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MotoGP: Cal Crutchlow gives a rider’s eye view of the controls

Adam Wheeler
LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow's 'office' - Cormac GP

Formula 1 driving & MotoGP riding: four wheels and two. But there is another aspect in which these forms of motorsport vary so wildly, and that’s to do with complexity. A Grand Prix driver will be surrounded by it. A Grand Prix rider has to conjure it.

An example of this lies directly in the controls racers have to hand. A mere glance at a F1 steering wheel will reveal a costly assortment of controls, trims, buttons, gauges and adjustments.

In MotoGP, where the rider is working a lot more physically and with the dabs and shifts of body weight required to manipulate the lean and grip of the bike, things tend to be a lot simpler.

The way a rider flexes around a cramped and compact MotoGP machine has an exact bearing on braking, tyre wear and traction. Every move has a consequence, and even seemingly disbelieving forms of bodily contact between racetrack and motorcycle can save crashes and catastrophe if your name is Marc Marquez, the reigning world champion.

F1 drivers can call on millions and millions of euros in R&D at the tip of their fingers. MotoGP riders are guiding the pinnacle of motorcycling technology and ideas but their input for pace is arguably more tactile.

MotoGP is so physical, and the riders move around so much, that the controls are deliberately kept to a minimum Credit: Cormac GP

So what do MotoGP stars have at their disposal? Their ‘cockpit’ is something they’ll tuck into at the soonest possible opportunity to minimise that enemy of lap-times: drag. It’s not a coincidence that most motorcycle racers will rarely stand taller than 6ft. Hunched into that Perspex bubble (when not scraping parts of their anatomy on the floor at 150mph) and hanging on to cope with dizzying levels of torque and acceleration, naturally there is not too much to see or do.

Britain’s principal MotoGP ace Cal Crutchlow says: “We are obviously very limited with our view but the worst is being in the tuck position because your peripheral vision is a lot less and you are just staring into the dash and the triple clamp of the bike.”

Being ‘tucked in’ represents a fleeting few seconds when, in fact, they can interact with the few possibilities to hand.

Crutchlow’s LCR Honda crew chief Christophe ‘Beefy’ Bourguignon explains: “On the left side he has a standard clutch lever, a front brake lever adjuster and then the pit lane speed limiter switch.

Crutchlow confers with the LCR Honda crew chief Christophe ‘Beefy’ Bourguignon to his right Credit: Cormac GP

“We then have the three-map button, what we would call torque, engine braking and traction control. He [Crutchlow] can switch to have more or less engine braking and he’ll try it during a run on track and say where it is better or worse and then we’ll adjust the map for perhaps just one corner instead of two. He can see all of that on the dash because it is easy to get confused and you have to cycle through the three options. 

“Some weekends he will go out and feel that he already has too much torque or the engine braking is locking the bike so he’ll free it up and, during the race, if he feels he is spinning too much then we’ll change the traction control. He is trying options through the Grand Prix weekend and will explain what is better or worse with the settings. We’ll try to combine all of his comments.”

The front brake lever adjuster is something that Crutchlow regularly twiddles. “I change the lever adjuster a lot each lap. It’s a bit mad. The bike shakes a lot and for that you want the setting always the same. Some riders brake with one or two fingers. I brake with three.

“I like the lever to be in the same position and for the brake to be there initially but then to release and brake again. That’s our style. I can ride around most things like vibration, something hanging off the bike or an injury, but I do not like a spongey brake.”

Crutchlow likes to see the numbers on his electronic display, while other riders find them distracting Credit: Cormac GP

Bourguignon offers more detail concerning one of the more expensive components of the motorcycle. “Cal brakes in a little bit in a strange way compared to the others and we have to be very careful about how we bleed the brakes. If the pads have been shaking or the system is not properly bled with a new set of calipers, the lever could quickly come back to his fingers and run out of brake performance.

“So it is something we have to be really careful with. When carbon is cold the brake lever will be in a certain position and after a few laps when it’s warm will be different. Sometimes he’ll change it every lap. On a heavy-braking circuit the lever will become ‘hard’ because of the build-up of heat and pressure and he will have to adjusted for the next corner otherwise there will no feeling.”

Buried beyond the vast triple clamp is the dashboard, surrounded by LEDs and barely bigger than an iPhone 6 screen. Surprisingly, Crutchlow spends quite a lot of time looking at it. Aside from a large Perspex pitboard (and fleeting looks at big screen TVs around the circuit) it is the rider’s main hub of information.

Bourguignon says: “He’ll have the RPM, the best lap time, the difference compared to his best split, plus information about his engine maps.

Crutchlow is already a MotoGP winner, having triumphed in Argentina earlier this season Credit: Cormac GP

“Some riders don’t want to see that and instead prefer a light, like ‘green’ for an improvement, to understand if they are going well or they should finish the lap or scrub it or be ready for another one. Cal likes the numbers and incredibly he can tell you exactly the fractions of a second of his splits.

“We can also now send more messages to him like you see on TV and things like ‘change tyre’, but we try not to use it too much because when he’s racing it is better he just focuses on that.”

The right side of the handlebar holds the crucial elements: throttle and brake. The Kill switch to shut off the engine is also located here. “The bar position is a very personal thing,” reveals Bourguignon. “Honda will recommend some settings but the offset can change, so back or forwards, as well as the angle.”

Crutchlow will use Kevlar-braced Alpinestars race gloves but the sensitivity and grip with the bars is paramount when the slightest miscalculation with throttle delivery can end up with a trip to hospital.

The expensive end... the electronics can cost up to 80,000 to replace if the bike suffers a heavy frontal impact Credit: Cormac GP

Crutchlow says: “I was really fussy about my grips when I first came to MotoGP and to Yamaha from World Superbike. I only wanted my Renthal grips but was told to get them off. I ended up using a TZ250 grip at Yamaha and they were lovely! At Ducati I used them again and even in Honda I tried them, but the team are sponsored by ProGrip and they were able to replicate something very similar.”

Even though a tumbling trip through the gravel is an expected part of racing, the LCR team and management are likely to wince when the RCV starts bouncing on its front end. This is a pricey end of the motorcycle.

“It’s really costly, every electronic part,” Bourguignon says. “Every pressure sensor can be 2,000 euros. They are special parts and not mass-produced. Each cable and component is also protected by custom-made pieces. The bikes are heavy and if one lands on the front then the dash, the harness, the wires, the sensors, gyro… you can quickly spend between 50,000 and 80,000 euros.”

When Crutchlow has the best view of the racetrack, it is normally empty. He has already grasped victory this year, in Argentina, but is one of a gaggle of racers in a series that has squashed even closer in terms of competitive parity. Fellow Honda rider and reigning champion Marquez might still be the reference, but there is little doubting the increased entertainment factor of MotoGP over the last half-decade. 

With MotoGP riders so evenly matched, the best have developed a 'sixth sense' during close-quarter racing

MotoGP riders are separated by fractions of a second and often only inches on the circuit. Crutchlow likes to believe motorcycle racers have a sixth-sense when it comes to handling the battle; when they have to deal with the heat, rasping din and peril of close proximity.

“A funny thing: you cannot really see people around but you can feel them. It’s really strange,” he says. “They might be alongside or in the slipstream and you cannot see much in your ‘tuck’ but you can feel where they are.

“The reactions of a motorcycle racer in that position are scary; how quickly we can react to different situations and I mean at all levels. You have to have this special spatial awareness.”

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