After the initial disappointment at the death of the 250cc two strokes, the advent of the Moto2 class raised hopes that Grand Prix racing would enter a new era of chassis innovation, as the teams spent the money saved on engine development on exploring novel solutions to the problem of hustling a motorcycle around a circuit is the shortest time possible.
The first set of designs unveiled did little to feed that hope, with most bikes being of the aluminium twin beam variety which is standard in most sports and racing machinery, with a couple of tubular trellis frames thrown in for good measure.
Even that variety did not last. The trellis frames were the first to go – mostly as a result of the extra weight the design created – and the number of chassis manufacturers dropped from 13 in the first year to 6 in 2013.
Even that figure gives an inflated picture of the variety in the paddock: 28 out of the 32 permanent entries form Moto2 this year use either the Kalex, Suter or Speed Up chassis. The bikes vary in stiffness, in aerodynamic detail and in aesthetics, but other than that, they are virtually identical.
So why is there no real innovation in the Moto2 paddock – or MotoGP or Moto3, for that matter? The answer is simple, and has been discussed here many times before. The attitude which characterizes the paddock in technical terms is not one of the fearless pursuit of knowledge and innovation.
It is not a hotbed of blue sky thinking and adventurous engineering. It is a place of conservative evolution, of cautious refinement, where proven concepts are polished to as near perfection as possible.
Why the conservatism? Surely a gamble on a radical new approach could end up paying big dividends? That is certainly true, but major changes often take a lot of work to get right.
With teams struggling for sponsorship contracts year on year, they simply cannot afford to risk a year (or two, or three) of terrible results, as they work to iron out the flaws and bugs in their radical new concepts.
It is better to stick with what you know, working on perfecting a set up, and put pressure on your rider to find the extra tenth in their riding.
The chances of that path paying off spectacularly may not be large – unless you happen to find an undiscovered talent, which is rare enough in itself – but at least if you fail, you will not fail badly. At worse, you end up running around at the back of the pack, a second or so off the pace. You can then try and remedy that by picking up a new rider, and maybe a new crew chief into the bargain.
This aversion to innovation has come to pervade the paddock to such an extent that even relatively small changes are feared. In 2010, chassis builder FTR tried to persuade Moto2 teams to use their stemless headstock design, which swapped the stem joining the top and bottom of the triple clamps for a much stronger set of bearings at the top and bottom of the headstock.
This removed the stem from the air intake for the airbox, creating a much cleaner and less turbulent flow of air to the inlets, something which offered a significant advantage in terms of fueling. The teams were not interested, not even to try and test the bike. It was not what they were used to racing with, and they feared the difference in feel such a construction might create.
Since then, that conservatism has only grown. It has been fueled by Ducati’s problems, as they have struggled since the departure of Casey Stoner with both the carbon fiber frameless chassis, and then with the aluminium twin spar chassis which has replaced it.
If a major manufacturer like Ducati is having such problems, the thinking goes, then what chance does anyone else have of making a new chassis design work? As one chassis designer said to me recently, “Ducati’s current woes have set us back to almost post-Elf like aversion to innovation.” If the teams feared innovation before, they are in absolute terror of it at the moment.
The pursuit of alternative chassis technologies is also made much harder by the use of a spec-tire. With everyone constrained by a single stiffness and construction, handling flex and road irregularities has to be found in chassis and suspension design.
It is not possible to simply ask your tire manufacturer for a tire with a softer carcass or a different profile, you have to design your bike around the tire, rather than the other way around.
The other major factor in limiting innovation is what is affectionately termed ‘the nut between the handlebars’. To be able to go as fast as possible, riders depend on the feedback they get from the tires. They use that feedback to determine how close to the limit they are, and then respond appropriately.
If the front is pushing, they know they can’t turn much faster. If the rear is starting to step out, they know they can’t get on the gas much harder.
I once asked Tech 3 crew chief and technical guru Guy Coulon why we don’t see any unconventional front fork designs, and he pointed at the ground and then at his head, saying “because you do not want anything getting in the way of the information traveling from here to here.”
Every rider currently in Grand Prix has grown up racing bikes with a completely conventional design, and they have many years’ experience with the feedback such a design provides. Unconventional designs usually provide different feedback, and riders have to spend more time relearning a skill set they thought they had already mastered.
The only area in which there is any real progress being made is in electronics, but such progress is invisible to the spectators. Where previously, a design like the Elf Honda might have gathered a group of admiring fans to wonder at the technology, Honda’s latest software algorithm optimizing fuel conservation during engine braking is invisble to the naked eye. There is literally nothing for the fans to see.
Even the changing electronics strategies are only accepted because most engineers have no need to fully understand just what has been changed. After all, all the electronics systems are doing is controlling vehicle dynamics in a number of directions, the precise details are not directly relevant.
Crew chiefs merely need to tell the electronics engineers that they need a little less wheelie in this section, or a little less torque in that section, the ingenuity of the code which actually manages this is beyond the scope of their interest.
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.