One of my favorite things to do at the races is listen. Yes, I listen in conversation, and the conversations at MotoGP events are often so full of info that much of it can’t be used. But engines tell secrets in their sounds. At Motegi in 2003, engines told me they were running all the way to the apex. Why? What I was hearing was the first “throttle-kicker” engine-braking-control systems, which applied just enough throttle to cancel the desired amount of engine braking.
The previous system—the now-omnipresent slipper clutches—could not do the whole job, as it was “right” mainly for one gear and somewhat “wrong” in all other gears. That was why Colin Edwards told me the story about clutch-setting at Aprilia during his year spent riding the three-cylinder, 990cc “Cube.” Edwards would practice, find out where engine braking was worst, come in and the crew might add a .003-inch shim. Then, he went out again to find that the problem was better in one corner but worse in two others. Back to pit lane, take out a .005-inch shim and so on. The problem was vigorously pursued but never caught.
This was why Honda, Ducati and one of the Yamahas were all running their engines to the apex at Motegi. This was the sound of engine braking being dealt with in a new way: by having the computer lift the throttles just enough to cancel it out.
Here at Valencia, the big contrast is downshifting. Bikes come accelerating parallel with pit lane heading for Turn 1, and you hear the first downshift, followed by a slow, heaving waa, waa from the engine as it picks up the next gear. Is this the frequency of the engine-braking system, moving the throttle plates just enough to keep the back tire at the edge of gripping? Dunno.
But the Hondas with the “seamless transmission” are so different. Instead of the single throttle blip and heaving of the other machines that are repeated for each downshift, you hear only the short, neat “Ud-n, ud-n, ud-n” as all the downshifts go through in a short sequence.
The other thing that struck me standing on pit lane was how hard all these engine are straining, making all that wonderful harsh noise, to both accelerate their own weight and force their way through invisible air drag that increases as the square of speed. On a bicycle, air drag begins to be a real drag at about 20 mph. Here, at the roughly 200-mph Turn 1 approach speed, air drag is 10 x 10 = 100 times higher.
Arriving at the braking point for Turn 1, a rider begins to trade in all that kinetic energy for heat in the brake discs. The grapevine explained to us that at Motegi, where Ben Spies had brake trouble, the difference was that he was applying initial pressure later, and 25 percent higher, than teammate Lorenzo.
This, it was explained, was Spies’ “mistake.” But Brembo engineer Eugenio Gandolfi told me, “In Formula One, they are living with this problem all the time.” The problem is that when the surface of the disc is made hot enough by aggressive braking, it oxidizes and is rapidly lost as dust.
This is why F1 design encloses discs and calipers in ducted air systems to aggressively cool them. So, perhaps Spies is not so much “wrong” as he is just operating beyond current norms. When enough riders begin to have such problems with the currently mandated 320mm-diameter discs, engineering will be called upon to make the problems go away. But if just one rider has a problem, it is his problem.
In automobile GP racing in the 1930s, one-third of a g was considered hard braking, and it was more or less normal for a car to be out of brakes at half distance, after which the driver was expected to make do with heavy downshifting and sideways sliding to scrub off speed on corner approach. Today, this sounds like a joke, but you can be sure that if Hermann Lang or Rudi Caracciola ran his car out of brakes earlier than average in a race, he would be in for a stern lecture from team manager Alfred Neubauer.
How does a new norm come into being? Mercedes went to Le Mans in the mid-1950s with its huge and beautiful finned aluminum drum brakes, supplemented by a large drag flap behind the driver that was erected by power cylinders during hard braking. Jaguar brought a set of the new disc brakes, originally developed for military aircraft. If the two cars approached the same corner at the same speed, the Merc had to be on the brakes sooner, allowing the Jag to pass and sail on at full throttle for some distance, then “brake violently once and disappear around the corner.”