Why did the factory Yamaha team head to the Motorland Aragon circuit to join Honda and Suzuki at a private test? Was it perhaps to give Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi their first taste of the seamless gearbox Yamaha have been developing, to counter Honda's advantage? That is the question which many fans have been asking, and in recent days - and weeks - I have been inundated with questions about the seamless gearbox. Well, question, singular, actually, as it all boils down to just the one: When will Yamaha finally start to race their seamless gearbox?
It is a question I have been trying to pursue since the start of the season, since rumors first emerged that they may have used the gearbox at the first race of the year. All inquiries I made, at all levels of the Yamaha organization, received the same answers: Yes, Yamaha is developing a seamless gearbox, and is testing it back in Japan. No, Yamaha has not yet raced it, and has no plans to race it. And no, it is not yet ready to be tested.
Of course, the answer given to you by someone in the pay of Yamaha cannot always be taken at face value. The answer you receive from a member of any factory team to a specific question is nearly always part of the carefully controlled corporate line, which means that while most of the time, the answer is something close to the truth, sometimes that answer is spin on the facts, or a deflection from the facts, or sometimes a downright, well, let's not call it a lie, let's call it being economical with the truth. So it behooves you to check, through whatever other sources are available.
Fortunately for me, the seamless gearbox has a telltale audio signature. Stand at trackside and listen to the bikes go by, and you can hear the difference, the Honda slipping effortlessly and almost imperceptibly from gear to gear, the Yamaha producing a giant boom, as the quickshifter cuts power, and then pausing audibly. Taking audio samples at the Jerez test and measuring the length of gearchanges, I concluded that Yamaha was neither testing nor racing a seamless gearbox. I sporadically check at other racetracks, and each time, the answer is the same: Yamaha is either not using a seamless gearbox, or if it is using one, it needs to throw it away and start again.
Coming into Barcelona, I was led to believe that Yamaha would be bringing a seamless gearbox to test. Questioning Yamaha staff about this - who are looking more and more exasperated, each time you ask them - kept eliciting the same response, over and over again: No, we have not brought a seamless gearbox to test. No, there are no plans to race the gearbox. No, there are no plans to test the gearbox in the near future. Once again, a quick check from audio recordings made at trackside during the Barcelona test - more of which later in the week - produced the same result: No seamless gearbox.
If Yamaha had intended to race the seamless gearbox, then this was probably the last chance to have the factory riders test the gearbox properly before finalizing it ready for use. The Barcelona test was the second of the three official tests scheduled for this year - the next one is at Misano, in September - and having the Aragon test directly afterwards would have given Yamaha plenty of track time to ensure that the gearbox was working, and offered a clear benefit. Now, Yamaha only has the Misano test in September, unless they were to schedule a private test at one of their designated test circuits. Given the fullness of the schedule, that would only really leave the summer break, the four weeks between Laguna Seca and Indianapolis, for Lorenzo and Rossi to try the gearbox. With the MotoGP teams due to leave their bikes and equipment in the US between the two rounds, that would leave only Austin, Texas as the track where Yamaha could have Rossi and Lorenzo test the gearbox, and given that the average temperature in that part of Texas is 36°C in July and August, that would be both punishing on the riders and difficult on the tires and machines. The feasibility of such a test is extremely doubtful.
It seems likely, then, that the first opportunity the Yamaha riders will have to test the seamless gearbox will be at the post-race test in Misano. If the gearbox comes through that test, then it will be far to late to be adopted for the 2013 season. In part because the results of the test would have to be confirmed once again in Japan, but mostly because by that time, Yamaha will likely be using all five of their allocation of engines. Given the complexity of a seamless gearbox, it seems unlikely that such a transmission could fit into the standard Yamaha M1 cases. (As a general reminder, the transmission can usually be removed from a sealed engine, without breaking the seals).
Though we do not know exactly how Honda's gearbox works, nor which design Yamaha have chosen, the most common seamless gearbox designs require both the gearbox shafts to consist of two shafts, one rotating inside the other, and engaging and disengaging a ratchet mechanism either on the selector dogs or on the gears themselves. Such shafts are physically larger than standard gearbox shafts, and require extra bearings to manage them, as well as extra space for the secondary ratchet selcection mechanism. The extra size and larger bearings would preclude the use of a seamless gearbox in standard cases, unless Yamaha had decided to build the standard engine ready to accept the seamless gearbox once it was tested and ready to use. That, though, would probably create too many disadvantages for the standard engine, in terms of size, weight distribution and increased friction.
This would appear to confirm what I was told by a member of Yamaha's staff at Barcelona. "If we test the seamless gearbox at Misano, then there is no way we will use it this season."
So why the delay? Jorge Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg explained it best. Gearboxes tend to either work, or not work; they have a rather binary functionality. If something goes wrong with a gearbox, then that usually means a DNF for the rider who sufferes the gearbox issue. With a gearbox set up as complicated as the seamless transmissions appear to be, the chances of a gearbox which has not been fully tested locking up completely are too high to risk. Jorge Lorenzo knows all too well that titles are won and lost on consistency - his 2012 season saw him finish only 1st or 2nd, except for 2 DNFS - and not finishing is too big a risk to take. Lorenzo needs all the points he can get, if he is to retain his world title.
And title apart, gearbox issues are the problems riders fear most, because of the awful consequences if something goes wrong. If an engine seizes or blows up, then the riders has the option of whipping in the clutch and cruising to a halt. The gearbox is after the clutch, and so if it locks up, the rear wheel locks up, with the most likely scenario being that the rider is flung from the bike. Gearbox seizures end all too often in injury, and that, too, is a risk which neither Lorenzo nor Rossi can afford to take.
Add all this together, and the odds of Yamaha having a seamless gearbox before the end of the year look extremely slim. But given Jorge Lorenzo's results this year - three wins from six races, two more podiums, and a deficit of just 7 points in the championship - the reigning World Champion appears to be doing just fine without the seamless gearbox. The Yamaha YZR-M1 is still an exceptionally good machine, despite it lacking a seamless gearbox. There is still a very good chance that Lorenzo will successfully defend his title regardless of the gear change technology available.
Of course, the whole debate could quite easily have been avoided, and costs drastically cut into the bargain. If only the Grand Prix Commission hadn't decided to ban dual clutch technology way back in 2008 ...