Motorcycle legend Kenny Roberts circled the Yamaha YZR-M1 of Jorge Lorenzo, one of the most technologically advanced motorcycles in the world. The dash was more sophisticated than any he'd ever seen. The handlebar switches could change the character of the engine on the run. There were wires and sensors running to every corner of the motorcycle. Was this a racing motorcycle or a video game? "Where's the joystick?" he asked with typical Roberts sarcasm.
The irony of Roberts' antipathy towards the technical advancements in the MotoGP World Championship is obvious to anyone who worked with the three-time 500cc World Champion during his glory years as a team owner. As the founder of Team Roberts, the kid from Modesto with a high school education but a PhD in street smarts was at the forefront of technology. His was the first team to mount a data recorder, the first team to use traction control. He was the one who helped turn racing into a video game. And when once the team he'd assembled hit their stride, they were an unstoppable force.
Mike Sinclair, the quiet, thoughtful, intelligent New Zealander was responsible for the technical development of the Roberts Yamahas from the late '80s well into the '90s. A former racer himself, he'd given it up before his 20th birthday when he realized he wasn't good enough. Maybe not at racing motorcycles, but his curiosity kept him in the game. This was the early '70s; before he quit racing he was building hybrid engines, mating Yamaha cylinders to Suzuki crankcases. When he turned to tuning he did it whole-heartedly. He spent 1974 working as a tuner with fellow Kiwi Dale Wylie on the AMA circuit.
Jim Allen, who would go on to run Dunlop's road race program, remembers meeting Sinclair in Daytona. "When those motorcycles came they were four-cylinders, the bikes came from the factory with four exhaust pipes down low and they were flat. The exhaust pulses would blow them apart," he recalls. "You couldn't lean the bike over far enough, they'd scrape real easy. (Kel) Carruthers and those guys had three round pipes down low and one that snaked up behind the carbs and out the back of the bike through the right side, through the frame. To me that was rocket science. I couldn't imagine how anyone could make them by themselves, but he did."
I'd spoken to a number of people who'd worked with Sinclair and their comments were similar, even to specific words. He was meticulous, curious, hard-working, and deeply modest. His curiosity may be his greatest strength. When he takes an interest in something, and he has a wide variety of interests outside of racing, he immerses himself. He is a great raconteur, able to recount wonderful stories that span three decades, most of which have a common theme: celebrating others.
"We had a real good connection,"...
"We had a real good connection," says Sinclair of the three-time world champion. "It was sort of unique, I think. Almost like I was riding the bike as well, And I always knew when it was him or the bike. It was real good. Funny that. Rare."
"He was never into the glamour of the sport or anything like that," Rainey told me. "He just wanted to have a beer or have a lot of beers, but he didn't need the interviews, seeing his name in print and all that stuff. But there's no doubt that for me and my GP career that guy probably had the biggest influence, other than Kenny, on me having the results that I did."
Mike Webb is the FIM Race Director, having graduated from his post as the FIM's chief technical officer. Like Sinclair, Webb is a Kiwi and also former racer turned engineer. Webb worked with Sinclair on the team Rainey founded after his injury. "He's meticulous," Webb began, "and what struck me was he was so totally down to earth. Really like basic stuff. 'What's a center of gravity of the bike? In the old days when we didn't know we hung the thing up on some ropes and decided where it is.' Really the simplest engineering you could come up with, which was really good. And then when it became obvious that we're doing all this data recording and loads of technical analysis of the physics, and you needed to know a bit of calculus or something like that, he went out and learned it."
When Team Roberts began to embrace technology, Sinclair was an advocate. They'd always wanted to see what was actually going on with the bikes. They'd spent 30 years listening to riders talk about what was going on. "And you'd always be thinking to yourself, 'So where's the front suspension when he's doing this and where's the rear? How far into the travel is he?'"
Using Formula One sensors, the team zeroed in on suspension travel. What they discovered would change racing forever. "The first real significant thing we found out was that all the suspension movements were out as far as the suspension manufacturers went, they were out by a factor of 10 at speeds, the velocities," Sinclair said of what he and the team discovered. "They'd taken some measurements off motocross bikes during the '70s or something and that's what they were basing their shock building on, and this was the first time we'd ever seen just how slow everything moves on a road racer. Because you're mostly way down under .1 meters per second and that's where we're having all the troubles and that's totally being governed by leakage around the piston rings. That was just the first example of how that just transformed shocks, because Öhlins was working with us straight away."
To further increase suspension performance, the team built the first adjustable swingarm pivot. "Same thing. We could see what was going on with the back end when the guy was getting on the throttle, and Kenny had always been going on about how with his dirt track bikes he had some sort of adjustable swingarm pivot on one of them and how effective that was." Sinclair and fellow crew chief Paul Tracy "chopped up one of those factory Yamaha swingarms. Imagine doing that now," he says with a laugh. "We stuck it on the mill and milled the swinging arm bosses out and made our own bosses up and welded them in there with an offset block so we could move the swinging arm up and down and then just went testing with Wayne." The improvement was in compliance over bumps under power, where the Hondas with its fixed high swingarm pivot had no compliance at all on bumpy tracks.
The team had spent hours running engines on the dyno, but the dyno couldn't measure temperature changes experienced in a racing environment. Now they could. The Yamahas of that year would run to 12,000 rpm and then stop. With the data they gathered, they could see how the exhaust pipes were being cooled at speed. "And you could see that once you started getting into managing the motor with that kind of thing, traction control; we did the very first traction control in '96 with the Yamahas, and that was with an American engineer who had been working in Formula One."