Is it time to turn down MotoGP’s traction control?


Five years ago Dorna introduced lower-tech spec traction control to make MotoGP closer and more spectacular, but now there’s no more sideways action and less overtaking, so is it time to turn down the electronics again?


Álex Rins and Andrea Iannone at Sepang in 2017, when factories were still in the early stages of getting to grips with Dorna’s spec software


Dorna pulled a masterstroke in 2016 when it convinced the MotoGP factories to stop their own electronics R&D and submit to same-for-all electronics hardware and software.

During the previous decade MotoGP electronics had evolved so much that, for example, the best traction-control systems proactively adjusted themselves lap by lap, corner by corner, according to the available grip, measured by accelerometers, gyros and other sensors.

In other words, the little black box – featuring TC, anti-wheelie, engine-braking control, launch control and so on – was working harder than the riders. Most riders hated this, even though it allowed them to ride faster and more consistently over full-race distance. Dorna also hated this, because when riders can run their pace consistently throughout a race there will be less overtaking, which means less excitement, which means less people turning on their TVs, which means less money coming in.

When factory electronics were replaced by the spec Magneti Marelli kit the bikes became more demanding and more fun to ride.

“At first you are angry and you say, ‘f***!’, because the bike is more difficult to ride,” said Valentino Rossi after his first test with the spec software. “But for the racing this will be good because it will be a lot more difficult to always make the same lap time, so the battles will be better and more fun.”

“It’s difficult to make the difference: all you have to do is lift the bike straight and release all the power.”

Traction control has always been the most controversial rider control, because real race fans want to see riders playing with the throttle and smoking the rear tyre while controlling slides.

And from 2016 this is what happened.

“Before we could go from 30% throttle to wide open and the TC was that sophisticated it would sort everything out,” Bradley Smith told me that summer. “Now if you go wide open to maximum torque request you’ll go sideways.”

There was plenty of sideways, tyre-smoking action in the early years of spec rider controls, but there isn’t anymore, because although the software has remained essentially unchanged, factory electronics engineers have found their way through the labyrinthine programmes to make the bikes as easy to ride as they were before spec software.

In fact they haven’t done this via traction control, because, despite all the rumours and hearsay, MotoGP’s spec TC is simply too basic.

“The TC these bikes use isn’t a TC that can save riders from a highside at high lean,” says Aprilia’s chief engineer Romano Albesiano. “To save a rider from a highside in a high-lean situation you’d need something more sophisticated and with a different concept. So the first part of acceleration at high lean is in the hand of the rider. You cannot go like this [Albesiano mimes ‘full gas’ with his right wrist] or you will fly.”


Jack Miller burning rubber at Sepang in 2019


Instead the engineers have performed their magic with the torque-demand maps, which tell the engine how much torque to send to the rear tyre.

The torque-demand programme (like all the others) can be split into 25 sectors per lap, so that engineers can work out how much torque the tyre can handle at each and every corner, according to all sorts of inputs.

“Now they have many, many things that help the rider to always put the good power to the asphalt and not let the rear tyre slide,” says Danilo Petrucci, who recently ended a ten-year career in MotoGP. “So we don’t see lots of slides and smoke, like in the past.

“At the start of the new ECU we had to be really careful opening the throttle, but now it’s much easier. So the bikes are safer and it’s really difficult to make the difference because all you have to do is lift the bike straight as soon as possible and release all the power.”

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Making the bikes easier to ride does make the racing closer, but it also allows riders to run the same pace from start to finish, just as they did before spec software, so there are fewer overtakes.

I did a random calculation of five events, comparing the 2017 and 2021 Austrian, British, Catalan, Italian and Qatar GPs at Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, Catalunya, Mugello and Losail. In 2017 there were 68 changes of position among the top three in those five races, against 52 in 2021, a reduction of 25%.

One of the big plus points of spec software is that Dorna can ask Magneti Marelli to adjust the parameters of each rider-control system, to change the nature of the racing.

So will Dorna do this now, to shake up the races a bit, while at the same time bringing back spinning and sliding?

“No,” Dorna director of technology Corrado Cecchinelli told me last month at Portimao. “I understand that some people, like you and me, like to see tyres spinning and smoking, but I don’t think there’s ever been a period when the races have been so nice to watch, so we are not going to take a step back. The single software has closed up the races, which is a huge added value to MotoGP, which we don’t want to lose.


Dorna’s director of technology Corrado Cecchinelli doesn’t want to reduce MotoGP electronics

Dorna Sports, S.L.

“Also, the development done on torque maps in MotoGP is very road relevant. Anyone who’s ridden a new motorcycle recently can appreciate the difference – how smooth they are with the concept of torque maps and other concepts, like not delivering all the torque in first gear.

“Some people may be nostalgic for the step power delivery of a two-stroke, but that’s a personal feeling, not progress.”

Twice MotoGP king Casey Stoner is one of the cognoscenti who disagrees with Dorna’s position.

“There needs to be a big reduction in electronics,” says the 2007 and 2012 champ. “I want to see the guys sliding, I want to see mistakes, I want to see people struggling for grip.

“I fitted a rear tyre, opened the throttle too soon and I saw Mugello from up in the sky!”

“Maybe some riders will start the race really well, but then maybe because of their tyre selection they’ll drop back, while people who started slower will move forward, so the overtaking would be better than what it is now. And the overtaking wouldn’t only be on the brakes, because all the riders come out of corners the same – you’d get someone mess up the exit and someone would get the run on them. A few changes would make for some incredible racing.”

Of course, it’s not only electronics that have made MotoGP bikes more consistent and easier to ride to the limit over 25 or so laps.

It is the job of race engineers to make the motorcycles easier to ride in all areas, because the world’s fastest riders don’t use that wider comfort zone to make their lives easier, they use it to dig even deeper, shaving maybe a tenth of a second off their lap times, until they find their way back into the danger zone. This is racing’s never-ending story.

The other two areas of machine performance that have changed a lot in recent years are also linked to that hugely significant rewrite of the rules going into 2016.

Firstly, tyres. MotoGP ran Bridgestone spec tyres from 2009 to 2015. The Bridgestone front was an incredible tyre but it took real talent to unlock its full potential, while the rear wasn’t so great and would bite you if you didn’t treat it right.


Pecco Bagnaia lifts the rear wheel at Jerez last season – downforce aero has made MotoGP bikes even stronger on the brakes


“When I joined MotoGP [in 2012] I sometimes crashed without knowing what happened because the tyres [Bridgestones] were really difficult,” Petrucci recalls. “I remember at Mugello I fitted a rear tyre, opened the throttle too soon and I saw Mugello from up in the sky! The Michelin [rear] is more friendly and easier to understand for the rider.”

Secondly, aerodynamics. The spec software’s anti-wheelie programme is so low-tech [it simply waits for the forks to top out, then the throttle butterflies cut the power] that Ducati had the bright idea of developing downforce aero to keep the front wheel on the ground exiting corners, allowing riders to accelerate harder. The benefit was so obvious that all the other factories immediately copied the technology.

The downforce aero increases performance both on the gas and on the brakes, once again making overtaking more difficult.

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Stoner gets even more worked up about aerodynamics than electronics! When he visited last month’s Algarve and Valencia GPs he ducked controversy by refusing to talk in detail about MotoGP aero but when we spoke a few months ago he was less diplomatic.

“I’d like to see the purity come back, rather than the electronics controlling the bikes on the gas and the winglets controlling the front end,” he said. “All the bikes are basically clones of each other, which is why they run so close together.”

If the bikes do become too well balanced, never mind the fact that the racing will be super-close, there will be fewer and fewer overtakes, which will turn off many fans, who will turn off their TVs, just as they did during the 800cc era, when Rossi told me, “Now the bikes are too good and the tyres are too good”.

Dorna should be aware that MotoGP is now returning to this territory. The bikes need to be de-engineered because the engineers have done great work and made them too good again.

And this is an easy problem to fix – just tweak the software to make the bikes trickier to take to the limit.

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