Although much ado is being made about the Ducati Traction Control system on the company's new 1098R homologation model, it's not the first time traction control has made its way to a production motorcycle. Honda was actually the first to employ a TC system on its ST1100 sport-touring rig back in the late '90s.
Naturally I was eager to see just how well it worked. Riding into a large, empty dirt lot with a surface that was mostly hard-pack with a nice sprinkling of gravel on top (posing obvious traction issues), I decided to put the Honda TC system to the acid test by twisting the throttle to the stop in first gear. I was expecting the bike to get at least a little out of shape with the rear tire spinning momentarily, but to my amazement the wheel never felt like it spun more than a quarter of a revolution before the TC system activated and drastically retarded the ignition to soften the power and regain traction, no matter how quickly or hard I twisted the throttle. Even dumping the clutch failed to spin the wheel more than what felt like half a revolution before the TC took control. Just as amazing was that while the bike was riding over the dirt, it was still accelerating and gaining speed with surprising swiftness on a surface that was undoubtedly not conducive to any real grip.
Fast-forward 10 years later, and now traction control is the new buzzword in roadracing-as well as road-going sportbikes, beginning with the '08 Kawasaki ZX-10R's very basic KIMS system and now reaching reality with Ducati's 1098R. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours of R&D time in World Championship racing are quickly filtering their way down to the bikes you and I can ride (notice I didn't say "buy"-not everyone has $39,995 burning a hole in their pocket). Although way ahead of its time, the Honda ST1100 TC system was fairly primitive by today's standards; despite being at the leading edge of development, the systems on both the Ducati 1098R and the Bazzaz Z-Fi ECU that we tested in this issue are advanced (and adjustable) enough to be far more transparent to the rider.
That transparency is important, because the manufacturers realize that these systems should be a rider aid, not a crutch or a failsafe. Even a well-developed TC system like the 1098R's DTC has the option of being turned off if desired by the rider (as did the Honda HTC system). And yet when adjusted properly to the rider's skill level, it is subtle enough to be nearly unnoticeable, while still intervening with sufficient force to maintain traction in nearly all acceleration situations.
Properly adjusting the TC to work with your riding style, skill level and conditions is crucial to its ability to help improve your lap times. It isn't some magic pill that will suddenly enable you to drop a second off your best time right off the bat. And finding that point where the TC has just enough intervention takes a lot of laps and some careful riding. Not careful in the sense that you are being timid with the throttle-it's riding consistently enough and having the ability to notice whether the TC is actually holding back your drives off the corners. Especially with big-horsepower machines like the Ducati and Honda CBR1000RR that we used in the TC comparison-you may feel like a hero coming off the corner, but when you see that your rpm is lower at a certain point on the turn's exit (or when you return to the pits expecting see lap records, only to be disappointed), it's obvious something is amiss.
Traction control definitely isn't a failsafe that will prevent highsides or other rear-tire-related grip issues, because not all situations that demand serious rear grip are from acceleration. Even the highly developed systems in MotoGP couldn't prevent Fiat Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo's spectacular highside skyshot in practice for the Chinese GP, and anyone watching the World Superbike event at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park will remember Troy Bayliss' highside crash on his Xerox Ducati 1098 F08 in the first race. The forces that act upon a motorcycle during cornering-especially with the high-grip tires and superb chassis of today-are numerous and varied, leaving little margin for error with no easy solution that can handle all foreseeable situations.
While I'm not really in favor of how traction control has begun to take over racing on both the MotoGP and World Superbike series, I'm all for the trickle-down of this rider-aid technology to production sportbikes. If the manufacturers continue to develop systems like these that can enable more people to enjoy sportbikes-while still permitting those with higher skills to use them as a tool to enhance their riding experience without forcing them down their throats-then the future of sportbike technology is certainly looking good.