Radio Ocotillo, the podcast from the Cinta Americana website featuring the Spanish-language work of Dennis Noyes, spoke to Ramon Forcada, crew chief to Franco Morbidelli of the Petronas Yamaha team. Veteran journalist Noyes was joined by Teledeporte commentator Judit Florensa and journalist Cristian Ramón Marín Sanchi, and spoke to Forcada for some 90 minutes. Noyes translated that fascinating conversation into English for MotoMatters.com readers, and split it into three parts.
In part one of Radio Ocotillo's podcast interview with Ramon Forcada, he explained how he and Yamaha had managed almost an entire season on just two engines. In the second part, Forcada talks about the differences between the bike which Morbidelli raced in 2020 and the 2020-spec Yamaha M1s of Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Fabio Quartararo. He talks about how he uses data from previous seasons to understand what to do in a particular season. And he talks about the greater lessons he learned from the past.
Over the thirty one years of his career, Forcada has worked on a lot of different motorcycles and engines. He reviews his experience, and talks about the bikes he loved, and how the job has changed over the years. And he gives a frank opinion on the current state of MotoGP's technical regulations.
Radio Ocotillo: All season long we have been hearing that there were two types of Yamaha. The three 2020 bikes and your 2019 bike. Are the motors identical not just inside but also externally?
Ramon Forcada: With the motors, the basic motors, the thermodynamics are identical. The motors are different externally because the frames are different. If the engine mounts don't line up with the frame you can't interchange engines. There is practically no difference between the 2019 and 2020 engines. To try and find extra power, which is what we have always needed, we worked on the intake ducting and the airbox and, since the bike is built so compactly, in order to put a different airbox or to alter the ducting, there are pieces, sensors, cables and things, that you have to move, and when you move them you are changing the center of gravity.
If you have to move the ECU that weighs, let's say, 600 grams and you originally had it farther forward but now you have to move it backward because you have altered the airbox, you have moved 600 grams farther back in the bike and that changed the balance of the bike. That means the bike is different, but as far as rigidity and dimensions are concerned, the 2020 and the 2019 are identical. You just move some parts around for reasons of space.
RO: Sometimes this season it seemed that was a fire burning in Yamaha that was singeing the eyebrows of three-quarters of the Yamaha entry and there you were, at the side, wearing flameproof clothing and giving the appearance of being separate from all the confusion. As we have been doing the post-race analysis we have found ourselves talking about the Yamaha problems but talking about your side of the garage as if you were not part of whatever was going on with the other teams. Maverick and Quartararo, for example, talked a lot about problems while you and your team were always on the sideline and not really complaining about anything and yet you were the Yamaha team getting the best results.
RF: The truth is that I never worked with the 2020 bike. I can tell you the differences but these are differences on paper and from observation. I haven't worked with the 2020 M1 and Franky hasn't ridden the 2020. So I can talk about the little things we changed, but I have no direct experience working with the 2020 so I can't really say what was happening to them.
I would like to have tried it, because I know what I am doing with my bike and that it is working well for Franky, I am capable of doing something in the same line with the other bike, even though the numbers on the spec sheet are different. There are a series of parameters in the bike…5, 6, 7 or 10 at the most, that make up the base of the bike: Wheelbase, weight distribution, height of center of gravity which determines pitching, the center of gravity of the wheels, trail, chain route, a series of things that you can play with.
All of these establish the basis of the bike…and all of these you can adjust with the 2020…not completely identically because you don't have infinite options. For example, if you shorten or lengthen the chain by one link…that's 16 mm…a tooth is 4 mm, but it's not exact. If what I want is the swing arm 2mm shorter, I can't do it. It's impossible. I can put in a sprocket of 39 teeth or a 38 and that is 4mm of difference but not the 2mm that I need and that would be ideal, but I can get very close playing with the position of the swingarm, then engine position, the length of the swingarm, the height of the rear shock, I can look for a close similarity, but I never got a chance to work with the 2020. But it is something that I believe could be done and that it wouldn't, perhaps, be identical, but I think it would produce a bike that would work.
And, remember, the 2020 is the bike that won more races than any other in the championship. It can have its problems as all bikes do, but it won four GPs…that's not so many but it's more than any other bike…and Yamaha won seven of fourteen. If you look at those numbers you can't say it is a bike that doesn't work. The bike that doesn't work is the one that doesn't ever work anywhere.
I work a lot to keep track of data from the past, of things I have done to solve problems. So when a problem comes up, you say, this reminds me of a problem that I had in 2015, and then you go back to 2015 and you see that nothing is the same, not the tires, not the suspension, not the bike, but there is a pattern, a line of work. If I had a problem in Assen in 2015 and I solved it by putting more weight up front, now with a similar problem, even though nothing is the same, maybe I can solve it by putting weight up front. The weight will be different, the bike different, everything different, but in 2015 it was the same circuit and the bike is basically the same and I solved a problem by moving weight, so probably if I move weight again I'll solve it or at least lessen the problem.
These are things that you find in your background information…with this rider I did that and this happened…you have a quantity of gigabytes, no terabytes, of data that help. We go to the same tracks. Except for Portimao this year we were on tracks where we knew everything…there is the circuit that needs stability, the circuit that needs agility, the circuit that needs front load and the circuit that needs weight on the rear to prevent spinning. So you've got all that information tucked away in your memory, and then you go to a new circuit like Portimao and you are fighting it during the first sessions and then at the end you find what works. You adapt to the changes.
RO: Speaking of changes, you have had to adapt over the years to many big changes. Two-stroke to four-stroke, 500 to 990cc, then 990cc to 800, then 800cc to 1000 and with big changes to the electronics, with the introduction of the standard ECU…all those changes…how have riders adapted to them?
RF: Those are all problems for Valentino, nobody else. He's the only one who has experienced all that. I can't talk to Franky about the 800cc. He never experienced that and I don't even mention two-strokes…all that with the 500cc, 250cc, 125cc, and 80cc two strokes…none of that. Not the 990cc bikes or the 800s. I can't talk about any of that to Franky…and not just Franky. Almost all of them. Now that Jorge and Dani have retired there is nobody left who knows what the 800cc was like so I just look at the rider I have and try and figure out what he needs.
Every rider has his own history but when it comes to looking at data from the past it is funny. If I look at Jerry's (Jeremy Burgess) notes from 2004 I'll understand his words but I won't understand HIS meanings. This is important with riders too. You have to know what they are trying to say with their words. I make my notes my way, and Jerry did his way, so if I read his notes I don't know what those words mean to him. So I stick to my own notes. I read something I wrote five years ago and I know exactly what I meant when I said the rider complained the bike was pushing the front, but if Jerry wrote the same about Valentino in 2005, that might mean something else.
RO: I am imagining a rider who rode in 2015 coming into 2016 with the new, more limited electronics package and asking you to make some changes that the new electronics won't handle.
RF: Yes, that happened. With the new electronics, the rider notices what the bike does, but not the changes that are made to change the bike. If the rider says, "I am spinning." I have got several ways to solve that. With changes to the chassis set-up…I can load weight to the rear, but if it turns out that if I load the rear I lose too much corner grip in the front, then I have to turn to the electronics, taking away power.
That's what electronics is for…it is anti-mechanical. In all the teams there is a department spending millions to make more power and in the next room there is another team spending millions to reduce the power that the neighbors next door made. That is how factories work. Very sad.
But those are my options. It's spinning so I take away power. I can use traction control so when the bike sees it is spinning it cuts throttle or it cuts ignition or it cuts the ignition advance…whatever strategy works best…I can just reduce power so that when the rider is holding the throttle 100% open, the butterfly is at 80%...or 70% or 60% or 40%...so the rider says "I'm spinning. Make it quit spinning."
So, the electronics engineer comes in and he has to know the rider well enough to know what he wants…whether he prefers you to retard the ignition, or cut the injection. Or does he just want a direct ignition cut? For example, Casey Stoner…he liked a full ignition cut. There are riders who can't live with that. So how you solve the problem depends on who you are working for.
So we're sitting there and I've got the electronics engineer at my side who knows the rider and he says, "OK, We've got too much power so I am going to cut back with the traction control and with some ignition retard and I'm going to give the power back as the revs rise or according to the lean angle…this depends on a thousand factors. It's good if the rider knows what is being done, but the important thing is that the bike quits spinning in a way the rider likes.
You want to solve the problem in a way that makes the rider more comfortable than if you used another solution to the same problem. But there were sensors that you used to have (before 2016) that you don't have now and you have to supplement them…imagine them…or find another way to measure what is happening…you have to use the maps you have to make the bike the most comfortable for your rider. You can't just copy solutions because you can have two riders with the same problem and the solution is different for each one.
The end solution is the same…to lower power…but one rider wants an ignition cut and the other wants you to use the soft limiter and another wants you to do it with a fuel cut. Each rider is a world to themselves.
But it is true that the riders who were around before the limits on electronics are used to many features that are, for the moment, not available…solutions that we will find because, even though there are standard electronics now, the teams keep working in programming and a thousand things, and between the electronics that we have now compared to the electronics of 2016 there is a big difference, even though the base is the same. All this has developed.
So sometimes you have to say to the rider, "you'll have to wait a month for us to fix what you are asking me to fix," or maybe I might say, "I don't know if we can fix it, because you are accustomed to solutions that we had with all the freedom and possibilities before 2016." If we were able, with what he have now, to recover what he had in 2015, the riders who are now happy with the electronics, would say that they preferred the 2020 electronics because it is what they have lived with.
For us the change in electronics has been a very important change that has equalized things. When I started in MotoGP with the four strokes with the five-cylinder in 2002, we, the mechanics and technicians, did everything except ride the bikes. We changed valves, we were free to use as many motors as we wanted, we had the heads off whenever we wanted. We were free to do what we wanted. The last time I worked with my hands…except for now and then today when I work on a gearbox for the enjoyment of doing the work…the last time I worked "officially" with my hands was when I was rebuilding Honda 990cc V5 engines.
RO: There seems to be some nostalgia when you talk about past times. Is there something specific that you would like to recover from past eras when regulations were much more open…something that as a technician you say to yourself, "I wish we could go back to that?"
RF: No, it's impossible. In the beginning of the four-stroke era, it was an incipient period, nobody knew how things were going to work, what would be the best regulations. It was wide open. There were bikes with three, four, five cylinders…in the end, it was necessary to limit so many things.
But for me, there are two engines that I loved. One was the motor or the NSR 500. It was a really good factory motor and, theoretically, you didn't need to change anything, but everybody did. It was really easy to work with the two stroke. Honda said this engine is at its maximum and that was never true because, if you recall, there were some NSRs much faster than others and, in theory, that shouldn't have happened. Now you look at the top speeds and there are the Ducatis doing their top speed, there are the Suzukis, then the Honda and the Yamahas, and that's where we are and where we stay because we can't do anything except play with the gearing and the suspension, but just miserable little details.
But with the 500s you were free to get your hands into those motors and there were some motors that really ran…there were two-stroke crazy people ("locos de los dos tiempos"). I remember when I was working in Showa and working with Kanemoto. Kanemoto was the real two-stroke madman…watching him, just watching him I learned so much. I learned that what they said about the engines being OK as they came from the factory was not true at all.
I don't think Erv will hear this, but Erv, with the 250s in the Biaggi days, would get in there with his sandpaper and change the diameter of the carb needles…I don't mean he took out one needle and put in another, he rubbed and polished and measured with the micrometer and he made it a little more conical…he did things that caused the Honda guys to put their hands to their heads…the Honda guys said, "No, no, those needles were made by Mr. Mikuni and they are perfect," but Erv just kept at it.
I learned things like that, later, from Santi too, Santi Mulero who was working on the 500s before me. The pistons in theory came prepared, but no, we polished and filed and sandpapered and with a triangular stone we reworked the piston rings slots to keep the rings free, little details that made little differences and it was a lot of fun.
And the other motor I loved was the Honda 990cc V5. It had two really good features. It was very simple. It is in the Motegi museum and the mechanics who work with today's engines are amazed by the few parts and the lack of anything extraordinary in that super simple and super robust engine that was very, very fast.
But there was no engine braking. The rider had to deal with that. There were even cables from the throttle to the carbs, something that hasn't been for years now…cables…the rider twisted the throttle and the butterflies opened, the rider closed the throttle and the butterflies closed. Not now. Now the rider thinks he's on the gas…but there is a box with a little brain between his wrist and the butterflies that says, "no, no, you're on the gas but I'm not giving gas to you because I don't have the right feedback to give you gas."
RO: So, Ramon, would you like there to be a kind of open formula to return all those freedoms?
RF: The problem is with the factories, with the budgets. If you give complete liberty, speaking as a technician, forgetting about the championship, for me the regulations for MotoGP could be written on five or six lines. No more. You would put, displacement, weight, wheel sizes and fuel capacity. That's all!
Here's my theory, my idea, kind of strange but something I think you journalists would understand. Look. Honda told the engineers to build a 1000cc engine and there was a man who thought the ideal would be a five cylinder...illogical in layout, because two cylinders in front and three in back would have worked with the fairing, but this man said no, I want three cylinders in front and two in the back and the aerodynamics man said, but these three front cylinders will upset the fairing design but the engine man had his theory and he did it his way and the engine was amazing.
But there was Mr. Yamaha who said, no, no, we do in-line four engines because that's what we know how to do. We don't do Vs. And there was Mr. Ducati who said, I'm building a desmodromic engine because that's what I've been doing since 1956 and that's what we do in our house. This was fun. Everybody did what they knew how to do.
But imagine you are all told you have to write an article with all your skill and your science, but you can only write with your little fingers. So, in the end you would write the same article but it take twice as long, you'd be uncomfortable, but you'd write what you knew, what you would have written anyway. So, what is the point of making you write in a crippled manner?
I'd say the same about the engineer. Let him do what he knows. If there is a man who knows how to build five-valve motors, let him build five-valve motors. If there is a guy who, like when Ilmor showed up, someone like Mario Illien, who says, "I'm building a ten cylinder engine for Mercedes-McLaren, and I'm going to chop off three cylinders and I've got a 900cc MotoGP engine. Let everybody do what they want.
But what would happen is the budgets would get out of control…and you'd have to forget about seeing close races like we have seen this year. For me, on a technical level, freedom would be great, but the championship, the spectacle, would come out losing and there would be factories that would leave as happened in the past when there were seven NSR 500s running sometimes in the first seven places.
Sure, I'd like a championship where you could have six cylinders if you wanted and 8-speed gearboxes if you can get it to fit in the bike. Remember, there were 50cc bikes with 14 gears. It's good that there are limits, but when the seamless gearbox came along, I am convinced that if there hadn't been limits all the bikes would be running double clutch gearboxes…with ten or twelve gears with hydraulic drive. Fortunately, this is prohibited because there would be an increase in budgets that would run us all off the road.
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