In 2006, Honda achieved the unique feat of victory in both Formula One and MotoGP. While Jenson Button won the Hungarian Grand Prix at the wheel of the Honda RA106, Nicky Hayden rode the Repsol Honda RC211V to world championship glory.
Feature: F1 vs MotoGP technique
At first glance the two machines are very different. The car, dressed in white, is a mass of scoops and wings. The ’bike, wearing navy, orange and red war paint, is much smaller and has a brutal simplicity. The laws of physics dictate that while the lightweight ’bike is more accelerative, the four-wheeled car has more grip and will be faster over a single lap.
Those in the know are therefore less interested in the ultimate lap times than in how the techniques compare. They ask what it takes to wring the optimal lap time from both machines. Can the skills needed to ride a MotoGP ’bike at the limit really be compared with those required to drive a contemporary Formula One car at the edge of adhesion?
To find out, we sat down with Button and Hayden in London’s Royal Albert Hall, where both men were attending the ‘New Honda Circles’ Convention for Honda associates. With the help of a telemetry trace of both machines from the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, we talked techniques with two of the greatest exponents of their art.
|Helped by a superior power to weight ratio – around 1600bhp/tonne for the RC211V versus 1250bhp/tonne for the RA106 – the bike is significantly faster in a straight line. Despite a slower corner exit speed, Hayden is travelling faster than Button by the end of Barcelona’s main straight. “The speed of the bike is outrageous,” says Button, looking slightly incredulous. |
Both machines benefit from traction control, which reduces wheelspin and helps turn the engine’s output into forward momentum. “Traction control has only really become an issue in the past couple of years,” says Hayden. “Over one lap it doesn’t make much difference, but over a race distance it’s made a big impact. Tyre wear is reduced and you have more wheelie control. The front wheel still lifts, but it’s not nearly as bad as before.”
|Traction control has been part of an F1 car’s repertoire for many years, but Button remains something of a purist. “I’ve tuned the traction control so that my throttle still works like a throttle,” he says. “The more throttle I apply, the more wheelspin I get. I hate just coming out of the corner and jumping on the throttle. I prefer to have more of a feel for the car.”|
Button has developed an enviable reputation as one of the world’s smoothest drivers. Put simply, he lets the car do the work and while it might not always look quick, the stopwatch never lies. His ability to finesse a Formula One car is of particular benefit under braking.
|The braking performance of the RA106 is nothing less than extraordinary – it will stop from 200mph to 0 in just 5sec. “You have to hit the brakes very hard initially,” says Button,” “There’s so much downforce – about 5.5g – that your head is pushed forwards. The most difficult part is controlling the middle and the end of the braking. You must try to keep the car balanced and not lock the wheels. With 5.5g of loading, you can lock the wheels very easily.”|
Hayden’s technique owes something to his early career, which was spent racing dirt bikes in Kentucky, USA. “In the braking zone, the rear of the bike goes quite light and around 90% of the braking is done by the front wheel,” he explains. “Some riders don’t even use their rear brake, but I come from a dirt bike background where you only had a rear brake. I use it to balance the bike and stop the wheelie.”
|Heavy braking will be accompanied by a succession of downshifts. In a Formula One car, this has been made easy by the development of semi-automatic gearboxes – all Button has to do is to flick a paddle with his left hand. “It’s so easy now that you don’t really think about it,” he says.|
On a bike, though, it’s different. “Our downshifting is really important,” says Hayden. “From third to second gear, we have to let out the clutch and manually match the rpm [an old fashioned double declutch technique]. You get the gear, let the clutch out and then try to keep the bike in line.” His laid back demeanour makes it all sound very easy, but the challenge of affecting a downshift at 200mph when you’re inches away from another rider should not be underestimated.
|Honda legend Mick Doohan was renowned for his spectacular riding style, but developments in tyre technology have made an overly aggressive style counter-productive. Like Button, Hayden concentrates on being smooth and precise. “A big slide looks good but it’s not the fast way to ride,” reckons Hayden. “A slide is evidence of a mistake. You’ll only deliberately provoke a slide if you’ve gone in too hot and you want to get to the apex without running wide.”|
We study the telemetry for turn 4 at Barcelona, a medium speed right-hander. Both rider and driver brake deep into the corner. “I trail brake to the apex of the corner, then I’ll apply the power,” says Hayden.
By contrast, Button uses the car’s natural oversteer to initiate the turn. “Normally you get a bit of oversteer [rear-end slip] on turn-in,” he says. “Then you balance the car using the throttle and the brakes at the same time.”
|Button is 26 seconds faster around the Barcelona circuit than Hayden and there are two main reasons for this – the tyres and the aerodynamics. No manufacturer has ever found a way of creating downforce on a motorbike. There are too many variables – the rider is not just the controller; he is also a significant part of the mass and he’s constantly on the move. A MotoGP bike weighs 152kg, while Hayden tips the scales at 69kg. When MotoGP teams employ a wind tunnel, they concentrate on reducing drag, not creating downforce. |
The rider must therefore seek to optimise the mechanical grip from the tyres by shifting his mass. “People tend to exaggerate the extent to which we lean the bike in a corner,” says Hayden. “You lean your body to go around a corner, but you must keep the bike as upright as possible. The exit to a corner is all about trying to get the bike stood up and on the fat part of the tyre as quickly as possible.”
|By contrast, the wind tunnel at the Honda Racing F1 Team’s headquarters in Brackley, England, is engaged 24/7 in the pursuit of downforce. This pushes the car onto the track and allows it to corner at a much higher velocity. While the bike generates a maximum cornering force of around 1.8g, the car achieves up to 4.5g. That’s why F1 drivers have incredibly strong neck muscles and why newcomers to the sport sometimes struggle with the physical challenges.|
The technique required to corner a car quickly has been further complicated by the introduction of grooved tyres, which do not enjoy lateral loads. “The back-end moves a little bit all the way through turn 4,” says Button, pointing at the telemetry. “If you use too much throttle, the traction control cuts in and you lose lots of speed, but it you don’t use enough, you get understeer.”
|Finding the perfect balance is no easy task. “The cars are so narrow and we corner so quickly that if the car gets seriously out of shape, it just snaps. You drive a modern F1 car like a go-kart; it’s all about minimal steering inputs and keeping the speed.”|
Both men are constantly pushing the limits of themselves and their machines. In such a high pressure environment, mistakes will inevitably be made and crashing is an occupational hazard that both men must accept.
Does Hayden ever worry about the danger? “You pick your poison. I don’t like the idea of feeling trapped in a car. There is definitely a bit of an art to falling off. You learn not to stick your arms out, or to try to get up while you’re still moving.”
“I told you he’d say that,” says Button, gesturing across the table. “I’m the opposite: I feel so much safer strapped into a car than being thrown off a motorbike. In a car, the injuries are different – the biggest risk is concussion from the g-forces. When I crashed at Monaco in 2003, I had an impact of 33-34g. I was unconscious but apart from a bit of bruising, I was otherwise unhurt.”
Former MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi’s tests for Ferrari this year raised the prospect of a rider ‘crossing the floor’, just as John Surtees did when he won both world championships with Honda in the 1950’s and ’60’s. But while Hayden would “love a crack at an F1 car,” neither man is in any doubt about where their strengths lie.
|“I’ve spent 18 years racing and you can’t just jump into another form of motor sport and win,” says Button. “It was very different when John Surtees was racing because the cars were simple and mechanical. In recent years, the technology of the cars and bikes has moved in completely different directions.” In today’s world, the techniques are just too different. |