Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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Staying wired for safety

Poorer and more dangerous, you might say MotoGP is like Formula 1 racing in the ‘good old days’. But while motorcycling’s biggest world championship offers neither F1’s Babylonian riches nor its carbon-fibre safety cells, it is every bit as 21st century as its four-wheel counterpart. Which is why this summer’s favourite topic of pitlane conversation is traction control and its effect on the art of motorcycle racing.

For the past quarter of a century, the tail-end slide has been the sine qua non of bike racing, the trick that separates the winner from the losers. And it’s more than that – it’s the skill that fans get most excited about, because it is glorious to behold, because it takes genius talent to execute and because the consequences of getting it wrong are truly horrible, which only amplifies the heroism of getting it right.

Motorcycle racers spin the rear tyre to help them steer out of corners – getting sideways points the front end back towards the corner’s inside, tightening the rider’s line, giving him more room to get on the gas, which means more speed down the next straight.

Rear-wheel steering was brought to road racing from US dirt track, a barnstorming sport ruled by macho rednecks who spend their lives going sideways round 100mph dirt ovals aboard Harleys with no brakes. The skill readily translated to road racing in the early 1980s when engine technology roared ahead of chassis and tyre technology.

On asphalt the skill requires a mind-boggling dance of mental and physical processes that commence the moment the rider passes the corner apex. As he wrenches the bike upright, he gets on the throttle, gently at first, then more aggressively, overpowering the rear tyre which begins to smear sideways across the asphalt. The rider knows how much wheelspin he needs to cut his desired exit line and he constantly adjusts wheelspin via throttle opening, juggling the twistgrip back and forth, so the tyre is spinning, gripping, spinning, gripping, always maintaining that greasy, mercurial balance between drive and slide. He uses body weight too, moving forward, away from the tyre contact patch, for more spin, and backward for more grip. And he weights the footrests for the same reason – pressuring the inside footrest for more slide, the outside footrest for more drive.

The final act of the sideways corner exit is completed with the motorcycle hard up against the kerb, suspension fully loaded under a wide-open throttle, rear tyre smearing molten rubber over the kerbing paint, front wheel kicking skyward and shaking left and right as the rider hunkers down over the fuel tank and jets off towards the next corner.

At least, that’s the plan. If he gets it wrong, he will experience every bike racer’s nightmare, the highside crash. The tyre slides too far, the rider closes the throttle too late in a vain attempt to arrest the slide so the tyre suddenly regains grip, catapulting the rider skywards for a brief moment of airborne serenity before all hell breaks loose when he returns to planet earth. It’s a bit like jumping out of a train at 100mph.

That is certainly the way it used to be in MotoGP. The 500cc two-strokes that ruled premier-class bike racing for three decades from the 1970s were pitiless machines with razor-edged powerbands that punished even the world’s greatest riders with broken bones and broken backs. The 990cc four-strokes that replaced the 500s in 2002 were immediately more rider-friendly and they triggered rapid advances in engine-management technology that had been largely absent from the two-strokes. MotoGP’s latest 800cc four-strokes are truly 21st century devices, aided and abetted by a myriad of electronic control systems – traction control, wheelie control, launch control and engine-braking control. So when you witness Casey Stoner win a MotoGP race on his Ducati Desmosedici, you’ll see no telltale arcs of burnt rubber on the asphalt, no spectacular displays of his wondrous talent, just a phenomenally quick motorcycle that rides like a laser-guided missile.

Of course, this is progress; racing motorcycles always get easier to ride – that’s how they get faster. But some riders, including everyone’s favourite bike racer Valentino Rossi, believe that the science has come too far, that talent is now taking a back seat to technology. “I prefer riding without so much electronics,” says the five-time MotoGP champ. “The latest control systems make it harder for the rider to make the difference.” Thus MotoGP is asking itself the same question that F1 has been asking in recent years: is this sport about entertainment or is it a technology showcase?

“I completely agree with Valentino that traction control takes away a lot of rider skill, so from the rider’s perspective it’s lost some of the thrill,” adds Kawasaki rider John Hopkins. “But you’ve got to move on, and there’s no way they’re going to take it away because the whole purpose of traction control is rider safety.”

Hopkins has a point – the bone-crunching pain of the highside crash is mostly a distant memory thanks to traction control. “These bikes used to be able to flick you to the moon,” says Rossi’s fellow Yamaha rider Colin Edwards. “These days we start a lot of GPs with full and healthy grids. In years past I don’t know how many times guys like [Wayne] Gardner, [Kevin] Schwantz, [Wayne] Rainey and [Mick] Doohan rode with broken arms and legs. The technology definitely makes it safer, so we don’t have so much of that ass-pucker going on.”

MotoGP’s rights-holder Dorna has suggested it’d like to copy F1’s control-ECU fix to rid the sport of electronic control systems and bring back crowd-pleasing sideways action. Well, it would, it’s in the entertainment business, but it stands little chance of banning hi-tech electronics. Firstly, the safety argument is undeniable – cars don’t highside but bikes do. Secondly, MotoGP’s technical rules are looked after by the manufacturers. The FIM (Federation International de Motocyclisme) abdicated responsibility for all things technical a decade ago to “get the stakeholders more involved”. Needless to say, the manufacturers want more technology, not less. That’s why they are there, to develop new technology that can be applied to their street ranges.

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Pneu engine for Toseland

Motorcycle racing, like car racing, is largely about balance and compromise. When one area of machine performance is improved, that invariably has a negative effect on another area, so the engineer has to find the best compromise. It is thus rare that any upgrade improves all aspects of performance, but so it is with Yamaha’s pneumatic valve spring engine, which British MotoGP hope James Toseland used for the first time at the Portuguese GP.

Toseland says the engine’s lower mechanical friction offers better low-rpm response, more high-rpm power, less back torque, better tyre life and better fuel efficiency. “It’s more manageable on the first tap of the throttle,” he says. “Then when you open it up there’s more acceleration and when you shut the throttle there’s less negative torque, so it’s smoother on the corner entries and there’s a lot less friction. It gives the tyre an easier time and it’s more fuel efficient so we can run more power.”

Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki all bought pneumatic valve technology from ex-F1 engineer Osamu Goto. Honda is due to race its own pneumatic valve spring engine any time. Ducati uses its trademark desmodromic valve actuation system, pioneered by Mercedes during the 1950s.

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Finally, the brits are coming

There is much excitement in the British corner of the MotoGP paddock. It has been a long time since the Brits had any meaningful presence in motorcycle GP racing. The late Barry Sheene was the last Briton to win a premier-class GP in 1981; in the smaller classes Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams was our last 250 winner in 2001 and Chas Mortimer our last 125 victor in ’73.

But there’s a new feeling of expectation. MotoGP rookie James Toseland has qualified on the front row and Oxfordshire teenager Bradley Smith has twice taken pole in 125s, the junior class that feeds 250s and then MotoGP. Smith has yet to win, but the 17-year-old has finished on the podium. Two more youngsters are showing potential in 125s – Kent 17-year-old Danny Webb and Gloucestershire 15-year-old Scott Redding.

Perhaps the real barrier to success is the lack of British teams. Of the 38 squads in MotoGP, 250s and 125s there’s no British operation. Smith (Italian team), Redding (Spanish) and Webb (Dutch) all owe their rides to MotoGP promoter Dorna, which is desperate to widen its appeal, but a British team would have a far better chance of building the foundations for British wins.