Unless you have been living under a rock for the past month or so, you will have heard the criticism of MotoGP. Though the field is close, it has become harder and harder to overtake the riders in front.
The Le Mans race was a case in point: the 27-lap race featured only a handful of overtakes, most of which were made possible only by a mistake by the rider ahead.
The problem was brought into stark relief by last weekend’s WorldSBK races at Estoril.
Alvaro Bautista, Jonathan Rea, and Toprak Razgatlioglu put on a dazzling display of passing in all three races on Saturday and Sunday, finding ways to jam their bikes ahead of each other into the first corner, the fourth corner, the Parabolica Interior, and the tight, awkward uphill chicane.
They produced three glorious races.
The spectacle of Rea, Razgatlioglu, and Bautista knocking spots off one another reinforced that the problem is indeed down to the technological point at which MotoGP finds itself.
With limited aerodynamics and no ride-height devices, the WorldSBK trio found no problem diving out of the slipstream and outbraking each other.
The reasons that isn’t possible have been covered in some depth, by me and by others. You can find some of the background in the Le Mans subscriber notes posted last week, and also the wider context in a column I wrote for On Track Off Road.
Anti-Wheelie Is Anti-Passing
The short version is that MotoGP is caught in the middle of a two-pronged attack from technology. The increased use of aerodynamics on MotoGP bikes is reducing wheelie and disrupting the air behind them.
Less wheelie means more load on the front tire which increases temperatures. Less air on the tire in the slipstream means tire temperatures rise further.
And the increasing reliance of the bike on aero to keep the front wheel on the ground means that the bikes lose that in the slipstream, and can’t brake as hard as the bike in front.
Then there’s the ride-height devices. The rear device lowers the center of mass and reduces wheelie, again putting more load into the front tire.
But these devices also alter the way that riders can brake for corners: with a lower center of mass, the bike pitches differently, allowing riders to brake much harder and putting yet more stress on the front tire.
Stress equals temperature, and Boyle’s Law says temperature equals pressure, and raising the pressure of the front tire changes the behavior of the bike completely.
Aleix Espargaro gave an example at Le Mans, referring back to being stuck behind Jack Miller and Marc Marquez for most of the race. Once he finally got past – again, only thanks to a mistake by Marquez and Miller – he got cool air on his front tire again, the pressure dropped, and he was immediately a lot faster.
Behind Marquez and Miller, Espargaro’s front tire pressure had increased by nearly 0.2 bar, totally changing the way the bike felt.
“I analyzes the race in Jerez a lot with the engineers, and you cannot imagine the difference between 2.08 to 1.91 pressure on the front tire,” the Aprilia rider said. “The bike has unbelievable chattering, losing the front, no turning, and then everything is perfect.” The difference? “It’s half a second. It’s crazy.”
The change has been especially marked in the last couple of years, as aerodynamics has grown in importance and ride-height devices have become ubiquitous. Both official tire supplier Michelin and unofficial monopoly brake supplier Brembo have noticed the difference.
“We realized in the past two seasons, that bikes are changing, they are putting more and more weight on the front, with the winglets, and riders are braking very very hard. So the load is changing, so we had to also change the development to adapt to that,” Michelin boss Piero Taramasso told me at the preseason test in Sepang.
At Portimão, Brembo engineer Andrea Bergami, spoke to Peter Bom and I, and the Brembo engineer backed up what Taramasso had said. “Piero described the situation very well,” Bergami told us.
“This situation involved us a lot because in the last years we saw an increase year by year of the braking power and the braking energy that has been massive compared to the old years. Then we saw some points, 1%, 2%, of increase, not an important increase in braking energy. In the last year, we saw +10%, +20% of increase of braking energy year by year.”
More energy for the braking systems to absorb means the bikes are slowing faster, and that means more stress for the front tire, and more stress means more temperature, and therefore more pressure.
Fixing the Impossible
That’s the problem, but how do we solve it? Two approaches are needed, and neither is available in the short term.
The technological solution has to come from Michelin, in the form of a revised design of front tire. The regulatory solution has to come from the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP’s rule-making body.
First, the front tire. Michelin have been working on a new, stronger front tire since 2019. The plan had been to test it extensively in 2020 and then roll it out in 2021. But the pandemic put paid to that plan, severely restricting testing in 2020 and 2021.
So 2022 is the first season the MotoGP riders have some space to test a new front tire, but the bikes have changed enormously since 2019, especially, as laid out above, in terms of aerodynamics and ride-height devices.
So Michelin are having to revisit their 2019 plans and update them with data from the last couple of seasons. The new tire still needs some testing.
“Basically it’s delayed, because we are working to improve the temperature and the pressure control,” Taramasso told me.
“Now when you have the slipstream, the tendency of the front tire is to overheat. So we are working on that, to try to better control that point.”
Here, Michelin’s plans fall foul of Dorna’s expanded schedule. As part of the grand bargain with the teams, the number of official test days is to be reduced from next year, from 11 to 8. The reason for that is simple: the teams get money from Dorna to go racing, and they get nothing for testing.
The independent teams also have the least to gain from testing: the most important part of the development work is going on in the factory garages, with independent teams having only limited access to the shiny new ‘preciouses’ in the official boxes.
For the most part, they are testing a few setup ideas, playing with bigger changes in suspension and weight balance which they don’t have time to try on a race weekend. While that is interesting and productive, they don’t need to spend 3 days at a track doing that.
Changing a front tire, however, is the biggest change you can make on a racing motorcycle. The front tire is the conduit through which the rider communes with the asphalt, the tool they use to try to understand what is going on with the bike and precisely where the limit is.
You cannot simply take one tire construction out and put a new one in. It would be like suddenly telling them they can only explain their feelings on the bike to their crew chiefs in Welsh: not impossible, but not something that can be learned proficiently in the space of a few days.
“When you change the front end, you change the bike completely,” Taramasso told us at Portimão. “You change the feeling for the rider, you change the confidence. You need to do a lot of tests in different tracks, different conditions, cold, hot. So it takes more time to validate than a rear tire.”
The reduction in testing days was also a factor, Taramasso explained. “Eight days is not too much,” the Michelin boss said. “We also need to test in other tracks, which are not on the schedule, so we have to see how to arrange that.”
One option might be to add extra or longer free practice sessions at some race tracks, as happened at Phillip Island in 2016, Michelin’s first year as official tire supplier.
But here, too, the weather might play a role, rendering the extra track time a pointless exercise if conditions are not good enough to push the front to the limit.
“What we would like to do is next year  try a new front tire and then we will see,” Taramasso said. “If the tests go very fast and the results are positive, then we can introduce in 2024. If not, we may need 2024 to test and introduce it in 2025.”
With two more years to develop before Michelin can introduce their new tire, the factories are likely to make further steps forward with their aerodynamics and ride-height devices.
As both are still quite novel technologies, the data currently being gathered is extremely valuable and helping to propel development at high speed.
As the technology matures, the rate at which progress is made slows. But we are still at the early, steep part of the curve.
Which brings us to the second option for slowing this development, an option which runs through the Grand Prix Commission. In theory, the GPC could both ban ride-height devices and severely clamp down on aerodynamics any time they wanted.
In practice, though, they won’t, precisely because of who controls the technical regulations.
As part of their grand bargain with the factories, Dorna promised the manufacturers two things: that major changes to the technical regulations would be introduced at the end of each five-year contract period, and the factories given plenty of warning to allow them to prepare.
And the manufacturers, through their representative body, would be able to pass any changes to the technical rules they wanted, and veto any changes proposed by the GPC’s other members, Dorna, IRTA, and the FIM.
With the MSMA holding a veto, the chances of any proposals to ban ride-height devices or aerodynamics are very close to zero.
The factories have already invested too much time and resources into their development, and will be loath to throw all that investment away.
The MSMA will not propose such a change, nor would they agree to a change if it were proposed by the other three GPC members.
The chances are close to zero, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. The other GPC members have one route to change, which they have already employed in the past.
The GPC can impose changes to the technical rules by a majority vote of the four parties on safety grounds. In the past, this was used to change the shape of the wings to turn them into closed loop structures instead of the more usual flat planes and end plates seen in the first iterations of aerodynamics.
To do this, however, they would have to be able to make a persuasive case that ride-height devices and aerodynamics pose a safety risk. That is hard to argue, given that we have had two seasons of (relatively) safe racing while this technologies were permitted.
A tenuous argument might be constructed based on the fact that the ride-height devices and aerodynamics are making overtaking so difficult that riders are being forced to take more and more risk.
They could also point to the stresses being placed on the human body while racing: the extra braking and acceleration these technologies are allowing are making it physically even more demanding to ride these bikes.
The ever-increasing number of riders requiring arm pump surgery is an indication of the problem at hand.
Divide & Conquer
The other opening for Dorna, IRTA, and the FIM is dissent within the ranks of the MSMA. The addition of Aprilia, Suzuki, and KTM to the previous triumvirate of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati have complicated relationships within the MSMA, something the withdrawal of Suzuki will do little to change.
The “tire cooler” affair of 2019, when Ducati turned up with an aerodynamic attachment to the bottom of the swingarm, blew the MSMA apart. Five manufacturers felt it violated the spirit, and possibly the letter of the rules, one manufacturer did not. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to fill in the names there.
Eventually, the MotoGP Court of Appeal (part of the quasi-legal apparatus put in place to deal with disputes over the rulings of the FIM Stewards) ruled that Ducati’s reading of the letter of the law was correct. But the other manufacturers were still very much hung up on the spirit of the rules.
The Covid-19 pandemic turned that situation around completely. In the face of a global health crisis, the MSMA worked smoothly together to put together a set of temporary restrictions on development to restrict costs during the pandemic.
Now, though, the pandemic has faded, and those restrictions have been lifted again. And with development back up to full speed, disputes over the spirit vs the letter of the rules are splitting the MSMA once again.
Ducati’s introduction of a front ride-height device saw the other factories accept Dorna’s proposal of a ban. Tensions are rising, as each factory interprets the rules in its own way.
This could offer Dorna a route to a ban on either aerodynamics or ride-height devices. But it looks unlikely they could get enough support from at least some of the factories to push it through. That horse has already bolted, and is a long way down the lane.
One Door Closes, Another Door Opens
Even if the GPC could impose a ban, history teaches us its effectiveness would be short lived. The best way to inspire innovation and new ideas is by closing off existing routes to performance, forcing engineers to use their creativity to think up new ways of achieving their goals.
This is how we got ride-height devices and aerodynamics in the first place. Before spec electronics, wheelie and acceleration was largely controlled electronics, with factories deploying armies of engineers to write clever algorithms for their proprietary software.
Once Dorna succeeded in pushing through spec software, the factories explored and found other ways of managing acceleration and reducing wheelies. And those ways – aero and ride-height devices – have proven to be even more successful, as they also help to improve braking.
So the likely outcome of a ban on aero and ride-height devices would be a temporary reprieve. For a few short years – between 5 and 8, if history is a guide – the bikes would lose performance.
But at some point, some big brain in Bologna, or Mattighofen, or Noale, or Asaka, or Iwata, will think up an ingenious way of accelerating harder, or braking harder, or reducing wheelie, or all three. And before you know it, we are back at square one again.
The point of racing is to try to go faster than anyone else on track. Riders, engineers, crew chiefs, every single member of a team will always be looking for a way to do that. You can’t stop progress. You can only divert it onto an alternate path.
Photo: Ducati Corse