Costs in MotoGP have exploded since the introduction of four-stroke engines, with the rise turning almost exponential once the relatively simple 990s were dropped to make way for the 800cc MotoGP machines. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, MotoGP has been looking for ways to cut costs, with much of the effort taking place through changes to the technical regulations. The first step was a return to 1000cc engines, with a bore limit of 81mm to keep revs down. The following steps will be the imposition of a strict rev limit - most probably 15,000 RPM - and the introduction of controls on electronics through the adoption of a spec ECU.
There has been much debate about the proposed rule changes, and especially about the introduction of a single ECU. Electronics have come to play a central role in MotoGP, and have been a massive driver of costs in the sport, with the manufacturers focusing much of their development on developing ever-more sophisticated electronics strategies for maximizing performance from the 21 liters of fuel permitted for the MotoGP bikes. The fans and followers are divided: many would welcome a strict limit on the electronics used on the bikes, claiming that the amount of electronic intervention is ruining the racing and taking control out of the hands of the riders and placing it with the software engineers who write the code for the ECUs. Others deride that argument, saying that imposing a spec ECU is yet another step in the dumbing down of MotoGP, and another move away from the unfettered pursuit of advantage in every area, including technology, that underlies the spirit of Grand Prix racing.
Would a spec ECU lead to the unacceptable dumbing down of racing? Would it really help to control costs? To help clarify the debate, MotoMatters.com spoke to MotoGP's Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli, the man who was brought in by Dorna at the beginning of last year to help lay out a stable plan for the series in the future. Cecchinelli explained to us the thinking behind the adoption of a standard ECU, and went into detail about the capabilities which such a component may have. Throughout the interview, Cecchinelli was at pains to point out that a final decision had not yet been made on the adoption of a spec ECU, and that the introduction of a rev limit and spec ECU were the final steps in establishing a stable set of rules which could be used unchanged for several years.
MotoMatters: We've heard so much about the introduction of a spec ECU in MotoGP, that we came to you to clear the issue up. What exactly are the plans for the ECU?
Corrado Cecchinelli: The truth is, we are considering introducing a single ECU in MotoGP. Which first of all means the same hardware and software for everybody. So this is the first point. Actually, this is the second point, because the first point is "we are considering" which means the decision is not final yet. The second point is that if the single ECU is accepted, it will be the same hardware and same software for everybody. The same software means that in our idea, it will be like in Moto3 now, people will have a sort of calibration or tuning tool and they will be able to make the track tuning of all the parameters but they will not be able to write their own software.
MM: So they will be able to load engine maps, but not write traction control algorithms?
CC: Correct. When you say engine maps, you should include chassis maps, if you want. Something like, for instance, traction control, for me, I don't know if you call it engine or chassis. But it means that they will be able to tune their traction control but it will work the same for everybody. So, if it will be based on, say, lean angle, then it will be based on lean angle for everybody. If it is based just on comparison between front and rear wheels, it will be the same for everybody. So, as you say, the algorithm will be the same for all.
MM: Essentially, the parameters will be available, the algorithm will be fixed for using those parameters, and then it's just be a matter of tweaking the variables.
CC: I think it is clear why the idea is this. But anyway, it is because this will save huge money for the big companies, and it will close one of the biggest technical gaps between the big ones and the small ones. Of course it will not make a huge difference on the small ones' budget, because they basically have running costs in electronics, so this is not a huge difference in costs for them. The difference for them is the relative competitiveness, while the difference in money will be huge for the big spenders that have a big R&D structure. So I'm happy you come and talk to me, because there is a lot of talk about "OK, but the small teams are spending 30,000 euros per year, this won't change". No. They will save this - probably, because the idea is to give it to them for free - but they will not just save this small amount, but they will have the same level of engine control as the big teams. This is the big gain for them.
MM: You will still see gaps in competitiveness, as you have seen in Moto2 where they can only change the maps, and there are some people who get the maps better than others.
CC: For me, of course that software will be more complicated, and more than that, it will be applied to more difficult situations, like more powerful engines and things like this, so tuning it well or tuning it badly will make a bigger difference than in Moto3. For instance, in Moto3, we have a reasonable traction control system that nobody is using, because it's not needed. Of course, if it is needed, then the tuning makes a difference. This is what I am saying. But still, everybody will have the same chances to get to the same level.
Of course, the big teams will be better anyway, first of all, because they can start with better engines. This is the main point. Of course, they have more ability to do the job at home, I mean that rideability of an engine is made by two factors: one is how well you map it at home, and how well you - I don't know the term in English - 'characterize' it at home. You take the picture of your engine at home. If you are good at doing that, you have a better starting point. In this, you can make no difference, because you cannot control how many hours they spend on the dyno at home. And then comes the proper tuning on the track, which is the other part of the job, but not all of it. But the base idea is you can have a shit engine and make it work with proper tuning, or you can have a perfect engine and need no tuning. Probably you will be in between.
MM: So what's the idea with the CRTs for next year? I know there are talks with Magneti Marelli about supplying an ECU...
CC: There is nothing regarding CRTs vs full prototypes. This is just fantasy. The idea is that in case the project will go on, we would like to offer it - not force it - but offer it for the year before the enforcement. This is the idea. But no mention of the CRTs or whatever, the idea is that if we are introducing it in the year number 0, in the year 0 minus 1, it will be available for anyone who wants to try it.
MM: So if it's 2015 for the spec ECU, then it will be offered in 2014; if it's 2014 for the spec ECU, then it will be offered in 2013?
CC: Correct. And of course it will be a bit more free than the final version so that we can make evolution. For instance, a key point of the final version will of course be the rev limiter, which will be free in the trial version, so that people don't have to make a new engine one year earlier.
MM: There is one question I would really like answered, which I don't have enough of an engineering background to answer. People say that the difficulty with a standard ECU for everyone is the different engine configurations.
CC: That's not true. That's an argument for the people who don't want a single ECU for other reasons. The ECUs and their relevant software are made to work exactly the same for every engine configuration. This is their design starting point. So this is an argument invented by those who are against it.
MM: To my mind, all an ECU does is tell the engine when and how much fuel to inject, and when to fire a spark to ignite the fuel.
CC: Your mind is correct. Just imagine that the same ECU works for four cylinder, eight cylinder, single cylinder. So the ECU is stupid enough not to care how the engine is made. But still I would like in the trial year, the more different the people are who will endorse it, the happier we are. Because still it's experience, so I'm saying that in theory, it makes no difference, but I would be happy if the configurations are as different as possible. Just to prove it is right not to take it into consideration.
MM: Like the old saying "in theory, it works in practice"?
CC: Exactly. So the more difficult this practice is in the trial year, the happier we are. So if we have a V4 and an inline four, we are happy.
MM: So as much difference as possible?
CC: The best case is something like you start with an engine and you change the firing order during the season. This is the best trial case, so that we can try the most difficult situation in a real racing situation. But I'm confident it will not be a problem. Of course, it must be said that the goal is not to have exactly what we have now, I mean someone will lose something. This must be clear. But this is not an argument against this idea. It's like saying that we don't like Moto3 because they will be slower than 125s. This is not the point - and it is not even true now, more or less [the Moto3 bikes lapped faster than the 125s at Mugello this year - MM] - but anyway at the start, this was not a concern. If one rider complains that his traction control was better with the factory's own ECU, that will not be a drawback of the system. It's almost a design target, to make it worse.
MM: Shuhei Nakamoto of HRC said that in Formula One, when they introduced the spec ECU, they spent a lot of time and a lot of money working their way around the system. Won't this be true here?
CC: I assume this is true, because I respect Nakamoto-san, but the environment is completely different, because the software is almost free in Formula One. There are big chunks of the software where you can write your own, so of course you want to bring it as close to perfection as possible. But here the system will be very closed, and also the idea is, when I say hardware, I include the sensors and things like this, so you really have to machine your aluminium parts to accept everything.
MM: People have also mentioned trying to hack the wiring loom...
CC: I think the wiring loom is really a small issue, once you have the pin-out and the sensors, possibly the actuators also, coils, injectors, things like this, which is something we are considering. If we make a full package.
MM: It will have to be from a top-level manufacturer, with a lot of experience...
CC: Of course, it will be from a top manufacturer, because we don't want to make any mistakes in this. I mean we must be in control if we want to have a level that is not exactly the state of the art, it must be in our hands, not because we can't do that. We must have the ability to tune it at the level which is optimal for us. We need to be able to get to the top level if we want. So we will choose very powerful hardware and a very respectable supplier.
MM: People with a lot of experience, because it is easier to tune down than it is to tune up...
CC: This is the idea. But the final target is not to have a top level at the moment. It is to have a level to control the overall performance.
MM: Do you think that it really will make such a big difference?
CC: Yes, I think so.
MM: You're convinced?
CC: Yes. I think it will be effective for both of the goals I mentioned, which are saving the overall money which is spent in MotoGP, and a big part is R&D from the big companies; and closing the gap, and the big part of this is making the low ones higher.
Our interview with Cecchinelli raised a number of extra questions which only occurred once I returned home and started typing out the interview. I emailed those questions to Cecchinelli, and he was kind enough to provide some extra answers. Once again, he emphasized that all of these answers needed to be prefaced by the words "if the single ECU proposal is adopted." Nevertheless, they make for an interesting addendum.
MM: A spec ECU has a number of implications. As we saw with Hayden's bike at Estoril, and Lorenzo's bike during QP at Mugello, the software is aware of its location on the track. I presume that this function will be gone from a spec software package? That won't stop riders from swapping maps between corners, of course, replicating manually what the computer does, but it won't be automatic.
CC: This is still to be decided; on the one hand a single ECU is a good chance to get rid of some exotic complications like chassis controls based on the bike position, on the other hand we have to consider all the issues that any decision brings into the game. For instance your point is good: if we remove the ability of the software to understand the track position, but still we have different selectable maps, we will probably push riders to operate using handlebar switches, which in general is not the safest thing to do (despite that it is working now). In that case, why not remove the "tracking software" AND the maps switch? So, as you see, it is not that easy to to take decisions like this in a hurry. As a general note it must be said that, with a single ECU, even some software "complications" like tracking ability, we can keep these under control in the sense that first of all it would be us who will be able to control their level of sophistication (i.e. the money spent into them), and then they would make no difference between the big manufacturers and the independent teams, so they are to me a lesser concern than now. I mean: in general the costs and the performance gap that technical freedom brings into the game is huge in a "free" environment, while it is negligible with a controlled ECU. But still it is not zero: the money to develop high-end strategies would come from somewhere in the MotoGP world anyway (us or the teams, it is always money that can be used with different purposes if not in the ECU and software), and still there is a (smaller) difference that big teams can make with perfect track tuning.
MM: Secondly, I know you mentioned looking at having a complete package, including standard injectors, but will a spec ECU also mean a limit on the number of injectors the bikes can use? Will they be allowed to have primary and secondary injectors, or will they be restricted to a single inector?
CC: The ECU, if any, will be able to run 8 injectors, i.e. 2 injectors per cylinder on a four cylinder engine. This is current technology and it gives the best balance between rideability and peak power, and not having it would be a too big step back to me. Also not having it would probably make it impossible to handle an engine with reasonably priced injectors, so it would be more expensive in the end (I think).
MM: The same question goes for butterfly valves: will they be allowed to use primary and secondary butterflies?
CC: This is still to be decided, after having talked to the engine manufacturers. My personal idea now is to make it simple and have only one throttle motor.
MM: Thirdly, without the ability to write software to manage it, running with 21 liters will be very difficult. Will the fuel limits be changed to make the transition easier? A limit of 24 liters for everyone would make more sense, it seems to me.
CC: I agree with you, so this is something to be considered for sure. Making one MotoGP race with just 21 liters of fuel introduces a number of useless complications and makes the gap bigger between big companies having big R&D capabilities, and smaller independent teams.