In recent seasons, MotoGP’s interest in aerodynamics has exploded, taking the field from a relatively important niche in the premier class to an absolutely essential and essential part of a competition motorcycle, thanks in large part to to the work carried out by Ducati.
But, as the costs continue to outweigh the benefits in many ways, is now the time to return to bikes without monstrous fenders before they do irreparable damage to the sport?
Fenders were first introduced by Ducati over 10 years ago, initially in an effort to increase airflow through the radiators and engine of its (then) overheating Desmosedici chronicle, a bike known to kitchen riders and famous at the time for its Swiss-cheese fairings in an effort to evacuate as much heat as possible.
However, it took the arrival of Gigi Dall’Igna from Aprilia in 2014 to really change the way not just Ducati but the whole paddock viewed the concept. Realizing this increased downforce (initially as a form of anti-wheelie system and to help with acceleration), wings have since evolved into increasingly complicated designs that change the whole way you develop and fly. a MotoGP machine.
The end result is that they’ve become so critical to the design that it’s simply not possible to ride a bike without them – something discovered by Tech3 KTM rookie Remy Gardner at the Spanish Grand Prix, when contact with another pilot tore his RC16’s left-side winglet and meant he had to struggle for the rest of the race just to stay on track.
“The thing was impractical,” admitted the Australian. “I didn’t expect it to have such an effect, but the thing was spinning everywhere. It wasn’t a right nose up either because it was a wing, it pulled to the right.
“I couldn’t even get him all the way up the backstretch, he was just shaking his head and wobbling. It wasn’t fun at all. I saw him go and thought ‘f**k, here we go’, and it was hard work. The amount of downforce these things create was a surprise, and the amount of drag you get on just one side.
But, with Ducati not only helping itself with many issues that it hadn’t been able to solve before with its long, low and powerful bike (like rear wheels and mid-corner turns), but able to gain a distinct advantage over his rivals in the process, it sparked an aerodynamic arms race in the paddock as everyone raced to catch up.
It’s an expensive proposition, however, given the research and development needed to determine the ultra-complicated impact of aero compared to, say, even F1 (thanks to both changing the angle d ’tilt and the role that rider movement plays in steering), and that means it’s kind of a funding black hole, happily sucking up as much money as you’re willing to throw at it in pursuit of gain marginals.
And while MotoGP appears to be in a relatively healthy state at the moment, it’s worth pointing out that a factory team has just made the decision to step away from the sport just two years after winning a title.
It’s surely no coincidence either that this factory, Suzuki, is both the least funded team of manufacturers in MotoGP and the one whose aerodynamics research has lagged furthest behind its rivals, with very little wing design innovation – and (according to The Race sources within the team) much of what the team does has left it to field personnel to modify and experiment rather than the racing department in Hamamatsu.
This cost issue is why MotoGP has already taken steps to limit the amount of money that can be spent on aerodynamics, with manufacturers now only allowed to bring two fairing designs per rider: one homologated at the start of the season, and another that may arrive as an upgrade later in the year.
However, there is an even bigger problem that only costs. The current MotoGP regulations, it must be said, are a work of art – a document so well crafted and balanced that it has allowed all manufacturers in the series to be competitive, with only the multiple winners of 2021 Honda and the 2020 Suzuki champions still win in 2022.
But there’s a difference between the kind of strategic competitiveness that allows former Aprilia underdogs to fight for the title and the tactical competitiveness that actually produces interesting entertainment – and it’s the latter that is in danger of disappearing unless the aerodynamics are radically changed, according to a few notable voices in the paddock.
“Behind the Ducatis, it’s always difficult to stop the bike, explained Joan Mir after the Grand Prix de France. “We have to manage the situation. We feel less air when we are behind them, and some turbulence. It’s much worse than other bikes [behind the Ducati].”
And therein lies the real risk: that the rise in aerodynamics and the increase in the phenomenon of “dirty air” in F1 in the form of turbulence behind a motorcycle will make overtaking increasingly difficult to achieve in MotoGP.
This was partially demonstrated by the previous race in Jerez as well, where the battle for victory was devoid of assists. After the first lap only one overtake took place for the podium, when Jack Miller made a mistake and Aleix Espargaro overtook him – something the Aprilia rider admitted is now the main way to overtake an opponent.
So what is the solution ? The answer is that there is no easy fix, thanks to some very tech-friendly drivers and manufacturers. It’s something that will also be aided by Suzuki’s departure from the Motorsport Sport Manufacturers Association regulator, a move that tips the balance away from Japan and in favor of the (more aerodynamically friendly) European factories for the first time. .
It’s no secret that fenders make bikes easier (and therefore a bit safer) to ride. But they also dramatically increase costs and risk turning the sport into something far more sterile than it is now. There’s no easy answer, but a throwback to the good old days of clean, traditional machines without weird appendages might not be a bad start…