Drawing The Line - Motorcycle Racing: A Test of Skill

By James Parker, Photography by Gold & Goose

Ernest Hemingway famously said that motor racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing were the only sports-all the others are games. We who love motorcycle racing know exactly what he was talking about. A test of skill becomes abstract when it's done with little or no risk. And a dangerous activity is simply mindless risk-taking when performed without skill. The combination of risk and skill defines the sport we love.

That said, no one can reasonably argue against the reductions in risk that are continuously and assiduously worked toward in motorcycle racing. Improvements in helmets, leathers, gloves and boots have been very effective in reducing injuries. Improvements in track safety have been still more important. Look at the yearly death toll at the Isle of Man TT, where personal safety improvements can't protect riders from stone walls, lamp posts and trees. In comparison, modern tracks seem almost risk-free, until you see crashes like Valentino Rossi's recent high-side which resulted in a compound leg fracture even on a track built to modern standards.

Plenty of risk remains and safety improvements won't eliminate it. So what about skill? Many are questioning whether it's appropriate to reduce the level of skill required to get a motorcycle around a racetrack at competitive speeds. The culprit here is electronic control of motorcycle functions-generally referred to as traction control (TC).

The racing community-at least at world-championship level-has uniformly rejected electronic control of braking (meaning anti-lock brakes, or ABS) as being inconsistent with sport. With such a system, one component of rider skill is being enhanced (if not replaced) with a kind of cyberskill: real-time measurement of data, calculations of potential actions and modifications to inputs that relieve the rider of part of his responsibilities. It's been said that the best riders can outperform ABS, but with increasingly rapid data-sampling and enhanced processing power, it's only a matter of time until advanced ABS will outperform any human.

TC (which can include launch control, wheelie control and other functions) is to acceleration what ABS is to deceleration. The two may use different control strategies, but they are mirrors of one another. So why is ABS banned and TC allowed?

TC is the (sometimes unwanted) stepchild of integrated electronic engine control. Racing series have been unable to monitor traction control because it's basically impossible to "inspect" the internal logic in the software of a modern electronic control unit (ECU). If you can't know exactly what's going on in the component, you can't judge its intent, and you can't rule on its legality according to your rules.

So the general response has been to allow TC even though it is not consistent with the intent of the rule-makers. The exception here is Formula 1 auto racing, in which the organizers require all cars to run an ECU designed specifically to exclude the possibility of TC. The F1 experience shows that, while it's not simple, TC can be eliminated.

At one time TC was seen as a potential safety feature, but a spate of nasty high-sides this year has weakened that position. TC is certainly expensive at a time when every racing series is trying to reduce costs. The expense comes more from writing the software and the track time necessary to optimally dial-in the settings than the initial hardware costs. Setup has been made even more difficult and compromised by the reduction in track time dictated by cost-cutting. It has also led to the development of less rider-friendly engine-power characteristics, becoming a universal band-aid for traction problems.

It's gotten so that MotoGP riders can pin the throttle out of corners without modulating the power delivery whatsoever, relying on TC to moderate explosive engine power without excessive wheelspin and huge wheelies. No one would dare say these riders aren't damn good, but the consistency of acceleration performance seems to be contributing to processional races in which riders can't-or won't-dig deeper into their reserves of skill.

Hemingway would have hated the electronic aids that reduce the skill necessary in motor racing. But he's long gone. Another strong voice against TC is one we definitely shouldn't ignore. A recent short quote from Valentino Rossi says it all: "The problem is the electronics."

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