Mat Oxley

The end of finesse?

“Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. It’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.” So said Jack White, the American musician who has fronted bands such as The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. There is no doubt that White’s statement is hugely relevant in music, but surely it can’t be in motor sport; or can it?

Just as music-making software such as Auto-Tune and Chord Generator create so much depressingly bad music, some argue that rider aids such as traction control and wheelie control produce humdrum motorcycle racing.

Most MotoGP riders don’t like electronics overkill: they are riders, so they love riding motorcycles; they don’t want computers doing it for them. Valentino Rossi still remembers the first time he used traction control, during 2002 post-season testing with Honda. “When I tried the first time I went back into the pits and I say, ‘F**k, nooo!’ I mean with this system everybody could ride the bike. And that was with one per cent of what we have now.”

MotoGP rights holder Dorna has been trying to get on top of this problem for years, but it is mostly fighting an unequal struggle, because during the 1990s the FIM (Fédération Internationale Motocycliste) abrogated control of technical regulations to the manufacturers. Inevitably factory engineers are keen on electronics development.

Recently Dorna did win a small battle in this long-running war by forcing MotoGP constructors to accept the introduction of a lower-spec control ECU. All riders now use identical Magneti Marelli hardware and software, which are less intelligent than the factories’ tailor-made kit. That didn’t stop the first race of 2016 being a record-breaker.

It is no surprise that many riders prefer the new lower-tech electronics, because they feel more control in their throttle hand. But others believe the spec ECU is still too clever, most notably Ducati’s star test rider Casey Stoner.

“The electronics are still too good, in my opinion,” says the twice MotoGP world champion, who quit racing at the end of 2012, partly because he didn’t like the direction MotoGP was taking. “For me, the 990s [the 990cc bikes he rode during his 2006 rookie season] were probably MotoGP’s best era. The electronics were just about perfect. They were there, so they’d save you to a certain degree, but they wouldn’t increase your performance. The only way they really helped was with engine braking: you’d still be loose, you’d still be backing it into corners, but the electronics stopped you completely locking up and sliding.”

Stoner grew up in Australia riding dirt track, learning the art of throttle control on loose ovals, with the back tyre kicked sideways into corners and out of them too. It’s a skill in which he takes great pride.

“I still believe there’s more to be made out of the human hand than out of electronics,” he adds. “But electronics help massively for those riders who can’t control the rear.

“Back in 2006 or 2007, if you had more finesse you would pick up the bike out of the corner and almost pass the other guy halfway down the straight, because you had worked hard at getting a better drive. Or maybe the other guy would slip and slide and mess up the exit, so you’d get a run on them and you’d pretty much have the pass done before you got to the next corner.”

Although Stoner hasn’t raced a MotoGP bike in four years, he is still fully competitive. During pre-season testing at Sepang he was as fast as Ducati’s current factory riders Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso, even though he hadn’t ridden in anger for six months.

“I’m enjoying my testing role, but with modern electronics I miss that element of trying different things to find some kind of grip when the rear tyre is greasy as hell, like really picking up the bike out of a turn or short-shifting.”

The 30-year-old, who also won Grand Prix victories in the 125 and 250cc categories, believes that while modern traction control may save many crashes on corner exits, it contributes to others further along the racetrack. “No one can make the difference on the exit – you can hear all the riders hitting the throttle at the same part of the turn and driving out – so they just make a big stab
on the brakes.

“It’s all about who brakes the latest and who is willing to take the biggest risk. Electronics have taken a lot of finesse out of it, so the aggressors can perform well now.

“I don’t want to see riders losing the rear and getting high-sided, because it hurts, but having a bit more respect for the bike would give riders a little more respect for their competitors and for the Tarmac.”

Stoner’s dislike of rider aids doesn’t end with traction control. “I used to enjoy trying different things with my riding, like stopping the bike from doing wheelies, so wheelie control is another thing I don’t like. I like being able to float the front wheel and get that perfect amount of drive out of the corner. That’s the kind of thing that makes riding a bike into an art, rather than just opening it up and having the electronics do it all for you. All those elements that have disappeared now.”

It isn’t impossible that Stoner’s dream of reduced electronics will come to pass. Dorna is playing the long game with the factories, so one day it may be able to turn down the rider aids. In the meantime, we will just have to be happy with the fact that runaway electronics technology has at least been halted.