Friday, September 17, 2010

Dialectics, Racing, Traction Control



Suppose we have a crop of immortal riders with similar levels of skill. They start out at the dawn of racing and will be present for the development of motorcycles from here on out. They take part in a motorcycle racing series that serves as a forum for the testing of parts and concepts to be used on street legal bikes for the public. The series is also, of course a profitable entertainment franchise. The riders have no fear and are able to uncover the limits of their bikes and the tires upon which they ride. Thus, they are all de facto development riders. 

The initial limit beyond which one cannot go is the race rubber and its ability to stick rider and bike to the racetrack. If the tire cannot handle the load, if it breaks traction long before the bike exhausts its power, then the development of the machine cannot really go much further than adapting to the characteristics of the tire in order to get around the track as fast as possible. 

But the tires improve, since they too are developed by racing. This is the first step in our moto dialectic. The tire moves past the currently ability of the bike, so that now that bike and rider can push out the limits at which they were currently riding. Perhaps the first emphasis in bike development will be speed. Then maybe the next quest will be exploiting traction, finding a way to get around the corner. The riders themselves will change their styles of riding as their bikes are replaced by different bikes. Light will dawn over the whole in a co-evolution of bike, rider and race. 

Eventually, the laws of physics and the limits of track length will impose a new limit on the machine. The top speed of the bike will no longer be at issue, since the longest front straight is only so long before it is time to brake for the turn. Emphasis may return to torque, but once again the bike will break traction, having been brought to the limits of its tires by the gangsters of racing. Then cats are gonna start high-siding. It won’t be too pretty. 

Advances in tech will eventually make possible certain rider aids. It is at this point that the emphasis on power will relax and more effort will be made to control it. It is the birth of traction control, among other things.

As traction control is refined, there are fewer violent crashes in racing and the bikes that are sold on the streets become safer in the hands of the ham-fisted and the skillful alike. But it comes at a price.

The rider aids level down the styles and abilities of the riders themselves. They no longer have the space to ride the machines according to their different skills. No more making the bike slide on corner exits. No more wheelies down the front straight at Laguna Seca just because it is fun. The machines now have so much power they must be restrained for the sake of rider safety. Then something really bad happens.

The races get boring. 

It is at this point that racing can no longer meet the goals that it sets for itself. It is split between being a field of development and being an entertaining capitalist venture. This development presents a kind of unhappy consciousness for those involved. For the development of the racebike is itself the foundation for the capitalist venture of selling street bikes. But if the races are not exciting, people will lose interest in motorcycles, or at the very least the fanbase will not grow. So there must be development and racing must be exciting. 

The next evolution of riding, then, will be administrative. The governing bodies of racing will legislate new requirements aimed at making racing exciting. They will struggle to satisfy the now disparate goals of racing and the requirements they set at the beginning of this stage will be unwelcome by many. Probably rightfully so. 

If rider aids like traction control are in fact cut, the development of the bike will continue mainly in the direction of getting traction in corners, stability and braking power. The configuration of the engine will also be a subject of great interest since it may provide a better feeling of connection between rider and wheel. 

Perhaps the governing body will limit not the amount of engines that a team can have or any particular mechanical or developmental element, but rather put a restriction on the money spent on development in total. Maybe the amount of money will be no more than the most limited team can spend. They may also restrict track testing in which only the top teams participate in order to limit the obvious advantages of this practice. We may also see ideas and practices from the past resurface. Multiple brands of tires, perhaps. Less practice time.

If the problem of boredom is not remedied, the powers of racing will shift focus to racer personalities and personal conflicts. Motorcycle racing will then become like Nascar and all will be lost. 

I am uncertain about the future of MotoGP. It is full of the best riders in the world and is the most boring Motorcycle racing class that there is. I watch Moto2 after GP because I know Moto2 will be a crunkfest and I want to end my race-watching on a high note. 

If a solution isn’t found, the return of 1000cc machines to MotoGP in 2012 won’t be the return of much excitement.  The talent of Spies, Rossi and the bunch will be wasted. That is a dialectical turn that we all want to avoid.

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