Ilmor's Terminal Decline, A Study

The medical profession has thrown up many colorful and memorable phrases. One such is "the bed nearest the door", which is said to be where nursing staff would put the patients they considered most likely to die during the night, so they could be removed without bothering the other patients when they did finally pass away. Now, the phrase has come to be used for anyone or anything about to expire. And in MotoGP, the bed nearest the door is currently occupied by the Ilmor GP project.

Once the shining hope of new life in the MotoGP paddock, the Ilmor GP bike is now very near to being pronounced officially dead. Two unrelated sources have confirmed to this website that most of the people involved in the Ilmor GP project are currently looking for work. Sources in the paddock have told us that all of Ilmor's MotoGP race mechanics will be laid off, while another source close to Ilmor's Northamptonshire base has said that most of the engineers working on the project inside the company are also looking for work. When contacted, Ilmor denied that anyone had been laid off, either inside the MotoGP team or on the Ilmor GP project at the factory in Brixworth. They did confirm that the race team have been told that they will be paid until the end of April, at which point it will be clear whether Ilmor can continue to race for the rest of the year.

Everyone, both inside and outside Ilmor, was shocked and upset by the news that Ilmor was withdrawing from MotoGP. Ilmor's arrival thrilled MotoGP followers; the prospect of a proven and respected engineering genius shaking up the established order, then going on to supply engines to a host of privateer teams was a breath of fresh air, and looked like offering a cheap - in MotoGP terms - route into the series for small teams with limited resources, and could have heralded a return to the full grids of the 1980s. Hopes were raised even more when Mario Illien said that Ilmor would not be repeating the mistakes which the other Formula 1 entrants into MotoGP had made, such as Cosworth and Barnard.

And inside Ilmor, the project was a big favorite with the engineering staff: There's nothing an engineer loves more than a new and interesting challenge, and this looked like being the biggest and most exciting challenge Ilmor had seen for several years. Engineers were queuing up to work the project, such was the interest generated, but now that the project's demise seems imminent, those engineers are spending their time hawking their resumes around the many automotive racing companies which, like Ilmor, are situated inside England's F1 belt.

So why are this once highly-motivated people looking for work? Well, the feeling is that if you develop a bike to go racing, it is shameful to pull out after just a couple of races. You either race it for the full season, or you shouldn't be wasting everybody's time. And blaming the whole situation on unexpected sponsorship problems is regarded as a very poor excuse. Considering the current sponsorship situation in MotoGP, it really should come as no surprise that sponsors are not lining up to finance an unproven team that ran a couple of races as absolute backmarkers. With a season of racing under their belts, showing steady improvement, finding people willing to invest in the Ilmor project would have been a whole lot easier.

Perhaps the worst part of the entire debacle is that once again, after Cosworth with the Aprilia, and John Barnard at Team KR, Formula 1 engineering has failed to produce a successful racing motorcycle. Several brilliant engineers with years of proven experience at winning at what is considered to be the very pinnacle of motorized sports have failed, publicly and spectacularly, to make a mark in MotoGP. The fear is that this failure will discourage other people dissatisfied with Formula 1 from moving into MotoGP. And as Formula 1 moves ever closer to becoming a spec class, with engines, engine management systems, tires and many other aspects of vehicle design being legislated into conformity, you have to believe that the temptation to get involved in a pure and mostly unregulated prototype class must be getting greater and greater.

So why is it that Formula 1 engineers fail so consistently to create a competitive motorcycle? Well, that question is best answered with another question, one which the Ilmor engineers reportedly asked of their riders while developing the bike: When discussing the X3's engine behavior through corners, they asked the riders "why can't you just hold the throttle steady at 15,000 RPM?"

The answer is, of course, that it is immensely difficult to balance a racing motorcycle at maximum lean through a corner while holding the bike at high revs and in the segment of the torque curve where the power is building most strongly. High revs mean engine internals such as crankshaft, generator and camshafts are all generating relatively large amounts of gyroscopic force, making getting the bike to change direction is very difficult. And keeping the bike close to the peak torque and power while leaned over demands a huge amount of the tires, using up all of the edge grip on offer, with nothing to spare. Then, of course, you are forced to change gear while you are close to maximum lean, unsettling the already precarious balance of the bike.

The way that the motorcycle manufacturers build racing engines is to try to maximize top end power , while maintaining a nice broad, flat torque curve. Current MotoGP engines could easily produce around 300 bhp/liter, but this would leave them immensely peaky, and with very narrow power bands, and torque curves looking more like the Rocky Mountains than the Great Plains. Formula 1 cars get around this limitation by using lots of sophisticated electronics to smooth the power band out, and stop the cars from sliding out sideways while going through corners at very high revs. But cars have much wider tires and a good deal more grip through corners, and having the stability of four wheels, are much less unsettled by gear changes halfway through turns. A gear change on a motorcycle generates a complex interaction of forces, from the weight displacement caused by something as simple as moving a foot to engage the gear lever, through the change in suspension compression as the torque changes caused by a different gear are propagated through the chain, to the different loads placed on the edge of a tire by a different torque level and a different gear ratio.

So generally, a racing motorcycle will have usable torque between 10,000 and 17,000 rpm, allowing a rider to select the right gear, ride much of the way through a corner, and only get into the hairy part of the power band and the movement-inducing gear change once the bike is closer to being vertical. Round difficult sections, you will often hear riders short-shifting, changing gear well before the engine hits the power band, in order to retain more control over the bike as it powers through the turn.

Seen in that light, any request to "keep the engine at 15,000 rpm" displays a distinct lack of understanding of motorcycle dynamics, and especially of rider feel. When Aprilia first joined MotoGP, the bike was the most powerful machine in the paddock, the Cosworth-build engine pumping out huge power figures. But because its powerband was so brutal, the Aprilia RS Cube was also the most unrideable. The power came in so abruptly that the Aprilia riders had to wait for a very long time before they could open the throttle coming out of turns, by which time the other bikes were all halfway down the straight, and had left the RS Cube for dead.

Probably the epitome of the role of usable power in motorcycle racing is the Ducati superbikes. Ducati's current 999 WSBK bike is probably 20 horsepower down on the four cylinder machines, but is still capable of running with the more powerful bikes, because the 90 degree V-twin layout produces its power in such a smooth fashion that the Ducatis can get on the gas much earlier in the corners, getting better drive out of the turns and a head start on the competition down the straights, leaving the four cylinders playing catch up. This really is a case of less is more.

Until Ilmor, and anyone else entering from Formula 1, understand that motorcycle engines require a fundamentally different approach, an approach focused on control and balance, they will continue to fall spectacularly short of the mark in MotoGP. And that's bad, not just for them, but for MotoGP as well. More manufacturers, and a range of options for private teams, would have a hugely positive influence on the series. So there is a great deal riding on Ilmor's success. Ilmor has been a huge hit with MotoGP fans, and if fan support and enthusiasm were enough, the angular X3 bike would be running at the front every race. But sadly it is not enthusiasm which is needed, but an understanding of motorcycle racing. We can only hope that Ilmor learns quickly.

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