Debunking Honda’s Specious Argument Over The Spec ECU

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The battle which has been raging rather politely between Honda and Dorna over the introduction of spec electronics continues to simmer on. The issue was once again discussed at Motegi, with still no resolution in sight. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto reiterated Honda’s opposition to the introduction of a spec ECU in an interview with the Japanese journalist Yoko Togashi, which was published on GPOne.com.

The reasons for introducing a spec ECU – or more accurately, a spec electronics package, including ECU, sensors, wiring harness and data logger – are twofold: the first issue is to cut the costs of electronics in the sport, an area where spending is rampant and where gains can always be found by throwing more money and more engineers at a problem. The second issue is to improve the spectacle; racing in the modern era has become dull, with the electronics and the Bridgestone tires contributing to produce races where it is unusual for there to be more than one pass for the win.

While Nakamoto did not comment on improving the show via electronics – it could be argued that radically changing the tires would have a greater impact on the spectacle than merely introducing a restricted spec electronics system – he did repeat the claim he has made in the past that merely adopting a spec ECU would not help to cut costs, claiming that if anything, it would actually increase costs.

The analogy he used to describe the change was as follows: “Using different ECU is like switching to Macintosh while you are using Microsoft adapted computers for many years. You have to change everything.” At first glance, that seems to be a reasonable argument: switching ECUs would indeed mean that all of the software Honda has developed for their own ECU would have to be transformed into a form which they could use on the new ECU, the unit to be supplied by Magneti Marelli. Nakamoto bases his claim on his experience in Formula One, where Honda spent a lot of money adapting their electronics package when that series implemented a spec ECU.

In reality, though, the appearance of reasonableness is deceptive. Both the analogy and the parallels with Honda’s experience in F1 are specious, as the comparison being made is with a situation that will not exist in MotoGP. In F1, there was considerable room for the teams to use their own software, meaning that there were still plenty of gains to be made.

What is proposed in MotoGP is much, much more restrictive, a system almost identical to that which exists in Moto3 (a class which Honda is very happy with), where the factories and teams will have no ability to modify the software, but will only be able to work on engine mapping.

The analogy is not like going from a Macintosh to a Windows computer, where you are forced to rewrite your software to run on the new system. The analogy is like going from a special computer program you wrote yourself just for the Macintosh computer to using a program someone else has written for you on a Windows computer. For the software specialists among you, an even better analogy might be that it is like switching from a web browser you wrote yourself for X on Linux, using a custom toolkit developed specifically for the task, to using Internet Explorer on Windows. Or Safari on the iPhone.

MotoGP’s director of technology Corrado Cecchinelli explained the basic principle behind a spec ECU to me at Mugello. “If the single ECU is accepted, it will be the same hardware and same software for everybody. The same software means that in our idea, it will be like in Moto3 now, people will have a sort of calibration or tuning tool and they will be able to make the track tuning of all the parameters but they will not be able to write their own software.” The parallels with Formula One were not valid, Cecchinelli said. “Here the system will be very closed.”

What the factories will be able to do with the electronics is produce maps, modified and optimized for each particular track. That, as Nakamoto rightly points out, will cost manpower and money to do. The additional costs will be small, however, and they will only be necessary in the short term. With the ability of the teams to write their own algorithms eliminated, the gains available from employing a vast army of programmers are no longer be available.

The logic of a spec ECU is that the marginal return on each extra dollar, euro or yen spent on electronics falls rapidly beyond a low initial point. In other words, you may gain two tenths by spending, say, $100,000, but the next $100,000 will only gain you a couple of hundredths, and the next $100,000 after that a few thousandths. Right now, that relationship is much, much closer to being linear.

Reducing marginal returns through a spec electronics system means that there is a limit to how much a factory can spend. Engines will be put on dynos to figure out torque maps and throttle response curves, data will be poured over and refined, looking to perfect the balance between throttle response and power output.

But that is exactly the job which the engineers in Moto2 are doing, and there is not a single Moto2 team spending the kind of cash which MotoGP’s factories are, despite the fact that relatively, they have more to gain. After all, the Moto2 bikes are horsepower-capped, making throttle response even more crucial. MotoGP engine design will still be free, meaning that gains can be made in the design of the top end and exhausts.

Nakamoto’s real argument is over the role of racing as a platform for research and development. There is a very real and very valid basis for making that argument, however it is not one that has any meaning to Dorna or any of the powers that be in racing. Dorna’s job is to create a product they can sell to fans and TV audiences, as a way to spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon. The job of the factories is to weigh up whether they can use that opportunity and leverage it to help develop technology that may end up in their road bikes.

At the moment, that relationship is reversed. The factories have made the rules for the past ten years, introducing so many of the rules which the fans hate: the fuel limits, the introduction of the 800s, the engine allocation limits. MotoGP at the moment is a rolling laboratory, in which the factories can pitch their engineering talent and latest technologies against one another, leaving Dorna to find a way to market the resulting product.

That has turned out to be an almost impossible task, given the dullness of the racing it has produced. MotoGP has gone from a spectacular event thrilling for a mass audience to a niche product fascinating only to geeks. There are many positive aspects of being a niche product, as this author can attest, but it never generates significant revenue. If MotoGP is to survive, it has to reach a mass market. In its current form, it is failing to do so.

Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

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