The move to a standard electronics package, both hardware and software, had raised the hopes of fans, teams and organizers that a more level playing field could be established, and costs cut. The ideal sketched by Dorna and IRTA when the plan first came out has proven to be impossible to achieve. The manufacturers have resisted calls for a completely spec hardware and software package, and so a compromise has been reached. The ECU hardware and software will be built, updated and managed by official electronics supplier to MotoGP, Magneti Marelli. Factories will be free to choose their own sensors, but those sensors will have to be homologated, and made available to any other manufacturer which wishes to use it at a reasonable price.
Not quite all of the sensors, however. In response to a request by the factories, the inertial platform will remain what is called a free device, i.e. any manufacturer can choose to use whichever inertial platform they like, without first submitting it for a approval to Dorna, or making it available to their rivals at a price. The inertial platform is a crucial part of the electronics package, consisting of a collection of gyroscopes and accelerometers, which describe the attitude and motion of the bike. In other words, the inertial platform tells the ECU what lean angle the bike is at, whether it is braking or accelerating, how hard it is corner, etc.
Giving manufacturers the freedom to use their own inertial platforms has created a lot of suspicion. Because the inertial platform plays such a pivotal role, there have been accusations that some manufacturers, especially Honda and Yamaha, wish to use their proprietary units to circumvent the rules. There are good reasons to build some intelligence into inertial platforms, as such intelligence can increase accuracy, and therefore help the ECU software perform better. This is the reason the factories give for wanting their own inertial platform; experience with the spec unit used by the Open class machines has shown it to be insufficiently accurate.
But the intelligence built in to the inertial platform could go well beyond just improving accuracy. By including a powerful processor in the inertial platform, one which could be programmed by a manufacturer with their own software, and their own algorithms and strategies, the inertial platform could hypothetically be used to modify the strategies being used by the unified software in the spec ECU.
For example, the unified software may be programmed to provide a given amount of torque for a particular lean angle, say, 59°. However, if the processor in the inertial platform is powerful enough, it could be programmed to calculate where the bike is on the track. If the inertial platform knows that a particular corner has a positive camber, meaning the bike is not leaned over quite as far as the lean angle sensor is measuring, then the inertial platform could modify the output of the lean angle sensor and send the modified data to the spec ECU. The unified software would then see the lean angle as, say, 52°, and provide more torque than it might have done otherwise.
At the BSB round at Assen and at Aragon, I spoke to a number of people on how this might work. Some of the smart minds at BSB suggested the inertial platform could be used as a piggyback ECU, if it had access to the right channels, and operate the engine directly. This would allow it to circumvent the unified software in the spec ECU completely, and run the engine independently. Dorna's director of technology, Corrado Cecchinelli, denied that this was the case. "First of all, I don't think it is completely true," he told me at Aragon. "I think it may be used beyond its scope, but not as a piggyback ECU, not in the sense that it can handle everything. It will always work like an IMU (inertial measurement unit), it means that its output will always be what is expected from an IMU. So it will be used by the software in that way. Which means that it cannot be used to correct the ignition advance, to use a stupid example, because this is not an input of the strategy of the ECU." The inertial platform can only communicate with the ECU, and the ECU uses its input to decide on what to do with ignition timing, throttle opening, fuel injection, etc.
Cecchinelli did allow that having a free inertial platform could potentially allow a factory which wished to cheat to modify its output in order to achieve the desired result indirectly. "By cheating with the rules, they could have more brain inside, and that could be like a remote processor. So that it is still working like an inertial platform, which means that their inputs and their outputs are the same. They can do something different than just what is expected," he explained. "So for instance, let's take a simple task, an inertial platform is designed to give the ECU the information of the lean angle. This is one of the things that it does, and it's basically the most important thing that it does. And this lean angle is considered in almost all strategies, engine and chassis control strategies. So one thing you can do in theory, is the measured value is a certain angle, instead of giving that certain angle, which is the true angle, as the output, you can have a strategy that gives more or less, depending on something else, so that actually, the traction control, which works like all the other machines, actually has a different input, so it gives a different output. So the traction control strategy is not altered, but by giving a fake or altered input, it gives an altered output. "
In that case, the inertial platform was not a piggyback ECU, but it went beyond what it was supposed to be doing. "It's not exactly a piggyback, it's not exactly an ECU, but it adds something. It adds something that you can be the only one to have," Cecchinelli said. "Plus, there is a way of connecting it to the ECU and all the rest of the electronics that can let the inertial platform have the signal from the infamous additional sensor, which every manufacturer has, but is different from one to the other. So for instance, we know that one of the typical additional sensors is the torque sensor. So in theory, let's go back to the lean angle, you can alter the lean angle depending on the torque. This is still cheating with the rules, but it's something that I don't think we would find out."
Cecchinelli was at pains to stress that he did not suspect that the factories wanted the free inertial platform because it would allow them to cheat. "Rumors of the paddock talk about a sort of fight between us the organizer and the manufacturers on this. But I want to be clear, and I never thought, and still I don't think that the reason behind the free inertial platform is to cheat. They want to keep their own inertial platforms mainly because they trust it more than anything else. Plus maybe even developing their own one if its proprietary. For instance I think Honda has its proprietary inertial platform, so they may be happy to keep on developing it."
The fact that having an open inertial platform left the possibility of cheating open for unscrupulous factories was something which needed to be addressed, Cecchinelli acknowledged, but it was not something which he felt could be addressed quickly. "I feel it's my responsibility to remove cheating possibilities. Not because they will use them, but because it's something that's not done properly if there's room for cheating. We need to have safe rules, because this is our job. A good championship is a championship that has good rules, to me. From a technical perspective, I'm not talking about the TV show or anything like this, I'm just talking about this. And to me, you should have safe rules, even if you deal with honest people like we are at the moment."
The obvious solution to preventing abuse of the inertial platform is to either make it spec, or homologate them all. This was very much Cecchinelli's aim for the future. "There's one thing that I personally always push for, which looks to be out of the question, which is a unified inertial platform. Because our initial proposal was that the hardware was more like the Open riders now than the factory riders now. It was a mix, actually, but we accept to have a free dashboard and free switchboard. But at least the ECU and inertial platform was unified. That was not accepted," he explained.
A compromise may be possible, though it will not be adopted in 2016, and may take some time after that. "There is something in between, that is not that out of the question. I hope I can say that it's under discussion for the next years, but not for 2016. This is a different connection between all the devices so that cheating is harder, plus a homologated inertial platform, which is not unified, but it means that it's like all the other sensors, so if you are a competitor, you can buy it at a reasonable price, and you can buy the same as your competitor. This is definitely not the perfect solution, but still it's better than everything free."
Can the inertial platform be used to circumvent the spec ECU? And should fans and factories be concerned that the level playing field the unified software and spec ECU were meant to create are being subverted? After speaking to various people on the subject, it seems clear that a proprietary inertial platform can be used to give a small measure of control over the electronics strategies controlling a MotoGP machine. But it also seems clear that the advantages which it conveys are limited. In the most extreme example, a factory could create a little more grip in some corners, allowing a rider to get on the gas fractionally earlier.
The main fear, that factories could use a proprietary inertial platform to bypass the spec ECU and run the engine directly, seems to be unfounded. The current electronics package does not allow that to happen.
Of course, that won't prevent factories, and probably even teams from trying. The spirit of the rules is paid only lip service in racing, teams and factories always on the look out for loopholes they can exploit. This one looks like allowing some wiggle room, but it is not the type to allow a smart operator to drive a bus through. The cost/benefit analysis which every team and factory does will show that the benefits to be had are small, for a relatively great expense. Whether they want to cover that expense remains to be seen.
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