Saturday, February 26, 2011

The most important component on a motorcycle should always be the rider

Judging from the timesheets issued at the end of each day at the Sepang MotoGP test, there was a lot of formation flying going on, with groups of similar machines closely spaced at the end of each day. The effect got more pronounced as the test wore on, until finally at the end of Day 3 the results looked like this...

  1. Casey Stoner Honda 1:59.66
  2. Dani Pedrosa Honda 1:59.80
  3. Marco Simoncelli Honda 2:00.16
  4. Andrea Dovizioso Honda 2:00.54
  5. Ben Spies Yamaha 2:00.67
  6. Colin Edwards Yamaha 2:00.96
  7. Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha 2:01.00
  8. Alvaro Bautista Suzuki 2:01.19
  9. Hiroshi Aoyama Honda 2:01.32
  10. Hector Barbera Ducati 2:01.34
  11. Valentino Rossi Ducati 2:01.46
  12. Nicky Hayden Ducati 2:01.46
  13. Loris Capirossi Ducati 2:01.49
Since there's only one Suzuki in the field, that brand is 'grouped' by definition, but in the front 3/4's of the grid, only Aoyama seems to be out of the prescribed order. That distribution of bikes reminds me of the mid-'90s when I finally stopped watched F1 car racing. By then, the grid would be formed of pairs of identical cars. That, disappointingly, always suggested that drivers had little to do with the overall results — drivers’ skill or daring only mattered enough to influence the results when all other variables had been controlled for; ie _within_ their teams. I longed for the days before traction control (and ABS) had turned F1 cars into (admittedly breathtakingly fast) robot cars. I wished the genie could have been put back in the bottle, and when a driver with plenty of bottle, like Gilles Villeneuve, could overdrive his Ferrari 312-T4, which was an inherently compromised design (its flat-12 motor was unsuited to ground effect aerodynamic design, which had just emerged as the trend-of-the-moment.) Skip to about minute four of this video, and watch the last couple of laps of the 1979 F1 French GP, and remember that there was a time car racing was as exciting as motorcycle racing - and more exciting than motorcycle racing is now.

While there’s no denying that the road _to_ a MotoGP seat is still very, very difficult and everyone is scary fast, these results make me suspect, again, that the machines are fitted with too many rider aids, which reduce the significance of the rider in the overall equation.

At the Indy show, I heard Chris Van Andel of Motion Pro mention that one Superbike team had requested a special, extra-large spool for their Revolver adjustable throttle, with a diameter that would result in about a 1/8th turn throttle. “I can't imagine controlling a bike with such a quick throttle,” he mused. Someone else noted, “I guess they're just letting the traction control do all the work.”

I miss the days when lap times depended most on a single component: the nut connecting the handlebars to the seat. I hope these results don't mean that if you’re fast enough to get to MotoGP, once you’re there you’re only as fast as your machine and there’s little you can do about it. If it really turns out that rider input variations are less than the deviation between ‘brands,’ that will be bad for MotoGP.

Of course, over the course of a season or contract, a brilliant rider might be able to make such a contribution to his bike's ongoing development that he could shift the balance of power. Let’s see, for example, if Lorenzo or Spies has the quality of input that will allow Yamaha to keep winning. Or if Rossi can raise Ducati’s game. But even that doesn’t redound to the specific development rider as much as to the team as a whole.

I'll stop saying traction control's gone too far eventually, I suppose. But it's clearly 'better' than the best riders now. I'm not saying MotoGP's easy or that I could do it, because I know I can't. But how long will it be before ABS or even computerized lean control provide superhuman braking and turn-in?

At that point, we can all turn off.

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