Back in late 2011, it was a case of going, going, gone to hell for MotoGP’s hated 800s, the rev-hungry appliances that ruined the world’s greatest motorcycle racing series.
hen you think about it, 190cc isn’t a lot, is it? A cup of coffee, perhaps. But 190cc is all it took to transform MotoGP from unmissable all-action show to humdrum parade of high-end electronics kit. Older readers might liken an averagely tedious 800cc MotoGP race to watching the prizes trundle past on the Generation Game conveyor belt: colour TV, sandwich maker, video recorder, traction control, launch control, wheelie control... All these things are going to make your life better, or not.
Technology is amoral – it can be used for good or evil: nuclear power, text messaging, traction control and so on. In MotoGP, the cost of the switch from 990cc to 800cc has been catastrophic. It transformed MotoGP machines from torquey, tyre-smoking monsters into revvy little nightmares.
The 800s have less power and, crucially, less torque than the 990s. They also rev harder and higher and their power deliveries are more scary and precipitous. The lack of torque and the steep power curve had two drastic effects on MotoGP.
Less torque had a major effect on the way the riders ride the bikes. Without the mega-punch that had been available at the merest whiff of throttle, they had to change the way they exited corners. The 800s wouldn’t accelerate fast enough out of the turns, so the riders had to create their own corner-exit speed by riding through the middle of the corner faster than ever before. Suddenly, there was only one fast way through a corner – a smooth, arcing line that provided maximum corner speed.
Perhaps more importantly, the 800s were rubbish at overtaking. Riders could no longer do what they did on the 1000s – brake deep, make the pass and exit on a torrent of torque – because as soon as an 800 dropped out of its powerband it was going nowhere. That’s why the 800 era was two-and-a-half years old before anyone managed to win a race with a last-lap pass. That was Valentino Rossi’s unforgettable final corner attack on Jorge Lorenzo at Catalunya in June 2009.
The revvy nature of the 800s presented another problem. The peaky engines were difficult to ride and potentially dangerous, because an angry power delivery makes highsides more likely. Step in the electronics boffins who quickly rewrote their rider-control software to massage the power delivery and save the 800s from themselves. All of sudden riders realised that they could snap open the throttle while still banked over in corners. The little black box would do the rest, calculating the correct amount of torque that could be applied to the tyre at any given lean angle and at any given corner, according to the onboard GPS. And riders who wanted a smidgen of wheelspin to help them complete the corner could have that, too. So every rider could accelerate perfectly out of every corner, which robbed us of those glorious tyre-burning slides and made overtaking even more difficult.
Not only that, most riders hate the 800s because they are ‘join the dot’ motorcycles. They give the riders no opportunity to muscle the bike around, no way of making their own little bit of magic. The riders found themselves cornered by technology, no longer riding the bikes on their own.
The 800s arrived in 2007 because we were told the 990s were too fast and too dangerous – largely due to a paddock panic following Daijiro Kato’s fatal accident at Suzuka in 2003. But the 800s weren’t slower than the 990s and they certainly haven’t proven any safer, despite the safety aids.
The 800s lapped racetracks faster than the 990s from the very beginning, despite slower top-speed figures, which means they were going through corners faster, thanks to their smaller, lighter engines. And where do most accidents happen: on the straights or in the corners? It seems incredible that the manufacturers – who came up with the 800cc ‘safety’ formula – hadn’t been able to predict this through CAD testing. Other paddock people had predicted problems before the 800s even turned a wheel and suggested other ways of reducing performance, like narrower tyres or gearboxes with fewer speeds.
During the five years of 800s, MotoGP electronics advanced from Neanderthal to NASA, and yet all of this technology hasn’t made the bikes any safer. In fact, while electronics have exorcised the corner-exit highside, we’ve seen more highsides and broken bones during the past two seasons than at any time since the early 1990s, before the advent of rider-friendly big-bang 500s. This rash of accidents was beyond the ken of current electronics – they were corner entry highsides, caused by too-cool tyres.
So, to sum up: the 800s are more dangerous than the 990s, they create boring racing and – thanks to their hi-tech pneumatic valve systems and electronics – they are hideously expensive. Quite a combination.
Words Mat Oxley Photos Gold and Goose