into better road bikes this is where they should be aiming.

As a byproduct, the racing would be spectacular. Full sized riders would compete on motorcycles which would be recognizably like road machines in terms of their dimensions. A single cylinder, 500cc motorcycle fed by a 32mm injector would produce a lot of torque and an easy 65 horsepower. This would give a top speed of around 145 mph – which is ample for dramatic racing.

I would then make Moto 2 a mid-weight class – again for the same reasons. Increase the bike weight limit to 290 pounds and permit Twins and Triples up to 800cc – but all with a control ECU and the same overall size minimums as Moto 3. This way, you would get a range of bikes, engines and riders that would, necessarily, have different riding styles.

Now to MotoGP. Clearly, a control ECU is vital. This has been introduced in BSB and has been wholly beneficial. Minor teams, like that of BSB veteran Chris Walker, have been able to get on the top step of the podium and there has been no increase in accidents. From a spectator’s point of view, the racing is spectacular. I have seen racing in wet, damp and dry conditions and there has been no increase in accidents – nor any diminution in the quality of the show.

With a control ECU, engines would have to be different to the way they are currently but do you really think that Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo won’t be able to ride the bikes? Equally, do you think that the manufacturers will provide unrideable machines to their superstars?

Next, ban carbon brakes. No-one uses carbon brakes on the road so getting them to work better has no benefit at all. Use steel brakes whose performance can filter down to us. There is no detriment in using steel brakes – other than increasing lap times – and they stop heavier WSBK machines effectively from more or less the same speeds as GP bikes.

Remove the maximum fuel capacity. Let the bikes use as much fuel as they want and this will close the gap between the CRT and prototype bikes. No-one in the Green lobby knows, or cares, how much fuel GP bikes use. The only thing which will satisfy these vocal critics of all racing is a complete ban on motorcycle sport.

Frank Melling aboard his Matchless G.50 and classic race tires which provide traction in wet and dry conditions.
Our man Melling meditates on the nuances of his comprehensive Grand Prix fix aboard the Matchless G.50.

And finally…

Please accept that this idea is 101% serious and practical. It is this: make all bikes, Prototype and CRT, use a single tire but with a choice of three compounds. No wets, no intermediate, no qualifying tires: just a single tire which would be clearly identifiable as being capable of being used on the road.

This step is much, much nearer being possible than you would think. Here are a few facts, and I do like that word, for you to consider. A sport-touring tire, like the Michelin Pilot I use on our V-Strom, has the performance of a race tire of 15 years ago and the longevity to manage high mileages. Now that’s a real benefit from racing.

A current supersport tire has the performance levels of a race tire of maybe three, or even two, years ago and can handle perhaps 2000 to 3000 miles of hard riding use on a hyper sportbike. In fact, these tires – from a range of manufacturers – are now so good that their use is compulsory in Isle of Man TT Superstock and Supersport races. Here are the regulations for the TT:

“Any molded tire having at least 2.5mm of tread at the start of the race.”

In fact, a very near relative of the tire you will put on your Panigale or Fireblade.

It is also worth remembering three other factors. First, the TT course takes place on public roads which, although well surfaced, are not nearly as grippy as a race track.

Next, the Superstock bikes are heavy and powerful and so put a lot of strain on the tires. Clearly, TT riders are not achieving the 57 degrees of lean that a MotoGP rider does but with an average lap of 126 mph they’re not cruising round waving to the crowds either.

In classic racing, we have one tire – albeit in two compounds. This works perfectly well in dry, damp or wet conditions and the key problem classic racers now face is a lack of ground clearance – the grip is so good.

Imagine the benefits for road riders if the GP stars developed tires which would give us even better grip – and therefore increased safety – in a whole range of conditions from dry to wet and would be capable of wear levels sufficient to stay safe for the length of a GP.

Of course, the current manufacturers would scream that a one tire rule would be untenable – but it wouldn’t. As engines have been softened to compete in BSB, so the same would happen in all three classes of GP racing. Do we need 240 horsepower on the road? Well, certainly, I don’t. Do we need torquey, controllable engines with a long life? Yes we do.

Clearly, with a treaded tire for MotoGP would come the same regulation for Moto2 and Moto3. Now, high performance tires would filter back to the light and mid-weight machines. Would that be useful or would you prefer better carbon brakes or a more effective blipper for next time you are doing downshifts at 150 mph – on the way to the shopping mall of course!

And to finish, a treaded tire would be a wonderful example of the law of unintended consequences in action – except in this case it is my intention.

Because of the demands of TV, all MotoGP races are now flag to flag. If it rains part way through a race then the second bike, set up for the wet, is used.

At the same time, Dorna are pressing for a single bike rule to control costs. Clearly, the two aims are incompatible because a flag-to-flag race demands a spare bike in wet trim. Unless of course, treaded tires were used. How good will it be when Bridgestone produce a tire with sufficient performance to allow GP racing – in both wet and dry conditions during one race? Now that would be technology worth having on a road bike.

I don’t expect Dorna to accept this plan immediately but I guarantee you will see several large slices enacted on the GP scene. Just watch this space.