It’s Not About The Rider
How The Supercross Bikes Will Determine The Championship
By Jimmy Lewis
Photos by Type-O Hoffman
While everyone is running around in a tizzy trying to figure out which rider is going to do what in Supercross this year, I’m going to take a different approach. I’m going to talk about the machines and how technology and equipment plays a bigger role than you think. Way bigger. These riders, skeletal structures of flesh with a jelly-like pod of brain matter controlling everything, are the most delicate parts in the Supercross equation and incredible athletes too boot. Yet they are nothing without a competitive bike and they know that.
The machines these riders ride are really works bikes, no matter what the ridiculous production rule might have you think. Sure the frames and some of the engine pieces pass muster in tech inspection but only just. There is so much tuning and tweaking that goes into making the bikes right for the riders, it is hard to comprehend for a rider who may even be scared to adjust his fork’s rebound. The most production thing about these bikes is that that have two wheels and a motor, just like your bike.
I think the Supercross season is going to come down to three things:
The first and most important is tires. Yes, something as simple as tires is going to determine race wins, passing, crashing and in the end the championship. How? Most in the know saw the advantage the Bridgestone tire had a couple of years back. Bikes on them were basically winning everything. Now remember, these are “works” tires and they are as special as the bikes. It isn’t just the tread compound or the rubber type, it is more about the casing and the shape, right down to the way the casing is constructed and how it works in conjunction with the rider’s suspension. The front tires are everything in the turns and the rears are everything off the start and in the whoops. And the Bridgestone’s were known to be very consistent and wound not just give away in turns or bounce inconsistently on whoops. And then Bridgestone pulled out of racing activities in the US and most teams went toDunlop. Some like JGR Yamaha hooked up with Pirelli. And anyone who paid close attention to any of the solo rider crashes last year saw that when a rider, no matter the rider, pushed it hard, the tires seemed to just lose traction (or in the whoops, gain it!) before the rider even knew what was going on. And don’t think the tire companies have not been hard at work trying to stop this from happening. It is just difficult to figure out exactly what is actually going on when these guys push to such a crazy level, a level that is hard to achieve when testing. Factor in different soil and moisture conditions and the job of a tire technician becomes more magician and therapist than scientist. Tires will be a big deal, trust me.
The next is suspension. There has always been a lot going on in the suspension game and works suspension truly is works suspension at this level. But it is not the components that make the difference; it is the team of technicians that come with the suspension and the testing and development that goes into it. A lot of the top guys are staying on the same equipment –along with it comes the information and settings from last year to work off of. But there have been some innovations that are just starting to be talked about (air suspension and bypass systems) that may see the light of competition in an uncloaked manner. And this will really change the game if any one of these newer systems or ways of controlling the suspension gives an advantage. They have all been played with at the test track and pushed to the limits when not going head-to-head, but will the stuff work when pushed to 100%? You can buy works suspension all day long but is it set up correctly? Only racing will tell that tale.
The thing will not be a factor is traction control. Rising to the limelight year, everyone got all riled up when it was mentioned on TV. Pit pundits and people with little mechanical background were speculating that teams were running traction control systems and even going as far as to claim that there were some telemetry systems in place on some of the bikes in practice. Well, one discussion with someone in Formula One and you’d quickly realize that there isn’t an ounce of the money necessary for telemetry to make any difference let alone make an advantage on a Supercross track for a motorcycle. And there has been traction control, in a lot of forms on the bikes since the early 2000s, heck every four-stroke production bike has it programmed into the ignition in one form or another. And you don’t need a wheel sensor on the front tire to make it work. G-force sensors and GPS receivers are the size of lipstick tubes. Engineers can determine wheel spin in a number of different ways and the current factory bikes know how fast the engine is spinning at the crank, at the clutch shaft and at the output shaft. The factory bike’s ignition knows what gear the bike is in and a lot of them have different mapping for each gear at each throttle position at each RPM. And the most important guy on any team is the guy who is manipulating that data (some bikes collect a lot of it) to tune the power for the biggest advantage. But that requires knowing what the rider wants or is looking for and understanding how the traction might change when race time comes. This is really no different than changing pipes and jetting to get a desired effect, yet now it can be done through a keyboard and with graphs and charts not through sound and feel. All it takes is a little retarding the ignition when the rate of RPM increases faster than is practical to slow the engine slightly to get better traction. And that is traction control. But who is to say that the rider didn’t already feel the spin and back off the throttle so you are in effect compounding the problem? When you see riders just hammering the throttle and never backing off of it, and never sliding out, then you can claim you’ve seen traction control. Or you are just watching the best riders in the world who know what they are doing backed by a team that tuned the bike to have the perfect power for the conditions, which is much more likely.
The final and most important technical advantage of the bike that will win the Supercross championship will be the color of it. No actually it won’t necessarily be the color, rather the stickers and the way they are arranged. Let me rephrase, it will be how the bike looks right before the rider gets on it. Or maybe it will be something someone told him about his bike that they read on the internet last night from a guy who heard someone say something in the pits last week. Because that could determine how the rider feels about his bike. The machine that will carry him on his quest. It goes back to all the testing and training, the changes of what worked and what didn’t and the countless decisions that rider and that team made to get them to the pivotal moment on the track. The moment after the bike does the first funny thing it never did in testing. At that very second the rider will instantly make a decision to keep it pinned or back off and that will either build or break confidence. And we all know that these riders are as mentally invested in their job and sport as any athletes, delicate in the very same way. These machines can and will break bodies or kill you if something goes wrong. The riders all know that every time they line up to race and it is factored in to the way they think. They operate with the confidence in their machines pushing it right up to that line, past it sometimes. Whether it is the bike or the brain of the rider that fails in those pivotal milliseconds that will determine the championship in 2012, only the rider will truly know.
So it is a lot about the bike because the bike is so important. At the level these top riders are at the machinery is on very even grounds when you compare the raw performance. No bike has a horsepower advantage, though one may put it to the ground better. No bike handles better than another, it is that one rider has a better setting that the other. And even when one team finds magic on one weekend or during one race, it all comes down to the hand on the throttle and the butt on the seat to make that bike go. If a top rider is not happy with his bike he better go ask the mirror what he did wrong to tune his bike this way, because at factory levels you should be able to have whatever you really want. And to make it go like hell you need to have confidence in the machine, every last part of it. It is all about the bike because 1% of bike issues and you completely destroy the 90% of rider it takes to operate that bike.
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