Short are the periods of “peace” in a world as ultra-competitive as MotoGP. The dispute in question, which I will henceforth call “the battle for aerodynamics,” began three years ago, when Gigi Dall’Igna’s Ducati appeared for the first time with a series of aerodynamic “appendages.” These appendages—dubbed winglets or wings—were meant to keep the front wheel in contact with the ground when the desmodromic engine engaged all of its 280 hp.
As these wings grew in both length and width, and projected further from the body of the motorcycle, Grand Prix racing’s safety commission decided to ban them for safety reasons beginning in 2017. This was not without strong opposition from Ducati and set a debatable precedent: a commission made up of riders was to decide on a technical component that theoretically should have been the decision of the engineers.
“At the time we took a different direction than the others used until then, and we were proud of that,” Dall’Igna said. “We are a little less happy that others have influenced the rules and tried to slow down the development of aerodynamics.” The move to stop aerodynamic development for the rest of the brands participating in MotoGP was actually hidden behind the safety commission’s decision.
According to the maxim, you can’t stop progress. From the moment the prohibition of the winglets was decreed, the engineers went to work on plan B.
Dall’Igna’s proclamation regarding the R&D cost invested in aerodynamic development invoked a detailed response: Due to the perceived dangers associated with their sharp edges and rigidity, the wings were finally vetoed. Although a sensible decision, the option of using rounded variants was left open, as long as these remained inside the maximum width of 60cm outlined in the rule book.
According to the maxim, you can’t stop progress. From the moment the prohibition of the winglets was decreed, the engineers went to work on plan B. A plan was hatched based on double-walled fairings with a series of plates between the walls to create the same effect of the forbidden winglets.
Aerodynamic Development, Chapter 2
The new rules did not mean the end but the beginning of a second chapter in the search for necessary aerodynamic load. Hence, in the 2017 preseason, Ducati appeared with a fairing carrying additional height to the handlebars, a design that called attention because it worsened the impeccable aesthetic the Desmosedici had up until that moment. I mean, it was an ugly bike.
Ducati claimed that with the inclusion of aerodynamic aids integrated into the body, 70 percent at most of the effect of the forbidden winglets of the previous season was achieved. But that was only a starting point; research and development never stopped. The fairing Jorge Lorenzo used for a good part of the season—and that his teammate almost never used—again sported a futuristic aesthetic, but above all, it returned the aerodynamic efficiency the old wings offered.
“The new rule is a joke. The winglets are back to exactly how they were before.”
The design turned into what they were before the ban: Only the winglets had their edges covered with a kind of lateral protector. And since Ducati’s work was again extremely efficient, it did not take long until nearly the entire MotoGP paddock followed the standard set by Dall’Igna and his engineers. “The new rule is a joke and leaves our sport in a bad situation,” Aleix Espargaró complained. “The winglets are back to exactly how they were before. The only thing that changed is now they are more expensive.”
Déjà Vu: Slow Down The Development…Again
The “open door” that allowed for nearly the equivalent situation as 2016 to resurface was a small provision to the rule that allowed the addition of handguards to fairings. “Yes, that’s right,” MotoGP race director Mike Webb admitted. “We allowed additional handguards that could be mounted and dismounted. The idea was to protect the hands of the riders in case of rain or to help channel the airflow for better engine cooling. But the manufacturers turned this rule around and used it to add parts to the fairing that can be eliminated totally or partially as they like.”
Corrado Cecchinelli, chief technical officer for the world championship, spoke even more directly when evaluating the current situation. “The homologated fairing can be altered, it is true, but at this moment this rule is being misused—it is being abused. The manufacturers dismantle the fundamental parts of the fairing in order to obtain another body, transforming the original. In this way they have three or four different fairings instead of one, which is how it is proposed.”
“If we let the manufacturers do what they want, they will end up with a fairing for each circuit.”
The situation is a kind of déjà vu of the end of 2016. Looking ahead to 2019, Dorna is determined to provide a new twist to the aerodynamic regulation. “If we let the manufacturers do what they want,” Webb explained, “they will end up with a fairing for each circuit. And this means a lot of R&D costs, something that we specifically sought to limit with that first revision of the rule after 2016.
“It is clear that we must more precisely define how these aerodynamic additions should be, what their maximum depth and width should be in horizontal and vertical dimensions. We must also define the permitted differences between the interior and exterior surfaces, and the design of the air channels within these structures. And as for the interpretation of the dismountable parts of the approved fairing, we will also put the brakes on costs. In the end, only one fairing body will be allowed, without removable parts, and one update per year. That’s the final point.”
For Now, Open Bar!
Among the engineers, there is a dearth of opinions regarding this new tightening of rules by the technical legislators. Sebastian Risse, head of the KTM MotoGP project, would prefer the winglets banned in any variant. “As a factory team we are totally against these modular fairings,” he said. “The wings were banned last year for a security reason, and this ban has a raison d'être, regardless of whether or not they are hidden behind a fairing.”
According to the Austrian engineer, the KTM bodywork is designed in such a way that it generates the necessary aerodynamic effect without the need to add ailerons. During the preseason, the riders have tried only a few small additions, which are not even certain to face homologation for the first GP.
“We are totally against these modular fairings. The wings were banned for a security reason, whether or not they are hidden behind a fairing.”
But the Austrians seem to be alone because all the other manufacturers worked during the preseason to develop striking aerodynamic variations. Even the riders, who were up to this point reluctant to the idea, such as Andrea Dovizioso or Marc Márquez, are seriously considering getting on the bandwagon due to the advantages the more aerodynamic fairings provide.
Important: Rider Style
At the last test carried out in Thailand, Ducati took at least three body variants: a modified standard fairing and two new versions with side add-ons. “Our winglets help with braking and in the acceleration phase, which make it possible to take advantage of the performance of the engine since it has less tendency to wheelie,” Dovizioso explained. “But turning the bike in the middle of the corner is different. That is, it is a commitment that will depend a lot on the type of circuit and the grip of the asphalt, and this makes it very difficult.”
Dovizioso had interesting reflections on the topic. “The second day in Thailand I did my fastest lap with the aerodynamic fairing, but this doesn’t at all mean that it will be the best body for the race. For the rider, it’s difficult to understand what are the advantages and disadvantages that it can bring over a whole season. And making one decision or another can make a big difference.”
Marc Márquez’s comments were similar: “In the standard fairing, we use small, almost invisible wings that generate a bit of aerodynamic pressure. The most voluminous body obviously generates more. Of course, it improves the wheelie tendency and improves under braking and stability, but you lose a bit of agility, especially when it comes to turning the bike.”
Honda And Suzuki Get On The Bandwagon
Like Dovizioso, Márquez left Thailand without wanting to define what type of bodywork he is going to use. “It’s something I have to analyze calmly,” he said. “At the moment I feel more comfortable with the traditional fairing because I know it and how it works. But I have to test the downforce more thoroughly. The Qatar test will be the last chance we have, then we will have to make a decision.”
Having taken a normally skeptical—or better, conservative—approach regarding aerodynamic development until now, HRC this preseason has boarded the bandwagon with everyone else. And when Honda starts up… Between the Sepang and Buriram tests, the engineers modified the winglets to give Márquez a better feeling. “In cars, it’s easy,” said HRC Director/General Manager Race Operations Tetsuhiro Kuwata. “The higher the ailerons, the greater the aerodynamic pressure, and the faster you pass through the corner and the acceleration.
Having taken a normally conservative approach regarding aerodynamic development until now, HRC has boarded the bandwagon this preseason with everyone else. And when Honda starts up…
“On motorcycles it’s more complicated. The aerodynamic load on the front axle helps transfer weight, makes braking more efficient, and helps keep the front wheel flat on the ground under acceleration. But not all are advantages because it can make the bike heavier in quick changes of direction. There are corners in which the extra load helps; in others it does not. As always we are looking for the best compromise and balance that not only serves in braking and acceleration but in making the most efficient complete turn possible.”
Within this diversity of designs being tested in MotoGP this preseason, attention should be given to the development Suzuki is making. Its riders tried winglets with rounded profiles, reminiscent of a manta ray, and then took to the track with a striking Ducati- and Honda-style fairing. “With the old fairing we had a lot of aerodynamic load but we lost a lot under maximum speed,” Alex Rins explained. “The new alternative continues to be efficient when it comes to keeping the front wheel stuck to the ground, and at the same time we have recovered what we lost at the end of the straight.”
If you’ve read this far, you have surely noticed that the subject of aerodynamics has become a battle line between engineers always eager to make their products more efficient and Dorna’s willingness to keep costs under control to give options to factories with fewer economic resources. As for the riders, you’ve read their opinions, except for that of Jorge Lorenzo, who made his view clear last season: “Better the devil, you know…”