On the Edge of Grip: A MotoGP Primer Part 1

So, you watched the crazy, wet, and wild MotoGP premiere in Qatar and now you’re hooked. Ok, let’s be honest, you aren’t hooked, but you are at the very least intrigued. Not only are you not entirely sure how the riders remain upright while they let the rear tire loose going into corners, but also… wait; did you say rain in QATAR? Yes, it happened, and the qualifying weekend was almost ruined because of it, but we’ll get more into that later.

Let’s go through a few important points that you need to know when looking at motorcycle racing for the first time, especially if you are an American and aren’t too familiar with anything outside of traditional USA Racing that rarely involves making right turns, or even turns at all.

  • MotoGP uses road courses.

If you have ever seen the Daytona 500, please realize that the iconic oval is only a small portion of the racing within that complex. Daytona also has a world class road course that goes onto the infield, and is used for premier events like the Rolex 24 Hour Endurance Race. MotoGP events take place in similar style courses that have endless variety. Some American examples are Laguna Seca (California) and Circuit of the Americas (Texas). Expect a European style setup similar to Formula One, and not Indy Car.

  • MotoGP does not use production motorcycles.

Many of us have been meandering down the highway in our large steel cage when suddenly a Japanese super sport goes blazing past weaving in and out of traffic at unconscionable speeds. Maybe you’ve also been to your local catch all motorcycle dealer and ogled at the latest and greatest models. While similarities in the platform abound, these are not the same motorcycles. The racing series that uses highly modified production motorcycles are the World Superbike Championship and the FIM. MotoGP bikes are hand made by the teams from top to bottom underneath the technical specifications laid out by the governing body. The technology developed for MotoGP is eventually used in a trickle down fashion to the consumer motorcycles that you can buy.

This is conceptually similar to Formula One with cars. Ever heard of a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS)? This was a technology developed for Formula One that would recover energy via the brakes and feed it into an electric battery. The driver would then be able to press a button on the steering wheel to drain the battery, and provide a considerable horsepower boost. This technology can now be found in hybrid supercars like the Mclaran P1 and the Porsche 918. The same thing happens with MotoGP. Rider aids have been all the rage in the past few years, and every single one of them was first developed by MotoGP for their race teams.

  • MotoGP has different divisions. Kind of.

There are 3 divisions in the Moto circuit, MotoGP is the top followed by Moto2 and Moto3. Moto2 and Moto3 are staging and development areas where riders all ride the same bikes with quintessentially the same specifications. Moto2 engines are all provided by Honda and all Moto3 riders ride modified KTM 390’s. However, that’s not what I mean by divisions. I mentioned how wildly expensive it was to maintain a MotoGP team earlier and that is evident at the top level. While there are 12 teams this year that compete on the same grid for the same points, there are different levels of competition, which are briefly laid out below:

Open: These teams are given what is known as an open platform from the constructors in order to field a semi competitive ride. The open platform tends to be the previous year’s bike from a manufacturer that the team then can privately modify to their specifications. Open bikes were introduced by MotoGP because they recognized that the cost of entry into the sport was too high and they wanted to consistently field a full grid. While open teams tend to be slower than their constructor counterparts, they are often used as intermediaries for promising young riders that may make the jump to the mainline team.

Satellite: A satellite bike is rare in 2017, but is similar in concept to an open bike. These bikes are leased (not sold) to a team by the manufacturer, and also usually involve a type of shared technology agreement between the private team and the constructor. They run into the same issues as Open bikes, but when properly managed can at the very least compete against the constructors for podium finishes.

Constructors: These are the main production houses with the largest budgets. They are sponsored directly by the motorcycle manufacturer (constructor), and have access to what literally is an endless chasm of funds for research and development. The full list of constructors for 2017 are Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha. Something that is quite common throughout all forms of racing worldwide, but not always considered, is how much the platform changes as the schedule wears on. Ducati, for example, may start with a certain direction prior to the first race, but find that they are too far off the pace. They also constantly collect intelligence on what other teams are doing, and what is working. Ducati would then modify their platform race to race in order to try and outdo the competition. Due to their enormous budgets, they tend to improve the most throughout the year. They also are the primary source for trickle down technology, which was mentioned previously.

Keeping costs down and the grid as approachable as possible has been a constant struggle for MotoGP in recent years. With the advent of advanced electronics on rides, the gap between the “divisions” widened to what many viewed as it’s widest point. To combat this, MotoGP last year instituted a shared ECU platform that is used by all teams. This year they expanded this ideal to include the software used on the ECU.

  • MotoGP does not have pit stops. Kind of.

Again with the “kind of.” When the average viewer thinks of pit stops they envision teams racing out to change tires and refuel as quickly as possible in order to have prime re-entry position. MotoGP does not do this. Instead the bike is loaded with the correct weight of fuel to complete the race, and they pray that they don’t have to come back in again.

Fuel management is a key part of race strategy, as it is very possible for the rider to run out with only a few laps to go if they aren’t paying attention. The same goes for tire management. Watching pre race interviews and speculation almost critically surrounds tire selection. How is the temperature on the grid? What is the air temperature? How did the tires wear in qualifying? Do we want mediums on the front and softs on the rear? This is the most nerve racking part of race setup. A few degrees in the wrong direction and the tires will wear too quickly which will cause at least increased lap times and at worst dangerous situations. A few degrees in the other direction means the rider won’t get the grip he needs around the corners, which also leads to increased lap times.

The only other time that bikes come back to the paddock is for rain. If conditions turn damp, riders come in and change to wet weather tires. No, tires are not changed out on the fly, there is an entirely different “wet setup” bike waiting for them to jump on in these circumstances. Wet weather riding is hazardous even for the normal person, so if conditions get too soppy, they will suspend the race. Think of it as somewhere between NASCAR (no water no way no how) and Formula One (typhoon will barely stop us yo). Take the race in Qatar as an example. It rained during qualifying, so therefore they cancelled the session and determined grid position based upon times from the last practice session. Chalk me up as someone who didn’t realize that it actually rained in Qatar.

  • Riders live on the edge.

What an overused cliché. Living on the edge! For motorcycle riders, and especially MotoGP racers, there could not be a more apt description. When someone drives their car and wants to go around a bend, they turn the wheel in that direction, and the car goes. There may be some tire deformation, depending on speed, and therefore a smaller contact patch with the road, but overall grip will remain a consistent variable relative to torque. Hopefully I didn’t lose any of you there. In motorcycling it is completely different. In order to will any bike around a corner one has to not only push the handlebar, but also lean the bike over with their weight in order to get maximum velocity. This comes at a price, and it is all about contact patches!

See when a motorcycle is straight up and perpendicular to the ground, the tires have their maximum contact with the road surface. This contact is known as a contact patch. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the larger contact patch you have, the more grip you will subsequently have. Let’s say that the contact patch at this position is the size of a grapefruit. However, since lean has to occur to most effectively go around a corner, the contact patch shrinks with greater lean angles. Therefore, at full lean, the contact patch will shrink all the way down to the size of a quarter. Let that sink in for a second. At 200 mph, the only thing keeping the rider upright and alive is a quarter sized patch of tire. Tire manufacturers have naturally caught on, and build the edges of motorcycle tires with different material to help improve grip, as well as rounding them to try and make the largest contact patch as possible. The average rider, compared to a car racer, will not only have to learn throttle control but also full control of the motorcycle depending on lean angle. You may be great at feathering the throttle in your Camaro drifting around a corner, but you’ll end up on your ass on a superbike if you use the same technique. Speaking of on your ass, my final point for this section of primer…

  • Safety has improved immensely.

Safety is always a number one concern when talking about motorcycling. All the mothers out there hold a collective breath when their son or daughter comes home and declares that they are getting their license, and shall be the next king of the road. Fear not, as motorcycle safety has come a long way just in the past few years.

First let’s talk about helmets. MotoGP riders use specially made helmets that offer the cutting edge of rider safety. They feature multiple layers between the outer shell and the head that act similar to crumple zones in a car. This allows for forces to the head and neck to be dispersed throughout the helmet, but also makes them a one time use affair. If the helmet has any type of collision, however minor, it is immediately replaced.

Next let’s talk about those fancy pants suits that makes them look so cool on the track. Suits are generally made out of kangaroo leather, due to its combined toughness and flexibility. It may seem like a play on words, but the flexibility of the leather allows them to “bounce” in the event of a crash. The second suit innovation is the use of electronic airbags. One of the most common injuries, but also one of the hardest to come back from quickly, are collarbone breaks. A rider will “highside,” which results in them flying over the handle bars and generally landing on their collarbone. In years past this would guarantee a clean break and the rider to be out for the year. Now, with electronic airbags, the suits sense an impact and inflate automatically in order to provide a cushion layer and reduce injury. It has drastically cut down on collarbone injuries in particular.

Are you thirsting for more MotoGP content? Check out part 2 of the MotoGP primer set to come out next week! Want to watch a race? The next race is May 5-7: The Spanish GP.