The weight controversy rumbles on in MotoGP, with the taller and heavier riders - most notably Marco Simoncelli - complaining about the unfair advantages that lighter riders have. Our earlier analysis suggested that if such an advantage did exist, it was hard to see it in the results the riders had obtained, despite the intuitively obvious advantage that lighter weight would appear to convey. That in itself suggested that any advantages that a smaller, lighter rider may have are offset by the disadvantages, and so at Estoril, we went in search of answers.
The obvious place to start when looking for answers as to whether lighter riders have an advantage or a disadvantage is the crew chief of the lightest rider on the grid, Mike Leitner of the Repsol Honda team, chief mechanic to Dani Pedrosa. We spent fifteen minutes at Estoril questioning him about the reality behind being a lighter rider in MotoGP, and his answers were very enlightening. Here's what Leitner had to say.
MotoMatters: There's been a lot of talk recently about rider weight and the advantages that lighter riders, with Marco Simoncelli complaining that Dani has an advantage in acceleration because he is lighter. Do you think that lighter riders have an advantage?
Mike Leitner: I think we should start by speaking generally. I think in MotoGP we are looking mainly for traction. I think that one big issue for bikes with 250 horsepower is to put the power on the ground. So for me, I would wish Dani is 15 cm taller and I would wish he is 10 kilos heavier!
These calculations are for me more car thinking, not bike thinking. I mean, in a car I agree, this is really a good thing. On a bike – I ride races myself, and I understand a little what is going on on a bike. On a bike, the thing is, going into the corner, sure you control the weight, the total weight, but the big issue is the balance.
So the guy who can sit 15, 20 cm further back, he can control the lifting of the rear tire much better than a guy whose arm limitation [with shorter arms] is there, and he cannot move further back. This is mainly the point why the bigger riders are always strong on braking. So they have also advantage.
From the moment you flick the bike into the corner I think it is quite neutral. In places where you flick from left to right to left, I think again the relationship between bike weight and rider is helping more a rider who is more powerful. Because it is like you sit a small boy on a 1000 cc street bike or you sit a man on a 1000 cc street bike. So in corners where you just flick one time, I think it is not a big difference. But really changing high speed directions...
MM: For example the chicane here at Estoril?
ML: No, this place they can handle maybe, because the speed is not so high. But places where you have to change direction in fourth or fifth gear, other places like Assen and Mugello I think there is no help for a smaller rider. This is clear for me.
And anyway this discussion is for nothing, because people are like they are. I mean, if I want to be a tennis player, nobody in tennis says we must now make a shorter racket for the 1.80 or 1.90 cm people because the one with 1.60 cm has no chance in our sport any more, or move the net or that kind of thing.
You have positive and negative points. Sure the guy always see the positive points on the other. That is what I think. The negative, he never sees his own positive points.
MM: As we say in English, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence...
ML: Exactly! I mean, from the first moment of traction, and controlling the spinning, it's different. I read a comment from Casey, who said it clearly, that Dani will have no advantage there. Sure, he is lighter, but if you cannot put the tire on the ground and it is spinning, it is not the same drive. After that, when you are getting up to speed, in fourth, fifth, sixth, then maybe. It is the point where I see he has an advantage.
MM: Wilco Zeelenberg said that people are complaining now if Dani has 10 kilos extra ballast to carry, they would complain because he would be at advantage because he would put the weight on the back to get the traction.
ML: Yes, yes. You can take away the glory of everybody, you know what I mean? I mean, Valentino Rossi won so many races, so now I can say yes of course, Valentino won because his body size fit the 500 and the MotoGP bikes so much better, and that's why, he was so well balanced and he was the best guy, Biaggi had so much of a handicap [because he was smaller]. In the end, people are like they are, and they have, let's say, they have to fight against these bikes. And these bikes, there is a set of rules and this is the bike. And everything you put in or out, change on the bike, is just making it more efficient.
MM: What do you have to do to Dani's bike to get rear traction? Are you shifting more weight further backward than you would?
ML: The thing is a small rider has a limitation of moving on the bike. It is not only his weight or his size, it is the movement he can do, that is the big thing. So, you have, I mean, you can use your arm length to move forward and backward, and say you have 10-15 cm shorter arms you move less for that, you have less length to move your weight on the bike.
And this is why small riders are always very, very sensitive to every small change on the bike. Looking at Dani's bike balance, I worked with other riders, also in 250, they were much less sensitive, you know? You change let's say preload on the bike or you change positions on the bike, and others really didn't feel it. For Dani, sometimes very small changes, just one click could have an unbelievable effect.
In the beginning you don't believe it. You think it is not possible, but the reality is, it's not because he is such a sensitive rider, it's the weight. I mean the same problems we also had with Kato. He was a brilliant 250 rider, the bike and him, the relationship between weight and him meant he was less sensitive to changes. But you go to 500s and this relationship changes, the ratio between rider and bike changes so much. So I think this is one big point. And Dani is similar. It's not because he's such a sensitive rider, no, it is because he cannot do the same things that other riders can do.
MM: So a single change can make a huge difference because he can't compensate for it by moving his body
ML: Yes. I mean, other riders also feel the changes, but a little less, they can compensate more. The thing is, in all his years of riding, you never hear Dani complaining, "I'm so small, I have so much trouble controlling the bike under braking..." So I get tired already of reading all these things and from all those clever people outside talking about it. I just say "pffft" [shrugs shoulders].
MM: I heard that he also has problems with the rear shock because it's so difficult for him to get movement in the shock.
ML: Of course! But, a problem? You can call it a problem, or you can call it different. You have to set up a bike for Dani differently than you would for Marco Simoncelli, or for Valentino Rossi. But I don't say, they don't have problems. I don't say this. They have problems also. But other problems. They just have problems at other points.
But in the end, when you look at the lap times, the top riders are within 2-3 tenths of each other most of the time. So with all the problems of everybody, in the end, it must be a balance.
MM: Will the 1000cc bikes next year make any difference? Was there any difference between the 990s and the 800s?
ML: I mean, the first year, Dani did well. So, I don't know right now. I really don't know. But I mean we have the four top riders and we have some more coming up, we have to see if they can make the final step, but to work with each of them is anyway a challenge, but you have to work with everybody on their weakest points, on their handicaps. And sure, Valentino will sometimes say "f***, when I'm behind Dani, he accelerates so fast I cannot follow him. But on braking I'm strong." Sure, some riders will think "Ah, I'm a stronger braker." Maybe they are also, but it is also in part because of their physique. These things happen. One person is like this, another one like that ...
MM: Does that make motorcycle racing more interesting for you, because the rider is a bigger part of the equation?
ML: I mean, in a car, you put six kilos less and you know you are faster. Because they are static, fixed in the car, you don't move from left to right. It's just the weight you accelerate and the weight you stop. You don't move your body to the front or rear, to left or right. It's just, you are in the car, you are a passenger. With the bike, you are not a passenger. You are really an actor. Again, bike and rider is one piece.
MM: Coming back to setup, there's nothing specific you do for Dani, you just have to set the bike up around ...
ML: Him! [Laughs] That's what we do! And I think Mr Burgess will set up the bike around Valentino. And the others will do the same, Ramon [Forcada] for Lorenzo, and so on. I mean, that's our job. Sure, I think the way we do that is sometimes quite a lot different. But finally, all are very difficult to beat and all are competitive.