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Backmarker: Production Bikes vs. MotoGP

Thursday, December 6, 2012
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.
2012 MotoGP Season Photo Gallery
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2012 WSBK Season Photo Gallery
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BJC   February 21, 2013 09:41 PM
SBK has (effectively) unlimited engines, qualifiers, no fuel limits. MotoGP, even during testing, is using its years engine allocation and race tyres. You also need to take into account different weather and track temperature - which on its own can be responsible for more than a second a lap. Put the top WSBK on track at the same time as the RC213V or M1 and we will see just how close they are. A series like a Transatlantic Match Race or World Club Challenge - then we will have an apples-for-apples comparison. Until then, it's nothing but conjecture.
hobo   January 8, 2013 03:16 PM
Comparing MOTO GP bikes to street bikes performance vs F1 cars to streetcars is very skewed because MOTO GP bikes are so close to street bikes-presumably because MOTO GP is funded by selling relatively few streetbikes. F1 cars are nothing like streetcars, they are far more specialized and have infinitly bigger budgets. Suppose a bike racing class was developed allowing a very different bike format, like putting the rider close to the ground in a Gurney Alligator, with crazy wide tires and some utterly specialized powertrain and of course all the other modern tech-carbon frame, rims and brakes ,trick electronics to start. That prototype would cost way over 2 million, but I'd bet it would have a greater performance differential vs. a streetbike on the same track. Too bad nobody is going to fund that series!
Backmarker   December 7, 2012 04:20 PM
Mistery -- Thanks for leaping to my defense dude, but it's not necessary. Any time a reader writes a string of comments longer than my post I'm happy, whether he agrees with me or not. Writing for the web's all about being 'sticky', as they say. Besides, I see many of his points. I think the main thing I'm left with is that just a few years ago -- the days of Doohan, Schwantz, and Rainey -- there was a large gap in both the performance and rideability of GP two-stroke 500s and early-modern Superbikes. But the switch to four-strokes in the MotoGP class and the influence of TC in both MotoGP and World SBK (not to mention SSTK and production street bikes) has blurred what were once sharp lines of distinction. Not so long ago, it would have been moot to say, "I'd like to see what the fastest Grand Prix rider could do on a Superbike (or Superstock, or production bike)" because the bikes were so different that they really required major readjustment, if not almost a different skillset. Now, it's an experiment I'd like to do all the more because (cost and liability nothwithstanding) it would be practical to do it. Brady -- Biaggi is another example of a guy who was no slouch in GPs, and moved to SBK. Your guess is as good as mine, but I think that there's a second or two, in the riders, between the top guys currently in MotoGP and the top guys in SBK. The point I was really trying to make is the one about SSTK (and by extension production) bikes. I think there's several seconds a lap difference in between the top guys in MotoGP and the top SSTK riders.
bradvanhorn   December 7, 2012 10:17 AM
"I'd pay good money to see one of the MotoGP aliens really try to wring the last bit of performance from a SSTK-spec bike"

I'm surprised no one mentioned Marco Melandri. Did well early in his MotoGP career and then suffered the last few years. Jumped to World Superbike and has come within grasp of winning the title both years. I'll suggest this gives us a pretty good idea what a MotoGP rider can do with a Superbike.
nieseba   December 7, 2012 09:19 AM
The additional $1,975,000 actually may not even buy 10 seconds. At Laguna Seca this year Martin Cardenas qualified in Daytona sportbike in 1:27.575. Jorge Lorenzo's qualifying time was 1:20.554. A difference of only 7.021 seconds. If you let Jorge ride both bikes to eliminate the variable of rider skill the difference would be even less than that.
mistery   December 6, 2012 11:11 PM
@jfc1: Nowhere does he say this article is scientific in any way. These are his opinions on a topic that has many 'production bike' advocates hot in their seats mixed in with a little nostalgia and lots and lots of fantasizing. Nothing wrong with that. It was an interesting read, followed up by the tire comments down here which was very informative. Like you said: "...just what does MotoGP give the racing community that we aren't getting in the other classes? That is a very good question to ask." Tell me then, what is so wrong in this non news - non scientific article considering the man gave credit where credit was due (comments from FB) and he recognised his mistake like a gentleman.
AnthonyD   December 6, 2012 02:09 PM
I would pay to see an alien do this test.
Backmarker   December 6, 2012 01:31 PM
Rucuss, b005st... I am embarrassed to have been caught out by the course difference! I thought something was up with the out-of-norm gap, and checked the weather but failed to check the course length. Thanks for pointing it out. My only consolation is that the knowledgable Jules Cisek tells me that he too was once caught out by the same oversight. Another well-informed reader, Sport Rider's Kent Kunitsugu, messaged me on FB to highlight the difference between Pirelli's very soft Q tire option in World SBK -- presumably a better choice in Superpole sessions than the best option that the MotoGP guys have, which is the softest race tire. I was going to mention that, but I didn't because I didn't have any information about the Q tires available to SSTK riders, which is the more interesting comparison. Does anyone know what tires SSTK riders use for Q sessions? If so, please add a comment. Of course, such comparisons are a mug's game, unless and until we do this experiment: Set up representative MotoGP and SSTK bikes for a very fast 'control' rider to do back-to-back laps. In an age when both Grand Prix and Superstock bikes are four strokes, and when production bikes are getting increasingly sophisticated TC, there's less and less machine specialization amongst top riders. I'd pay good money to see one of the MotoGP aliens really try to wring the last bit of performance from a SSTK-spec bike. Perhaps when Honda releases their new V4, they'll send Pedrosa along to the launch...
AnthonyD   December 6, 2012 11:49 AM
This is a great article. I am going to share it a lot of places.
GhostRider11   December 6, 2012 11:01 AM
Since the beginning of time it has always boiled down to the most expensive variable... the last ingredient of the equation that makes the world of difference in racing... THE RIDER! It doesn't matter which series you look at or whether it's the street or the track... a Fast Rider will always rises to the top on a decent sportbike!
Rucuss54   December 6, 2012 10:52 AM
The WSBK Aragon track configuation is longer, hence the slower lap times. Everywhere else they are barely slower than MotoGP prototypes. Give the ZX10R/S1000rr/RSV4 carbon brakes, Bridgestone tires and there will be no difference in lap times. All three of those are boss bikes, made with much smaller budgets. Worldwide recession in 2013=Game over for MotoGP.
alang   December 6, 2012 10:44 AM
great write up Mark.
b005st469   December 6, 2012 06:49 AM
The large gap at Aragon is because they race on a different track layout. MotoGP layout is 5078 meters in length, WSBK layout is 5344 meters long.