Is Physical Fitness A Success Factor In Moto3? Comparing Consistency Between Winners And Losers

What is the difference between winning in Moto3 and finishing at the back? The glib answer is "about 50 seconds", but there must be an explanation for that gap. It is a question which many have pondered, and to which there are few easy answers. Clearly, there is a difference in equipment, level of ability, and the ability of the team to get the set up right. But is there anything we can identify directly?

The one factor which we might be able to see in the lap times is the effect of hard work. Motorcycle racing is (paradoxically) a physically demanding sport, and physical fitness is one factor which a rider has in their own hands. Training, and dedication to training, could be a factor which makes a difference. It may not be the difference between first and last, but it could well be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing at the very tail end of the field.

If fitness is a significant factor, then it should be visible in the lap times. As the race goes on, the less fit riders should get slower, while the fitter riders manage to maintain the same pace. That should be most clearly visible between the riders who finish at the front, and the riders who finish at the back. (For a fuller explanation of this hypothesis, see below.)

This is not an idea I came up with on my own. Motorcycle racers are obsessed with fitness and hard work, though some work harder than others. In various conversations with riders and team staff, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, the issue of fitness was one which cropped up surprisingly often. Managers and engineers would frequently criticize riders who they felt were not doing enough to work on their fitness. Clearly, they believe it is a factor.

To test this hypothesis, that fitness is one factor which distinguishes successful racers from less successful racers, I decided to analyze the data from the lap times. I looked at Moto3, as it is the entry into Grand Prix racing, where the differences between successful and less successful racers is biggest. A rider who is successful in Moto3 has much more chance of being successful in MotoGP than a rider who fails in Moto3. Failure in Moto3 is often the end of a rider's career as a professional motorcycle racer.

The differences should be most visible between the most successful and the least successful riders. So to test that, I took the average lap times (excluding the first and last laps) of the first three riders, and compared them against the times of the riders finishing in 25th, 26th and 27th place. If more successful riders are fitter, then the gap between the riders on the podium and the riders near the end should grow as the race goes on. For a fuller explanation of the methodology used, see below.

So what did we find? Well, there does some to be a correlation between success and fitness, though the effect is small. The gap between the fastest riders and the slowest riders does grow in the second half of the race. Though the actual difference per lap tends to vary, the trend is upwards. In the first half of the race, the slower riders are, on average, just under 1.6 seconds slower per lap than the front runners. By the end of the race, the gap has risen to just over 1.8 seconds.

Subdivide the seventeen laps for which we have data into groups of four, then a similar pattern emerges, with the slow riders just 1.534 slower than the fast group in the first part of the race, but the gap growing to 1.770 in the last part of the race, before the final lap. Disregard the penultimate lap, when the front group are likely to be jockeying for position to start the final lap, and the gap is even larger, up to 1.820. The difference in lap times between the fast and the slow riders has grown by 13.9%, or 16.8% if you disregard the penultimate lap. In terms of total lap time, that difference is less significant: just under, or just over, a quarter of one percent of the total lap time. But when riders and teams are constantly chasing fractions of a second improvement, between two and three tenths of a second a lap is a major step forward.

Lap groups Average difference
1-4 1.534
5-8 1.735
9-12 1.740
13-17 1.770

The difference in fitness is also suggested by how consistent the pace is of the two groups. If we look at the standard deviation of lap times – roughly speaking, the average amount by which the lap times vary – the faster riders are a little more consistent than the slower riders, though the difference is not large. For the front three riders, the standard deviation is 0.355 seconds, while for the slower group, it is 0.374. Remove an anomalous race at Indianapolis, where the comparison is between a tightly fought battle among a large group versus three riders lapping on their own, and the difference is a little larger. Variance for the front three is 0.324 seconds, for the slow group 0.366. (Eliminating Indianapolis exposes one weakness of the methodology. For a fuller discussion, see below).

Standard deviation of lap times, per race and average
Race P1-P3 P25-P27
Jerez 0.284 0.382
Barcelona 0.380 0.417
Indianapolis 0.511 0.411
Brno 0.350 0.423
Misano 0.228 0.235
Valencia 0.376 0.375
     
Average 0.355 0.374
Without Indy 0.324 0.366

The bad news is that this improvement alone would not make much difference in terms of points. If our hypothesis is correct, and the slower riders were able to more consistently maintain their pace if they were fitter, then the gain would only be around 3 seconds over the course of the second half of the race. Only in a few cases would that gain the rider places, and never would that have put them into the top 20, let alone into the points.

This, then, is very much the point. Better fitness appears to improve a rider's results towards the end of a race. However, even including the improvement, the gap is still large. Over an average lap time of 1'50.1 for the two groups combined, the slower group is on average 1.699 seconds a lap slower. From the data we have been able to analyze, differences in fitness probably only account for a few tenths of a second per lap, towards the end of the race. That still leaves 50+ seconds to be made up over the course of the entire race, or 30+ to be able to score points. Where that improvement could come from, the data does not show.

Was this exercise, of comparing average lap times between the front group and the slower riders, worth the effort? In a fitting twist of irony, only just. It appears that for young riders in Moto3, improving fitness can offer a small benefit in the latter part of the race. It will not turn a slow rider into a champion, but it might be the difference between hanging on to your ride and having to persuade another team to give you a chance.

So should young Moto3 riders redouble their efforts to improve their fitness? On balance the answer has to be yes. While the directly quantifiable gains may be limited, it will remove one variable from what is already an immensely complex equation. And that could be where the biggest gains are to be made. Without doubts over their fitness, riders can face the race with a little more confidence. While fitness may be worth only a second or two at the very end of the race, additional confidence can be worth many tenths of a second each lap. Motorcycle racing may be a very physically demanding sport, but at the very highest level, 90% of the difference is made by the riders mental attitude. In racing, the head is more important than the heart.

Hypothesis:

Fitness is a significant factor in the success of a motorcycle racer. Successful riders are fitter than less successful riders. Fitter riders' lap times will be more consistent than less fit riders' lap times. That means that the difference in lap times between fitter and less fit riders should increase as the race goes on. If successful riders are fitter than less successful riders, then that should be visible as an increase in the difference in lap times between the two groups as the race progresses.

In other words, the riders who finish at the back should get slower more quickly than the riders who finish first.

Methodology:

Using the official timesheets from the MotoGP.com website, we compared the times set on each lap by the riders finishing in 1st, 2nd and 3rd against the riders finishing 25th, 26th and 27th. There were six races where 27 or more riders finished: Jerez, Barcelona, Indianapolis, Brno, Misano and Valencia.

Lap times compared were from the second lap to the penultimate lap. First and last laps were discarded as possibly anomalous: the first lap includes the start from a standstill, the last lap may include some form of celebration.

Lap times where a rider clearly ran off (ie. lap times which were several seconds longer than average) were discarded, and replaced with the average of a rider's other laps in a particular race. We did this for just three laps in all of the data: for Eric Granado, lap 7 at Brno; for Jules Danilo, lap 8 at Misano; and for Bryan Schouten, lap 15 at Indianapolis.

For the overall average, the 17 of the last 18 laps of all 6 races were used. The last lap was excluded in each case. The difference between a 2'09 lap at Brno and a 1'40 at Valencia means that race lengths are different for each race. As the difference I was looking for should be visible in the last laps, the latter part of the race should provide sufficient data. Riders are unlikely to tire much in the first five laps, but should get tired between lap 9 and lap 19, or lap 12 and lap 23.

Methodological weaknesses:

Drawing conclusions from (relatively) little data is dangerous. Although we have lap times from six riders in six races, that is still a limited data set.

It is impossible to rule out other factors, such as set up. One factor, in particular could have a major impact on the difference between the front runners and the riders at the rear: in 2014, Moto3 races tended to be decided on the very last lap among a large group of riders. Of the six races examined, four saw the podium decided from among a group of six or more riders, with only Barcelona and Misano seeing a real gap created at the front. For the riders in 25th to 27th, riders were largely either riding on their own, or in much smaller groups. The battles which happen inside these close groups likely have an effect on lap time consistency.

Average difference between riders 1-3, 25-27 per lap
1 1.418
2 1.656
3 1.470
4 1.590
5 1.815
6 1.794
7 1.678
8 1.652
9 1.597
10 1.418
11 1.964
12 1.979
13 1.883
14 1.618
15 2.044
16 1.734
17 1.573

 

Full dataset:

If you would like to see the full dataset and analysis I used to write this article, you can download the file here. The file is a Spreadsheet in OpenDocument format.

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Comments

What a terrific analysis.

I've often wonderered whether the midpack and tailgunners slow down towards the end because of fatigue or tyres or simply being mentally drained. Riding as hard as possible for 20th place can't result in too many positive vibes, but then again, if you love it... that's different.

Peak fitness is also desirable from the perspective that it allows a rider to bounce back faster from crash-related injuries - or to even help a rider survive an otherwise potentially fatal crash.

Antony Gobert seemed to go ok with no training at all, even when he could barely fit into his leathers... so talent is still the deciding factor at the end of the day.

He never did anything in Motogp. Anthony had a LOT of problems, going fast was not one of them, his problems were mental, chips on both shoulders and a great liking for drink and drugs. He might have survived better in the Roberts/Sheene era, but, alas he wasn't riding then.
Physical fitness is a very key part of winning, however, the key in the physical fitness is that it supports the mental strength at the end. Its the same in football, cricket or any other sport, you win in the last minute, lap, over or what ever.
The rider that maintains his concentration maintains his lap times, if you are not fit you cannot do that, however, if you are not tough and talented as well you cannot do it either. Will to win can be seen on the start line, in the paddock, everywhere. Only winners show it.

I think you nailed it with "mental strength at the end". The last couple laps are brutal when you're racing in Las Vegas with 110 degree heat, wearing full leathers. I'm describing a normal Joe in an 8 lap club race on a production bike. Now multiply the laps by 3 and add in the humidity of Malaysia and a bike that make 210+ horsepower.

IMHO when you're "sucking wind", you make bad decisions because you're losing concentration. Is that manifested in lap times? Yes but more specifically it's misjudging braking points, choosing the wrong line for the situation, not thinking 3 laps ahead -- all things that can lead to higher lap times -- but more importantly will let your competition get the best of you.

You might need a heart rate monitor to measure something like this.

Yep Gobert was my example simply because he's a shining example of someone who didn't train at all and still won races with relative ease.

Yes...it's scientific. But if on reflects on the career of Aliex Espargaro all your calculations go into a cocked hat. If he is lucky and Suzuki delivers, he just might be the Cinderella story of MotoGP

Unlikely on both counts :) especially the second proposition, the engine output has always been Suzuki's weak point, this is unlikely to change rapidly. More power=more broken engines so there is very fine line between where it lasts and where it breaks especially with the current limit on engines, they used to use several V4's a weekend. Still we can always dream. More likely with Pol, he is much stronger at the end of a race. I think Australia last year shows who has the best mental strength at the end of a race.

I am not sure where the measure of fitness comes into it...

There is some great analysis regarding consistency of the front runners, but I cannot see a link to your findings and the fitness of a rider.
How are you defining a front runner to be 'fitter' than one of the back runners?

Sorry to be a bit of a grump, but I was expecting some information on the riders training methods, time spent training, in order to link performance to fitness, but all I see is a very well done and comprehensive analysis of the front runners consistency vs the tail end of the field.

Agreed. Thanks for entertaining us in the dark times, but i have to call you on the analysis. I'll also give you my armchair statistician's suggestions for improving it.

Saying the slow get slower doesn't really tell us anything about the effect of fitness.

And without some objective measure of fitness, i'm not sure you can use it as an independent variable. BUT what you might try, David, is using it as a dependent variable. and doing it across the whole field.

Here's what I mean. If you want to try to see if those that slow down more over the race are less fit than those that don't slow down as much try this:

1. look at all riders. because an even more interesting (and kick in the pants!) conclusion would be that even rider that are fast but out of shape slow down.

2. For each race, tally the sum of each rider's 2nd -5th lap and last four or five laps (I think eliminating the first and last lap, like you said, is a good idea).

3. Plot these "slowing downs" in seconds across all races. You'll end up with one line for each rider that plots across the entire season and shows how large and consistent their "slow downing" is. This would be kind of an interesting graph. Especially if the lines for each ride are not too erratic.

4. Average the "slowing down" for each rider over the season and rank them by this. Then let us all see if we can draw any conclusions or at least correlations about the most consistent vs the least consistent of the lot of em. maybe it's fitness, but maybe it's experience, or something else.

5. take a honest look at it and see, with Kropotkin's vast personal exposure to all these athletes. are the riders in the top ones you think are "fitter" than the ones at the bottom? and opine on it.

i would have done this and shared it if I could, but I don't know how to get the data. I really would have, because I like everyone else here, am bored to death right now.

Are the ones who do the fastest lap at the end of the race. Vale, Marc, Jorge, Dani etc very few other racers can do that.

Thanks for your suggestions, and originally, that was my initial intention. The problem is that the sheer amount of data involved meant it would have required an awful lot of work. I already spent over 2 days just extracting and working on this data, and by taking all of the riders, I think it would take me well over a week. That, admittedly, is my own problem, caused by an inability to extract a lot of data quickly. 

The data, by the way, is all there on the MotoGP.com website. Just go to the results page for a race, and download either the Analysis or Analysis by lap PDFs. Here's the results page for Valencia.

To be frank, I was disappointed with the correlation I found. It is very weak indeed. There appears to be a small effect, but it is not, as I had initially thought, big enough to be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing dead last.

As for question 5, yes, absolutely in my opinion, and the comments made to me by team managers and other riders suggest that this is something they also believe, which is why I did this exercise. However, my opinion is fairly worthless without data to back it up. I tried, and did not really find the effect I was looking for. If anything, this article is a chronicle of a failed search, rather than absolute proof that the effect I was looking for exists.

No wonder. thanks for the link. OK, I lied. I wouldn't do it…working with pdf data like that sucks. I spent about 20 minutes on trying to copy and paste some of it and... and gave up. Thanks for trying though!

I understand your complaints. The aim of this article was not to cover training methods. I was not interested in what riders do to try to get fit, but in trying to understand how successful they are. A lot of riders spend a lot of time training, but just the sheer time is not a sufficient measure, it is also about the effort they put in while training. Ask a rider, how often do you train, and they might tell you they ride a bicycle 100km and ride MX for an two hours. What they won't tell you is how close to maximum effort they were while training, and how focused they were while riding their MX bike.

An example: In the winter of 2012/2013, Scott Redding went to Spain, where he lived in a motorhome he shared with Jasper Iwema, and trained with Iwema, Marcel Schrotter and a few others. In the evenings, they would all sit around telling stories of how much they wanted to be champions. In the mornings, they would get up and go ride MX. Redding had a very set plan, in which he divided his training up into segments and pushed as hard as possible during those segments. The others also had a plan, and rode hard, but also goofed around doing jumps and whips, and generally behaving like young men having fun on an MX bike. Redding nearly became Moto2 champion in 2013, Iwema lost his ride, Schrotter had a mediocre year.

That's what I was trying to measure. I did not succeed very well.

nice effort, but one of your lesser articles David. but still a nice read ;-)
I feel you forget 2 major points :
* top riders/teams get their setup better, so maybe the difference is just down to tire-wair
* when you are fighting for victory/a podium, you have to keep fighting 'till the very last lap, when riding arround in 25th position I would believe it to be very normal to stop risking everything for no points and just try to maintain position and "cruise home" at 98% instead of 100+%

I love how creative you are in finding differences, like with the sound measurement to show the differences the seamless shifting made. This is a tougher task and the results don't seem to be as clear.

I grew up with American Motocross and competed in Enduros. Fitness absolutely made a difference there. I had to drop out of several races one season and in the fall came down with mononucleosis. I had probably had a mild case of it all summer!

If you look at the AMA motocross racers over the years, fitness can make up for alot. There were some riders that would start out slow but make up 5-6 places at the end of the race.

Road racing isn't as physically demanding as motocross (sorry!) so the fitness levels don't have the same impact. However, that 1% adds up. It also takes tremendous mental focus at this level and being fit helps that focus.

I doubt if Jorge would agree with your there, he blamed his poor showing for the first couple of months on lack of fitness after his winter operations.

Thanks as ever David.

As a racer, and mind you not that fastest, not the greatest, just a guy having fun on weekends, I've learned a few things about going faster.

When it comes to fitness, being fit helps everything. I think one of its biggest benefits is giving you focus on your riding or your sport when you're not on a bike. Working out to be better on a bike makes you think about being better more hours of the day. It helps to be in good shape when you've had an off as well. You bounce back better.

For me, the thing that made me faster was manning up, conquering fears and just keeping the throttle open for longer before getting on the brakes and then opening it up earlier after the brakes.

- Highside.

Always enjoy your articles like this one David.

You have no measure of any rider's fitness. There are lots of ways to measure fitness but lap times isn't one of them. You need a real measure of a rider's fitness so that you can then try and correlate that with lap times and how lap times change over the course of a race. eg. VO2Max

Others have touched on the mental aspect. If you have more fitness than you need for your sport, your confidence will be through the roof. If you are not fit enough for your sport, your performance will suffer not just from the lack of fitness, but from reduced confidence and motivation. I know this through personal experience.

Finally, fitness is going to be more important on a MotoGP bike than Moto3. This may be one of the biggest challenges for Jack Miller skipping Moto2.

Is there any evidence that heavier riders wear out their tires quicker?

(What I'm really thinking about is total weight so the combined bike + rider weights of moto3/2 would only be a factor for those who can't make the minimums, any ideas who the candidates might be, do they show greater gaps then those suspected to be on target)

Hello Emmett thanks for the reports.
On this subject I would like to talk about the pilot's weight, and I could notice that for example Eric Granado was the pilot who had more weight in the category Moto 3. According paddock information, "every three pounds to push, the engine needs one more horsepower ... "If Granado had 70 pounds without its equipment, against an average of 62 pounds, maybe this is a relevant factor, in addition to less efficient aerodynamics ... what do you think of this?
Braaap

Just to complete the reasoning, be physically prepared did not mean having less weight, that is a subject for genetic body. Another interesting factor for these studies which made it that pilots back in the early laps, until they take piloting references with the fastest riders, it may be also one of the reasons pointed out.
Tks for area.

Braaap!

Being fit won't make the rider go faster. That comes down to skill and machinery. Being fit will let the rider be more consistent, make less mistakes. You can probably correlate fitness to deviation in lap times.

David, great article. I won't reiterate the posts of others but will say that fitness is important both for the championship level riders as well as the average trackday guy.

Why?

When a rider is on the track, he's riding as hard as he can. This is both physically and mentally exhausting. Improved fitness will reduce fatigue, even if by only the smallest of margins. But as we've seen, particularly in the lower classes of MotoGP, winners and losers are made by the smallest of margins.

As you state in your article, fitness won't bring you from being a poor rider to a great rider. But it can help everyone simply ride better, faster, harder & longer.

I actually host a blog on the topic of fitness. Check it out and let me know what you think!

www.trackdayfitness.com