Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trickle Down Myth: Part 2


...I should say at the outset that mine are the words of a layman and are wedded mainly to theory. It is more than possible that my reasons will crumble not under rational criticism but hard facts. So if you have those facts, bring ‘em.

In the September edition of Sport Rider, the swift staffer Ken Kunitsugu rocked an article on the trickle down of MotoGP tech. He begins by noting the corollary development of automobile gadgetry in the racing classes at the end of the last century. The story is that automobile manufactures were looking to find any part or process or engineering magic to get ahead of the competition. So they tried anything and everything. Ken goes on to say that “ironically, only a fraction of the vast amounts of information gleaned from testing and development actually made the final cut for use in a finished race car.” 

As it went for cars, he says, so it now goes for motorcycles. Computer tech these days is all serious, engineers are like a bazillion times smarter and the struggle to be faster than the next guy is just as strong as ever. The four stroke machines in MotoGP are the perfect “proving ground” for a manufacturers developmental record. Kunitsugu ends by offering up some examples of tech that might be coming to a bike near you some day, such as Yamaha’s crazy traction control that can learn a track as you go around it. Freaky. 

My difference with Ken begins with his thought that it was ironic that after so much testing, only a tiny bit of info and engineering made it to the vehicles that went on to win races in classes like formula one. I think this wasn’t ironic at all; it was appropriate to almost all models for engineering development. Especially those driven by capitalism. 

The basic narrative is that the desire to win drove development, and the styles that were successful made their way over to the public sector in the form of traction control, fancy cam chains and the like. However, we can think of many goods or services whose advancements don’t come down to international competitions regulated by a governing body. Feats of engineering and fabrication happen at the lab and the factory. They are tested not on high profile race tracks but rather closed courses that most of us don’t even get to see, much less ride on. The stuff that goes to MotoGP, to a great extent, is already refined on the proving ground that is the engineers’ meeting and the test rider’s prototype. Which is why the racers and their teams only get a fraction of what the engineers come up with. 

Now, I don’t doubt that the info that comes from racing feeds back into development. But I don’t see any reason why this kind of information can’t happen in a race simulation far away from the watchful eyes of racing fans like me. 

So. It might be true that racing is sufficient for development, but it isn’t necessary. The end of MotoGP, or any other racing class, would by no means be the end of the development of our moto machines.

On my view, racing success is simply absorbed into the profit motive that drives these manufacturers to make the two-wheeled awesomeness that they tend to make. As the saying goes, win on Sunday, sell on Monday (Which is another claim I am not entirely certain is true, at least in the grand scheme of motorcycling as an industry). In other words, it is not the desire to win that drives development, it is the desire to sell. 

I have at least some factual evidence for my claims. Yamaha marketed the latest R1 as though it were straight up MotoGP on the streets. The implication was that the crossplane crankshaft was taken out of Rossi’s M1 and installed into the street bike that currently sits in many garages around the country. But, speak with any Yamaha engineer and they will tell you that Yamaha had blueprints for a crossplaned engine since the 70s. The style wasn’t pursued then because the dominant concern was increasing horsepower, not traction. If this is true, it is doubtful that the crossplane was drafted for the M1 and then somehow modified to fit the R1. At best, the designs co-evolved through Yamaha’s engineering history.

Yet another example, as I claimed in my last post, is the BMW S1000RR. BMW has no presence in MotoGP and they have only been in WSBK for two seasons. Yet the very first true sportbike they dared to make is rapidly turning out to be the best because of its specs and its tech. If BMW can make such things happen without MotoGP, I don’t really see a reason why the Big Four in Japan and Ducati can’t do the same. 

So, this is my position. It might, of course, be crap, but consider the main reason why I make this argument in the first place: I don’t want MotoGP to be boring. 

Valentino Rossi says we should limit the role that electronics can play in MotoGP so we can get back to more exciting races. I think there are some who think that if this is done, motorcycling will lose its forum for the development of tech and engineering. If what I say is true, these detractors don’t have to worry because the racing classes have never necessarily been such a forum. 

Okay. I am done. I know I am contradicting most of the stuff I said in my post on traction control but hey, this blog is the proving ground where I develop my thoughts. 

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