How It’s Done, How It’s Not

Kevin Cameron Top Dead Center banner
Kevin Cameron's Top Dead Center.Cycle World

OK, we get the hot new bike, we bankroll the mods allowed in the class, and we buy the expense-controlled electronics package and read the directions. Then we slot on the hot young rider and start practicing our autographs, right?

Sure, we need somebody who knows what sag and spring rate and nerd stuff like that is, but we can get the “sweet numbers” and he’ll put it all together. How hard can it be? Plug in the laptop, pull up the maps, tap the keys, and we’re on our way.

Are we talking about a video game here? Just dial in the electronics and everything falls neatly into place? We mow down the Star Wars white robots and save the Universe.

How far from reality this is was revealed by Toni Elias, the very experienced European who, on a supposedly "obsolete" Yosh GSX-R has won five races in MotoAmerica Superbike – against the "machine of its era", the Yamaha R1. Elias has brought the methodical, analytic methods of European paddocks to America. Basically, he says the electronics exist to help the rider operate closer to the limits of the motorcycle as it is. That means that no matter what electronic solutions are adopted, no matter how hard the rider pushes, he can never exceed those limits.

Therefore Elias backed down the electronics and worked to extend the motorcycle’s limits. Is a too-short wheelbase the real reason why the anti-wheelie has been choking the bike’s acceleration? Let’s stop twiddling with the anti-wheelie and instead try a longer swingarm (like those we see in World Supers).

Is the present suspension compromise hurting mechanical grip in corners, causing the front to wash just as the rider begins to turn-in? Yes, some riders want it stiff because a stiff bike maneuvers quickly. But if that stiffness makes the front skip over bumps and head for the outside rather than stay planted, rider confidence in the front evaporates. Lap times stagnate. Going a bit softer can move the compromise in the direction that improves rider confidence and allows faster corner entry.

One way to deal with abrupt power is to electronically dial it out where needed, but the power that’s lost is gone. This can cause lap times to go backward, as so many teams have discovered. Let’s pull out those dyno sheets and see if we can find some torque curves without this steep place that’s been knocking the tire loose. Now we try an engine built that way. In the back of my mind I’m hearing the words of the late, great Don Tilley; “We won a lotta races with high averaged power, but those young fellers love those big numbers.” Think about the actual problems of going fast, rather than mindlessly seeking big numbers.

Once the motorcycle’s limits have been extended in these and other ways, electronics can be applied for the job it’s actually good at; enabling the rider to operate closer to the motorcycle’s limits. Now, with more mechanical grip, manageable smoothed engine torque, and other changes, the rider’s pace can become faster.

As Ohlins technician Jon Cornwell points out, “Everybody’s on the same tires. Week after week, we’re going out on these same tires. So the job is to move around all the set-up pieces into a pattern that enables the rider and motorcycle to get the most that those tires can give.”

I thought about this as World Superbike Race One at Laguna Seca was running. Up front, the two Kawasakis seemed stable and unbothered. Right with them at first, and also on Pirelli tires were the Ducatis of Chas Davies and Davide Giugliano. To keep up, the Ducati men were having to slide and spin, pushing limits, asking the maximum from their tires. Soon they tipped over. Nicky Hayden, losing half a second per lap back in 3rd place, was on the very same B/B tire choice as the two leaders. After the race he would say he was unable to brake as he would like, and as the early tire step forced everyone to go slower (0.8-second a lap slower by lap 2!), his gearing became more and more wrong as the laps unfolded. He said this "made my engine go flat," meaning that he could no longer use its whole power curve. Same tires, but very different results.

Sure, it’s romantic to speak of “riding at ten-tenths” and to say “Ah’m gonna give ‘er a hunnert an tin percint,” but that’s just what non-finishers Davies and Giugliano did. Jon Cornwell quoted 1950s Formula One great Juan Manuel Fangio, who said, “I wish to win at the lowest possible speed.” That is what we saw Rea doing on Saturday. Yes, he made a mistake at one point, allowing his teammate to pass him, but he then re-passed and moved away to a clear win. This showed that he had been holding some pace in reserve.

Because new tires cover a lot of faults, less experienced riders like to have new rubber as often as possible. Early in his career, Ben Spies was one of these, and it took all the persuasion of Kevin Schwantz, crew chief Tom Houseworth, and the hard knocks of experience to show him that the real job of a racer is to get the maximum performance from used tires. That is why you often read in MotoGP race reports that riders are putting 30 or more laps on a single tire in practice; they are studying their own and their bikes’ behavior on used tires.

Pole position is nice but it’s not the job. The job is to win the race. Setting pole takes place on a tire with one warm-up lap on it, but 95% of race laps take place on used rubber. Which kind of experience does a rider most good?