Intelligence has always been an important part of going fast, but never more so than in racing’s electronics age
Knowledge is lap times. We all know that. There are two ways to gain this knowledge: you either learn it or you buy it.
Time is a precious commodity in all kinds of ways in motor sport, which is why teams and manufacturers sometimes decide it makes more sense to write a fat cheque than attend a two-year training course.
This has happened throughout the history of motorcycle racing. In the 1950s, Gilera and MV Agusta hired British riders – Les Graham, Geoff Duke and John Surtees – to learn the chassis secrets of their fine-handling Nortons. In the 1960s, Suzuki paid East German rider Ernst Degner to defect, so he could bring the hard-won secrets of two-stroke engine design from MZ (Motorenwerke Zschopau) through the Iron Curtain. Many of the early successes of the Japanese industry were built on that single Cold War deal.
Thirty years later Suzuki signed British engineer Stuart Shenton from Honda, to help transform its fast but fickle RGV500 into a bike good enough to beat Honda and Yamaha to the 1993 500cc world championship. A little less than a decade ago, Honda poached vital know-how from Yamaha. The company hired three of Yamaha’s European electronics boffins to rewrite its rider-controls software and regain the premier-class title, which had remained out of its reach for four seasons, Honda’s longest drought since the 1970s.
Inevitably, most of MotoGP’s current defections also centre around the electronics side of racing. Two years ago MotoGP rights-holder Dorna somehow convinced the factories to allow the introduction of unified software, with the intention of reducing costs, slowing the software arms-race and narrowing the performance gap between different machines. Although the factories can no longer undertake their treasured software R&D, MotoGP has benefited from this change: the riders are more in control of their own destinies and the racing is better as a result.
However, one thing hasn’t changed. Tailor-made software or unified software, the electronics engineer who can find the best way through the labyrinth of computer codes can name his or her price.
In 2016, Dorna granted Magneti Marelli the MotoGP unified-software contract. The Milan-based company had written and developed Ducati’s MotoGP rider-control systems for more than a decade, so Ducati had a head start in this new age of electronics warfare. Then the Bolognese hired a technician from Magneti, just to make sure.
Yamaha, Suzuki and Aprilia had also worked with Magneti Marelli over the years, so they too had some idea of what was going on. The only MotoGP constructor that was completely foreign to Magneti code was Honda, which had always done its electronics development in-house.
During much of 2016 Honda struggled like hell to match the Italian electronics to its own RC213V MotoGP bike. “For the software, we need to learn how to think like Italians,” said one Honda Racing Corporation engineer, with a hint of panic in his face.
Despite this, Honda went on to win the 2016 MotoGP title, thanks largely to the remarkable make-it-up-as-you-go-along riding talent of Marc Márquez. But at the end of 2016 Honda did the sensible thing: instead of spending the weeks, months or years necessary to learn how to think like Italians, it instead hired an Italian electronics engineer. It signed one of Magneti Marelli’s best technicians to integrate the company’s software better into the RC213V. As a result, both Honda and Ducati had a significant advantage over their rivals in last year’s MotoGP series. Between them they won 14 of 18 races, while Yamaha had its worst season in years.
“Honda and Ducati discovered something in the power delivery, from the electronics, to help the rear of the bike,” said Valentino Rossi’s crew chief Silvano Galbusera at the end of last year. “When the rider picks up the bike, the system recognises this and then the rider can push. If you listen to their bikes you hear less cutting noise from the electronics, so they have better acceleration. Yamaha needs to work on the electronics to find something like this, because we need acceleration without destroying the tyre.
“The problem for Yamaha is that both Ducati and Honda have taken staff from Magneti who know everything about the system, so it’s easier for them to find the right settings. I don’t think there’s anyone left at Magneti with that kind of experience.”
Yamaha is making progress but still seems at a disadvantage. So much so that the situation has confused Magneti Marelli. “It’s very difficult to understand if Yamaha are lost in themselves or not,” says one Magneti MotoGP technician. “This situation is really hard for us to understand. We have asked Yamaha if they wanted help, but we received no answer.”
Yamaha seem intent on working things out for themselves, having missed the chance to buy intelligence from outside.
“Unfortunately we missed the opportunity!” says Kouichi Tsuji, the general manager of Yamaha’s motor sports division with a grin. “But although the software is made by Magneti, we are not sure they have the knowledge to make our bike faster, because bike development and software development must always be in parallel.”
By the time you read this, perhaps Yamaha will have made those vital few clicks with the mouse.
But if Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales are still unable to challenge consistently at the front, you know why.
Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winne