2016 MotoGP Mid-Season Review: Aerodynamics

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One factor which could be having an effect on tires is the aerodynamics war which has seen wings sprouting from every forward surface of the fairing.

The outbreak of strake cancer has seen the winglets massively increase in size and surface area, making the latest version on the Ducati Desmosedici GP resemble Baron von Richthofen’s Fokker Dr.I triplane.

Ducati was the first to understand and seize on the potential of the aerodynamic winglets, debuting them at Qatar last season. There were met with some skepticism for most of last year, until Yamaha suddenly rolled out their own version of them at Aragon.

In 2016, the winglet craze has infected the entire paddock, with the bikes of all five manufacturers now sporting some form of aerodynamic device.

Why did Ducati start fitting winglets? Because they work. One engineer who has seen the data told me that the effect was visible in it. The bike wheelies less when it has wings fitted compared to not having winglets.

That reduction in wheelie means that wheelie doesn’t have to be managed using the electronics to reduce power and torque. That, in turn, means the bike can accelerate harder out of the corner, reaching higher top speeds at the end of the straight.

The other manufacturers have all come to the same conclusion, hence the outbreak of winglets.

Roll Out the Ban Hammer

Not for much longer. Safety concerns had been raised several times, by the riders and by some other factories, most notably Honda. Much was made of Andrea Iannone’s winglet hitting Marc Márquez in a first-corner clash at Argentina.

Though Márquez was uninjured by being hit in the back by Iannone’s wing, several people, including Cal Crutchlow, said that the Spaniard only came away unharmed thanks to his back protector.

These safety concerns were discussed in the Grand Prix Commission, and the MSMA, representing the manufacturers, were told to draw up a unanimous proposal to limit winglets, which the GPC would adopt.

If they did not, then the Grand Prix Commission would present its own proposal on the issue, which would then be subject to a majority vote.

It was a fine piece of politicking by those within Dorna and IRTA who wanted the winglets banned. Knowing that the factories would never agree among themselves – Ducati were keen to continue development, Honda were vehemently opposed – they came to Assen with a proposal to ban the wings from 2017 if the MSMA did not have something they could all agree on.

They did not, and wings are now banned.

The Danger Is Not Where You Think It Is

Are the winglets currently being used in MotoGP really unsafe? They are, but not in the way they are usually accused of. So far, there has been no incidence of winglets causing actual physical harm to riders in the event of a crash, with other components, both sharper and harder, posing a much more direct threat.

Where winglets are really dangerous is at the end of the straight. Better drive out of corners means higher top speeds along straights. Higher top speeds mean riders are moving faster when they crash under braking and slide off into the gravel.

Higher speed crashes mean more runoff is needed in corners, and tracks are already running out of room. Expanding gravel beds is becoming physically impossible at some tracks. At others, it is merely prohibitively expensive.

The run off required to meet rising speeds is becoming an issue at the majority of tracks on the calendar. “Maybe Qatar is the only place it is OK,” Valentino Rossi said after Luis Salom was killed in a crash at Barcelona.

Salom’s tragic death highlighted the issue of track run off, though his crash was not related to speed. But it is clear that there are very few places that currently do not have problems, or will not soon be running into issues as speeds increase.

A Victim of Horse Trading

The irony is that the factories could have kept their winglets if they had been prepared to accept far more drastic measures. Before the introduction of the maximum bore limit of 81mm, the factories had rejected a rev limit, which would have certainly reduced top speeds.

The factories have also pushed for the current level of performance of the spec-electronics, which still provides sophisticated traction control and anti-wheelie strategies.

If the unified software had been reduced to a very low level, as Dorna had wanted, then that would have had a major impact on top speeds. That, in turn, would have left room for the factories to explore aerodynamics, and keep the winglets.

As it is, there may still be a role for aerodynamics. The cat is clearly out of the bag, and the factories now all believe in the efficacy of aerodynamic devices in improving acceleration.

After the Sachsenring, MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge, Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli, and Race Director Mike Webb had planned to sit down and discuss ways of policing other aerodynamic devices which factories may use to try to circumvent the ban on wings.

That meeting did not happen due to time constraints, and is now set to happen between Austria and Brno. It is likely to be lengthy and difficult. And the rulebook won’t get any slimmer.

Photo: Ducati Corse

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.