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GP Week : Issue 115
Nothing venture, nothing gain? It’s not always like that in bike racing. Abandoning design convent ion and taking big technical risks seldom prospers. One reason is the nature of the beast. It doesn’t submit easily to science. Motorcycles are half human, in that the rider weighs almost as much as the bike, and he keeps moving around. Then they complicate matters still further by leaning over for the corners. A motorcycle, as a vehicle, doesn’t exactly defy physics – but because of constantly changes in centre of gravity and overall geometry, the maths (compared with, say, a car) is made fiendishly complicated by constant but not interdependent variables. In practice, even the latest and cleverest computer simulations, lacking vitality, still lag behind the real thing, according to electronics engineers, hard at work to try and change that situation. All the same, there have been heretics who challenged the ‘bicycle-with- an-engine’ format of motorcycles at fundamental level, most particularly several generations of French Elf machines, with car-based suspension. A look around the 2011 grid is a tribute to their failure. Elves, where are you now? In overall design, there is almost complete consensus. Variations are all in the detail. And sometimes not even there. Far from their being any lingering debate on different types of front suspension, they not only all use telescopic forks, but they are also essentially the same forks. The entire MotoGP grid rides on Öhlins suspension. Front and rear, in both senses. But there is a second form of heresy, less extensive, but equally courageous. It doesn’t challenge the basic principles, but the means and materials used to put them into practice. This has had more practitioners, but hardly any greater success rate. Where alternative materials swept car racing, attempts to do the same in bikes all foundered. All except one – from Ducati. History makes the Italian company’s sole use of a carbon-fibre chassis all the more adventurous. Where Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki all stick to aluminium beam frames, with different parts variously pressed, welded, extruded or machined, Ducati alone embraces the future. In fact, the Desmosedici has never espoused the beam-aluminium convention in its eight-year development history. The first version had a steel-tube trellis chassis, something of a company trademark, with the engine as a stressed member. I asked Ducati Corse chief Claudio Domenicali at the time whether he really felt an old-fashioned steel frame was relevant to modern GP racing. His reply was memorable: “ That is like asking the host if the wine is good.” The wine was good, winning a race in its first year and, as a second-generation 800, the championship in 2007. By then, the skeleton had shrunk. The trellis frame was only the front section, between steering head and the top of the engine. With rear suspension already pivoted directly off the engine casings, the motor filled the gap.. This top tubing contained a carbon- fibre airbox. The next step, introduced last year, was to dispense with the tubing, and use the airbox itself as the top chassis. It is surely no coincidence that the bike’s handling sensitivity has suffered from that point. Most