STM: Making Sense of MotoGP 2015

MotorcycleUSA Staff | March 23, 2015
If you want to see the supreme, utterly sublime, example of all that makes motorcycle racing the best sport in the world you have to watch MotoGP live. Re-mortgage your house, sell your kidney for organ donation or send your firstborn kid to work for $90 a month in the Chinese factory which makes your very expensive branded motorcycle clothing but, whatever it takes, get to see MotoGP from the trackside this season.

Since the first race is in Qatar, and attracts a crowd of less than 10,000, let’s assume that it will be a televisual experience for you. However, before you settle down in front of the TV on March 29, crack open a can of beer and dive into the family pack of nacho chips, let’s try to sort out the Machiavellian labyrinth which is the MotoGP rule book. The reason you need to have some understanding of the MotoGP regulations is that, sadly, they dominate the sport. It won’t be like this next year but it is in 2015 – so here we go.

According to the bookies, here’s your odds-on favorite to win the 2015 MotoGP title.

First, the simple bits which anyone – even a motojournalist – can understand. The maximum engine displacement permitted is 1000cc with a limit of four cylinders and a bore no greater than 81 mm. The minimum weight is 160 kg (352.7 pounds).

Well, that’s simple enough – but no slouching about at the back of the class reading MotoUSA Magazine on your laptop because you are about to enter the regulatory pain zone!

First, all MotoGP bikes are not equal. On the contrary, they come in three distinct flavours – even though they are all in the same race. Here are the categories in a very simplified form – mainly because even I get confused with the finer points of the regulations!

First, the full factory bikes which are being ridden by the men most likely to win the title. These are the first tier, works Honda and Yamaha machines ridden by Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo.

Additionally, Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding also have factory Hondas – but theirs are six weeks behind the Repsol machines of Marquez and Pedrosa. The practical implications are that Redding and Crutchlow are riding the same bikes as the Repsol bikes in terms of suspension, hydraulic valve operation and seamless gearboxes but if someone at Honda comes up with a new sticker mid-season, which the regulations allow to be used immediately, then the posh graphic will go on Marquez’s bike first, then Pedrosa’s machine – followed by the two, leased, factory Hondas ridden by the Brits.

The performance differences should be extremely small – but they will be there.

Pol Espargaro is quick, but will be on lesser machinery than the full, full, full factory Yamahas.

The gap between the Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro and the full, full, full factory bikes of Rossi and Lorenzo is greater than that between the Repsol Hondas and their satellite teams. In practical terms, the Tech 3 boys will get updated versions of the 2014 machines. These will still be hugely competitive bikes but, equally, they will never be good enough to win races – unless in some freak circumstances.

All the factory bikes are allowed 20 liters of race fuel per race. I really thought that this was going to be a problem for the factory machines, as did Dorna because this is why the regulation was introduced in the first place – in a vain attempt to rein in the two top teams, but the techies at Yamaha and Honda simply outsmarted the rules with some brilliant engineering. Yamaha Race Boss Wilco Zeelenberg says the YZR-M1 now uses less fuel than the R1 road bike. This is a truly amazing achievement.

Factory bikes are limited to five engines for the season. Dorna, and me, were wrong about the five engine changes too. Honda and Yamaha have made these 240(ish)-hp engines so reliable that they will take maybe four hours running per GP and not even break into a sweat. The word is that these engines will now run for 3000 km (1864 miles) at a maximum performance – which is a miracle of engineering.

The engines for the factory bikes also have to be the same spec throughout the season. Once more, this is not the penalty that it might seem from the outside. Extra power is no longer the advantage it once was. In fact, before the restrictions on World Superbike engines there was little difference in terms of outright power between a WSBK and MotoGP motor.

The elephant in the bathroom is not what the figures on the dyno show but how that power can be used – and this is down to the ECU. You will hear a lot about ECUs this year – and the vast majority of the information will be wrong. First, the actual physical ECU is relatively cheap to produce.

Elegant, but far from simple.

It allegedly costs a few hundred dollars to make an I-Phone but this unit price is amortised over a zillion units. The Magneti Marelli ECU is a bespoke item for the not wholly surprising reason that there are not very many MotoGP bikes on the planet, so it’s going to be a tad more expensive than a posh phone – even if you can’t play games on it!

Also while dropping your phone on the floor and then cursing because it has a cracked screen is all part of the joy of consumer electronics, having the ECU fall apart merely because it has been bounced up and down in a 150 mph crash is not acceptable. Therefore, Magneti Marelli ECUs will be manufactured to the same specification as those found in aircraft: add the word “expensive” here.

Even so, the price of the physical ECU is neither here nor there in terms of the overall bill to go GP racing. The real cost lies in the software and how good this is – or not. In this respect, the task is science-fiction complex.

The ECUs used by the top teams can alter the bike’s performance not only on the weekend of the race for crude parameters such as temperature, barometric pressure and humidity but they constantly adjust the bike lap by lap, corner by corner, monitoring every angle of lean and every gear change.

Yamaha’s Racing Manager, Lin Jarvis, was quite blunt about the advantages which this sophistication confers on Honda and Yamaha. He said: “Right now we could give our software to many other teams, but the people in those [smaller] teams would be totally lost.

“Because of the amount of parameters, the amount of changes possible, it would be too much.”

It also explains why Ducati were so relaxed about “giving away” the secrets of their own ECU. Yes, the software code was open source – but making that code work wasn’t!

The analogy would be winning a brand new Jaguar on the slots at Las Vegas and then the casino telling you that the key to get into the car wasn’t in the deal. Unless you were a Cal Tech Computer Science graduate, or probably one of the smart car thieves working in most big cities, the Jag would still be in the casino’s lobby!

Currently, the full works bikes can carry on developing their own software solutions until June when the code is frozen.

The ECU code is now so important that for 2016 Dorna are enforcing a standardized ECU and code. For the avoidance of doubt, to race in MotoGP in 2016 you will buy a control ECU from Magneti Marelli and this will carry the code you will use.

The job is such a poisoned chalice, and capable of generating such an immense amount of controversy, that MotoGP’s Technical Director Corrado Cecchinelli has said that the Motorcycle Sport Manufacturers Association, which represents the teams, must nominate just one representative with whom he will liaise and that will be that.

All the manufacturers will give their wish list to the single representative who will then submit a single, agreed set of performance parameters to Corrado Cecchinelli and his team at Magneti Marelli. Clearly, this is going to be a job not only for a smart engineer but also someone with the patience of a high-ranking saint.

It’s no small task getting the factory machines to tip-top performance levels.

If you can buy a Chinese 125cc trail bike for a couple of thousand dollars, which comes equipped with an ECU which works perfectly well, why all the fuss about the electronics on a MotoGP bike?

The answer lies in the closeness of the racing. I am writing this article as the second day of testing at Losail comes to an end. The difference between Andrea Dovizioso, who set the fastest time, and Yonny Hernandez who is tenth, is 0.865 seconds.

Given that it takes around 0.33 seconds to blink, three blinks is the length of the time between going back to your pitbox having a had a mediocre qualifying session – or bringing back the champagne for your crew because you are on Pole.
If your ECU can help your rider to get the power on just that millisecond earlier on every corner of the race, you will be looking at the winner’s trophy. If not, you won’t. It is with these hyper subtle differences that Honda and Yamaha do so well.

The tiny differences also explain the need for such mechanical subtleties as the seamless gearbox which allows the bike to stay just that little bit more stable at extreme angles of lean and so, tied in with perfect engine management, allows the rider to accelerate just that bit faster – and win!

The second technical category is also for factory bikes but is intended to bring all the other manufacturers up to the level of Honda and Yamaha. In this category, bikes use the official MotoGP ECU hardware but with their own software. This category is for manufacturers that did not achieve a dry win in 2014 – which means Ducati, or any new MotoGP manufacturers such as Suzuki and Aprilia.

The snappily named “Factory With Concessions” class has the same 24 liters of fuel per race, 12 engine changes, softer rear tire, no engine development freeze and extra testing opportunities as the Open Category.

Every time I hear “Factory With Concessions” I always get a picture in my mind of the teams having burger stands and ice-cream vendors outside their pitboxes as their “concessions.” You can imagine the discussion as Dovizioso arrives after a particularly fraught qualifying session and parks his Ducati outside the team’s pit box. “Hey, come on Dovi. Move that bloody motorbike. You’re blocking the line to our pizza stand and I’ve paid good money for this concession.”

Now, back to being sensible and the Open Class. This is a complicated and complex group within MotoGP and the teams’ participation is driven by a diverse range of reasons from technical advancement to ego trip. In this category come the customer RC213V-RS Hondas ridden by Nicky Hayden and Jack Miller, as well as the Forward Racing Yamahas. Neither of these bikes is anything like competitive. I am a huge fan of Miller in terms of his 101% committed riding style but he has been consistently two seconds (give or take) behind the leaders and this amounts to being in a different race.

The Open Class bikes can change engines almost every race, they are allowed 12 during the season, and they have 24 liters of fuel and soft tires but, unless Honda and Yamaha actually turn up at the wrong GP because someone has entered an incorrect Zip Code in the SatNav, they will view the podium only through medium powered binoculars.

The reason for the Open Class is that Dorna needs to fill the grid – with almost anyone. A few years ago, so few riders finished a GP that the races looked more like test sessions than races and so now Dorna pays the smaller teams to make up the numbers.

From the teams’ points of view, the offer is seductive. Most important of all, they get to sit at the top table. In the 1970s I was heavily involved in GP Motocross, and Grand Prix racing really does do strange things to your mind. After a few GPs, you really do start believing that if rider “x” visits the restroom for an extended period this act of nature is as important as a tornado destroying 1000 houses or a mass genocide in Africa. It really is easy to get sucked into the whole GP fantasy world.

Dorna do this theme-park magic land very well. First, anyone with some medium level blagging skills can either buy, or scrounge, their way into the Moto 2/3 paddock. This is good but only a taster of the inner sanctum.

Guarded like some religious site is the MotoGP Paddock. Here blagging is much more difficult. It can be done, but Dorna staff keep a very tight control and so this Holy of Holies is an area of intense exclusivity, privacy and privilege. Only really I-M-P-O-R-T-A-N-T members of the human race are sufficiently blessed to be given entry. The rest of us will remain, forever until the end of eternity, outsiders – unless of course we join the higher astral plane wherein MotoGP dwells.

It’s an old technique used by religions for millennia. The high priests remain on one side of the rood screen and the congregation on the other. Only the clergy have direct access to whatever God is in vogue at the time and the rest of us must remain as lesser beings – and always outsiders. If you cut away all the flim-flam about marketing and product development and inspiring engineers, wanting to sit at the top table is the real reason why the lesser teams go GP racing.

So, now you understand the technical regulations which govern MotoGP in pellucid clarity – don’t you? – and we can move on to the riders.

Please don’t get your electronic baseball bat out of the cupboard because I am not necessarily talking about the rider who buys his Mum the nicest Mother’s Day card or who pets his dog with most affection. This discussion is limited purely and simply to who is going to win the 2015 MotoGP World Championship.

The answer to this question is extremely easy: it will be Marc Marquez. There are a range of reasons but they combine to make the young Spaniard the 4:9 favorite in the bookmaker’s eyes. If you’re not into gambling, this means that you have to give the bookie $9 to win $4 back. That’s what the professionals think about Marquez’s chances of becoming World Champion again.

To put this into perspective, Valentino Rossi will give you 7:1 odds whilst Dovi languishes at 18:1. Go down to the merely brilliant riders, as distinct from motorcycling deities and you get 200:1 for either Scott Redding or Cal Crutchlow or 500:1 for Nicky Hayden – and he’s already been a World Champion!

So what makes Marc such a certainty? None of the following reasons are in priority order because they all share equal importance. However, we have to start somewhere and Marquez has the best bike in MotoGP. He also has a team which knows how to win. If Forward Racing won a GP, they would barely know how to find the podium without a map. By contrast, Honda expects to be on Pole, set the fastest lap and to win. Contra-intuitively, this removes a lot of pressure from the rider. It’s just another day at the office and another win: business as usual…

Marquez is also a unique talent – and I use the word unique having been round GP racing for a long, long time. Not only is he an utterly gifted rider but he is comfortable with himself in the danger zone where GPs are won or lost. It’s a myth to say that he doesn’t make mistakes – he does, and sometimes huge ones. The difference between him and the rest of field is a supreme, God-given confidence that he can sort out any mess. The practical result of this hyper self-belief is that Marc will race closer to the edge of disaster, more often, than any other rider in the championship.

Finally, he has the same relaxed self-confidence which the Honda team exhibits. Marc expects to win in the same way as the sun is hot and water is wet: just because it is.

Yes, he can be beaten if the circumstances flow against him, and Lady Luck blesses other riders, but over 18 rounds it will be Marquez who will do the majority of the winning.

Second will be Jorge Lorenzo. He too is supremely, incredibly talented and, like Marquez, has a good team around him. The problem he faces is that he knows, if everything else is equal, Marc is a faster rider.

Jorge needs a little bit of help to beat Marc every weekend – and currently this isn’t forthcoming. Ideally, he needs a better bike but failing this the old Bridgestone tires which gave such incredible side grip. These tires allowed Lorenzo’s elegant, graceful style to carry the corner speed which gave him two MotoGP Championships. Lorenzo is the racer all motorcycle racers want to be, in terms of utter mastery of a motorcycle and, except for Marquez, he would be cruising to another World Championship.

Valentino Rossi will be third. Vale trains harder, does more preparation and aches to win more than ever – but his time has gone. For me, he is still one of the very best of all motorcycle racers but, although he might beat Marquez occasionally, he will never best him sufficiently often to win the title. Vale was the supreme rider of his generation – Marc the greatest rider of his generation.

Fourth place is very much up for grabs. For sure, Dani Pedrosa will be quick on the right day, on the right track and if he is free of injuries. How often will that happen? Not on many occasions. Dani is of Vale’s time and place. He could never win a World Championship when the opportunity was there, so there is no chance now.

This brings us to the two factory Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone. Dovi is another previous generation rider. He had a factory Honda and couldn’t get near to winning a Championship, so he will never do it on the current Ducati.

Remember that once Ducati do win, the regulations will penalize them so they have no chance of beating Yamaha and Honda. Dovi on the podium? Yes, with the new Gigi Dall’Igna designed GP15 expect to see this a few times.

I rate Iannone too. He is a fabulous rider and is Ducati’s future. If Gigi can do something remarkable with Audi’s development money then we might well see a Marquez challenger for 2016 – but not this year.

The final two contenders for fourth spot are the British pair of Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding – and I know both of them well. Cal is titanium tough. If he went for Special Forces training he would probably be thrown out for being too hard and aggressive. Will you see him on the podium? Yes, for definite.

Cal’s weakness is that he knows no fear, so his LCR mechanics had better be fond of re-building bikes. When he finishes he will do well – but expect a lot of gravel in the Honda’s radiators this year.

This brings us to Scott Redding. Ignore the pre-season test times completely, because in Redding’s case, they mean nothing at all. Scott is a methodical, intellectual rider who applies a cold, logical reasoning to racing. He is also brave, fast and has a very good motorcycle in the RC213V. Unlike Cal, he rarely crashes and has a proven record of being competitive against Marquez from their Moto 2 days. At 22 years of age, he is today’s rider and has his eyes set firmly on Pedrosa’s place in the Repsol team.

Perhaps most of all, with Marc VDS backing him, he is the center of attention in a team which has been his surrogate parent for many years. I am not a gambling man but I wouldn’t mind $10 on Scott taking fourth place by the end of the season.