If there has been one topic which has dominated MotoGP so far in 2022, it is the profound lack of overtaking in the first few races. The causes have been discussed ad nauseam – ride-height devices mean riders are braking later, loading the front more, aerodynamics are creating turbulence which makes following difficult and overheats the front tire – but there is another factor which has not been touched upon so often.
"Nowadays with the problems that we have, that the front is heating and to stop the bike is hard with the wings and everything, the tracks where you have to stop and go, it's quite difficult to overtake in the braking area, you know?" Joan Mir said on Thursday. Tracks like Le Mans, or Austin, or even Jerez, with tight corners where you can sit in the slipstream and try to outbrake the rider ahead pose a problem.
"This track is completely the opposite," Mir pointed out. "You don't have to be good in the braking, you have to be good on corner speed, to find the flow, to get a good line, that's so important in this track, and that's why this track is good for overtakes, and for the show."
Flow = show
Mugello is the first of a number of tracks which are a bit more flowing, and where passing should be easier. The switchbacks, the left-right and right-left combos of Luco-Poggio Secco, Materassi-Borgo San Lorenzo, Casanova-Savelli, the long, sweeping, double-apex or multiple line corners like Arrabbiata 1 and 2, Correntaio, Bucine. These are corners where passes are made not on the brakes, but by taking different lines, carrying more speed in one part to get past and then try and block in another part.
Why is this different? Passing on the brakes has become the hardest overtake in MotoGP. Behind other riders, your front tire heats up, making braking harder. You lose the downforce from your own aero, making the front more likely to lock. Passing at a place like Mugello relies less on outright braking, and more on choosing where you will carry speed and sacrifice speed. That demands less of the tire than at a place like Le Mans.
"Nowadays it's more difficult to overtake. It's a fact," Mir explained. "We have to wait for tracks like this one to make good overtaking in the race and to make good comebacks, because if not, like I said it's quite difficult."
New rules please?
Do the rules need to be changed? "I don't know if we have to do something. But the reality is this, every year we are faster, every year we have less wheelie, every year we reach faster top speeds." That means that at some point, MotoGP will be going too fast for the tracks where the series races. "The layout of the track is the same, so the safety is the same, so if we don't stop, we will be able to reach 400 km/h like this," Mir said, snapping his fingers. "And that means either we make the tracks bigger, or one day we will have to think about it."
"Why are we are using all this? To be faster," Pol Espargaro told us, answering his own rhetorical question. "That's it, just to be faster, we want to be faster on lap time. And why do we need to be 3 seconds faster on lap time? Is there someone who is telling us, ‘You need to go on the end of the straight more than 350km/h’ or ‘you need to turn in this corner half a second faster’?"
More speed and lower lap times did nothing for the spectacle, Marc Marquez pointed out. "We keep going and keep going, every time faster, but the people watching TV, they don't realize if we are half second faster or slower," the Repsol Honda rider said. "They realize if you have overtakes like Estoril World Superbikes. If they overtake maybe, I don't know how many times in a race, 10-15, Johnny [Rea] and Toprak [Razgatlioglu]. So this is what I enjoyed from Estoril, for example, watching from my sofa."
Barrier to entry
Pol Espargaro pointed to another concern with the current state of technology. "I see an extra problem on that, in the current situation, that is there are two free spots for a new manufacturer coming. But which manufacturer is going to come now with rear devices? Aerodynamics that have the bike very low?"
Ride-height devices and aerodynamics had raised the bar for entry to MotoGP, making it harder for new manufacturers – really new manufacturers, that is, rather than KTMs rebadged as a Husqvarna or GasGas – to build a bike that can be competitive in a class where such slim margins make such a huge difference in position.
"You know how difficult it is to discover which aerodynamics packae is working, which wing in which side is working, and how the rear device is working on the front and the rear?" Espargaro asked. "How much torque you can add, how the electronics work with the changing of the aerodynamics?"
"The situation is becoming so tricky and so critical to develop a bike, that for a new manufacturer, they must be very brave to come here. With a lot of money. To spend on wind tunnels," Espargaro said. Factories would spend all this money on technologies that would not transfer to road bikes, he insisted. "If you take them off, it’s going to be just a bike. Which you are going to sell."
While Espargaro has a point, not all technology is directly applicable, but the lessons learned can still be extremely valuable. Ride-height devices help manufacturers understand bike balance and vehicle dynamics. Aerodynamic packages help factories understand how aerodynamics affect vehicle stability, performance, and how bikes with aero add ons behave at various lean angles and in different conditions. That is data which is very difficult to replicate in a static wind tunnel situation.
Espargaro was in favor of using MotoGP as a testbed for technology, and raised several examples of where the bikes have made progress. "I mean, we improved electronics which are going to save lives on crashing. Brakes, torque, power delivery. More and more smooth. Nicer. Grip on the bikes. Braking stability." But not everything transferred to street use, the Repsol Honda rider believed. "All these things they work out, but the wings, what is the effect on the street?"
Should ride-height devices and aerodynamics be banned? "Both!" Pol Espargaro argued, but others were much more nuanced.
"It's difficult," Marc Marquez said. "I mean, it's impossible to have an unanimous decision, because as always, we're in a competition and the factories that have a better engine, they don’t want top speed banned. The ones with a good aerodynamic, they want to continue with that aerodynamic. The ones that have a good holeshot system or rear device, want to continue with that device. So it's impossible to be unanimous."
A balance has to be found between the factories and Dorna, Marquez believes. "It’s for the championship and the manufacturers, but especially the championship, they need to understand the way that they want to go. If they want to go like ‘OK, more prototypes, more and more’. Or pay a bit of attention to the show, with overtakes, with group races."
Everything in moderation
Marquez saw the benefit of having a small degree of help from technology. "I agree that a minimum of aerodynamics is necessary, because we're riding really fast and it's safer. A minimum of some things in the bike is necessary. It's like traction control. Should we take it off?. No. We need traction control. We need aerodynamics, but they need to understand the way to make clear rules. Because it's difficult and maybe we need some limitations."
Changing rules could be tricky, Joan Mir agreed. "It's true that if we make it a little bit more difficult, to have to control the wheelie with the hand, to have everything a little bit more, we will see more overtakes than normal," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. But there was a risk involved in making a more spread out field, he warned. "From the other side, if they modify this and they make the bikes like before, we will also have more races like before, this is true. Like one rider breaks away, then another one, then another one. So it's true that it's more difficult to overtake, but also it's easier and everybody is more together now. So it's a balance."
Both Mir and Marquez agreed that if they had to choose one technology to keep and one to get rid of, they would keep the aero and ditch the ride-height devices. "I prefer to stay with aerodynamics and remove the devices," Joan Mir said. "If I had to choose one to lose, I would say rear device," Marquez said, before pointing out that would not necessarily automatically achieve the desire result. "But then the aerodynamics will change also. So it's a compromise," the Repsol Honda rider said.
Two sides to every story
Aerodynamics and ride-height devices also have their defenders, of course. Yamaha's Franco Morbidelli was on the side of keeping them. "I like both technologies," the Italian told us. "The rear ride-height device increases the safety. It makes the bike much more stable at 350km/h. The wings increase the safety because they keep the front down at 350km/h."
MotoGP.com expert and ex-500cc racer Simon Crafar had a chance to ride the Aprilia RS-GP around Mugello on Thursday, and he also noted the difference the wings made. The bike was more stable and planted over Mugello's tricky crest at the end of the straight, the front staying in contact with the ground. On a bike without wings, you were wrestling the front, trying to force your body over the front end to use your weight to keep the front tire connected to the asphalt.
Morbidelli did not want to lose either aero nor ride-height devices, at least not from the rear. "They’re two great devices. It would be difficult to choose one to abandon." But the front ride-height device was different, he argued. It added nothing in terms of safety. "The front was a bit funny. It wasn’t a help for safety. When you went to brake, you already had the front down, it was not increasing safety. The rear yes, the wings yes."
For Morbidelli, the issue was not ride-height devices, but the sensitivity of the front Michelin tire. "There have been some nice battles in MotoGP since the devices were on and the wings were on," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider pointed out. "I think the battle issue is more related to front tires than rear ride-height devices."
The sooner Michelin can introduce their new front tire, the better. But they can't bring a new front tire until it has been thoroughly tested. And with testing limited, the priorities of the factories are on parts for the bikes, rather than on testing tires for Michelin, as Red Bull KTM Racing crew chief Paul Trevathan pointed out on the latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast. At some point, priorities are going to have to be set. But as long as factories have their own parts to test, making a new front a priority will have to come down to Dorna.
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