2021 MotoGP Preseason Review: Aerodynamics, Shapeshifters, And The Meaning Of The Qatar Timesheets

The preseason is over. Preparations have been made, new parts tested, bikes, bodies, and brains readied, though not necessarily in that order. MotoGP is on the verge of starting another brand new season.

There was less to develop, test, and prepare this year, the aftermath of rules imposed during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic introducing freezes on engine development and limiting aerodynamic updates.

The four factories who did not have concessions in 2020 – Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha – will all be forced to use the engines they homologated for their riders last year for the 2021 season. KTM, who lost concessions thanks to a phenomenally successful season which included three victories, have been allowed to design a new engine for 2021, but must freeze it at the first race in Qatar.

Aprilia, the only remaining factory with full concessions, will be allowed to continue to develop their engine throughout 2021, and will have nine engines to last the season, instead of the seven the other factories have to try to make last the year.

In terms of aerodynamics, things are a little simpler: the riders can either use their 2020 aero package, or they can introduce one upgrade aero package at any time during the season (including at the first race). And of course, aerodynamics packages are applied per rider, rather than per manufacturer.

Need for speed

These two restrictions – a ban on engine development, and only allowing a single aero update for 2021 – has placed an added emphasis on aerodynamics. There are, after all, two ways of going faster: you either add more horsepower to overcome drag, or you reduce drag to make your horsepower go further.

(There is actually a third way as well, used by Aprilia: increasing downforce to reduce wheelie on corner exit. This allows you to accelerate harder and reach your top speed sooner, though you pay a penalty in increased drag.)

We saw a lot of this at both Qatar tests. Ducati are kings of aerodynamics, of course, Gigi Dall'Igna and his engineering team viewing it as one of several key tools to success in MotoGP. Ducati appear to be closest to having their aero package sorted – Jack Miller spent pretty much all of the test using the new aero, and found little to complain about and much to like.

What does the new aero do? The two ducts added to the bottom of each side of the fairing appear to be funneling air down to the bottom of the fairing, directing it into the air flowing along the bottom of the fairing. This might help smooth the air around the fairing as it heads toward the rear wheel, reducing the turbulence kicked up by the front wheel, cleaning up the airflow towards the rear wheel and the back of the bike.

Given that as a whole, motorcycles are a mess, in aerodynamic terms, reducing drag at the back of the bike translates into more speed. That Ducati have been successful here was demonstrated by Johann Zarco, who pushed the Pramac Ducati to a whopping 357.6 km/h. Both he and teammate Jorge Martin beat the previous official record of 352 km/h, set by Marc Márquez in 2019, on a regular basis. And they beat Jack Miller's best top speed of 355.2 km/h set in the test in 2020, again on a Pramac Ducati.

The Yamahas, too, found extra top speed. At the test last year, Maverick Viñales clocked a highest top speed of 346.1 km/h. This year, Fabio Quartararo beat that by just over a kilometer per hour, flying through the speed traps at 347.2 km/h. Yamaha are concentrating on the front of the bike, including a new front mudguard which covers more of the front forks and front wheel, along with more aerodynamic fork leg covers like the Ducati. At the launch, Maio Meregalli said Yamaha were also working on better heat management. A cooler running engine makes more power, albeit the gains are relatively small. It is also more reliable, an important factor after the lessons of last year.

At KTM and Honda, the test riders were carrying much of the load. Dani Pedrosa was spotted with Yamaha-style swooping winglets, rather than the more angular mustache-style the RC16 currently sports. The KTM riders also trialed a larger version of the mustache, in search of more downforce and more grip.

Stefan Bradl was doing the donkey work for Honda, though Takaaki Nakagami and Alex Márquez tried new parts as well. Apart from the chassis – the three riders were trying three different frame designs – they were also testing new, larger aero side ducts, more like the Ducati items than the elegant smaller side wings which adorn the Honda RC213V.

Leaving it too late

The one factory not playing with obviously different aerodynamics was Suzuki. But the Hamamatsu factory was more focused on 2022 than 2021, getting a head start on engine development for next year before this season has even begun. Frame and swingarm were also for next year, to match the revised performance of the engine.

That left the Suzuki riders frustrated on the last day of the test. Strong winds and a lot of sand made riding a waste of time. Alex Rins and Joan Mir had set the final day of the second Qatar test aside to prepare for the opening round this weekend, and had not spent much time working on the 2021 GSX-RR. So Suzuki head into the first race of the season with more unknowns than the other factories.

Arguably, that won't matter much. The 2020 Suzuki GSX-RR was a superb all-round machine which excelled at a range of race tracks. The bike was good enough to win two races, bag 12 podiums, and finish first and third in the championship. And if Alex Rins hadn't suffered a serious shoulder injury at the first round in Jerez, he could arguably have finished even further up the standings.

The bike's one weakness was qualifying, the ability to squeeze out extra performance from a new tire. That aspect is particularly difficult to distill from test times – at last year's Qatar test, Rins and Mir finished first and second on the first day, second and seventh on the second day, third and sixth on the third day, finishing fourth and sixth overall.

Nobody would have guessed they had an issue with qualifying from the 2020 Qatar test. So it seems that finishing seventh and eighth on the first day and sixth and seventh on the second day of the final Qatar test is just as difficult to interpret.

Squatters

If aerodynamics was one area the factories were focused on, holeshot devices were another. But it might be more accurate to characterize these as vehicle dynamics devices, perhaps. Four of the six manufacturers – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, and KTM – all had launch devices which lowered both front and rear suspension for the start of the race, leaving only Suzuki and Yamaha with a device which altered one end of the bike. Yamaha's device lowers the rear of the bike, while Suzuki might be regarded as having the biggest deficit in this regard, as the Suzuki device only locks down the front forks ready for the start.

Why is locking only the front down such a big disadvantage? Because the front holeshot device can only be used once. The rider compresses the forks (typically using the brakes coming up to their starting position, or actually on the grid), and the device holds the front end down until the brakes are applied and the spring holding the forks down releases as the forks compress further.

A holeshot device which acts on the rear suspension can be used after the start as well. We started to see Ducati lowering the rear suspension on corner exit throughout the race during the 2019 season. The benefit is simple: lowering the rear on corner exit helps lower the center of gravity, reducing wheelie and producing more drive. The faster you can exit the corner, the higher the top speed you can reach.

The construction is a little more complex on the rear than on the front. A simple catch system is not sufficient. Instead, a hydraulic or gas piston is needed to extend or compress the rear linkage. If you zoom in on the photo above, you can just see the piston fitted to the rear swingarm, under the D of chain sponsor DID.

If you compare the Ducati to this shot of Maverick Viñales on the 2021 Yamaha M1, you can see the difference in ride height the 'shapeshifter' on the Ducati makes. Miller's behind is much nearer the rear wheel of the Ducati than Viñales' is to the Yamaha's.

That creates its own set of problems. The lower the tail of the bike sits on corner exit, the less room there is for suspension travel – after all, the rear shock still has the same amount of travel, it's just that the swingarm is now at a different angle. That has required a change in design of the seat units and tails: Ducati's 'salad box' tail unit, housing a mass damper to help reduce chatter and damp out vibration, has been redesigned and is a slightly different shape. There is also less room for the fuel tank, which sits underneath the rider's seat close to the center of the bike. Changing the shape of that requires a general reconfiguring and squeezing of parts around to make room in front of and below the tank.

Though it is very hard to see in the photo of Jack Miller on the Ducati, it does not look like he is operating the 'shapeshifter' with his thumb, as was initially the case. There is a hint that this might be the case in the 2021 MotoGP regulations too.

In an expanded section on the use of suspension, originally stating only that electronic control of suspension was banned, there is now an explicit explanation of what precisely is allowed. Section 2.4.4.4 now reads:

2.4.4.4 Suspensions and Dampers

Electric/electronic controlled suspension, ride height and steering damper systems are not allowed. Adjustments to the suspension and steering damper systems may only be made by manual human inputs and mechanical/hydraulic adjusters, or passively determined by forces/displacements directly transmitted by mechanical/hydraulic connections (e.g. suspension position, load, acceleration, pitch... may be used as mechanical triggers of a passive adjustment).

For example, according to the above, ride height systems that operate on collapsible elements that collapse/extend under the load they are subjected to, and are locked/unlocked by the rider and/or by mechanically-triggered locks are allowed.

It is not beyond my meager brain to conceive of a system in which the rear of the bike squats automatically as the power is applied on corner exit, and held down until the brakes are applied at the end of the straight, or the downforce caused by the aerodynamics changes the pitch of the bike sufficiently to release the suspension again. If I can conceive of it, then I am sure the brilliant engineers in MotoGP have already made it work. (A very different result to if I tried to implement such a contraption.)

Vehicle dynamics – the way a bike rolls, pitches, leans, slides, wheelies – is the most interesting challenge for a motorcycle designer, precisely because the bike is moving in three different dimensions rather than just two, as is the case with cars. Employing and controlling those dynamics in search of ever greater performance is enormously valuable to manufacturers, and likely to make their way onto road bikes, though through the much simpler medium of electronic control.

An uncommon place

Beyond the ride height devices and aerodynamics, reading the tea leaves of the Qatar test is a complex and arduous task. Not only because the final day of the test was lost to conditions, which affected Suzuki above all, as discussed above. But also because Qatar is such a distinctive and unusual track.

First, there is the fact that track conditions are very different to most other circuits. The surface is abrasive, and often covered in sand. Track temperature at race time – the time when the teams focus most of their testing – is in the low 20s °C, 10 or more degrees below track temperatures at most European circuits.

And the track is only at that temperature for a relatively short time: in the hours of daylight, the track is much hotter, the temperature dropping rapidly as sunset approaches, before the golden hour of perfect grip. As the night encroaches, the dew point draws near, moisture sucking heat out of tires and, in the worst case scenario, starting to settle on the track rendering it treacherous.

Even setting aside the difficulties presented by the track conditions, there are other reasons why the Qatar test is such a poor yardstick for the remainder of the season. The track layout – a very high speed main straight with one hard braking zone, then a fast and flowing back section before eventually emerging onto the straight again – favors very specific types of motorcycles. If you can go fast down the straight and hang on through the turns, or exploit corner speed round the rear section and hang in the draft on the straight, then you can post a fast lap.

Crystal ball

That fact alone explains why the top of the timesheet is dominated by the Yamahas, the Ducatis, and Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia. Espargaro has always been fast around the Losail International Circuit, so it is hard to tell whether his excellent pace at the test is down to the revised and evolved Aprilia RS-GP or the Spaniard's affinity with the circuit.

Likewise, is the Ducati really that much better? Or is the fact that the high-speed straight plays into the Ducati horsepower, and the problem the bike had in certain braking situations with the rear Michelin tire just not an issue around the Losail?

Yamaha, too, face these questions. Is the horsepower deficit as big an issue in 2021 as it was last year? Is the 2021 chassis a big enough step forward to be consistently fast at a range of circuits? Or does the fact that the layout suit the Yamaha disguise any problems the bike might actually have?

This is particularly applicable to the KTMs. On the face of it, KTM had a horrible test at Qatar, Miguel Oliveira the fastest of the Austrian bikes, 1.343 off Jack Miller's best time. But KTM have a horrible track record around Qatar, having always struggled at the circuit. At last year's test at Losail, the KTMs were consistently in the bottom half of the timesheets, though the time gaps were much smaller.

The Losail layout doesn't provide the raw material the KTM can exploit. Apart from Turn 1, there are very few corners the RC16 can use its stability to brake deep and late into corners and gain time there. The KTM has made big steps forward in turning, but it still isn't as nimble as the Suzuki or Yamaha. It is no slowcoach, but neither is it the kind of rocket the Ducati is.

KTM's problem is that Losail simply doesn't offer a place for the RC16 to do the things it does well. And it has a lot of points where what is needed are the things the KTM only does reasonably.

The likelihood is that Yamaha, Ducati, and Aleix Espargaro will come away from Qatar with a strong result, while KTM will appear to have underperformed. But the Losail International Circuit is not Jerez, is not Mugello, is not Assen or the Sachsenring, is not Misano or Aragon. The lessons of the Qatar test are, above all, deceptive.


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