ESSAY: Should Motorcycle Racing Be Electronics-Free?

Our Technical Editor points out the folly of such a position.

Sauber C33 studio image

Here’s a timely tidbit that positively jumped off the page. Discussing the new Formula 1 technical rules for 2015, the current issue of Automotive Engineering (the Society of Automotive Engineers’s magazine) reports this: “The Sauber team reports that additional packaging space was also needed for all of the electronics boxes. The team’s Sauber C33 Ferrari racecar incorporates more than 40 such electronic boxes, and more than 30 of those require cooling, according to the team.”

There has been a lively discussion over motorcycle electronics for some time. One group welcomes the coming of electronic controls, which were originally developed in military aerospace, then adopted by civil aviation before migrating to cars and now increase control and safety in the same manner for motorcyclists.

The other group yearns to “rip out all the electronics” to return to a glorious yesteryear of all-manual control. Well, not quite—they don’t want to control ignition timing, fuel mixture, and engine warm-up—tasks that are now 100 percent handled by electronics. Then, what exactly do the “rip it all out” people actually want? I’d compare it with being nostalgic for the 1950s, but with guaranteed protection against polio, racism, and potential Cold War annihilation.

Anyway, some have pointed to F1 as a safe haven for electronics-free racing. Sorry, that ain’t true. Something must control the new energy-management systems. F1 cars are advanced hybrids, recovering some energy from braking, taking more from the turbocharger to generate electricity, using stored battery power to spin up the turbo for zero-lag acceleration; also for managing the 25 kW-h lithium-ion battery pack, limiting the turbo’s maximum speed to the 125,000 permitted by the rules, and then parceling out the stored extra energy at no more than the rates specified in other paragraphs of rules.

Fuel-flow rate will be limited (by more electronics) to no more than 100kg/hr, and the fuel carried is limited to 100 kg (220 lb., or about 35 gallons). The rpm of the specified 4-valve-per-cylinder 1.6-liter 90-degree V-6 must be held to a limit of 15,000. No more than 160 hp may be released from the battery/electric motor system, and for no more than 33.3 seconds per lap. Got all that?

Wouldn’t it be a more sporting contest if all this was handled by the driver?

MotoGP race action

Hold that 15,000-rpm engine rev limit and 125,000-rpm turbo rev limit by taking eyes off the road to stare at not one but two large traditional Veglia, VDO, or Smiths tachometers with round white faces. The driver also holds the fuel delivery on spec by constant reference to a flow meter and a conveniently placed faucet, while monitoring the 33.3 seconds limit straightforwardly with a hand-held stopwatch (mechanical only, no electronic watches!).

Meanwhile, by using conveniently placed knife-switches, the driver divides the power being generated by the turbocharger between its two outputs—one charging the battery through a coupled motor-generator, the other sending pressurized mixture to the engine’s intake system. If the turbo gets close to that 125,000-rpm limit, a deft motion of a knife-switch sends more power to the battery, lugging the turbo down. If the engine feels a bit tepid, open the battery switch for an instant to let turbo revs build, sending more combustion power through the mandated 8-speed transmission to the rear wheels. During acceleration, more knife-switch throws send battery power to the turbo’s coupled motor-generator to spool up instant boost. During deceleration, chop-chop go the switches as the driver converts the driveline motor-generator to generator mode, sending recovered braking energy back to the battery.

Because the rules specify levels in unfamiliar modern units such as megajoules per lap, traditionalists will prefer to recalculate those numbers in terms of bushels per furlong-poundal, but not with a hand-held electronic calculator. No electronics; sliderules only (I’m ready. I still have my K&E Log Log Duplex Decitrig).

Meanwhile, the driver needs a large panel of what moderns call “steam gauges” to monitor engine temperature, oil temperature, electric motor temperatures, intercooler temperature, battery temperature, AC variable-frequency power supply temperature, battery status, fuel remaining, and all the other myriad variables. If a particular unit overheats, the driver can twist a 1940s’-style rheostat to send more power to its cooling blower. Why, driving could become 1952 all over again, and you’re a Flight Engineer on a 10-en-engined B-36 bomber…and having to be the pilot as well! Eternal vigilance is the price of adequate oil pressure!

Anyway, sorry, I was just having a little fun. There’s a lot happening in modern vehicles. Must be what those 40 electronics boxes are for.