Climbing Mount Everest

by Mat Oxley on 25th April 2017

MotoGP now has fewer rider controls, so once again we’re seeing riders getting all acrobatic. That’s why Marc Márquez was a sight to behold at COTA

That was quite a weekend and this is quite a photograph. It reminds me of the old days – Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz and the rest – climbing all over their flighty 500 two-strokes, trying to get those deadly missiles-on-wheels pointed vaguely in the right direction.

It is Marc Márquez, playing the outer limits during COTA qualifying, climbing all over his Repsol Honda RC213V like Sherpa Tenzing used to climb all over Mount Everest.

When we talk about riders racing Grand Prix bikes, we usually talk about the corners because racing around racetracks is mostly about corners. The straights are just the bits connecting the corners, where racers can relax for a moment, loosen their grip on the handlebars and give their brain a chance to catch up and get ready for what’s coming next.

In fact it’s not like that at all. As you can see, there’s nothing easy about riding in a straight line when you’ve got a quarter of a thousand horsepower beneath you. And there’s no such thing as a moment’s rest on a MotoGP bike.

When I first saw this photo – shot by Márquez's photographer Alejandro Ceresuela – I presumed it was taken at one of COTA’s numerous direction changes, with Márquez accelerating out of a left-hander, crawling over the front of the bike to keep the front wheel down so he’s got the grip and turning he will need to flick into the next right-hander.

But no. This is Márquez working like crazy to fire his RC213V out of COTA’s final corner, hauling himself over the fuel tank to keep the front down, standing on the footpegs to reduce wheelspin and generally trying to keep the bike on the straight and narrow as he heads towards the finish line.

Every racer, even the MotoGP world champion, must work with the laws of physics. We like to think that men like Márquez can bend the laws of physics, but of course they can’t; all they can do is use their mental and physical talents to work with steering, counter-steering, centrifugal force, centripetal force, gravity, inertia, friction and the rest.

Obviously when a top racer attacks a corner he puts huge amounts of physical input into the motorcycle to make it lean and turn. And those inputs are still there as he exits the corner, so the bike continues to turn as he rides onto the straight, which is why we often see riders doing the ‘snake on the straight’, so when they accelerate out of a left-hander they’re still turning left as they ride down the straight, then they must steer the bike to the right to get it pointed straight again.

Márquez is putting everything he’s got – arms, legs, body weight and most of all his brain – into getting the bike upright as quick as possible, so he doesn’t run too wide onto the kerb on the right of the track, nor continue veering too far left as he accelerates past the pits. That’s why the front wheel is pointing left because he’s counter-steering, turning the handlebars to the left to make the bike turn right, which helps bring it upright. Counter-steering sounds weird but we all do it whenever we ride a motorcycle, whether we’re racing around COTA or popping down the shops. 

Wayne Rainey, winner of the 1990, 1991 and 1992 500cc world titles knows exactly what’s going on here. Rider-control electronics were no more than a glint in the eye of clever engineers when he raced 500s, so he spent his Grand Prix career clambering all over his Yamaha YZR500 to steer the handlebars and load the footpegs to control wheelspin, avoid wheelies and somehow keep the bike between the kerbs.

The 500’s evil power delivery, minimal weight (42 kilos less than a MotoGP bike, in 1990!) and ancient chassis and tyres made this an incredibly aggressive job. Real gladiator stuff, as Rainey recalls.

“I had a little ritual before the race, if you want to call it that, or a routine, that would get me into the right state of mind,” he says. “I’d get myself into this once a weekend. I’d be dancing around my motorhome or kicking my leathers, or I’d sit there, focusing on the feeling of being excited and wanting to spit nails and rip the handlebars off the bike. It was like going out to fight. If people had come into the motorhome they’d have thought I was nuts, they’d have said: man, you better take a break!”

The development of rider-control electronics over the past decade and a half has changed everything. Traction control was originally developed to save broken bones, then to save time and effort exiting corners. Anti-wheelie and everything else were developed for those same reasons. But since last year’s advent of Dorna’s unified software much has changed again. Dorna wanted to go back in time, to take rider controls back to where they’d started, when they were a safety tool, not a performance tool. Wheelies aren’t really a safety issue, which is why anti-Dorna’s anti-wheelie software is the most basic MotoGP rider control of all.

What you see in this photo is Márquez using mind, body and soul to compensate for Dorna’s low-tech anti-wheelie software and save that few thousandths of a second that will win him his fifth consecutive pole position at COTA. The next day he took his fifth consecutive COTA victory and – very fittingly – got to a wear a cowboy hat on the podium.

“It’s a great shot – I’ve got shots of us doing that on the old 500s at places like Hockenheim,” says Rainey. “COTA is like supercross now, it’s not smooth anymore. It looks to me like he’s using the bumps because sometimes you can use bumps to help turn the bike. The good guys are doing that at COTA. What I see in the photo is cold track temperatures and bumps, so he’s coming out of the turn, hitting a bump and accelerating, so that’s why the front end is moving so easily.

“We didn’t have any of that anti-wheelie stuff on the 500s. Coming out of the last corner at Laguna Seca you’d sit right up on the rear part of the gas tank and you were quarter throttle in first, second, third and fourth, just so the bike wouldn’t wheelie and wouldn’t spin out, but you were still trying to accelerate. At Laguna we were only wide open for 28 per cent of the whole lap!

“All this anti-wheelie stuff is great for the lap time, because it gives the rider more of a chance to focus on his riding, but now that they’ve gone to unified software it’s good. It makes the riding great to see again. And that’s what you’re seeing in this shot.”

Rainey’s greatest rival Kevin Schwantz was the Márquez of his day, riding a 500 like it was a rodeo ride. The Texan scrambled all over his 500 more than anyone else because his big, gangly arms and legs gave him excellent leverage and the chance the make major load adjustments, fore and aft, left and right.

“To me it looks a bit like coming out of the final chicane at Assen, where you’re trying to get the bike peeled back to the right after you’ve buried it in the left of the chicane,” says the 1993 500 World Champion. “You haven’t quite got the bike to rotate under you, so it’s still doing what it’s doing; it’s lifting the front wheel, it’s still turning left and you’re hauling it up: hey, come back this way! There’s a lot going on in that photo. And if you think about it, it wouldn’t take much for that crossed-up front wheel to touch down on the track, which would make the whole bike go yaaak! That’s why he’s climbing all over the top of it.”

It’s no coincidence that Schwantz and Rainey spent the early years of their careers racing dirt track, with the front and rear wheels pointing this way and that, scrabbling for grip, their brains and bodies learning the tricks and muscle memory they’d need to master GP bikes. And this is why Márquez dedicates much of his life to skidding around in circles on dirt bikes.

The only European who consistently worried Rainey and Schwantz (in good ways and bad!) was 1984 250cc World Champion Christian Sarron. The Frenchman graduated to 500s in 1985 and retired in 1990, so he never got to race the rider-friendly ‘big-bang’ engines that revolutionised 500 racing. Amazingly, he’s perfectly happy with that. 

“I didn’t like the big-bang engines because I was happy with the challenge of dominating the screamers,” he says. “That challenge ended with the big bang. The screamers were more stress, more heartbeat, more everything.” Wow, Sarron was nothing if not very brave!

Sarron also enjoyed analysing this photo, because it too reminds him of those days of superheroes wrestling the most malevolent race bikes the world has ever seen.

“It looks like Marc has been sliding out of the corner because he’s standing up on the footrests,” he says. “That was the normal position on a 500; because when you wanted to accelerate you had to stand up and put your maximum weight on the footpegs, to get the rear grip and to save a slide.

“We all used to break screens with our helmets because we had to move so far forward to try and avoid wheelies. And you can see that he’s pulling the left handlebar and pushing the right handlebar because he wants the bike to go back to the right for the straight. It’s nice to see the riders working again, because to me it looked crazy when they just sat there with the anti-wheelie doing all the work.”

Márquez is working very hard here to stop the bike from continuing its anti-clockwise arc as he exits the left-hander. Sarron gets quite animated discussing this.

“I have a big theory about it,” he says. “It’s not such a big deal in MotoGP because the bikes have so much power, but I cannot understand why Moto2 and Moto3 riders do the ‘snake on the straight’, because they cover more distance this way, so there’s no logic to it. Also, when they do this they lose acceleration because when the bike is banked over it’s like turning the steering wheel of a car; it takes power away.

“To avoid this you have to fight the bike. It’s difficult because you cannot suddenly lift the bike and bring it completely straight, so you have to anticipate. In this case Marc has anticipated what he needs to do and he’s pushing hard on the right footpeg to bring the bike upright, so the bike doesn’t keep turning left too much, so he will make the minimum distance on the straight.

“Many years ago when I managed the Yamaha France 500 GP team with Niall Mackenzie and Adrien Morillas we did a private test at Paul Ricard. Coming onto the Mistral they were doing the snake on the straight and it upset me to see it! You have to think about the theory of it: if you don’t do the snake you will gain in distance and in speed. We had a speed gun there, so I rode their bikes and when I did what Marc is doing in this photo I would gain four or five kilometres per hour at the end of the straight. Of course, it takes work to do this and it’s complicated!”

More: Watch Freddie Spencer's rider insight from COTA

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