You don’t need to be a genius to understand why it’s easier to overtake in MotoGP than in Formula 1. But as MotoGP machines become more closely matched – due to improving technology and tighter technical regulations – the act of executing a passing manoeuvre grows more complex.
That’s why qualifying and the start are now so crucial in MotoGP. Inevitably this has led to a new technology race, with so-called holeshot devices.
The best way to make a MotoGP bike accelerate away from the grid isn’t by adding horsepower or improving traction, it’s by reducing the amount of front-wheel lift. Racing motorcycles are tall and short, so they want to loop over backwards when full torque is applied to the rear wheel.
The concept of the first start gadget, created by Ducati in 2018, was to transform its 300-horspower Desmosedici MotoGP bike into a long-and-low drag bike for the first few hundred yards of each race.
The device pumps down the rear shock to squat the rear end, reducing the bike’s tendency to wheelie. Immediately Ducati riders had an advantage at the start, so MotoGP’s other five factories – Aprilia, Honda, KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha – quickly copied Ducati’s lead.
Aprilia’s first effort lowered the front of the bike by locking the forks on full compression, an easier and cheaper solution to the problem, if not quite as effective. Now all but two factories have both front and rear devices.
These inventions may allow faster getaways, but they make the rider’s job more complicated, largely due to the fact that the gadgets are operated mechanically and hydraulically, because electronically adjustable suspension isn’t allowed.
When the rider returns to the grid following the warm-up lap he engages the front device by physically compressing the front suspension, then turns a lever to squat the rear. Finally he engages the launch-control software, which limits torque to reduce wheelies, but not very well.
“The starts now become difficult, but with these devices you go like a rocket!” says Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaró. “Before pre-season testing my engineers explained the start procedure to me and I thought, I need to go to university!”
Despite these clever contraptions the rider still plays the decisive role in making a fast getaway, firstly with his reactions, secondly in the way he controls the bike immediately after the launch.
“It’s a big work between the right hand and the left hand, with the throttle, the rear brake and the clutch,” says KTM rider Danilo Petrucci, who, like everyone else, uses the rear brake to minimise wheelies during fierce acceleration.
“You try to release the clutch as early possible and you try not to get too much wheelie or use too much rear brake and not close the throttle too much. It’s a mix between these three which allows you to do a good start – it’s like playing a musical instrument.
“It was scary towards Turn One, Two and Three, like a chopper!”
“If you make a bad start you’re starting from zero. Your race isn’t over but making a lot of passes will affect your tyres and that affects your race strategy.”
Ducati rider Jack Miller believes that good starts are mostly in the mind.
“It all comes down to reaction times,” says the Australian. “Some guys have better reactions than others. If you can get a jump on the others it’s massive!
“I generally watch the starts of the Moto2 and Moto3 races. I watch the lights and I count until they go out – one, two, three. Okay, they’re going on three, more or less…”
“I try to not get too much temperature in the clutch. As soon as the guy with the flag walks off the grid I bang it into gear and I’m just watching the lights. The lights come on, you’re revving, and it’s, one, two and… you almost anticipate it.
“Then it’s all in the clutch. I give it a handful, the bike leaps forward a few metres, I catch it back with the clutch and feather it from there, rather than screaming it out with the clutch from the beginning.”
Immediately after the launch the rider aims for the best entry point into the first corner, while trying to avoid his rivals who are all going for the same bit of asphalt.
Miller again: “I sit right up against the fuel tank and get my elbows up, so I can muscle the bike where I need to. You need to be on top of it, so you’re more in control. If you use your body to control the bike it becomes upset, so
I keep my core quite central and use my legs and head to control where the bike is going. If I need the bike to go that way I’ll use that leg to sway the bike that way.
“When I shift to second I get my feet on the pegs and then in third and fourth I start managing the wheelie with the rear brake, though I still do most of that
with the clutch.”
The start devices disengage when the rider hits the brakes into Turn One – in theory. At Silverstone in 2019 Miller’s didn’t disengage, leading to an interesting first few corners.
“It was quite scary towards Turns One, Two and Three, like a chopper! Basically I had to do a stoppie [brake so hard that the rear wheel lifts off the ground] at Turn Four to free it up.”
And at this year’s season-opening Qatar GP the same problem affected Franco Morbidelli’s Yamaha throughout the race; a disastrous start to the title contender’s 2021 campaign.
Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley