MotoGP: Origins Of Style, Part 3

Third in a three-part series looks at the evolution of motorcycle riding styles.

Jorge Lorenzo race action shot

How did Jorge Lorenzo come by his style? He came up through two-stroke 125 and 250cc racing. Because 125s had so little power, they could not recover through exit acceleration the speed lost in a turn-early point-and-shoot style. Therefore, a 125 rider must conserve as much speed as possible by riding “the big line” of classical 1950–60s Grand Prix racing—a corner-speed style.

By the time Lorenzo had won two 250cc GP titles, the top class was 800cc four-strokes on tires with exceptional edge grip. This meant that he was able to continue to use his own natural corner-speed style on the big bike. When Valentino Rossi moved up from 250s in 2000, the big class was still two-stroke 500s with their sudden power delivery. Rossi, therefore, had to alter his style to one that turned early then lifted the bike before applying real power.

In the present spec-tire era that began in 2009, tire engineers can no longer seek particular, one-rider solutions but must make a tire for the paddock. Michelin, dominant in the 1990s and first six years of the new century, had worked to make good edge grip, resulting in the stunning increase in lean angle seen in the early years of MotoGP. In 2007–2008, Bridgestone’s consistency made it the choice as MotoGP’s spec-tire supplier.

What happened when dirt-track style met these new corner-speed tires? That was the story of Nicky Hayden’s first years in MotoGP. The harder he rode, the faster his tires fatigued and lost grip, forcing him to either slow down or tip over. Evidently, tires developed for edge grip respond badly to wheelspin and sliding. Although Hayden was able to adapt to a degree, the available tires never suited his natural style.

Casey Stoner paddock shot

During Casey Stoner's run to the 2007 MotoGP title on a Ducati, many assumed he was riding the corner-speed style that seemed inherent in the extreme edge grip of Bridgestones. Yet in that year, Ducati race-engineer Filippo Preziosi stated that Stoner was not actually a corner-speed man, and Yamaha revealed that, according to its trackside instrumentation, Stoner had his traction control cycling while at full lean. That meant that he was turning the understeering Ducati in the only way possible: on the throttle. Stoner, you see, has a dirt-track background, just like Kenny Roberts and Dani Pedrosa.

But in 2011, while he was winning his second title (this time on a Honda), Stoner told me that because the Bridgestone tire presents the same footprint at all lean angles, there was no point in trying to lift the bike up to “plant” the tire for acceleration. Thus, he implied, the nature of the Bridgestone tire was imposing a corner-speed style on all riders. Was he being less than candid? What I learned next suggested that he was. At extreme lean angles, I was told, the flexibility of the tire’s edge responds to throttle by “walking” sideways—not destructively sliding or spinning, but flexing. This allows turning to be concentrated in mid-turn, not as much as in point and shoot, but enough to cause Cal Crutchlow to refer to “The Hondas’ V-shaped line.” The “point” of the V is the zone of high-lean edge-walking, where turning happens fastest (the line doesn’t look V-shaped to spectators, only to nearby riders who can directly compare that line with their own).

Last season, ex-250cc racer and current Öhlins tech Jon Cornwell pronounced that, "Edge grip is a wasting asset." The Honda men recognize this by using it only at the apex and for a short time, but Lorenzo must use it more intensively—all the way around. On tracks with reduced grip, or on very hot days, Lorenzo's way has lately been marginal.

Valentino Rossi race action shot

Just as 125s do, other bikes lacking in acceleration must resort to corner speed. Freddie Spencer did so naturally in 1982–83 to compensate for his Honda NS500 triple’s horsepower deficit. Ducati Superbikes, long lacking midrange essential for acceleration, relied for a time on corner speed. In 1997, Honda produced a two-stroke 500cc V-twin as a privateer GP bike, and with 30 hp less than factory V-4s, its only hope was high corner speed. In practice, the corner-speed line it required crossed the lines of point-and-shoot bikes, and its corner speed lasted only until its tires “went off” (today, riders call this “dropping”). In 2000, Mick Doohan noted that, on the Michelins of that time, corner speed gave faster lap times as long as edge grip lasted. But when tire fatigue set in, a rider had to revert to point and shoot because it is safer (less time at high lean angle) and less dependent on edge grip.

Tire development is continuous. When Marquez came to MotoGP, what struck him as really different was the front Bridgestone tire’s ability to thrive under load. Colin Edwards had said years before, “Load it up. I don’t know how it does it, but it can take it.” In the previous era, loading the front hard into turns was a sure recipe for losing it, and Spencer based part of his style on being able to recover from this. In remarks made earlier this year, Valentino Rossi suggested that he has modified his style to better suit the tires now being supplied. If the latest tires lack edge grip but are more spin/slide tolerant, backing away from corner speed/edge grip and see what can be done with “the V-shaped line” makes sense.

Next season is Bridgestone’s last year as MotoGP’s spec-tire supplier. The tires that take their place will have new properties at present unknown to us, and the fastest riders will exploit those properties in perhaps novel ways. Others will carry on with their own styles. That’s how it has always been.