Costa Mouzouris gives us his take on where Traction Control for motorcycles is currently at and what the future holds.
Gary McCoy-style tire-smoking corner exits might impress the hell out of your riding buddies while lapping at your local track day, but they won’t get you around the circuit any faster.
There are a couple of reasons this spectacular riding style hasn’t caught on in MotoGP, despite its potential for boosting TV ratings. First, it shreds rear tires, and if MotoGP riders want to maintain consistent lap times throughout the length of a race they must conserve rubber.
Also, the risk of highsiding into oblivion increases exponentially the farther the rear tire kicks out when the gas is on. McCoy aside, even riders of Valentino Rossi’s calibre need help keeping the rear end in check, especially when trying to control 200-plus horsepower MotoGP missiles.
That help comes via an electronic intervention called traction control.
PASSIVE AND ACTIVE
The fundamentals of traction control are quite simple: measure the difference between front and rear wheel speed, and curb engine power if the rear wheel spins faster than the front (signifying that the rear wheel is starting to lose traction).
There are currently two methods being used on street bikes. The first is a relatively simple system used by BMW and Kawasaki that guesses at when rear-wheel spin is likely to occur (to those with a tendency of pointing these things out, Honda also used a similar system in the ST1100 some years ago).
In these systems, the bike’s ECU compares engine revs in different gears to a preset map to determine if the rear tire is likely slipping; if revs pick up too quickly in a given gear compared to these preset parameters, ignition timing is then retarded or even cut, until it all comes back to where the bike thinks it should be.
This is a passive system and though simple, it doesn’t sense actual conditions and so it doesn’t adapt to your riding style. Such a system only reacts when things get way out of hand, intervening almost like an on/off switch. Having previously ridden an R1200GS equipped with BMW’s Automatic Stability Control, I can attest that though the system does work admirably, it is not as subtle in operation as more elaborate systems.
The most advanced systems, like those used on MotoGP machines, are active. They measure a whole host of factors including wheel speed, engine rpm, gear position, lateral acceleration, G-forces and even lean angle, which provide the information needed to tailor power output very precisely, but ultimately cost a fortune in the process.
The last bike I’d ridden with all of this anti-slip trickery was Rossi’s M1 (I’ll never get tired of saying that), and that bike probably had a near-seven-digit price tag! In order to keep it more affordable, Ducati made a compromise by incorporating a simpler active system.
Ducati Traction Control (DTC) – first seen on last year’s 1098 R and now incorporated into the 1198 S and Streetfighter S – still measures wheel speed, engine rpm and gear position, but does away with the more complex lean angle, lateral acceleration and G-force measurements.
DTC effectiveness is also adjustable from one to eight, or if you prefer, superhero to wussy. Number eight position (wussy mode) provides the greatest amount of electronic intervention and is meant for wet conditions (that’s road conditions, not incontinence), and number one the least, or almost nonexistent.
I’ve ridden two machines with DTC, the 1098 R, and more recently the Streetfighter S. The revised DTC on the Streetfighter S, as well as the 1198 S, first retards timing, then – if retarding wasn’t enough to keep the rear wheel obedient — cuts ignition and fuel.
Interestingly, the 1098 R did not cut fuel, but rather dumped raw fuel into the exhaust when the DTC activated – this was not so much a problem as it sounds because DTC was only available as part of that bike’s race kit, which included a race ECU and exhaust system. Dumping fuel into the Streetfighter’s stock exhaust system would bugger up the oxygen sensors, which would ultimately send the ECU into twilight-zone mode.
DTC IN ACTION
During the recent Streetfighter S international press intro, held at
the Ascari Race Resort in Spain, I began the track sessions in the
number six DTC position (shy-but-willing mode). Much as it took me time
to get accustomed to the first machines that I rode with ABS, it also
took me a while to get accustomed to using DTC.
What my head needed to get around was the confidence required to open the throttle progressively harder when coming out of corners and trusting the system would function as claimed. Much as I’ve come to rely on electronics, the result of a glitch would mean a trip into the stratosphere after a magnificent highside.
At a quick pace in number six position the engine cut regularly exiting the slower turns and the DTC warning lights in the instrument panel flashed often, a constant reminder that I needed to ramp up my manliness. The sputtering engine convinced me that the system would keep me earthbound and so I got braver, twisting the right grip progressively harder and harder coming out of corners.
After several laps without being jettisoned like an infectious corpse out of a trebuchet, I threw caution to the wind and set the DTC to the number four position (brave-but-likely-to-use-a-human-shield-in-a-shootout mode) – after all, that’s why I buy health insurance before leaving the country.
In this setting, I found myself challenging the electronics in a battle of wits between my right wrist and the ECU. DTC still overruled, but it activated less frequently. As a result, I blasted out of corners harder than I thought possible and with not even the hint of rear wheel kick out.
If we had had a few more riding sessions I would have switched to position three (willing-to-do-time-but-not-hard-time mode) and further test the limits of traction, but, alas, the sun was setting and the evening all-you-can-eat buffet beckoned.
I remember during the press launch of the 1098 R with DTC in 2007, several journalists claiming they were laying spectacular “darkies” coming out of corners with the DTC set in the number four position. Although I was going quick enough to at least keep pace with these riders, I never witnessed any such antics, nor had I experienced any myself.
Of course not – the DTC was doing what it was supposed to. I think overactive bench racing imaginations were the true source of this traction fiction. Even former World Superbike and AMA Superbike champion Scott Russell, who was invited to ride the machines, said he barely felt the bike move about.
I’VE SEEN THE FUTURE AND IT’S … CONTROLLED
Electronic intervention is inevitable; whether it is used as a safety feature, to clean up exhaust fumes, or to make you a faster rider, one thing’s for sure: it will not make you a better rider.
I think features like antilock brakes and traction control to some extent prevent you from developing advanced riding skills. Sometimes, to find your limits you’ve got to exceed them. But, for everyday use by everyday riders, I think these systems are indispensable.
Having said that, given the choice of having traction control on a bike, especially an open-class supersport, I’d absolutely take it. Traction control gave me the confidence to turn the throttle harder than I’d ever done before. It taught me loads about rear wheel traction and how much harder we can apply the throttle at corner exit before things go awry.
Now, you might have an aversion to electronic intervention, and you don’t really need traction control unless you ride your open-class sport bike near its limit. But it does add a measure of safety on the street and it will get you around a racetrack quicker than without it.
How well the system works was hinted at when riding through Ascari’s fast sweepers, where the Streetfighter S tracked with perfect stability, yet the DTC warning lights in its instrument panel flickered almost continuously, indicating that, indeed, there was some disagreement between the front and rear contact patches.
I’ve got to remember, however, that for now access to this technology is only available on a handful of machines – if I forget this, there may eventually be a separation of rider and machine – and though I may be infectious, I’m not yet a corpse.
Ducati Streetfighter sidebar
Early street fighters were designed by accident — literally. Street riders looking to save a few bucks after taking a spill on their GSXZXCBRR-Rs, discovered that stripping off the marred bodywork and busted fairings and replacing snapped clip-ons with a traditional tubular handlebar not only left their wallets intact, it also made the track-focused machines more usable.
The upright seating position and added steering leverage provided by wide superbike-style handlebars combined with the racetrack-derived chassis to produce the ultimate urban assault vehicles.
The Ducati Streetfighter is the first production motorcycle to truly emulate the stripped sport bike. Project manager Giulio Malagoli, who has been in charge of Monster development since 2001, began designing the Streetfighter using the 1098 as a platform.
The Streetfighter’s resemblance to the 1098 is evident when you look at the recognizable tailpiece and fuel tank, though these parts have been altered and are unique to the Streetfighter. The tailpiece is on a redesigned subframe that places it farther forward and the fuel tank is 25 mm shorter, but it is taller and holds one more litre of fuel than the 1098, at 16.5 litres.
The family resemblance to the 1098 continues forward to the nose-piece, which is a miniature version of the superbike’s fairing, complete with fake air intake openings placed under marker lights that are shaped to mimic the 1098’s headlights.
Although very similar to the 1098’s steel trellis frame, the Streetfighter’s chassis geometry is altered for the sake of added stability. With a claimed dry weight of 169 kg (373 lb) the Streetfighter matches the air-cooled Monster 1100 in heft, pretty good for a liquid-cooled machine. The Streetfighter S uses lighter forged aluminum wheels, Ohlins suspension and carbon-fibre bits and loses an additional two kilos.
The Streetfighter retails for $17,995, while the DTC-equipped S model will set you back $22,495.