MotoGP is the world's premier class of motorcycle racing. GP stands for Grand Prix, or "grand prize," which more or less says it all. On any given Sunday, the guy standing on the top of the MotoGP podium is the best sportbike rider in the world.
It's just as prestigious for those who make the machines they ride. Manufacturers spend millions creating custom, prototype motorcycles that bear little resemblance to what you see on the street. For years, it was a matter of best engine, best chassis and best suspension. Now, there's another, equally important factor at play: electronics.
A modern MotoGP bike is riddled with technology, and for the 2014 season, Honda has absolutely dominated the class. But it's taken a herculean effort, pulling in engineering resources from all corners of its corporate empire to create a two-wheeled rocket, launching rider Marc Marquez to victory again and again. Even ASIMO, the little white robot who is hardly known for his speed, would lend some support.
Earlier this year, I visited the factory Repsol Honda MotoGP team at Indianapolis, the most historic race track in the world, to get a better look at how it all comes together.
MotoGP machines are two-wheeled miracles, hand-crafted of exotic materials. Carbon-fiber bodywork and chassis, magnesium wheels and high-strung 1,000cc engines delivering upwards of 240 horsepower. Bikes must weigh just 350 pounds to pass inspection, giving them an outrageous power-to-weight ratio. The 0-to-60 sprint would happen in somewhere around two seconds, and the bikes pull eagerly past 215 mph.
To put that in perspective, consider the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. That car puts out a ridiculous 707 horsepower from its supercharged Hemi V-8 and weighs just under 4,500 pounds. Given that mass, to match the acceleration of a MotoGP bike the Challenger would need roughly 3,100 horsepower. And much bigger tires.
With that kind of power, the car would be a heck of a lot of fun, but almost completely undrivable. But then, for most mere mortals, MotoGP bikes are all but unridable. That's by design -- at least in part. These bikes are augmented with an extensive electronics package that help to tame them, filling in any gaps in human ability.
Traction control plays the biggest part. Put simply, this prevents the rear wheel, driven by the engine, from spinning up faster than it should and causing a crash. That may sound like a relatively trivial task, but in the world of motorcycle racing, nothing's easy.
To turn a motorcycle at speed, you need to lean it over. And, indeed, MotoGP bikes can lean over really far, up to 64 degrees -- enough for many riders to not only drag a knee through the corner, but also an elbow and sometimes even a shoulder. When the bike tilts onto its side, the shape of the tire changes. Its effective diameter decreases, shortening the gearing and forcing the engine to spin faster.
The tire's contact patch, the tiny piece of rubber that's actually touching the ground, changes as well based on lean angle, and so MotoGP traction control needs to factor in the angle of the bike in addition to its speed, tire type and dozens of other factors. These settings don't just change from one track to the next, they change corner by corner, sometimes dozens of times per lap.
Takeo Yokoyama, Technical Director for the factory Repsol Honda team, explained it to me: "Each corner has what we call a slip target. For example, when we have a big angle, what we call cant on the corner, you can go more. You can open the throttle more." Basically, if the pavement slopes toward the inside of the corner, there's more grip available. "Also, the track surface is different corner by corner, especially here in the oval and the infield, it's a completely different friction coefficient, so you must have totally different settings."
Because the bike can take care of itself like this, Yokoyama says, engineers actually design its chassis differently. "If you don't have traction control, the bike must absorb a big slide. But, if you're sure that the bike wouldn't have this behavior, because of the sophisticated control, then you can make the chassis more on the flexible side, so that the bike can turn better, and the rider can feel more confidence from the tire."
Electronics also impact the makeup of the team itself. Livio Suppo, Team Principal, has been in the sport for decades and watched the progression. "In 2002, 2003, electronics were debuted, and usually one electronic guy per rider was enough. Now the whole factory team has two electronics guy per rider, plus the chief engineer. Plus we have a few more people in the background. So, yeah, sure, it's changed a lot."
And then there's the team of engineers back in Japan, at Honda Racing Corporation HQ, who are analyzing data and providing feedback between sessions. With four riders across multiple teams, it's a huge amount of data to transmit. Yokoyama wouldn't tell me how much, but he did tell me this: "After Sunday race, of course we try to send the data. Sometimes it takes maybe five or six hours." That's a lot of data from one 45-minute race.
The factory Repsol Honda team fields two riders. One is the veteran, 29-year-old Dani Pedrosa, who joined the MotoGP field in 2006. He's been racing with Honda for the entire duration of his MotoGP career. The other is the new kid, 21-year-old Marc Marquez. He joined Repsol Honda MotoGP in 2013 and, in his rookie season, beat the best to win the World Championship.
Spaniards both, the two riders are tiny, like jockeys, taking advantage of MotoGP rules that specify a minimum weight for the bike, but not for the rider and bike together. Pedrosa is just 5 foot, 2 inches tall and weighs only 112 pounds. Marquez stands slightly taller at 5 foot, 6 inches and weighs 130 pounds.
The race at Indianapolis was the tenth stop of the 2014 season, and prior to that weekend Marquez had won every single race. He was looking unbeatable. "This is getting embarrassing for the rest of us," said Cal Cruchlow, a British rider for the Italian Ducati team. "We call him 'the cat', because he always lands on his feet."
Indeed, Marquez has an innate ability to get out of trouble. Many times throughout the season he looked certain to crash, but with a push of a knee into the asphalt, a flick of an elbow and always a twist of the right wrist, he'd stand the bike up again and keep on going.
This sort of thing requires an incredible amount of skill, but it also requires a bike with a perfect setup and predictable handling. To get everything right, the rider must trust his team. So, too, must the team trust the rider.
Livio Suppo: "Top riders, they usually know very well what is going on. They don't need an excuse." However, when things aren't going so well, that trust can turn to paranoia. "The rider needs to have a big ego otherwise he cannot do his job, so if a rider is not fastest it is because the bike is not set up, the bike is not good enough, the technician is wrong. So if they start thinking 'Marc is better than me,' well, they'd better stay home." Suppo pauses for a moment. "So, can you imagine what everybody is thinking this season?"
Beyond the confidence question, it's also a matter of learning curve. Dani Pedrosa has had the benefit of working that curve for the duration of his career. "When you don't have enough experience it's hard to know when a problem comes out of the chassis, an engine, a tire or electronics. So until you get enough experience to understand where a problem is coming, then yes, it's difficult. But, once you get going and you know, and you can feel the difference, it's more simple."
The ASIMO connection
So how, then, does a two-wheeled racing machine relate to a two-legged walking contraption? For that I turned to Masanori Takahashi, Chief Electric Engineer of Honda Racing Corporation in Japan. He was chosen to work with Honda's ASIMO division to tackle one challenge: make the bike more self-aware.
Specifically, the bike needed to be better at determining its inclination. Remember how the traction control and electronics must know the bike's exact position relative to the ground? Takahashi and his team needed to improve that accuracy, and that's where their little buddy entered the picture
"We have applied ASIMO's inclination estimation technology to the MotoGP motorcycle... The required information to estimate the inclination is basically same," says Takahashi. However, where ASIMO needs this data to keep from falling on his facemask, on the bike it modulates the engine's output. "We don't directly control the posture of MotoGP motorcycle. We control the engine power to prevent over-slip, and as a result the deviations of the pitch and roll are reduced."
That may seem like an ordinary task, but remember that any sensor mounted on a MotoGP bike must necessarily be within a foot or so of a race engine engine spinning at 14,000 RPM. "The biggest advantage of this technology is the high precision and high responsibility of the estimation of the pitch and roll angle of the MotoGP machine under hard conditions with heavy centrifugal force and vibration."
In other words, what works for ASIMO stomping around onstage is equally at home screaming around The Brickyard at over 200 mph.
Going into Sunday's race at Indianapolis, things were looking good for Marquez. He was sitting in pole position after setting down the fastest time in qualifying. But it was the competition from Yamaha that would jump into an early lead, former World Champions Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi dicing for victory. Their fight would slow them down, opening the door for Marquez, who passed both and finished nearly two seconds ahead, his tenth successive victory for the 2014 season. Teammate Pedrosa would come home fourth.
But Pedrosa would be be victorious at the next race in the Czech Republic, making him the one to finally draw Marquez's winning streak to a close. No bother. Marquez would go on to clinch enough points to win the 2014 World Championship, making him officially the best rider in the world. Obviously the Honda package -- engine, chassis, suspension and ASIMO-sourced electronics -- is in top form as well
But what about the next step? Might see ASIMO himself straddling the Honda RC213V and entering a race some day? "That," says Chief Electric Engineer Masanori Takahashi, "is beyond the realm of possibility."