Marc Marquez set a new lap record in qualifying and looked loose and assured on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s notorious bumpy and varied roadcourse surface. He looked confident when others looked careful. Jorge Lorenzo was never far behind him on the numbers, but behind he was.
Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, lagged far down in the standings in each practice and rebounded only near the end of the weekend. I talked with Yamaha Tech 3 rider Cal Crutchlow, who described the Hondas as taking a “V-shaped line.” Veteran racing engineer Warren Willing, now in Ducati’s red uniform, threw light on this.
“Motorcycles don’t turn well,” he said, “so they should spend as little time as possible in doing so: brake, turn, go. The longer you spend on the edge of the tire, the greater the danger you subject yourself to. You approach the corner on one wheel, braking, and you leave the corner on the other wheel, accelerating. In between, you want to get turned as quickly as possible.”
Lorenzo and Yamaha have, in complete contrast, exploited the new durability and side grip of Bridgestone MotoGP rubber to create a riding and machine style based on corner speed. Crutchlow tried his Superbike riding style on the Yamaha YZR-M1 when he first joined the Tech 3 team.
“It wouldn’t do it,” he said. “So, I had to adapt. And I have, save for the first two laps, which are still a problem.” He was referring to the “tenderness” of the front end and the difficulty of getting heat into the front tire when the bike is heavy with fuel at the start of a race.
The idea of corner speed was the basis for Honda’s two-stroke production racer, the NSR500V of 1997. If you could get away first on it, you could lead a race but only so long as your tire’s edge grip lasted. If you were back in the pack, the difference between your big, round line would clash with the “V-shaped line” of all the other bikes. So, Lorenzo’s chances at Indy were tied tightly to edge grip and to getting away first.
And in the race, he did get away first but not necessarily to any advantage. Marquez had flubbed a start in practice, the back end of his bike snapping sideways. He had moved off line for this, possibly onto dirty, slippery pavement. In the race start, his bike went straight but not into the lead. Lorenzo led, gaining most of a second in the process. Was this a Marquez mistake? (“I’ll have to look at the data and see what happened,” he said in the post-race press conference). Many a rider in the history of this sport has intentionally let others burn down their rubber to conserve their own for a later attack. Whether or not this was Marquez’s intention, it worked out that way. Lorenzo’s initial .550-second lead was whittled away by the two following Hondas, and on Lap 8, Marquez took second from Pedrosa.
Lorenzo later reported a tire step worse than any he’d had before, as Laps 11, 12 and 13 were three-to-five tenths slower than previous. Marquez took his opportunity on Lap 12 and pulled away.
Pedrosa was more circumspect. In the pre-race press conference, Marquez was asked about the bumpy, slippery pavement. He replied that he “enjoyed it.” Riders who are unbothered by such pavement know that if their bike is already sliding, bumps just change the sliding speed a bit but are not disaster. Pedrosa, by contrast, would prefer to keep his wheels in line on such irregular pavement—better safe than sorry. He stared at Lorenzo’s seatback until Lap 24, when he passed for second.
The bumps are real enough. Moto2 video shows seatbacks rattling up and down by their impacts. Riders look for “the line of minimum disturbance,” not necessarily a graceful Euclidean arc but rather a path of usable grip and smoothness. Why do riders complain? The tracks they are used to are smooth and well-maintained, not seldom-used infield afterthoughts added to ovals, as are so many American tracks.
How can Marquez be unbothered? Earlier this year at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, I had seen him casually rattle across the plastic rumble strips on the insides of turns, obviously confident his tires would re-grip after such disturbance. Willing observed that Honda riders put temperature into their front tires as they scrub into the turns on brakes. A rider who keeps his tires hot has less fear of grip loss.
If you watch the race video, you will see the pursuing Hondas, nose-to-tail, close up to Lorenzo on brakes, especially on the approach to Turn 10 at the end of the infield straight. Lorenzo’s style is based upon very smooth transitions, doing nothing to upset maximum tire grip. That has won him two world titles on tracks with “normal” grip, but as with the NSR500V mentioned above, that house of cards falls down if grip goes away. Tires cool down on a straight, but the Hondas were still able to brake harder than Lorenzo. This closing could be seen by Lap 3, when everyone’s tires were at operating temperature.
Lorenzo recovered after the Lap 11 tire step, but it must have cost him. He did everything in his power, but the Honda men were just too fast.
Yamaha tested its seamless-shift gearbox at Brno last week but cannot use it until their riders are on their final engine. Honda introduced its seamless transmission in 2011. I walked the Indy infield and could see and hear the difference as bikes with and without a seamless gearbox accelerated off right-hand Turn 9. Seamless bikes upshifted while still leaned over in the turn, but riders on conventional-gearbox bikes were waiting until they were nearly upright to upshift. This clearly affects choice of gear ratios (there are several alternate ratios available for each of the six speeds for tailoring the gearbox to individual circuits). As a bike accelerates leaned over, its rider sends the tire all the torque it can handle. Any upset, such as a bump or the jolt of a conventional upshift, can set the tire spinning. This slows the drive and fatigues the tire.
Why a jolt? A conventional gearbox first disengages the gear it was in, passes through a neutral and then engages the next-higher gear. Even though a quick shifter cuts the ignition during this process, there is time available during which a substantial speed difference between engine and rear wheel can develop. This is the “jolt” at engagement. In a seamless upshift, the mechanism engages the next-higher gear without disengaging the gear that is driving. As the output shaft now turns faster, it reverses the load on the previous gear pair, and this reversed load is used to disengage them. Thus, the only speed difference is that of the ratios; there is no time for engine speed to change.
Ultimately, inequalities between the R&D capabilities of the constructors drive racing’s business management to seek stability and uniformity. Racing is less good when Ducati is uncompetitive, and if Honda gains more advantage over Yamaha, that will be seen as even more destabilizing.
Because we now understand much more than we can possibly afford to use in racing, money is speed. True to form, Dorna management is now hinting at a future (2017, for example?) in which only production racers whose technology is “frozen” throughout each season will compete in MotoGP.
I can understand why the business side seeks zero innovation as racing’s bright future, but I also know that the principal sales tool for motorcycles, cars, aircraft and consumer electronics is advanced technology. Will the two coexist in harmony?