Talent over technology
MotoGP finds itself in the same place in which Formula 1 found itself a few years ago – between a silicon chip and a hard place. The battle lines in the traction control debate are exactly the same: on the one side, the engineers arguing that safety technology must continue to advance; on the other, the fans (and old racers) demanding that the spectacle of man wrestling machine be restored to them.
“It’s good that guys aren’t getting hurt so much anymore,” says Eddie Lawson, four-time 500 World Champion during the 1980s. “But I want to see the riders ride the bikes, I don’t want to see computers ride the bikes. I think it should be your right wrist working the throttle, so I say get all that electronics crap off of there.”
There is no doubt that traction control has spoiled the show by taking the sting out of MotoGP’s 200-plus horsepower motorcycles. There is also no doubt that rider aids have made the bikes easier to ride, allowing mid-pack riders to get closer to the front-runners. But it is nonsense to suggest that 21st-century electronics have taken the skill out of MotoGP. As is always the case with new technology, the really talented riders take advantage of that technology in ways that no one expected, thus restoring the status quo between themselves and the also-rans.
So it is with traction control. The latest electronics software (and the latest-generation Bridgestone slicks) allows riders to open the throttle at apparently impossible angles of lean. All the riders in MotoGP are talented and brave enough to use this technology the way its creators intended. But the best riders have taken that technology and run with it to another level.
By opening the throttle harder and earlier in the corner, riders inevitably found themselves running into a new set of problems. Aggressive use of the throttle destabilises the rear end, so they needed to find a way to calm things down and improve grip. Applying the rear brake while opening the throttle is counterintuitive, but it works well by squatting the rear end and sucking the tyre into the asphalt to fatten the contact patch and increase grip. Most of the top MotoGP riders have got the hang of this technique; some of them use the rear brake so hard exiting corners that they’ve popped master cylinder seals during races.
There is another, trickier problem that riders have encountered by accelerating earlier in the corner at greater angles of lean. Getting on the gas as soon as they pass the apex shifts load (and thus grip) away from the front tyre, which prevents the front tyre from steering the motorcycle, causing it to run disastrously wide, thus spoiling the lap time. Most riders have struggled to find an answer to this one and have moderated throttle opening accordingly, trading a little acceleration for better steering. However, the fastest riders – Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner – have found a magical way around this apparently limiting factor, subverting the motorcycle’s front brake to other ends.
Anyone who rides motorcycles knows that the easiest way to fall off is to apply the front brake through a corner, even at a modest angle of lean. Rossi and Stoner know this as well as anyone, but now they are actually using the front brake in corners to improve lap times. While opening the throttle with the right hand they gently feather the front brake lever with the index finger to keep the front tyre loaded and thus improve grip and turning. It’s a risky, knife-edge technique that would spell instant disaster for any normal mortal – definitely not to be tried at home.
“It all depends on the corner,” says 2007 MotoGP champ Stoner. “Every corner is different in a lot of different ways. It depends on grip and everything, so if the bike’s working really well you may not need to keep the front loaded; other times you have to run around the corner with the front brake on.”
Such skills are as impressive as the ability to control a tail-end slide; it’s just a shame they’re less obvious and thus less entertaining.