Many subtle variations exist in how to get motorcycles around corners quickly, but as straight-talking MotoGP rider Cal Crutchlow has observed, at the limit they all seem to add up to similar outcomes. No one style has driven all others out of use.

What is the desired outcome? Some riders are very fast going into the corner (this includes the specialty known as “king of the late brakers”), some are very fast at the apex (Jorge Lorenzo), and some lift early and accelerate (Dani Pedrosa). But all are seeking the same outcome: Maximum exit speed that will get them to the next corner first. Racing is not about style points; it’s about getting there first.

Another difference is whether the rider in question is racing the track (Doug Chandler or the late Calvin Rayborn) or whether the rider’s style is especially adapted for racing others. Riders racing the track usually take a “great circle” route, entering on the outside, grazing the inside at the apex, then accelerating to exit high. Gary Nixon liked a gearbox with lower bottom ratios, allowing him to arrive at the corner apex just as his great-circle opponent did. Since two solid objects usually cannot occupy the same space at the same time, this forced the opponent to lift. But going at great-circle speed—fast at the apex—lifting meant either slowing or running off the track. Crafty old Gary was pleased either way and with the help of his lower gearing had soon recovered a high exit speed. In its time, this maneuver was called “the stuff,” as in, “He stuffed him.”

I once worked with a king of the late brakers, and racing provides a steady supply of fresh ones to watch. In club racing, as a girlfriend of years ago once observed, "There are one or two guys actually racing, and the rest of them are just there for the beer." What this means is that an ambitious beginner can get the impression that everyone can be outbraked. But when the ambitious one advances to a higher level, a fresh question arises: What if the opponent is already entering the corner about as fast as it can be done? To outbrake such a competent rider, you need to enter enough faster to pass. But that leaves you carrying speed too high to make the corner. You have, in effect, outbraked yourself because now your options are the usual ones: slow down or lift and run off.

Valentino Rossi  leading
Fast at the apex: Yamaha YZR-M1-mounted Valentino Rossi leads the Suzuki GSX-RR of eventual Grand Prix of The Americas race winner Álex Rins at Circuit of The Americas.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

I watched a persistent John Kocinski try this on Kork Ballington, three laps in a row in the same corner. Here comes Kocinski, entering fast enough to pass. Oops, oops, his extra speed is carrying him wide. And now Ballington obligingly cuts under him and easily repasses, exiting at a higher speed because his bike is not all out of shape from trying to dump speed midcorner. Finally, on the third try, Ballington raised his left hand in silent salute to such determination in the face of adverse physics.

Last season, we saw the same in Marc Márquez’s last-lap hot attempts to get past Andrea Dovizioso’s fast-accelerating Ducati. I call this balked attempt to pass a “crossover.” Being a late braker forces a rider to investigate his machine’s degree of braking stability.

Motorcycle instability has three modes:

  1. Overturn mode: This is the one we all battled when learning to ride a bicycle.

  2. Wobble mode: This is rapid side-to-side flutter of the front wheel, most likely at around 40 mph. It becomes well-damped at higher speeds.

  3. Weave mode: This is a slower side-to-side swing of the rear wheel (two to three cycles per second). Its damping decreases at higher speed.

Braking instability is partly caused by deceleration taking weight off the rear tire. Since stability depends on the damping effect of tire rubber in the footprints, any time one or both footprints are unloaded, there is the possibility of instability. Another part of braking instability is probably encouraged by chassis flex.

There you are, braking late and hard to not only pass the opponent but also arrive in the corner with a speed low enough to make it around. But maximum braking has excited directional instability as the “platform” from which to launch your attempt to get around the corner. How do you get your chassis from wiggling to stable turning?

Perfecting this tough set of choices has been Márquez in the past couple of seasons. With less acceleration than he’d like, he made up the time lost by braking very late and hard. To make this possible, Honda built him chassis stiff enough to shrug off braking instability. Instead of dragsters, they were “brakesters.” But as Crutchlow noted a year ago, such a stiff chassis is rubbish at corner speed. It lacks the lateral flex to make its tires track well over irregular pavement. The result is what Wayne Rainey in 1993 described as “chatter, hop, and skating,” all of which make your bicycle more likely to lose its grip and dump you on the ground as you try to muscle it into a turn.

Okay, so much for people trying to get into the corner very fast. Now, on to the fast-at-the-apex riders, the corner-speed people. Because such riders must be right on the limit of tire grip all the way around the corner, they must be gentle in their transitions, from braking to turning, from turning to accelerating. No rushing up to the corner on the front wheel, with rear wheel hectically wagging 3 inches off the tar, then plopping it down in a turning attitude. For this reason, such riders can look deceptively slow; they aren’t doing anything dramatic. Yet when track condition and tire choices are favorable, Lorenzo has glided away from helpless opponents.

These elements of style are not separate and distinct. Riders combine them in various proportions so that style is more of a continuum than it is a set of separate categories.

I once had the privilege of hearing Kenny Roberts hold forth against corner speed as a riding tactic. Since you are already going as fast as tire grip will let you, any drop in grip and you are down. This is the excessive-risk argument. For the same reason, you are unable to accelerate. Years later, Mick Doohan would say that corner speed is the fastest way around while tire condition permits, but that when rubber fades, the simple need to finish forces the rider to a more “pointed” line, to brake late and hard to a lower apex speed that permits getting turned early (this zone of rapid turning is the “point”), then to lift and accelerate, using what’s left of the corner as a curving dragstrip. If the bike slips and grips, you can control it with throttle. Dirt-trackers do the same: When conditions are good, wheels-in-line turning can work, but later in the evening as the track surface breaks up, point-and-shoot becomes the safer option.

These elements of style are not separate and distinct. Riders combine them in various proportions so that style is more of a continuum than it is a set of separate categories. But all the same, it is delightful to get a glimmer of what riders are actually doing.

Cal Crutchlow
Riding “its” way: Cal Crutchlow lifts his LCR Honda at COTA for maximum acceleration, a style, if not pioneered, perfected by 31-time MotoGP race winner Dani Pedrosa.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

In general, motorcycles that lack strong acceleration beg to be ridden in corner-speed style. It’s very simple: If you lack the power to quickly regain speed (as was the case the past two years for Tom Sykes on the “deregulated” World Superbike-spec Kawasaki ZX-10RR), then it’s best not to lose too much of it in corners. This is why really low-powered bikes such as 125s and 250s are ridden the corner-speed way, and is why Freddie Spencer in 1982–’83 rode the three-cylinder Honda NS500 that way (on a grid of 135-hp bikes, the Honda began at 108 hp and checked out at 128). Honda engineers measured corner apex speeds of 125s and 250s as 10–15 mph greater than those of 500s.

The corner-speed bike is built with lateral chassis flexibility to keep its tires at peak grip all through the corner, and it’s long and low with stable steering geometry.

Yet as we have seen over and over, it is very difficult for a rider of one style to get good results on a bike built for the other style. Valentino Rossi was famously unable to get to grips with the Ducati. Lorenzo did reshape his corner-speed riding enough to win on the Ducati, but it took him so long to do it that the relationship dissolved. Crutchlow tried to ride the corner-speed Yamaha in his own Superbike-derived point-and-shoot style, but, “It wouldn’t do it. I had to learn to ride its way.”

Riding styles are built into the bikes they ride; you can’t convert one into the other style by twisting the clickers and setting altered ride heights. The corner-speed bike is built with lateral chassis flexibility to keep its tires at peak grip all through the corner, and it’s long and low with stable steering geometry. Hard braking is limited on such bikes by their slower weight transfer; on a lower bike, tires tend to lock rather than grip. The point-and-shooter is built taller for immediate weight transfer and is stiffer to boost braking stability.

Espargaro
Corner speed? Strong acceleration? King of the late brakers? How will the factory KTM evolve in the coming months? Pol Espargaro (44) was eighth at COTA, top RC16.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

On corner exit, riders may look smooth, increasing acceleration as they lift the bike by degrees. But what if the engine’s powerband isn’t smooth enough for all that ballet? What if it is a 500cc two-stroke that can’t give less than 30 percent of its torque? You turn the grip and get nothing, nothing, wham! To cope, you have to choose a point in your corner exit at which to suddenly lift the bike onto enough tire to accept the smallest torque its engine can give. Here, remember that Rob Muzzy famously observed, “The harder you tune on a four-stroke, the more it acts like a two-stroke.” This is mostly what today’s electronic rider aids are for, to smooth the torque of engines tuned to an unsmooth degree. Loris Capirossi, when he raced the Suzuki GSV-R four-stroke V-4, told me, “That bike, if you switch off the electronics, is unrideable. Worse than a 500.”

We still see that sudden lift-and-accelerate maneuver today. Balletic grace it doesn’t have, but it works. Sixty-three years ago, John Surtees, just hired to ride the MV Agusta 500cc inline-four, found the very same. Try to be smooth? Try to feed power gradually as you lift by degrees? No good! It just spins and heads for the outside. What worked was to push the bike up while himself staying low on the inside, giving the tire enough footprint to grip and go. In recent times, Pedrosa has been the clearest exponent of lift and accelerate, but we saw Doohan doing it on the Honda NSR500 in his championship years.

Some riders know exactly what they are doing and will describe it. Others operate differently. Eddie Lawson told me, “The more I think about riding, the slower I go.” If you want to know more, watch the action, be patient, and think about what you are seeing.