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GP Week : Issue 192
MOTOGP >>> FEATUrE 28 GPWEEK.com // 28 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: These are interesting times for motorcycle racing technology. engineers are hemmed in by restrictive regulations; racing specialisation has never been further away from road technology. The old adage, Racing Improves the Breed, has never had as little purchase. Or at least not since the days when 500cc two-strokes ruled, and road bikes went bigger and heavier and multi- cylinder four-stroke. And there are still plenty who believe that the industry-led switch to MotoGP four-strokes in 2002 applied the adage in reverse gear. Imagine the light, powerful, clean- burning two-stroke road bikes we might be enjoying now if Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki et al had done it the other way round. Four-wheel racing has long since negotiated this split in the road, but one of bike racing’s strengths has always been the close relationship between grand prix racing machines and the fastest of road bikes. Superficially MotoGP four-strokes have strengthened this bond. In depth, it is not the case. Modern regulations have been steered by a different imperative from pure competition and engineering excellence. The drive for the past decade has been first to control and then to reduce costs. Exotic materials were specifically banned, likewise any deviation from conventional design, like Honda’s erstwhile oval pistons. In the face of fierce resistance by the factories to a rev limit (a weapon still dangling in Damoclean fashion) a maximum bore size was specified instead, while numbers of engines were cut back in stages – it stands at five for the season at present. Ever- stricter fuel restrictions came step by step ... leading to next year’s miserly 20 litres for the factory bikes. Costs soared as the electronics mushroomed to stay within these somewhat artificial goalposts: fuel management programs are now extremely sophisticated, adjusting power as the race goes on. Engines became much costlier, as treatments and techniques were introduced to extend working life. All of these things might seem directly relevant to improving the breed: economy and longevity being highly desirable features. Sadly this is not the case, at least according to Yamaha race engineers. MotoGP engines, one told me recently, have become so very specialised; the metallurgy and techniques are too narrowly focused to be of discernible benefit to the breed in general. In any case, road electronics developed independently, and at some speed, with more reference to the car world than to racing. Consider the latest electronic suspensions on top-end sports bike – Ohlins pioneered this system in GPs in the early 1990s, only for them to be outlawed at once. So they went and developed them somewhere else, robbing grand prix racing of one important reason for existence. The seamless-shift gearbox already enjoyed by Honda riders for a couple of years but only recently delivered by Yamaha, is the finest example of how cost-cutting regulations had directly the opposite effect. As Yamaha Racing boss Lin Jar vis lamented when the company finally quelled the complaints of his riders at Misano, delivering the long-awaited seamless-shift to match the Hondas’: “If Honda had not invested a huge amount of money to go seamless, we wouldn’t have invested a huge amount of money to do the same.” The investment, measured in millions, became necessary only to demonstrate another racing adage: Regulations are not there to be obeyed. They are there to be got around. The reg in question was a cost- cutting response to the arrival of seamless-shifting in the now increasingly common dual-clutch format: technology that dates back to before World War Two, but was only effectively developed around the turn of the century. Increasingly common it is in cars, and the same thing is beginning to appear on two wheels, both on high-end sports bikes and on super-scooters. Banning it more or less obliged racing engineers to find a different way of achieving seamless gear changes, which are even more advantageous on two wheels than four ... not only because of the important fractions saved at every shift, but even more because up-shifts on corner exits don’t upset the bike’s balance by interrupting the power flow. The happy Yamaha riders explained all this after the arrival of their unit – a chunk of the cost of which was down to having to find a way around Honda’s new patents. The two Japanese companies use variations of a fiendishly complex ratchet-and-pawl method of locating each gear, which allows adjacent ratios to be selected simultaneously. “It is easier for the rider and the tyres over race distance,” said Rossi, adding that only one of the bike settings had needed significant adjustment. “You need less electronics, because the wheelspin and wheelie is less.” Ducati had already bought a proprietary unit, one or two CRT teams were investigating, Aprilia promised one for their CRT bike. Seamless shifting is now a requirement for any serious effort in MotoGP. And it could all have been done so much more cheaply, if only dual clutches had not been specifically banned. Current thinking is that the special MotoGP shift, developed purely to circumvent the rules, are – as with so many other aspects of the current engines – of little use elsewhere. Seamless shifting is already out on the street, in a much simpler format that is much cheaper to make. Yet I remain unwise to predict the future. Ducati, for example, have built a legend by their use of desmodromic valves, requiring intricate and expensive engineering where all its rivals felt a simple set of springs would suffice. Jar vis off-set his complaint about the unnecessary cost by adding: “We’re always looking to improve technology. At the moment the seamless shift has never been on a road bike, but in 10 or 15 years, we don’t know.” If so, then racing would have improved the breed. By the most oblique method imaginable. Basically, by mistake.