I have become addicted to Mat Oxley and Peter Bom’s podcasts. Freely available on most platforms, they continue to provide an excellent adjunct to the regular news outlets’ offerings. Oxley, published writer and journalist and Bom, former team chief in MotoGP, have the insider’s knowledge and, unlike many others, they don’t mind sharing it.
Yesterday they shared some pretty good info on electronics, a subject that is much exercising the minds of enthusiasts these days and I thought I’d try and precis some of it for you.
First, a little history. The ECU, or engine Control Unit, is the electronic “black box” (I think it actually IS black) that controls all of the electronic functions on the motorcycle. Every bike has them these days but the ones fitted to MotoGP bikes are WAY more sophisticated than what is fitted to your scoot.
Up until 2016, manufacturers were free to develop and use their own black boxes but then the organisers, fearing that one manufacturer was making a BETTER black box than the next bloke was, mandated that a standard black box, supplied by the famous Italian manufacturer, Magnet Marelli, would be fitted to ALL MotoGP bikes. This was to “control costs” (the standard lie that covers DORNA’s drive to enforce parity on the formula and make for closer racing, better TV broadcasts and more money in the organiser’s pocket – remember, it is ALWAYS about money)
Honda, whose bikes were superior at the time, objected loudly and threatened to withdraw but nothing came of it and they eventually fell into line.
The MM box WAS tuneable to a degree but allowed very little of the freedoms that the manufacturer-developed ones did. Please note that this development was taking place around the time that Ducati was struggling to produce a competitive bike and regain the dominance that they had enjoyed in the middle of the previous decade – is that significant? Of course it is. DORNA has made no secret of their intention to make the European factories dominant over those pesky Japanese who don’t even live on the same continent. Just look at how the current WSBK regulations are now skewed to favour an Italian bike over a Japanese one.
So the introduction of the standard ECU did lead, eventually, to the rise in fortunes of the Italian manufacturers (is it any coincidence that Magnet Marelli is an Italian company?) Accompanied by huge injections of cash from Ducati’s owners, Ducati started to win and the fortunes of the Japanese bikes started to take a down-turn.
Now, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Is the Ducati/Aprilai/KTM a better bike than the Honda and the Yamaha? No, all the bikes are great bikes. So, why is Ducati wiping the floor with the Japanese manufacturers? Does Ducati have better riders? No, they don’t, in fact the only rider that they have who is truly of alien proportions is Martin. Even the current world champion is really just a journeyman compared to Martin, Marquez and Quatararo.
So, why are the Japanese bikes languishing at the bottom of the grids and unable to stop the Ducati juggernaut?
Simple, the Ducati engineers have worked out ways of making the standard ECU do stuff that the other manufacturers haven’t been able to. A combination of clever hiring, huge amounts of money (so much for the standard ECU lowering costs) and years of R&D means that they have a better handle on the tricks than anyone else has. The other two European manufacturers are starting to catch up but, on race day, it’s always Ducati at the front.
My feature picture shows the left hand handlebar cluster of a modern GP bike. Every one of those buttons does something. And there are others, AND this is only the left handgrip. There are also levers and gadgets to be included in this package. All of them feed into the ECU and make it do stuff (and, hence the BIKE) that the rider and the engineers want it to do.
None of this is coincidence. This is a result of years of intense and expensive R&D. Oxley in his podcast, estimates that it has taken Ducati 4 to 5 YEARS to get the degree of tuneability out of the ECU that they presently enjoy. That is why, much as it pains me to say it, neither Honda nor Yamaha are even CLOSE to achieving the degree of control over their black boxes that Ducati has .
He cites an example which I will try and precis for you. How many times has it frustrated you to see Marquez or Quatararo skidding off into the gravel under brakes for a corner? Is this bad riding? Clearly, not. Is it to do with the tyres? Clearly not as everyone else is using the same ones. No, it’s none of these things. It is because their bike’s ECU is not capable, at this stage, of stopping the engine wanting to ACCELERATE when the rider wants it to DECELERATE. The software is not yet tuned to the stage where it can instantly respond to the rider’s input.
Now I am paraphrasing Oxley here but please stay with me. Mat quotes a rider who he did not name who has ridden the current model Ducati. The one thing that he was stunned by, more than anything else, was how GENTLE the power delivery was and how RESPONSIVE the bike was to rider input. It didn’t FEEL like it was accelerating like a rocket ship, but it clearly was. Somehow the Ducati engineers have made the ECU tame the ferocious power output of the V4 engine and make it tractable and controllable.
On the other side of the paddock, however, Honda is still trying to deal with a bike that has plenty of top speed (Hondas have never lacked for power) but has no efficient way of getting it to the ground. Give it a handful out of the corner and you get instant wheelspin. Back off the throttle to try and control the wheelspin and the Ducatis disappear into the distance. And, apparently, once the rear DOES start spinning, backing off doesn’t instantly stop it from doing so. So the rider often finds themselves entering the NEXT corner with the engine still driving on and overloading the front suspension.
And we all know that losing a fraction of a second per corner leads to losing seconds per lap which leads to MULTIPLE seconds over the full race distance.
Unless and until Yamaha and Honda can develop the MM ECU to the stage where Ducati has developed theirs, no amount of changing other aspects of the bike is going to make any difference at all, it really is that simple.
All of this makes the current speculation about a possible move by Marquez from Honda to Ducati, look a great deal more feasible. This morning, we wake to the news that Marc IS leaving Honda at the end of 2023 and is headed to Gresini Ducati to ride a bike that CAN win. Honda has been caught with their pants down and it remains to be seen what they will do to replace Marquez. I am disappointed because I’m a Honda man but I can see why Marc didn’t want to spend a few more years fighting an uncompetitive bike.
We live in interesting times.