Monday, October 31, 2011

A note from the Dept. of Devil's Advocacy

A couple of months ago, MCN (the UK motorcycle tabloid, not Motorcycle Consumer News in the U.S.) contacted me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a sort of printed 'debate' about the state of motorcycle racing in general and MotoGP in particular. They wanted to pair me with another 'expert' (a term I'm using loosely, obviously) to argue for/against Traction Control. 

Since I had a choice of what side of the argument I'd take, and since everyone seems to be against TC, I naturally chose to defend it.

Here's what I wrote...

Traction Control's not the real villain

Let’s set aside the fact that Traction Control is beneficial on road-going motorcycles. They say “racing improves the breed” and whether the latest TC systems - look at the Aprilia RSV4 or BMW S1000RR - grew out of those companies’ racing programs or not, they have allowed ordinary riders to explore their machines’ performance envelopes in much greater safety. ABS, similarly, is a huge boon to riders who are mere mortals.
So the question is not simply, “Should we ban TC?” The question is also, “Do we really want top-level racing series to rely on technology that will look increasingly primitive as road bikes continue to evolve?” 
My answer to the first question is, “You can try but it didn’t work here in the U.S.” And my answer to the second is a simple, “No” on philosophical grounds. On principle, I believe that top-tier race bikes should be more advanced than ordinary road bikes.
Even if you don’t share my philosophical position, there are other reasons to think twice about a simple ban of TC. It’s easy to look back over the last decade or so, and point to TC as  ‘the new thing’ that cocked MotoGP up. But other factors have also conspired to produce processional races on one-line tracks. 
The overall engineering packages of motorcycles are increasingly homogenous. So are the development paths taken by young riders; the Red Bull Rookies Cup is a blatant attempt to produce cookie-cutter future stars. Smaller grids limit diversity and restrictive licensing and qualifying rules have made lapped traffic a thing of the past. Even the tracks we race on are getting smoother and smoother. And most importantly, almost all major championships now use control tires.
So the racing’s still thrilling in the 125 class and it’s wild-and-wooly in Moto2, but as the grids shrink in MotoGP and the risks (both physical and financial) of over-riding the machine increase, riders literally toe the same line. Why isn’t this a debate about riders and the culture of motorcycle racing? Sheene vs. Roberts; Rainey vs. Schwantz... If you could put those guys in a time machine and have them race contemporary MotoGP bikes, the races would not be parades.
And banning TC is not that simple. There was about a decade when the Yoshimura Suzuki team here (in the AMA Superbike Championship) had a clandestine TC system developed by computer guru Amar Bazzaz. Yosh had great riders in Mat Mladin and Ben Spies, but part of the team’s long dominance was simple cheating. 
Here’s another lesson from America: Our Grand National flat track racing scene is still full of lurid slides and wheelies. Bar-banging last corner passes determine almost every race. Yet the series struggles to attract young fans - perhaps because the bikes being raced are far more primitive than any modern street bike.
In the final analysis, while banning Traction Control seems like a quick fix, it’s a certainty that within a few years, un-traction-controlled racers will lap at slower speeds than production bikes with advancing state-of-the-art TC - and that will suck. Petrolheads all want to see the fastest and the best bikes doing battle. The answer is not more restrictive rules, it’s a less-restrictive attitude, and it has to pervade the sport from top to bottom.

Author note: I wrote this before Simoncelli's fatal crash. Looking back on it now, and reading me sort of rhetorically asking, "What would Kevin Schwantz be doing, if he was here now?" makes me reflect on the fact that Simoncelli was the young rider most like Schwantz in every way, physically and emotionally, but also in his balls-out riding and acceptance of frequent crashes in the search of the absolute limit. 

Simoncelli's Sepang crash began with a hairy knee save after over-riding and/or over-braking into that corner. If he hadn't been hit by Rossi and Edwards -- if he had pulled off the knee save, he'd've seemed even more Schwantz-like.

Trying that hard comes with a price.