It’s an old racing truism that the most important part of a racing motorcycle is its tyres. Why? Because the tyres are the interface between motorcycle and race track, so whatever engineers do to the engine, chassis and electronics is for nothing if it can’t be transferred to the track.
And yet it’s an often overlooked fact that the tyres are only 50 per cent of this interface; the other half being the race track itself. This is why engineers and riders are starting to think a lot more about how increased knowledge of the track surface can help them go faster.
Inevitably, this has been a thing in Formula 1 for a while. F1 teams spend huge amounts, using companies like Dromo to help them analyse the asphalt.
“Tyres and tyre management are the key to a good race performance,” says Jarno Zaffelli, founder of Dromo, which has designed and remodelled circuits from Silverstone to Termas de Rio Honda and from Sepang to Misano. “F1 teams measure the grip optically or electronically, then we help them understand what’s important and what isn’t.
“In F1 they spend millions on this, but in MotoGP they’re still not really doing this, at least not all the teams. For sure the match between tyres and asphalt is an important relationship for riders and teams to understand.”
“Making asphalt is like cooking a cake – every component contributes. You need to know how to select the right ingredients”
Dromo has worked for a couple of factory teams at MotoGP events and there’s little doubt that its expertise will be more in demand as the racing becomes closer, making even the tiniest advantage worth paying for.
Zaffelli’s focus on asphalt chemistry and track design makes him more knowledgeable than most in these areas, right down the tiniest details most people wouldn’t even consider.
“When we design a race track we know the grip level required and we know the asphalt texture required,” he adds. “We also know the slope of the track required, because this can make a massive difference. If you have a banked corner facing south, the asphalt gets a lot hotter than if it’s facing north [in the northern hemisphere, at least]. This is the kind of knowledge that can help riders and teams.
“Making asphalt is like cooking a cake – every component contributes. You need to know how to select the right ingredients, how to find them and how to cook them together. You can do this if you have enough experience, which is what we’ve gained from 20 years of trying: doing work, making mistakes, learning, making more mistakes and learning more.”
Dromo’s Jarno Zaffelli
Ironically, the grippiest area of a MotoGP track isn’t Dromo’s carefully cooked asphalt. And many riders don’t even know this.
“All the kerbs at MotoGP events are grippier than any asphalt you can make, simple as that. Because the high-grip paint they use is so good! But there are still teams that have riders who don’t know this, so those riders don’t use the kerbs so much. This is the kind of knowledge they miss.”
That’s why better-informed riders use the kerbs for traction control, a crucial advantage now that MotoGP has lower-tech anti-spin software.
“Normally when you hit a kerb you find more grip there, especially when track grip is low,” affirms Red Bull KTM’s Pol Espargaró. “For example, the grip at Jerez last year was bad – we were sliding a lot on the edge of the tyres, so we couldn’t pick up the bike and get traction. So I started hitting the kerbs super-aggressively, because it was the only way to accelerate. But it depends, track by track. Usually the kerbs in Europe are super-grippy, but not so much at overseas races, so you have to feel and adapt.”