What is the difference between winning in Moto3 and finishing at the back? The glib answer is "about 50 seconds", but there must be an explanation for that gap. It is a question which many have pondered, and to which there are few easy answers. Clearly, there is a difference in equipment, level of ability, and the ability of the team to get the set up right. But is there anything we can identify directly?
The one factor which we might be able to see in the lap times is the effect of hard work. Motorcycle racing is (paradoxically) a physically demanding sport, and physical fitness is one factor which a rider has in their own hands. Training, and dedication to training, could be a factor which makes a difference. It may not be the difference between first and last, but it could well be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing at the very tail end of the field.
If fitness is a significant factor, then it should be visible in the lap times. As the race goes on, the less fit riders should get slower, while the fitter riders manage to maintain the same pace. That should be most clearly visible between the riders who finish at the front, and the riders who finish at the back. (For a fuller explanation of this hypothesis, see below.)
This is not an idea I came up with on my own. Motorcycle racers are obsessed with fitness and hard work, though some work harder than others. In various conversations with riders and team staff, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, the issue of fitness was one which cropped up surprisingly often. Managers and engineers would frequently criticize riders who they felt were not doing enough to work on their fitness. Clearly, they believe it is a factor.
To test this hypothesis, that fitness is one factor which distinguishes successful racers from less successful racers, I decided to analyze the data from the lap times. I looked at Moto3, as it is the entry into Grand Prix racing, where the differences between successful and less successful racers is biggest. A rider who is successful in Moto3 has much more chance of being successful in MotoGP than a rider who fails in Moto3. Failure in Moto3 is often the end of a rider's career as a professional motorcycle racer.
The differences should be most visible between the most successful and the least successful riders. So to test that, I took the average lap times (excluding the first and last laps) of the first three riders, and compared them against the times of the riders finishing in 25th, 26th and 27th place. If more successful riders are fitter, then the gap between the riders on the podium and the riders near the end should grow as the race goes on. For a fuller explanation of the methodology used, see below.
So what did we find? Well, there does some to be a correlation between success and fitness, though the effect is small. The gap between the fastest riders and the slowest riders does grow in the second half of the race. Though the actual difference per lap tends to vary, the trend is upwards. In the first half of the race, the slower riders are, on average, just under 1.6 seconds slower per lap than the front runners. By the end of the race, the gap has risen to just over 1.8 seconds.
Subdivide the seventeen laps for which we have data into groups of four, then a similar pattern emerges, with the slow riders just 1.534 slower than the fast group in the first part of the race, but the gap growing to 1.770 in the last part of the race, before the final lap. Disregard the penultimate lap, when the front group are likely to be jockeying for position to start the final lap, and the gap is even larger, up to 1.820. The difference in lap times between the fast and the slow riders has grown by 13.9%, or 16.8% if you disregard the penultimate lap. In terms of total lap time, that difference is less significant: just under, or just over, a quarter of one percent of the total lap time. But when riders and teams are constantly chasing fractions of a second improvement, between two and three tenths of a second a lap is a major step forward.
|Lap groups||Average difference|
The difference in fitness is also suggested by how consistent the pace is of the two groups. If we look at the standard deviation of lap times – roughly speaking, the average amount by which the lap times vary – the faster riders are a little more consistent than the slower riders, though the difference is not large. For the front three riders, the standard deviation is 0.355 seconds, while for the slower group, it is 0.374. Remove an anomalous race at Indianapolis, where the comparison is between a tightly fought battle among a large group versus three riders lapping on their own, and the difference is a little larger. Variance for the front three is 0.324 seconds, for the slow group 0.366. (Eliminating Indianapolis exposes one weakness of the methodology. For a fuller discussion, see below).
|Standard deviation of lap times, per race and average|
The bad news is that this improvement alone would not make much difference in terms of points. If our hypothesis is correct, and the slower riders were able to more consistently maintain their pace if they were fitter, then the gain would only be around 3 seconds over the course of the second half of the race. Only in a few cases would that gain the rider places, and never would that have put them into the top 20, let alone into the points.
This, then, is very much the point. Better fitness appears to improve a rider's results towards the end of a race. However, even including the improvement, the gap is still large. Over an average lap time of 1'50.1 for the two groups combined, the slower group is on average 1.699 seconds a lap slower. From the data we have been able to analyze, differences in fitness probably only account for a few tenths of a second per lap, towards the end of the race. That still leaves 50+ seconds to be made up over the course of the entire race, or 30+ to be able to score points. Where that improvement could come from, the data does not show.
Was this exercise, of comparing average lap times between the front group and the slower riders, worth the effort? In a fitting twist of irony, only just. It appears that for young riders in Moto3, improving fitness can offer a small benefit in the latter part of the race. It will not turn a slow rider into a champion, but it might be the difference between hanging on to your ride and having to persuade another team to give you a chance.
So should young Moto3 riders redouble their efforts to improve their fitness? On balance the answer has to be yes. While the directly quantifiable gains may be limited, it will remove one variable from what is already an immensely complex equation. And that could be where the biggest gains are to be made. Without doubts over their fitness, riders can face the race with a little more confidence. While fitness may be worth only a second or two at the very end of the race, additional confidence can be worth many tenths of a second each lap. Motorcycle racing may be a very physically demanding sport, but at the very highest level, 90% of the difference is made by the riders mental attitude. In racing, the head is more important than the heart.
Fitness is a significant factor in the success of a motorcycle racer. Successful riders are fitter than less successful riders. Fitter riders' lap times will be more consistent than less fit riders' lap times. That means that the difference in lap times between fitter and less fit riders should increase as the race goes on. If successful riders are fitter than less successful riders, then that should be visible as an increase in the difference in lap times between the two groups as the race progresses.
In other words, the riders who finish at the back should get slower more quickly than the riders who finish first.
Using the official timesheets from the MotoGP.com website, we compared the times set on each lap by the riders finishing in 1st, 2nd and 3rd against the riders finishing 25th, 26th and 27th. There were six races where 27 or more riders finished: Jerez, Barcelona, Indianapolis, Brno, Misano and Valencia.
Lap times compared were from the second lap to the penultimate lap. First and last laps were discarded as possibly anomalous: the first lap includes the start from a standstill, the last lap may include some form of celebration.
Lap times where a rider clearly ran off (ie. lap times which were several seconds longer than average) were discarded, and replaced with the average of a rider's other laps in a particular race. We did this for just three laps in all of the data: for Eric Granado, lap 7 at Brno; for Jules Danilo, lap 8 at Misano; and for Bryan Schouten, lap 15 at Indianapolis.
For the overall average, the 17 of the last 18 laps of all 6 races were used. The last lap was excluded in each case. The difference between a 2'09 lap at Brno and a 1'40 at Valencia means that race lengths are different for each race. As the difference I was looking for should be visible in the last laps, the latter part of the race should provide sufficient data. Riders are unlikely to tire much in the first five laps, but should get tired between lap 9 and lap 19, or lap 12 and lap 23.
Drawing conclusions from (relatively) little data is dangerous. Although we have lap times from six riders in six races, that is still a limited data set.
It is impossible to rule out other factors, such as set up. One factor, in particular could have a major impact on the difference between the front runners and the riders at the rear: in 2014, Moto3 races tended to be decided on the very last lap among a large group of riders. Of the six races examined, four saw the podium decided from among a group of six or more riders, with only Barcelona and Misano seeing a real gap created at the front. For the riders in 25th to 27th, riders were largely either riding on their own, or in much smaller groups. The battles which happen inside these close groups likely have an effect on lap time consistency.
|Average difference between riders 1-3, 25-27 per lap|