Sunday Summary at Estoril: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

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If there’s one lesson we can take from Sunday’s race at Estoril, it’s this: “I’ve always said we know Casey’s the guy that’s the fastest guy in the world. Maybe over the seasons he hasn’t put the championships together, but by far he’s the best guy in the world.” Cal Crutchlow is not known for mincing his words, and his description of Casey Stoner pulls no punches. But given the fact that Stoner only managed to win the Portuguese round of MotoGP by a second and a bit, is that not a little exaggerated?

Here’s what Stoner had to say about it, when I asked him if winning with the chatter he suffered – even on the TV screens the massive vibration front and rear was clearly visible – made him more confident about the level of his performance. “It gives me a lot more confidence. That’s the thing, you know, with arm pump, with the chatter problem, I’ve been feeling like crap all week, and my body’s not as good as I normally am, and we still managed to hang on, we still managed to be clearly faster than the others at the end of the race.”

Arrogance? Maybe, but with a championship lead, back-to-back wins at tracks he never liked and had not won a MotoGP race at, and having now completed the set (a win at every track currently on the calendar, last achieved by Valentino Rossi in 2008, but a record he lost when Silverstone and Aragon were added to the schedule), it is also a realistic assessment. Back in 2007, I wrote that Casey Stoner was the fastest motorcycle racer on the planet, and with each passing season, he has grown to become the most complete. He can pass when he needs to, fight if he has to, though much to the chagrin of the fans, he believes his safest course of action is to put the hammer down and try to gap the field.

Perhaps once he realizes he is so much faster than anyone else, he will ease up and start to toy with the others the way that Valentino Rossi toyed with Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau nearly ten years ago. But where Rossi was like a cat playing with a mouse he had caught, Stoner is more like a shark: attack, take one bike, kill your prey, and move on to the next one. Boring? Certainly, but there is a kind of beauty in that ruthless efficiency. Stoner may never please the crowds, but watching him bend a MotoGP bike to his will is still the most breathtaking sight for anyone who can appreciate the skill it requires to go that fast. Where Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi try to become one with the motorcycle, and coax it into giving its very best, Stoner dominates the machine, beating it into submission.

To my mind, Casey Stoner has just one major fault: he believes Honda pays him to race motorcycles. In reality, it is the fans who watch motorcycle racing, and admire what he does on a bike, and then go out and buy a Honda scooter in Indonesia, or fill their gas tank at a Repsol station in Spain, or buy Gas jeans in a fashion store somewhere around the world. These are the people who pay his wages, and on occasion, it would be good for him to take them into consideration.

But for those who are not fans of the Australian, it’s going to be a long couple of years. Stoner’s lead in the Championship may be just a single, solitary point, but the title race is pretty much a foregone conclusion. If Stoner can win with so much chatter, Jorge Lorenzo has a massive mountain to climb. The Spaniard will need a lot of help from Yamaha, and he must hope that HRC take a long time to fix the problem.

To be honest, Lorenzo is putting in a sterling job of trying to keep Stoner honest. His team have pulled the occasional rabbit out of the hat on Sunday morning when they have needed to, but the Yamaha needs more than just a decent setup to beat Stoner. They have a lot of work ahead of them, and they will be hoping that the new engine they will be testing on Monday will be a step in the right direction.

Honda will be testing one thing, and one thing only: trying to get rid of the chatter. To do that, they need dry track time, but with a few hours to go before the test, it is raining very heavily with no sign of a let up. What if it rains during the test and Honda can’t try to cure the chatter? “We’re f****d”.

At Ducati, they too will be testing a new engine on Monday. Valentino Rossi had his best race of the year, but coming home in 7th is not where he really wants to be. But, as he puts it himself, “this is our potential.” The new engine – probably a minor variation on the current engine, most likely with some head work to make it less peaky, rather than the narrow angle V that is needed to solve the understeer problems – will feature a few new parts to provide a smoother power delivery. Whether those parts include a new crankshaft to take the bike out to 1000cc, rather than the 930cc it currently almost certainly is, given that it has been clocked revving to around 17,500 rpm, remains to be seen.

The other major lesson – perhaps two major lessons – we learned today is the depth of reliance on electronics that modern-day MotoGP bikes have. Nicky Hayden’s miserable race – his words, not mine – were down to the ECU being confused and thinking that the bike was somewhere completely different on the track. Hayden’s lap times kept appearing as he crossed the timing loop on the back straight, rather than on the finish line, and the bike was altering the power map on the fly – as all these bikes do – for each corner where it thought the corners were, rather than where they actually were. Where it needed power, the GP12 had its power cut right back. Where it needed less, such as at the chicane, it had full power, making it difficult to control.

Without confirmation from Ducati – and good luck getting that – it seems that there were two problems with Hayden’s bike. The first is that the ECU was reading the wrong timing loop, and thinking that the one where the second split is measured was the one at the finish line. The second is a more fundamental programming one, of trusting your data. Using just a single parameter – the timing loops which run under the circuit – to measure your position on the track, and extrapolating from there – is efficient, but as Nicky Hayden found out, occasionally prone to error. Better to confirm your assumptions against the data gathered from the bike: Estoril’s front straight and back chicane are such clear markers in terms of gearing, revs, throttle and lean angle, all of which are logged, that it should not be too difficult to recalibrate the position of the bike using that data.

Alternatively, you could just use a GPS, or at least you could if they were not banned. Only the GPS provided by the organization is allowed to be used, and that only to provide information for the TV feed and live timing app. A relatively cheap part and another input requiring little extra programming would have saved Hayden’s race.

If you’re determined to cut electronics, then the way to avoid situations like this is by removing the ride-by-wire from the primary butterfly valves which are operated electronically in each throttle body. Currently, both valves are under electronic control, and that means that the bike provides the the power that it thinks the rider needs, rather than what the rider wants. In some corners, Lorenzo’s crew chief Ramon Forcada explained to me, when you open the throttle, the actual butterfly valves may open just 50%. If those valves were operated by a cable, then the would provide exactly as much throttle as the rider had asked for. These riders are professionals; they can handle that.

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.