Backmarker: Production Bikes vs. MotoGP

December 6, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Tom Sykes put in 89 laps during his final day of testing at Jerez.
Tom Sykes during testing at Jerez where he shared the track with MotoGP riders. Sykes was just one rider to post lap times comparable to GP’s Nicky Hayden of Ducati.

Production bikes close the gap to MotoGP lap times? We’re living in a golden age…

A couple of weeks ago, Dorna gave us a rare opportunity to compare World Superbikes and MotoGP bikes on the same track on the same day, when it scheduled tests for both classes on overlapping days.

For a while, it seemed as if the Superbikes would have the last laugh, as Eugene Laverty threw down a 1:40.1 lap that was faster than any of the MotoGP riders could muster. Late in the test, the natural order was restored when Nicky Hayden went ever so slightly faster on his Ducati.

Or was it?

The Jerez test wasn’t, of course, a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. Biaggi’s absence notwithstanding, the fastest bikes and riders in the World SBK series were all represented. The defense of MotoGP’s honor fell to Nicky Hayden and Ducati, a pairing that was a couple of seconds off the pace all season. If Lorenzo and Pedrosa had been present at the test, they would have lapped in the 1:39s.

Regardless, Laverty, Marco Melandri, and Tom Sykes, on three different Superbikes, all lapped under 1:41.

So in an off-season day-dreaming kind of way, I used my mental time machine to transport those three Superbikes back just a few months, to April, when MotoGP raced at Jerez under similar cool conditions. Laverty’s, Melandri’s, and Sykes’ lap times would have been good for positions 3 through 5 on the MotoGP grid.

Hmm… eh?

Nicky Hayden during winter testing ahead of the 2013 MotoGP season.
Nicky Hayden and his Ducati may not have been the best representation of the times that MotoGP machines and riders can set, but according to the numbers, many WSBK riders would contend for top-10 finishes in GP with their production bikes if given the chance.

As I’ve already noted (so have others) in the discussion of Dorna’s World SBK ‘takeover’, it’s clear that MotoGP’s raison d’etre – as the pure prototype World Championship – is threatened if production-based World Superbikes approach MotoGP speeds. For however long we have the Claiming Rule Teams filling the back of the MotoGP grid with bikes powered by (essentially) Superbike engines, the situation is even more confusing from the perspective of ‘branding’ each series for fans and sponsors.

The fastest production-based Superbikes are, at most tracks, faster than the CRT machines and at some tracks they’re faster than the slowest of the pure prototypes. (I’m looking at you, Ducati.) I wrote about this on my blog and noted it on Facebook, where a few people leapt to MotoGP’s defense by noting that World SBK factory bikes are ‘production-based’ according the rules only, and that for practical purposes they’re hand-made.

Point taken. But the bikes raced in the European Superstock 1000 class are production-based.

So, the other day I set up a little spreadsheet to compare the lap times put up in qualifying for the MotoGP, World SBK, and SSTK classes at the four European tracks where they all raced in 2012. Those tracks were Assen, Aragon, Brno, and Misano.

The track with the largest gap between MotoGP and World SBK (Superpole) times was Motorland Aragon. Lorenzo’s 1:49.4 pole time was a yawning 7 seconds quicker than Sykes’ Superpole time there. So although Sykes’ time would have fallen inside MotoGP’s 107% qualifying cutoff, it would only have earned him the last spot on the grid, behind even the unloved FTR-Kawasaki of David Salom.

But the gaps at the other three tracks were in the 1.5 to 2.5-second range. Sykes would have qualified for the 11th grid position at Assen or Brno, and would have gridded 9th at Misano, ahead of all the CRTs and two full-on prototypes.

Sylvain Barrier in Superstock 1000 at Aragon.
Sylvain Barrier ran a 2’02.741 lap to earn Superpole at Aragon, over ten seconds behind the top qualifying lap set by Jorge Lorenzo in MotoGP at the same circuit in 2012.

The gaps back to Superstock qualifying times were much larger, of course. The gap at Aragon was over 13 seconds, and even the fastest Superstock qualifier (Sylvain Barrier, BMW) would have finished outside the 107% cutoff time in MotoGP. However, at the other three tracks, the fastest Superstock qualifier was within 107% of the MotoGP pole time. In fact, at Misano, the polesitter Eddie La Marra qualified faster on his nearly stock Ducati Panigale than David Salom went on the Avintia Blusens’ team’s CRT bike.

Over the last decade, I’ve had a few opportunities to ride the best available sportbikes in street trim, at track schools or launches where I’ve shared the track with ex-GP stars. On different occasions, I asked Kevin Schwantz and Freddie Spencer, “If you had a time machine, how far back would you have to take this bike, before you’d be capable of putting it on the grid in a Grand Prix?” The answers they gave were about 15 or 20 years. But honestly you wouldn’t need a time machine at all, any more.

There is now an overlap between the fastest production motorcycles, and the bikes currently racing in the fastest class on the planet. And, not to take anything away from the top Superstock racers, it’s clear that some of the difference between the fastest MotoGP bikes and SSTK bikes is actually the riders, and not the bikes. If you put Jorge Lorenzo or Dani Pedrosa on a good Superstock bike they wouldn’t just put it on the grid, they’d finish in the points in almost any MotoGP race.

This is less a knock on the current state of MotoGP bikes, and more a kudos to the state of production motorcycles. We are, truly, living in a golden age for sportbikes. It’s incredible that any ordinary guy with a middle-class income can go into a local shop and buy a bone stock production motorcycle that is, for practical purposes, nearly as fast as the fastest motorcycles on the planet. According to BMW, for example, the top-spec 2013 S1000RR HP4 will retail for 25 grand. That’s beyond Backmarker’s budget, but it’s still affordable to at least some of those in the 99% who choose to make it a priority.

The BMW HP4 gets Dynamic Damping Control - a first for any production sportbike.
The 2013 BMW S1000RR HP4 may be outside the price range of some, but will offer near race-ready performance right out of the box.

If car guys knew how good we had it, they’d be furious. No production car is capable of turning a lap even remotely close to the fastest race cars.

And even at that, the fastest production cars are priced out of reach, even for most 1%ers. The Bugatti Veyron, for example, is capable of F1-like top speeds (or even more) but it costs over $2 million.

Come to think of it, I guess the people who build MotoGP bikes are frustrated by these equations, too. I mean, if you set the value of a factory prototype at a conservative $2,000,000, you must wonder what gives when you realize that your last $1,975,000 only bought you 10 seconds a lap.

The gap between MotoGP racers’ and production bikes’ lap times will probably continue to narrow, and pose a strategic marketing challenge for Dorna. It’s a virtual certainty, however, that the marginal cost of approaching world-class speed will fall.

It will fall in spite of the inherently high cost of specialized fabrication and exotic materials, because mechanical speed hardly matters any more. Modern motorcycles are limited by the sophistication of their electronics, and the cost of electronic components falls; it’s an inevitable corollary of Moore’s Law.

If you spin this out, you realize the irony in a racing ‘industry’ that’s obsessed with reducing the costs of fielding a competitive machine, while mass-produced street bikes get faster and faster and approach the capabilities of full-on racing prototypes.

Lorenzo kept Pedrosa at bay  leaving the Repsol Honda rider to second-place at Catalunya.
Talented riders are still critical to making a bike go fast, whether in MotoGP, World Superbike or in the amateur ranks.

At the end of the day, no cost-control measures will ever work because cost-control efforts violate Gardiner’s Fourth Law of Racing, which is: Everyone always spends all their budget (and, usually, a little bit more.) All rules-makers can try to do is reduce the marginal impact of additional dollars on lap times – and the foregoing demonstrates that we’re rapidly reaching a point of vanishingly small returns.

So rules-makers won’t succeed in actually lowering costs, but if they keep trying, it will be good for riders. Teams will blow millions building a MotoGP prototype that, much to the frustration of their mechanics and engineers, will only be slightly faster than a good street bike. But the talent gap between Lorenzo and that regular working stiff who walked into the motorcycle dealership a few paragraphs ago is not getting any smaller. That means that the most cost-effective way to make your bike faster will be to hire a faster rider.