Ramon Forcada comes from the motorcycle racing heartland of Catalunya. He hails from the small town of Moià, capital of "comarca" of Moianès, located almost equidistant from the homes of two of Spain's best-known roadracers: Spain's first 500cc champion, Alex Crivillé, is from Seva, about 14 miles east of Moià, and Spain's first and only World Superbike Champion, Carlos Checa is from Sant Fruitós de Bages, about the same distance in the other way. Both Crivillé, in 125cc and 250cc, and Checa, in MotoGP, raced and won with machines fettled by Ramon.
In the most recent episode of Radio Ocotillo, a series of Spanish-language podcasts dedicated to MotoGP and WorldSBK from the Cinta Americana website of Dennis Noyes, Forcada, currently crew chief for Franco Morbidelli in the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, talked about the 2020 season that saw Morbidelli, on a 2019 Petronas Yamaha, win three GPs and take second to Joan Mir in the championship.
Morbidelli's break-out season is the most recent success in Forcada's 31-year career in GP racing that began when he ran the test bed program during Crivillé's championship-winning season on a Rotax-powered 125cc JJ-Cobas in 1989. Over the years, Forcada was crew chief for five riders who have won premier class Grands Prix (Alex Barros, Carlos Checa, Jorge Lorenzo, Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli) and, more famously, he headed the technical crew the took Jorge Lorenzo to Yamaha's last three MotoGP titles.
We concentrate here on Forcada's MotoGP accomplishments, but, as background, we should note that in 1989 Ramon was earning his living transporting hazardous materials across Europe. Motorcycles were a passion and a hobby and he rode and worked on all manner of two-stroke off-road machines in the mid to late eighties. It was during this time he met the OSSA engineer Eduard Giró who mentored Forcada when he undertook to prepare two-stroke roadracers for the Solo Moto Criterium racing series. He was later contacted by Giró and legendary Spanish engineer and chassis designer Antonio Cobas to take over test bed operations with the 125cc Rotax engine that powered Alex Crivillé, at age 19, to the 125cc world title, defeating strong and well-funded teams from Honda, Derbi and Aprilia.
Ramon has done it all…raced offroad, worked as a flag marshal at the 24 Hours of Montjuic and learned his trade working with some of the best…like Eduard Giró, Antonio Cobas, Erv Kanemoto, etc.. Ramon makes no bones about the fact that he still prefers two-strokes to four-strokes and that he misses they days when he was rebuilding and even modifying factory engines, but he has evolved with MotoGP and combines his experience as a suspension technician and engine builder with an ability understand and interpret riders and to make and stick to an orderly working plan over a race weekend, always keeping focus on that two o'clock start time on Sunday.
The duration of our podcast was just over 90 minutes. We might have gone on longer but there was a Barcelona match on TV that evening and nothing but a Grand Prix can keep Ramon from following his beloved "Barça."
To make this into a form more easily digestible when reading on the internet, the interview has been chopped into three parts. Part 1 covers how Franco Morbidelli adapted to the Yamaha, how Forcada managed two engines to last for almost an entire fourteen-race season, and how to use electronics to control the power delivery of a MotoGP machine. Part 2 discusses the differences between the 2020 and 2019 Yamahas, and looks at the various machines Forcada has worked with throughout his career, and Part 3 sees Forcada talk about some of the very famous riders he has worked with in the past.
Radio Ocotillo: When you raced two consecutive weekends at the same circuit this season, did you make any radical changes from one race to another or only small changes working from the same base settings?
Ramon Forcada: No. I think our secret is that we haven't made a single radical change all season long. For me, the great difference between our season this year and last year, apart from the tight schedule and the problems from Covid-19, has been the mentality of our rider. If you will recall, Franky came into the team as the number 2 rider. The original #1, when all this was first discussed at the end of 2018, was to have been Jorge Lorenzo and then the new #1 was to have been Dani Pedrosa…in fact I was talking to Dani at the time and it was all nearly, nearly done until he decided not to continue racing. In all these preseason talks Franky was the second rider. When Dani decided not to race there was a change of roles and Franky became the number 1 rider and they signed Fabio Quartararo who became the number 2.
In 2019 both our bikes were equal but with a different plan for evolution during the season. This was according to the contracts, the budgets and the expectations. It was decided that Franky would have a full factory 2019 bike in 2019 and that Fabio would get the same bike but without updates during the season. So, what happened? Franky came from a season with a client-level Honda with very significant "vices." He was accustomed to a bike that was completely different from the Yamaha. Fabio came with no experience in MotoGP, a MotoGP virgin with no acquired "vices" from another MotoGP bike, and he went really well. His season last year was incredible and Franky was, we could say, in the shadow of Fabio.
There were two ways to take this: one was to say that here was this guy, new to the class, who was faster and better, or to look at the positive side of things, and this is what Franky did. So, over the winter, he said to himself, what I have been doing is not enough to even beat my own team mate, because Fabio has shown that with this bike you can fight for wins. If everyone who has the same bike that you have is running outside the top ten, then you have a shield…you can say, this is not a top-ten bike, but when the guy in your team with the same bike, a bike that in theory is inferior…although very quickly Yamaha brought evolution to Fabio's side of the garage…is fighting for podiums, then you have to say to yourself, I can do the same.
RO: All season long we have Heard Yamaha riders, especially Fabio and Maverick, complain of lack of grip in the Yamaha. What was happening with the M1?
RF: That was not happening just with the M1, it was happening with all the bikes. When there is grip the bikes go well and when there is not the bikes go badly. The grip comes from the track. When there is no grip there is a change in priorities. The rider becomes more important because the electronics aren't capable of solving the problem with the variations in grip and that means the rider has to play with the throttle in his hand and lately riders are not so accustomed to this. When the grip goes away you have to go to different settings.
It's clear that when you have a bike that is working and it starts to rain you have to go to different settings. The change from dry to wet is a very exaggerated change but you have got to make changes to use what grip remains to be able to corner, to accelerate and to brake so the rider can ride, so he can control it, so that he can play with it…and he has to play with it a lot more with little grip than with lots of grip. You have to change the bike so that the rider is capable of riding it, feeling it and this is all in the hands of the rider.
And here I think there is an important factor in Franky…a mental factor…he worked all winter to convince himself, to believe that he could do it, so that when hard times came he could remain convinced, because if you build your confidence during seven months, telling yourself "I can do it, I can do it," and then with the first problem that comes up you deflate, all you did over those off-season months is useless.
This year it has been much easier to work with him because he had it very clear in his mind that the races are on Sunday, that the bikes are never perfect and that you have to work and work knowing that we, the team, has a plan, that we know what we are doing. That is very important, because at times you find that you are working with riders who, after you and the team and the rider have made a plan and everyone agrees on the plan…like, you decide in a free practice not to put on a new tire or not to use a soft tire and you know this can mean you are outside the Q2, that you may be twelfth or thirteenth or fourteenth, but that you are following a testing plan…and the rider agrees, and then he comes in during the session and sees where he is and he wants to change the plan.
With Franky, he doesn't like being twelfth…no rider does…but he has understood all along why he's twelfth or thirteenth and what we are doing and why and so he never panics and says "I'm stuck in thirteenth." Franky sees he is thirteenth because the others put in a new soft tire, but that we had followed our plan of making a long run on a used tire while the rider on the other side of the garage has been in and out on a soft, a medium and then made a time attack on a new soft and he's on the pole…there aren't many riders who are capable of accepting their situation and staying on the work path.
If we are thirteenth because we can't go faster, that is a complete disaster, but if we are thirteenth because we have gathered information and completed the plan, then we know we are going to improve and there is no panic and we all know what we can do in the next session. The technical difference between what riders have is very small. The fact is when you have a good base and the rider is comfortable with this base and when the rider feels that this is my bike, my bike and we can adjust it and play with little things and there is no reason to make big changes, no need to construct a new motorcycle from one session to another, this is a great advantage because we can look at little things…this made it better, this didn't, we can tweak this or that, but not build a complete new bike…because this is his bike, our bike, and we can fix it to suit him.
RO: One of the things that journalists have discussed this year is how your team managed all the races after Jerez, twelve races, with just two engines. All sorts of calculations were made over the year and many journalists predicted that you would have to drop in a sixth engine. Since the third race of the season, you had to work with a rotation of two motors, didn't you?
RF: I didn't have enough motors to rotate. Easier for me (laughs). Less work. When you have three motors you have a rotation. When there are only two you don't have to do anything except take care of them so they don't break. No, I'm joking. Yes, there were just two motors after Jerez and after what happened with our third engine…a situation that was out of our hands and that worked against us after the engines breakages in the first race and we went to different engines for the second race, engines that were different, and we broke one of those motors, one of those that you could say, in theory, were the "new" ones.
And after that there was a bit of panic as we were looking at the rest of the season with just two engines and they had to last all season. The mechanics had more work to do because we had to treat the engines like babies…we had to control everything. There are many systems to control the motor without opening them, without disturbing the seals, and obviously Yamaha didn't break a seal because then we would have had problems, but Jordi Perez (who works with Technical Director Danny Aldridge) was always there to make sure that didn't happen. (Laughs.)
So, to be on top of everything without opening a motor you have to work with optic devices, introducing mini-cameras via the exhaust, via the plug holes, etc, and work hard to keep everything perfect. Change oil a lot. That ended up costing Petronas a lot of oil! We used almost more oil than gasoline! Since we had to make these engines last we were changing oil every ten minutes. It was more work for the mechanics, but we knew we could manage it.
There are a couple of factors. That was one. The other was controlling performance. When you have checked, decarbonized and babied the engine as much as possible and you see the output remains stable, that's a good sign. If the performance begins to suffer then you know you've got a problem coming, but we had no decrease in performance through the final race of the season.
It was extra work, staying on top of everything, but we had no choice. We had no more motors in the truck. The journalists were all making calculations on when we'd need to go to another motor. I said to the crew, jokingly, we've got to make these motors last because there are seven million people out there worried sick about them. (Laughs.) Nobody worried about our engines more than the press."
RO: And many observers theorized that you had cut revs. Some thought you were turning down revs for free practice and turning them up for Q2.
RF: All this about RPM is an amusing story. You have to understand how the motor is constructed. We don't have infinite RPM…if your engine revs, say, 20,000, you can't turn it up to 25,000. You have the maximum power at certain revs and the maximum torque at certain revs. You can't change that but you can play with the rev limiters. But the truth is that we never lowered the rev limit in any practice session or in any race. All that has been said about our rev limits is not true. We never cut revs.
But I'll tell you what we did do and how we did it. The motors have an RPM limiter that we call an ignition cut. That high and no higher. At this RPM, the ignition ceases. This is what you hear when the fans in the camp grounds of Jerez go wild at night revving their engines in neutral. Gas flat out and you hear pa-pa-pa-pa! That is the hard ignition cut. But before you arrive at the hard cut, there is a soft limiter that serves to prevent you from reaching that hard cut.
The cut is a disaster for everything and first of all for the tires. It is a disaster for the tires, it is a disaster for the motor because it causes oscillations of power and revs that are terrible, and it is a disaster for the rider because, no matter how good the ignition cut is, it creates vibrations throughout the motor that cause movement because you have a sudden loss of power. This is bad in every way, except to avoid, let's say, breaking a rod or crossing valves, but you don't avoid anything else.
So, the soft limiter warns you and prevents arriving at the abrupt ignition cut. What this does is back off the power right before maximum RPM, lowering the power just before the limit. The only thing we did was manage, via the gearing, was that we never went beyond the soft limiter and avoided that the soft limiter came into play often. The soft limiter is not so bad, but it's not good for the engine either and since we found ourselves in a critical situation we decided to avoid it. That was a matter of studying where we were in revs in all gears in each session…if we were getting into the soft limiter here in this gear then we would lengthen the gearing so we would give us another 50 RPM before reaching the soft limiter. But we never lowered the overall rev limit all season long.
RO: Were these strategies dictated by the factory, by Yamaha? Were these strategies worked out among the team or did the factory devise them?
RF: No, no! This was all done by us. This is all done when we set up the gearbox and gearing. When you decide on the gearing, after you see where you are short or long on gearing and after hearing what the rider says. If there is a straight where in fourth gear you are getting into the soft limiter then next time out you lengthen the gearing in that place 2 or 3 km/h and that takes you right up to the point where the soft limiter starts to act.
All you get from Yamaha is the basic numbers…this motor works up to 20,000 or this motor works up to 17,000*…that is where the absolute engine cut comes in, but there are a thousand strategies because it is not always good to work at maximum power or maximum torque.
Let me give you an example from 125cc racing. What we did was let all the gears wind out to 13,000 RPM but in sixth we geared for 12,500 because at 13,000 in sixth gear with the 125 you were in the zone where power was starting to drop away so you hold your top speed but there is no more acceleration…no more torque, no more push, so you run up to 12,500 where you still have push, torque, but not to the point where you lose all power.
This is with the two stroke but it is also true with the four stroke. There are corners like turn 13 in Valencia, the left-hander before the last corner onto the home straight, where everybody in MotoGP used fourth, but if you look at it from a strictly technical point of view you are doing it badly in fourth. Depending on the rider, Turn 12 is in second or third and it doesn't matter which, but you come to Turn 13 you take it in fourth even though on the computer screen it is a third-gear corner.
But because of the configuration of the corner, the banking, the elevation change, the available grip, if you take it in at the peak torque of the engine, you'll never get around the corner because it will be spinning, sliding, twisting, moving all over, with terrible pumping while you are banked way over with high power. So the solution is you take the corner in the wrong gear, the gear that is not ideal, so instead of having the motor at 15,000 you are coming out with 12,000…less torque, but softer power, so you don't always go to maximum RPM, you go to what the tire, the bike and the rider can manage.
Look, those curves you take in first and second and even third, you can't use full power. If you are running a second gear that reaches 240 km/h with the power you have, if the rider were really to open up all the power the bike could not take it, the tires couldn't handle it. So you are always lowering the power almost everywhere. Always. This is evident. No tire at low speed could handle such a brutal power delivery in second or third.
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