MotoGP Wheel Size: Can it Save Us All?

Posted on 9 Oct, 2014 by Scott Jones
Marc Marquez Catalunya Turn 5 2014

Please click on the above image to view it larger.

Part of what we enjoy about MotoGP is how the technologies involved develop and improve. Since this is racing that we’re talking about, these developments usually lead to more speed. More speed is generally good, as we enjoy seeing lap records broken and new top speeds set. But more speed can cause problems when all of the elements involved fail to develop at the same pace.

Formula 1 has experienced this over and over again. Consider the Turbo era, or the Ground Effects era, to name only a couple of examples. In each instance, science was applied to some aspect of the racing that resulted in greater speed, was then judged to be dangerous, and then was prohibited. Remember those tires with the grooves in them? Sorry, I’m trying to forget them as well.

MotoGP has seen many fewer instances such as these. For many years the 2-stroke 500cc formula served well for power. Tire technology improved at a comparatively slow rate. When Bridgestone joined the fight and took on Michelin, a corner, as they say, was turned, and this leap in tire technology has now put us in a serious situation.

As speeds increase, run off areas at aging tracks are not increasing along with those speeds.

The Lean Problem

In 2011 I visited Catalunya for the first time and happened to get a photo of Casey Stoner that caused a bit of a buzz. Within hours of that image being posted at MotoMatters.com, it went from that single publication to the computer desktops of most of Casey’s garage crew, Casey’s email inbox as friends sent it to him, numerous tweets and retweets and Facebook posts, and a record number (for me at that point in time) of uses without permission or payment. Back then it was remarkable that a rider might lean over so far as to drag an elbow. It didn’t happen very often.

Flash forward to 2014 when the story of the curbing in Montmelo was that these sections are too high relative to the surface of the track itself. Marc Marquez had too little room to lean over as much as he wanted.

Other riders are regularly dragging elbows, not only on curbs of varying heights, but sometimes on perfectly flat pavement:
Scott Redding at Catalunya 2014

This year at Catalunya’s Turn 5, lean master Stefan Bradl got down so low he was close to needing a shoulder slider. Though he didn’t get this low while I was there to photograph it, friend and colleague Fritz Glanzel got it here.

As I was watching all this elbow dragging at Catalunya, remarking to myself about how riding style is undergoing an evolution similar to that of knee dragging in the days of Kenny Roberts Sr. and Barry Sheene, I was thinking of course of tires. The edge grip of the Bridgestone tire has improved so much that MotoGP bikes are now capable of leaning over an amazing 64 degrees, perhaps more. 64 is the highest number I’ve seen on the telemetry. Dunlop’s technology has come a long way as well, as many Moto2 riders regularly drag elbows.

But as far as Bridgestone rubber goes, it is, well, going. A year and a half from now, Bridgestone will say farewell to championship motorcycle racing after a truly remarkable contribution to the sport at its highest level.

How does a company, Michelin, in this case, follow such an act? MotoGP appears set indefinitely on the concept of the sole tire supplier, so someone needs to show up each weekend with large trucks full of the round black things. But at the same time, MotoGP is facing a problem related directly to how good the current tires are: high corner speeds lead to later braking points and suddenly some of the corners at our current tracks seem a bit more dangerous.

Many current run off areas were designed for the speeds expected when the track was built, or perhaps in some cases with some highly underestimated expectations that racing machines of the future would get faster and thus require more space between the track edge and the nearest solid object (earthen berm, Armco, concrete wall). Rows of old tires and air fences can only do so much to protect the fragile human motorcycle racer if he or she crashes with more speed than can be dissipated by sliding across gravel.

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