Neurons win out over digits
A decade after Formula 1 switched to A single-spec ECU, MotoGP has gone the same way. Rights holder Dorna introduced the same-for-all Magneti Marelli kit following lengthy negotiations with the motorcycle manufacturers, to reduce costs, to shrink the gap between the front and back of the grid and to encourage new factories to enter the fray.
Although some riders believe this year’s lower-tech rider aids are still too clever (see Motor Sport, June 2016), many are happy with the reduced technology, which allows them to use their own talent to make the difference.
This is Silvano Galbusera, Valentino Rossi’s chief engineer at Yamaha. “Valentino says he now has more control, which can be good because he can make a difference over other riders. I believe the best ECU is still the rider’s brain! The bad thing with the unified electronics is that they react more slowly because the calculations from the ECU are slower. It’s only milliseconds but the riders feel it.”
MotoGP machines use five different electronics programmes to help riders get the best from their 260-horsepower machines: traction control, anti-wheelie, engine-braking control, launch control and anti-jerk (you at the back of class, no need for giggling).
Traction control is the most important system because it’s a vital safety net that has largely exorcised the bone-crunching high-side crash; when the rear tyre spins, grips and flicks the rider over the top. TCS reduces torque delivery by shutting the throttle, retarding the ignition or cutting sparks.
During the era of tailor-made factory software, TCS evolved into a performance tool that data engineers tuned to allow a certain amount of wheelspin at a certain part of a particular corner, to help the rider steer the bike and then allow him to fully open the throttle at an extreme angle of lean that would otherwise have spelt certain disaster.
“TCS is a lot more basic now,” says Monster Yamaha rider Bradley Smith. “For example, before we could play a lot with the initial touch of the throttle – we could delay the TCS by five metres so you could pivot the bike with the first touch. Now the TCS doesn’t allow that finesse. Before we could go from 30 per cent throttle to wide open and the TCS was that sophisticated it would sort everything out. Now if you go wide open you’ll go sideways, so the TCS will only catch you when you go way too far.”
The drop in anti-wheelie performance has been even greater. Anti-wheelie was devised to help the rider accelerate without losing time by closing the throttle to keep the front wheel on the asphalt. The factory systems predicted wheelies via the acceleration rate of the front suspension stroke, but the unified AW software waits until the suspension is topped out, indicating the front wheel is already in the air.
“The old system knew the wheelie was coming,” says Smith. “Now it waits for the front to top out and then the throttle butterflies cut all the power, then they open again, so the front of the bike goes up and down. In the end you’re better holding it yourself with the throttle.”
Of course, most MotoGP fans think this is a good thing – they want to see the rider riding the bike, not some pitlane boffin.
The same goes for engine-braking control, which adjusts negative torque on a closed throttle to help the rider enter corners with just enough engine braking to slow the bike and steer it into the turn, without locking the rear wheel and sending the bike sideways.
“Last year we could change all kinds of variables in the engine braking,” adds Smith. “We could limit how much each individual butterfly shut at each downshift. Now we have a much simpler formula, without the same finesse of controlling the bike off-throttle, so we have to play around a lot more.”
Launch control is a separate anti-wheelie programme, used only at the start of races. Again, it’s the same story of reduced technology and increased rider involvement.
“Getting my starts right has been the hardest thing,” says Smith. “Last year I’d be wide open with the throttle, dump the clutch, get the bike launched and let the launch-control sort everything out. This year you can’t use full power, so I’ll start at, say, 75 per cent throttle, so the initial torque engagement is less when you release the clutch. Then when you go to full power you have to use the clutch again, otherwise the anti-wheelie comes in, the throttle butterflies shut and bounce open again and you feel like you’re on a rocking horse.”
Finally, there’s anti-jerk. When the rider goes from off-throttle to on-throttle in mid-corner, the change from negative torque to positive causes a jerk in the transmission, which can be disastrous at full lean unless torque delivery is reduced to almost zero for a few milliseconds. The reduction in the efficiency of the TCS has made this programme more crucial than ever.
Smith again. “We use anti-jerk to filter power at the initial touch of the throttle, because if you start to spin the tyre there, it never comes back, which means your entire drive will be compromised. If you can keep grip at that initial touch, then you can keep your drive, which gives you half a bike length out of every corner.”
The most impressive reality of MotoGP’s lower-tech electronics era is that lap times are pretty much as fast as ever; which perhaps proves Galbusera’s belief that the human brain is at least as good as a little black box.