Can an extra 200cc of swept volume and softer tyre casings transform a race series? That’s what MotoGP is about to find out.
In its original four-stroke 990cc format MotoGP was a glorious spectacle of riders wrestling with their machines and slugging it out with their rivals. That all changed in 2007 when engines were reduced to 800cc in a badly misjudged effort to reduce speeds following the death of Honda’s favourite son Daijiro Kato at Suzuka. The 800s turned out to be revvy little things that knew only one way round a corner – a big, sweeping arc for huge corner speed to compensate for puny engine torque. All of a sudden, everyone was using the same lines. The racing became rather less exciting.
It got worse in 2009 when MotoGP became a control-tyre series, with Bridgestone the designated supplier. The Bridgestones were fast but they were also rather like the 800s – they demanded a specific technique. The tyres had to be loaded all the way through the corners, which maintained those big, sweeping arcs as the only way to go round. Otherwise the tyres wouldn’t get up to temperature and riders would either find themselves off the pace or off the bike and cart-wheeling through a gravel trap.
The combination of new engines and tyres made overtaking a tricky business. And increased development of traction-control systems to calm the peaky 800s made things even worse by further homogenising riding technique. MotoGP became a tame game of follow my leader, or “parade racing” as Valentino Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess called it.
This year, and not before time, MotoGP goes to 1000cc. The riders already love the engines which make another 30 horsepower or so – 260 instead of 230 – and have the torque the 800s desperately lacked.
“We’ve got a lot more control with the 1000 because the engine isn’t so peaky,” says reigning World Champion Casey Stoner. Thus riders no longer have to swoop through the corners in uniform style. When they want they can use the old point-and-squirt technique that was the fast way to ride the evil old 500 two-strokes, translating the cornering line from a ‘U’ to a ‘V’: braking deep, flicking the bike on its side to make the turn, heaving it upright and giving it full throttle, profiting from all that torque.
“We call that making the straight as long as possible,” says MotoGP veteran Colin Edwards. So the riders now have options. Suddenly there’s two ways round the same corner.
“On the 1000s you’re going to be able to pass people,” says Tech 3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow, last season’s MotoGP rookie of the year. “With the 800s you’d see people make a pass, then run out of the powerband and get passed back. With the 1000s you can stuff people and use the torque to get out of the corner, which will be great for the racing.”
By happy coincidence, Bridgestone’s 2012 tyres with more pliable casings should also have a beneficial effect on the action. Bridgestone redesigned its casings because too many riders were crashing and getting hurt when their tyres weren’t getting up to temperature. The Japanese company’s latest slicks are safer because they warm up quicker. They also go off sooner, a downside that riders are happy to live with because hanging onto a hot, greasy tyre at the end of a race is a much easier proposition than surviving a cold, rigid tyre in the first laps.
“We’d rather have safe tyres that slide around at the end than tyres that break your collarbone after the start,” affirms Crutchlow, just one of MotoGP’s many cold-tyre victims of recent seasons.
Formula 1 has recently learned from Pirelli’s designed-to-degrade rubber that deteriorating tyres can enliven things by creating more overtaking opportunities as some racers run out of grip and others don’t. How long it takes the electronics in MotoGP to catch up remains to be seen. Meanwhile, enjoy the show.