MotoGP 2017: revealing the factories’ R&D plans

by Mat Oxley on 28th December 2016

We are in the midst of MotoGP’s winter testing ban but work never stops in race departments across the globe. This is what the big six have planned for 2017

The 2016 MotoGP championship was a season of technical transformation. There will be no big rules shake-up in 2017 but the factories are still hard at work getting to grips with last season’s changes.

Most factories describe their 2017 priorities thus: better turning and better corner-exit performance. In other words they are still getting their heads around the Michelins. In the Bridgestone era, the way to make a race-winning lap time was on corner entry; now the place to make a lap time is from mid-corner to the exit.

One reason the factories struggled to adapt to the Michelins during 2016 was because the tyres kept changing. Michelin had to learn on the hoof, frequently bringing new tyre specs to races, which required different bike settings. That should be less of an issue in 2017 because Michelin engineers have a full season of knowhow, so they know where to go with constructions and compounds.

At last month’s Valencia GP I sat down with one rider and one engineer from each factory – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha – to find out what they’re doing to their bikes in their efforts to win the 2017 MotoGP crown.

Aprilia

Aprilia’s tiny race department (seven engineers!) made consistent forward steps during 2016, most significantly with a revised frame, introduced in September, which took some load off the front and gave better rear traction. That’s why Alvaro Bautista finished in the top 10 at six of the last seven races.

Aprilia’s race director Romano Albesiano has several priorities to make the RS-GP more competitive: better braking and turning, improved chassis balance (to save the tyres) and more rpm and horsepower.

Centre of gravity will be raised by lifting the RS-GP engine to increase weight transfer for better braking and improved cornering. Albesiano also wants more rpm, more over-rev (so riders can hold a gear between corners and save a shift) and more horsepower, although the V4 is far from slow. At Sepang the RS-GP was only 2.5 mph/3.8kmh slower than the fastest bike, a Ducati at 201.6mph.

Ducati

Ducati won two races during 2016 and now the Bologna brand takes the next step towards winning back the title they won in 2007. Jorge Lorenzo’s arrival might just do that but what parts of the Desmosedici need improving?

Ducati’s doldrum years were largely attributable to a front-end turning problem. And guess what? They’ve got one again, although it’s less severe and subtly different. The Desmosedici doesn’t turn as well as the Honda and Yamaha in the crucial mid-corner phase, when the rider releases the brake and tries to get the bike turned. Ducati Corse chief Gigi Dall’Igna thinks frame flex is the issue.

In theory, the winglets ban should affect Ducati more than anyone else, which is why the company had its star test rider Casey Stoner testing without wings back in August. But although a wingless Ducati should lose some acceleration, the loss of downforce increases top speed and makes the bike quicker in direction changing, another issue during 2016.

Honda

Once upon a time in GP racing Honda always had the best top speeds. That’s not been the case since Ducati joined MotoGP, but Honda has always been there or thereabouts. Not so last season. During October’s Sepang GP the RC213V was fourth fastest, behind the Ducati, Suzuki and Yamaha.

The problem wasn’t so much lack of horsepower as lack of software that could tame the RCV’s ‘screamer’ engine. Previously Honda had the best rider aids, using Formula 1 technology, but Dorna’s lower-tech traction control had the RCV overshooting the slip-ratio target and coming back too strongly, while the lower-tech wheelie control was too basic to keep the bike stable.

That’s why Honda is switching to a friendlier ‘big-bang’ engine, with revised firing intervals, to reduce wheelspin and wheelies. Honda introduced the ‘big bang’ concept to GP racing in the early 1990s; 20 years after HRC guru Youichi Oguma first had the idea, when he built an off-road CB175 twin with both cylinders firing at same time, to gain more traction.

Marc Marquez thinks the new engine is a step in the right direction, because all he wants for 2017 is better corner-exit performance. Incredibly, the reigning champion will probably continue with a revised 2014-spec chassis because it still gives him excellent confidence. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

KTM

KTM seems to be doing everything right, so far. The Austrian manufacturer timed its MotoGP development phase perfectly, coinciding with the introduction of Dorna’s unified software and Michelin tyres. It was also a good idea to race at Valencia, to acquire actual race data before the offseason.

Valencia taught KTM engineers one big lesson: they have a serious lack of mechanical grip on corner exits. This was the main issue that kept test rider Mika Kallio two seconds off the pace. Frame and swingarm stiffness are the suspects. KTM are working on this, in cooperation with chassis partner Kalex.

The RC16 is now the only MotoGP bike with a ‘screamer’ engine configuration, but so far KTM engineers are delighted with the engine, which they say has “a fantastic character”.

Suzuki

Suzuki made the breakthrough last season, scoring its first-ever MotoGP victory in the dry. The GSX-RR is now pretty much fully competitive, with arguably MotoGP’s best-steering chassis and excellent engine performance. At Sepang the GSX-RR was second fastest at 201.1mph/323.7km/h, just behind the Ducati and ahead of the Yamaha at 200.2mph, the Honda at 199.6mph/321.4km/h and the Aprilia at 199.2mph/320.7km/h.

The bike’s chassis is more front-end oriented than its rivals, which is why Suzuki adapted to Michelins more easily than most. It’s significant that Maverick Vinales was the only top rider to crash fewer times last season with Michelins than he did with Bridgestones in 2015.

Suzuki engineers need to keep working in the same direction, fine-tuning the chassis and eking a little more performance from the inline-four engine. Their biggest job is to improve electronics settings, especially traction control in the wet.

Yamaha

Last season was one of Yamaha’s poorest in MotoGP. The YZR-M1 is still a neutral, rider-friendly bike but it often worked worse with the Michelins than any other bike. That’s what Yamaha must fix and it’s a big ask.

Top of the to-do list is sorting out how the M1 transfers load, into corners, through corners and out of corners. Last season Yamaha riders couldn’t get the bike balanced for optimum front load on entry and optimum rear load on exit. Usually they ended up with too little front load, which is why Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi lost the front so often, or too little rear load, which gave lots of wheelspin, which Dorna’s unified software couldn’t exorcise. Yamaha engineers also need to adjust engine character to reduce wheelspin and fine-tune the traction control to save the rear tyre for the latter half of races

Finally, they will focus on improving mid-corner turning. It should be noted that although Michelin came in for a lot of criticism last season, corner speeds were higher than they’d ever been.

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