"Hey Alex! How's the new bike?"
This is a question I get a lot as the season begins each year.
The answer is not that simple although I normally answer with something like “Yeah it's good, so far so good, time will tell, we need to race it”. They normally answer with something like this ”cool…….thanks mate, have a good one!”
The reason it's not easy to answer is in almost every case the bike is not new…well not new in the sense that people think.
In 20+ years I have only arrived to a completely new bike once. That was when the two stroke era ended and we started working on the new Honda RCV211V, and even then many parts were the same as its cousin the NSR500.
Ok so let me tell you how it goes every year and then you will know why the bikes are not really new each year.
So let's start at the first race of the year. We arrive after pre-season tests and in the past many were very private tests, so when we would come to the first race, there would be a real excitement in how we will go. That is lost a bit now as we do pre season testing alongside all the other teams. It's still exciting but it has lost something to the private test era.
So by the end of the first practice we already start to form opinions on what we and the factory have built. We change set ups and chase traction, handling and speed, (that part never changes) and finally we race.
Now, some years a problem will be slapping you in the face and other years it may be hard to put your finger on it. We may have even won the race but still there will be some issue we need to work on.
So let's say it a major problem - massive chatter, no traction or no top speed when compared to the competition.
The designers will go away and discuss what the race engineers have told them, what the riders have told them and even what the mechanics may have told them. Everything will be cross referenced with the other similar teams comments and a decision will get made. Development is always faster when you have more bikes the same or very similar to gain information from. With more information, patterns show quicker and more ideas get tried in a shorter time.
Now let's say the problem is no grip (well not as much as we expect). During the course of testing we will have tried all the regular fixes, shorter wheel base (move the rear wheel forward a bit, maybe to the maximum of the adjustment). We may have moved the front wheel further forward - that puts more weight on the rear tire also, and we would have tried various power curves to help, changing fuel delivery, mapping, ignition etc.
From an engineering point of view you have a few groups in GP teams. Loosely that will be chassis department, engine department and the electronics group. All of them will probably come up with a possible solution.
We turn up to the next race or test, and depending on what department had the time to make and test their solution, we get to try it out.
So let's say they all came to the party with new boxes. It might go like this. New electronic package, a shorter swing arm to give more range of adjustment as we have been at the limit of our setting and we may have a new air box, even a cowling shape to help our problems. Oh and also we may have a new handle bar angle or a new seat because the rider was not comfortable during the tests and first race. Maybe a new bolt , screw or bracket that's a bit stronger than the one we broke during testing, for example.
So there we are at the second race and the bike is not the same as the start of the year. We have 16 more races and 4 tests to go.
You can see what's happening huh? The bike is evolving, so by the end of the year it is quite a long way from what we started with.
During the course of the year we may also test ideas and innovations that are not a direct response to a problem. The suspension company may have made a new product or are using a new process, a new firing order engine may get tested, or one of a zillion other things that may be an improvement on what we have. Some of those things will get bolted on there and then and some need six more months before we get them.
When we get to the end of the year and the championship is over, the bike is very different from the beginning of the year and we are doing the last test. What are we testing? It will be some of the things we tried during the year that are now ready, it will be more new ideas to determine development direction, it will be new tires for the next season and on it goes.
OK are you still with me? It's now the first test of the year. The bike goes well, we try a few new things that were made from the decisions of the last test and a few bigger ideas that will need more time to finalise, plus things that we may get by mid year...
"Hey Alex, hows the new bike?"
Um well it's kinda always changing so it's not that new...
“Um...Yeah it's good, so far so good, time will tell, we need to race it."
”Cool…….thanks mate, have a good one!”