WorldSBK: How to train your dragon

by | Mar 16, 2020 | Expert Column, Latest News, WorldSBK | 0 comments

If you want to be a certified practitioner of something – whether brain surgery or electrical re-wiring – you have to get a recognised qualification. Degree level or craft level, most of the important stuff that keeps us and our families safe and well features real restrictions on who can do what, when and to whom.

And quite rightly so.

Motorcycle racing has become largely much safer, more regulated and organised over the past few decades.

And quite rightly so.

All the same, as industries go, even professional road racing in all its many – increasingly many – forms is a truly maverick series of events, both literal and meta-euphoric.

Had motorcycle racing required recognised professional qualifications for the participants, both on track and in all the many off track support industries, we would never have had half the great riders, crew chiefs, mechanics, journalists, TV presenters, etc, that have enriched our kooky little scene over the years.

Even now, when you really do need a rocket scientist electronics engineer who invariably had a good degree, and crew chiefs who are increasingly doing the college stuff as well as the reality in pitlane, you still find the vast majority of people who work in racing do so because they simply damn well want to, rather than being formally trained to by any external regime or standards of a licensing authority.

Obviously there are moves to regulate rider participation through the classes nowadays, but in general racing is still a good-enough-is-good-enough kind of industry. Raw talent is the main qualification to go very far if you get the right breaks at the right time. And avoid the wrong fractures at the wrong time if you are a rider. 

This lack of formal approach is because in so many ways racing is a fairly unreasonable way to make a living, particularly if you are a rider. In a real world with greater levels of health and safety in almost every employment path as time passes, bike racing’s hyperreal risky nature can only go so far down that route.

I mean, how safe can you make wrapping a dead cow around your back, plonking a fibreglass goldfish bowl on your head and then throwing yourself at the surrounding scenery when your 200mph workstation suddenly decides to have a bit of a hissy fit underneath you? Even with mega-run-off and airbags inside your leathers, it is a dangerous occupation.

And not only that, professional riders are actually not riders. Factory riders are not paid to merely ride fast.

Or even race fast.

They are paid to win.

Or, at the very least podium enough times to show that Mr. Honzaski or Mrs Ducaprilia’s bikes are every bit as good as everybody else’s. Otherwise (with some notable exceptions) sooner or later you lose your job, however much sponsorship the seat of your pants and throttle hand combination can bring to any manufacturer.

Racing is a hard business in so many ways, sometimes beyond the obvious. Best to be prepared in the best way possible, I guess?

Looking both back and forward at how the sport in general trains its riders to go about the important business of winning at ever higher and higher levels is truly fascinating right now.

If you are an irredeemable racing geek like me, at least.

And maybe you too, if you are reading this rather than following the kickball game or some other sport involving sphere manipulation?

Once upon a time – way back when 500cc two-strokes ruled the roost – a wise person told me that racing these four-strokes, particularly the Supersport 600s, was all very well but it was teaching the riders nothing really important that they would need to make it to the very top of the racing ladder.

Obviously, the younger me, enthralled by the dramatic elbowing, backing-in braking techniques and often blanket finishes of 600cc Supersport races, was unconvinced. I mean, it was like 125cc GP racing – a byword for close finishes and slipstreaming closeness for the most part back then – but with bigger and faster bikes. Wasn’t it? And much more affordable and egalitarian to boot.

Well, as it seems to have turned out, it was nothing like 125cc GP racing for sorting out the wheat from the better wheat and finally from the finest golden grains. (The chaff never made it that far in the first place, of course).

The point made back then was that any mistake in 125cc racing was punished by a loss of track position, if not an immediate crash. Push too hard in the corners and you ran out of skinny tyres very quickly. But come back from the edge too much and you would just lose. Badly.

Try a reckless gamble pass and you did not have the power – and in particular the powerband – to pick it up and squirt back into the leading rider’s slipstream. So you learned to pass properly, and make sure none of the riders following passed you – as they surely would if you just block passed that rider in front.

You also needed to make sure the bike set-up was just about perfect. Top-level riders understand that races are also won in the pitlane (especially nowadays as you move up the levels and more and more electronics pile in) but in the small two-stroke classes, that need for perfect set-up was always the case. You learn finesses, optimum lines, slipstreaming as well as aggression right from when you start national racing. And the same rules applied all the way from 125s, to 250s to 500GPs.

Get it right or get a doing.

The margins of forgiveness were narrower then but you as a rider were better prepared – trained no less – by your previous experiences of riding on that very narrow edge, against the very best there was.

And most of all, rider aids did not in any way exist. All inputs were final once you had set the jetting and chassis in pitlane. Changing the mapping on the move? What?

You controlled the whole package via pure feel back then. Traction via throttle opening. And braking prowess via brake lever and well-timed gearchanges. And gearchanges via …. gearchanges. And so on.

Data analysis? That was you telling your crew chief what was happening out there. Reams of data is recorded nowadays, from brake pressure to tyre temperature and way beyond. Rider feedback is now only part of the calculation; it used to be almost all of it.

We still have smaller capacity racing classes that can reward pure race craft and slipstreaming, but as the ongoing issues with Moto3 riders – so I am told – not obeying the basic rules of racing etiquette (their WorldSSP300 cousins are maybe even worse) by showing fearlessness and desperate lunges, are no substitute for showing fearlessness and sound rider training. All the frenetic passes with arguably less consequence than the days of the ‘strokers can drag everybody to the same lowest common denominator’.

All of this points to the Moto3 bikes and WorldSSP300 semi-race replica roadbikes being not as harsh or disciplined a training regime as the old 125cc ‘strokers were. It seems a logical thought.

Moto2? Posh Supersport 600s say some. You can learn many things there, but not all things. And it does seem that unless you are on one particular chassis right now… Same in WorldSSP it seems, more Yamahas than anything else for a reason.

Obviously, no two-strokes and much bigger four-stroke engines class-by-class has changed what is required from a top level MotoGP rider nowadays, but the very best riders make use of all their training from the smaller classes. It’s as if they were still going to ride a razor-edge 500 screamer in the end, and manage the highside control and tyre life factors by yourself. The best ones know this and learn fast, learn well.

Thank God for that. And the next nearest thing to Him on two wheels, Marquez, M. He can still do things nobody else can, no matter what he seems to ride, or how much everybody relies on dyno tweaks and electronics nowadays.

He is living proof that it is very difficult for a rider to progress to true world champion status unless they have that combination of intense rider training (usually at a much younger age than the past) and a thoroughly modern understanding that winning always demands the best mechanical grip and balance set-up possible, and only then riding the way the electronic strategy needs you to for all 20-odd laps.

In all those requirements, it seems that unless you are a natural born alien, your hardcore early training environment is not what it once was.

And conversely, all series seem to limit the small bikes’ electronics now, which means you also limit the learning of that specific, but necessary, tech for MotoGP/WorldSBK at an early age. That is a big change since the days of small two-strokes.

No electronics even in something as big and beefy as BSB.

Consequence?

Close racing – sure – and often brilliantly so, but British riders who have transitioned to World Championship racing at the top of the big global shops in the past few years? No, me neither, certainly compared to the Sykes through to A.Lowes generation at least. Via MotoGP itself? We’ve had winners or podium men like Redding, Smith, MacPhee. All started on small ‘strokers. From WorldSSP/WorldSBK Crutchlow and S. Lowes – both race winners in GP classes as well as WorldSSP champions. But all started on small ‘strokers.

The trained and ready top rider route from smaller classes situation is getting worse in WorldSBK. And even from inside WorldSBK’s junior ranks no less. The 300 Supersport class has delivered astonishing drama from the first days, but even as these neo-roadbikes with relatively little power have made racing very even, the top end performance is so attainable and set-up criticality so blunt, that most riders can take them to 99.8%. That has actually held back some seemingly more talented riders, as even the lesser ones can pass into every braking zone, allowing the ‘fastest’ to get away only on occasion.

As entertainment, as drama, it’s been astounding. As a genuine training class for future world champions? Discuss. Only just finished year three, so give it time, I guess.

Somebody like Manual Gonzalez, the 2019 clear 300 champ, was for sure the best of the bunch last season. One ride into his WorldSPP great leap forward in 2020? So far, so good.

The nagging fact remains that in many modern racing classes, even approaching the highest level, there are no or limited electronics, despite the fact that a roadgoing RR-R-R-RR-RRR designated Superbike can probably switch on a microwave oven in The Pentagon if you have the best geek flipping through the ones and zeros just so.

But even the most complicated bike of today still needs just the right rider to work those pesky human control levers on MotoGP or WorldSBK machinery.

With fewer and fewer riders appearing able to bridge the gap between national racing and WorldSBK, then WorldSBK to MotoGP racing, this should be of concern to everybody who is not currently inside one of Dorna’s many academy structures designed to scoop up all the global talent into the MotoGP paddling pool, then seeing who sinks or swims thereafter.

Hard to see how any rider outside that hothouse can get the right mix of old fashioned training and cutting edge electronic experience before joining MotoGP or WorldSBK.

How to train your dragon? A truly world class one from outside the inner MotoGP nursery?

Not the way we are doing it right now seems to be the answer.

Even the Superstock 600 class seemed to have much greater success that way than the 300s are shaping up to. MotoGP rising star Morbidelli, WorldSBK race winners Baz, Van der Mark and now Razgatlioglu – all 600 Stock champions…

Luckily, and even after all the results-based miserability outlined above, pure talent is always the final arbiter – if given a fair chance. Bike racing, using inherently unstable two-wheeled devices, will always have an element of the maverick about it, however much of a sanitised business it eventually becomes.

Photo Credit: WorldSBK

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