Rusty Writes - Advice For Carmelo Ezpeleta about Standardizing ECUs

As an American who has as much interest in auto racing as he does motorcycle racing, I was more than a bit nervous as the threat of a single-tire-supplier rule loomed over the Fall of '07. Now that I read of the latest seemingly similar threat of a standardized ECU, I'm begging an inquiry into motive.

Valentino Rossi is complaining about the pervasiveness of electronic traction controls. I infer this is a complaint about Dani Pedrosa, since Casey Stoner claims to be using little or none of the stuff. Riding a bike nearly identical to Pedrosa's, Nicky Hayden began to find success after (reportedly) trimming the electronic controls way back. This implies that only certain riders are benefiting from a computerized nanny, and that all of them have the option of limiting its influence. Am I to believe that Rossi - who, when he was winning everything in sight, was as sideways as anyone - believes he was being trounced by Casey Stoner's tires and Dani Pedrosa's computer engineer? Has he just defined the limits of his abilities for all of us to see? Is he really that ashamed of his bike? Or is this some back-handed mind game he thinks will fool everyone next year? Either way, I consider it a fairly remarkable retreat from the greatness he once exuded.

Back to Mr. Ezpeleta... Why grant this complaint such credence? A standardized ECU makes the sport - by default - a spec series. Until we know what goal is being pursued, why is a spec ECU the suggested - or mandated - solution? It seems to be the equivalent of brain surgery with a sledge hammer.

Mr. Ezpeleta, commenting on why the tire rules needed to be changed and setting the scope of the ECU threat: "... Now something has been done, we'll see if it's enough. I want to get back to the situation we had in 2005, as far as the balance and the spectacle are concerned. " My simple answer to him is, "Well, then, you could just return to the 2005 rules!" As has been pointed out by countless others all year long, all around the world, 2007 featured too many rules changes impacting at the same time. Trying to continually tinker - in large strokes - with the rules before some kind of stability takes hold will most likely exaggerate the perceived problems.

I have been a fan of 4-wheel racing a little bit longer, and more consistently, than 2-wheel racing, but I am much more emotionally attached to the bikes. In Formula One, there is a 15-20 year-old (maybe older) theory that states, in effect, the capabilities of the cars are beyond all the safety margins, so they have to be slowed down. It was - and, somehow still continues to be - thought that slower cars would make for a better racing spectacle. Apparently, the obvious eludes Bernie Ecclestone and those around him... Ensuing rules changes like taking away turbos, taking away cylinders, taking away displacement, taking away stripes out of the contact patch, taking away a tire supplier, and on and on, have not "fixed" the "problem". Every "cost-saving" and "speed-reducing" measure begets the opposite effect. Now they've implemented a spec ECU and frozen the engine designs for the remainder of the sport's life, which is rumored to coincide with a new mandate for 4-cylinder engines and hybrid-electric technology, along with a myriad of other whims to be named later.

Yet, F1 remains a parade of colorful missiles being guided around racetracks by computers and young men with lightning-fast reflexes and remarkably strong necks. It is said that, like fighter aircraft, the cars would be more capable than the physical limits of what their human occupants can manage. We actually had this problem at a CHAMP Car race a few years ago. The demands on bloodflow to the head and extremities, and even the constitution of a driver's eyes, would be at risk if not for the imposed limits in speed and traction.

Around the same time, in the late '80's, NASCAR arrived at a similar concern and set the theoretical limit for their cars at just under a 200 M.P.H. average lap speed. This was because some of the cars began to take flight when they got turned around. As I will discuss a little more in an upcoming feature on Musco Lighting, the great majority of NASCAR tracks are oval-shaped and offer some amount of banking in the turns, along with a comparatively wide racing surface. This allows for the cars to stay in tight groups and maintain consistently high speeds. In an odd similarity to F1, the solution to the speed problem was to strangle the powerplants, even though it was clear to everybody that the engines were not the problem, the cornering speed was. What made the cars go faster around corners? The same things airplanes need to stay in the air, and the same things featured in F1... sleek bodies and wings.

When a car making a lot of downforce is turned around, the wings immediately start to make lift, which is not good for the effectiveness of the tires' contact patches. Fortunes had already been spent on shaping these cars in wind tunnels and the mold was set for the NASCAR "look". So when in doubt, strangle the engines. Currently, they have invented a new car design - drawing ever nearer to a spec series - that is actually slower than the lower-class support races run on the same tracks.

I remain a fan of both series for the cerebral exercise of trying to follow the engineering and seeing the race-day strategies play out. This is becoming increasingly difficult, especially with NASCAR, but I love to watch things that go fast, so I invest the time when I can.

How does this relate to MotoGP? If you look closely at the details I've pointed out, NONE of them apply to motorcycle racing! I don't believe it will ever be possible to approach the physical limits of the human body's ability to sustain G-forces while only working with 2 wheels. There will not be wings and huge contact patches to eliminate the need to slow down for corners. No matter how many computers are loaded onto the things, they won't be able to do 4 G's under braking and 2 G's in turns. Perhaps it doesn't need to be pointed out, but bikes can't spin around and go backwards (and fly) the way cars can... I believe that, no matter how fast the bikes get, the rider's good sense is still what is necessary to keep the bike on the track and going the proper direction.

It SHOULD go without saying that electronic controls can be viewed as just another setting for the riders and engineers to manipulate. If there's a genius engineer back at the factory who's able to exactly mate the bike's electronics to the abilities and expectations of his rider(s), then why prohibit it? The argument over traction controls is a red herring, meant to distract from the real issue. Why would the sanctioning body need this much control of the components in a prototype series? With a spec ECU, you take away more than just an "unnatural" electronic aid for the rider, you're taking away everything that makes the 4-stroke era technologically advanced. It takes away any incentive for the manufacturers to develop anything new, so their interests in lavish spending on engineering diminish also. Why not just go back to 2-stroke, then?

In America, some of us like to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" Apparently, Mr. Ez has realized he did just that since 2005, and now the "fix" needs fixin'.

Motorcycle racing is beautiful because you can see the rider's relationship to the steed he is riding. It is beautiful because a bike doesn't take up all of the space on the tarmac, so there can be more than one or two ways through most of the corners. It is beautiful because, as long as the riders can hang off the sides, drag their knees, slide the rear tires, and wheelie down the straights, it will look gloriously fast and death-defying. It should always be obvious that the average mortal cannot do what these exceptional humans and their marvelous machines can. The same cannot be said of cars.

I don't think the technology will ever surpass the motorcycle racers' physical limits, or at least not for a very long time. The beauty of being on two wheels and having to maintain balance with something that is inherently unstable is why motorcycle racing should have a longer, more attractive future than auto racing. These are the reasons Mr. Ezpeleta should not be seriously considering emulating Bernie Ecclestone and Formula 1... Physics does not require it.

The future is coming toward him, if he will just shut up and wait.

Be sure, and feel free, to share these insights with your car-loving friends who claim to not understand motorcycle racing...

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