First thought that comes to your mind when you think of motorcycle racing is fast bikes and even faster riders. There are several World Championships ranging from 125cc and 250cc up to 1000cc with prototype bikes, production bikes or highly modified production bikes. Championships such as World Superbike, IoM TT, World Supersports are very famous. But if you want to be “The Champion” you need to win this one, the MotoGP championship. The fastest bikes, ridden by the fastest motorcycle racers on the planet. Imagine the spectacle when bikes fly by on the straights, over 350 km/h and pushing the laws of physics while in corners, with bikes leaned over 60o, sometimes over 225 km/h with knees and elbows to the ground, at times even shoulders. The bikes and engines are already at their very summit, then why do they still go beyond? Why do they always look for the next step? It’s beyond the understanding of common men; the devotion, the commitment to be the best and the fastest drives this sport.
At a MotoGP machine’s very heart lies its engine which produces an enormous amount of power. Approximately 260 hp if you ask for numbers, which is around 1.65 hp per kilogram. That’s a lot of power and the power-to-weight ratio is just crazy, but it is only going to get faster, producing even more power. On top of that all are naturally aspirated engines; turbochargers and superchargers are not allowed. All the power comes out only and only from the engine. It’s frightening, because MotoGP riders keep pushing the boundaries of their limits which in turn pushes their engineers to give them even faster bikes and this just goes on. It all started in the early 1900s and since then it has been an addiction.
MotoGP is the oldest of all motorsports World Championships. Initially managed by FICM and now FIM. Its first annual competition was held in 1949, it consisted of four classes based on engines. 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc, all 2-strokes. With different categories coming and going, such as 50cc, 80cc and also 600cc sidecars. Engines back then were very aggressive and needed very precise throttle control otherwise they would throw you high in air in just a jiffy.
At the start, it was an All-Italian affair with most of the championships won by Italian manufacturers, out of them MV Agusta dominated the 500cc premier class by winning from 1958 to 1974.
Then the Japanese arrived in the 60s, Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki. After being forbidden to make fighter jets due to the bombings, most of the engineers were left jobless and the closest they could get to a fighter jet was a motorcycle as they said it’s very similar. We can’t disagree, specially when Dani Pedrosa famously broke the top speed record at Mugello, with both wheels of his motorcycle off the ground. YES, you read it correct. He was airborne.
By the mid 70s, Japanese manufacturers managed to break the stranglehold of MV Agusta by bringing in their in-line cylinder engines. Honda wanted to bring in a 4-stroke but instead had to settle with a V3 500 2-stroke, known as NSR500. And the result was they won the championship. With improving technology and new engines coming in, 350cc class was discontinued, leaving only 125cc, 250cc and 500cc.
In 2002, with changing rules and technology it all came down to the modern era, a new category, known as MotoGP and 990cc 4-strokes were introduced. Initially 990cc 4-strokes raced against 500cc 2-strokes, with 2-strokes being lighter and with greater torque, they were faster in corners but lost out on top speed by around 15-20 km/h. The acceleration was better in 4-strokes thanks to its 220 hp. Soon, 500cc 2-strokes were discontinued and only 990cc 4-strokes remained with 125cc and 250cc junior classes, both being 2-strokes.
Since 2000, Honda was bullying the premier class as they had the best bike back then, RC211V. Honda’s Golden Boy, Valentino Rossi had already won three consecutive championships at an age of just 24, further cementing Honda’s domination. But Rossi made a shocking move to the struggling Yamaha.
Yamaha during that period was desperate for good results, now they had got the riding genius, Valentino Rossi. All they needed now was to combine it with the engineering genius, Masao Furusawa. He introduced a cross-plane crankshaft in-line 4-cylinder engine, and made prototypes with different cross-plane angles. Rossi chose the most suitable engine and as a result Yamaha was back, back to winning and they won back-to-back championships. This is an example of how amazing and how ruthless this sport is. Riders get to choose from many engines, they choose one and the rest are just taken off the shelf. All the hard work of many men would end up yielding no results. This is one of the reasons for evolution, the compulsion of being the best.
The 990cc 4-strokes were faster, but the problem was too much power, aggressive power delivery and excessive engine braking. Electronic aides were sought after, but even that needed some time for development to counter act the troubles faced by manufacturers.
In 2007, the engines changed again and were reduced to 800cc 4-strokes. Less power, about the same weight and rev limit climbing over 18000 rpm, resulting in faster lap times. The 2007 season belonged to Casey Stoner and Ducati. Ducati had a V-twin engine with 90o angle, Honda was also using a V-engine. But, it was a V4 with 90o angle of V whereas Yamaha used in-line four-cylinder engines with cross plane crankshaft. Ducati back in 2007 was the fastest bike in acceleration and top speed, but in 2008 Yamaha and Honda caught up, thanks to the aide of Pneumatic valves and ever-increasing electronic controls on the machine. Ducati started having troubles from 2008 onwards due to their angle of V and engine location, as with increasing competition everything had to be perfect but the angle of V hindered the bike’s rideability. 2008 and 2009 saw pneumatic valves, traction controls, rear wheel speed sensors, wheel spin trackers, anti-wheelie control, launch control and a slew of fancy and expensive electronics aides equipped with engines to improve its performance.
In 2012, MotoGP class bumped up the engines back to 1000cc and a maximum four of cylinders were permitted with a maximum bore of 81mm. In the same year, the traditional 125cc 2-stroke class was discontinued and was replaced by Moto3, 250cc single cylinder 4-stroke engines.
From 80cc 2-strokes to 1000cc 4-stroke fully loaded with electronics, MotoGP engines have come a very long way. With Aprilia bringing in their new engine, a V-twin with 65o angle, KTM with their “Screamer” engine and also common ECU for all teams; we’re in for a new phase and new developments in engines and electronics. It’s no more a crazy sport where wrestling with the bike and sliding tires were a common sight, it’s now about precision, on the limit precision.
The engines have evolved and are still evolving, with competition only getting more cut-throat, this cycle of change and improvement never ceases to amaze. Restrictions on top speed, reduced Octane rating and still the engines are this good, we all can only wonder what the true potential of a restriction-free MotoGP engine might be. Riders in their high-tech racing suits might resemble superheroes to the audience but the heroes behind the scene will always be the engineers and technicians working hard to give them a weapon fit to use, fit to fight in this fierce championship, which is MotoGP.