MotoGP Evolution - Race tech to the road

Four years on from the advent of MotoGP, and with the 800cc formula beckoning, there's just one thing missing: the trickle-down of race tech to street bikes. Why?

Back in 1998, when Mick Doohan was in danger of boring the neutrals to death with his brilliance - that's where it all began. I remember the day very well. I was reminiscing about the on-track action while sitting in the star-studded environs of the Italian restaurant at Suzuka.

With 250cc legends eating pasta here and 500cc greats ordering tiramisu there, it was a gilded walk on the wildside of the safety barriers for a scruffy magazine staffer like me. Later on I also noticed that a solid knot of Euro-blazerati, Japanese bigwigs and sundry suits had come out of the adjacent private dining room, all with a mixture of grins, pensive looks and barely concealed wide-eyed amazement.

But, like you would if you were me at that point in time, I paid more attention to what kind of pasta Capirossi was having, and worrying about how I was going to get a whopping receipt smothered in Japanese symbols through the next round of expenses. Some time later I was told that this very meeting was the first that aired the heretical notion of the 500cc class returning to its four-stroke roots, and boosting things up to a whole litre in engine displacement.

Or I could have been told a load of bollocks about its significance, and they'd just overindulged on Sake at dinner.

Either way, most parties present at the first four-stroke meeting (whatever its venue and timing) gave it an immediate nod of approval, despite their fears of the unknown. That first agreement was the first step towards what has become modern MotoGP - the biggest business in two-wheeled history.

Despite the huge opposition the idea met with (initially) in most other quarters, it was obvious to see what would attract the big manufacturers. 500cc stroker technology was stagnant and emissions issues meant roadbike stinkwheels were well on their way to becoming legislatively obsolete. The engineers-cum-managers at the helm of the main factories loved the idea of having prototype four-strokes to play with. No more roadbike-into-racebike balance to be struck to meet national and global superbike regulations - this was Formula 1 for two wheels, lads! You could almost hear them phoning up suppliers for titanium cam followers and the latest valve lift software from a whole continent away.

The marketing people were particularly happy, because they could conjure up an endless PR attack from the four-stoke prototype racetrack glory, all the way to a record total of roadbike sales. And all thanks to the longest established class of all, which - very conveniently - already had over 50 years of global exposure.

The net result was more overall budget for racing - racing which would have more direct relevance to roadbikes in the future.

For the promoters, Dorna, it was a way to kick-start the whole ailing yawn-fest, dominated mercilessly by Doohan and Honda's NSR for what seemed like forever. And they could even get the eager factories to pay for most of it, with specialist F1-style constructor teams joining in as well.

Post 2001, MotoGP has indeed been all those things, for most of those people. What it seemed to signal for us was the return of the real race replica - and this time maybe even closer to the design of the originals than before. The reasoning was simple.

With a 990cc limit you can do the development of your next generation of hypersports litre bikes largely in the MotoGP kitchen. Then water it down, swap spicy but pricey materials for more durable and affordable roadbike ingredients, and still whip out a most astounding streetbike, with huge performance potential. It made sense in theory; unified development from the top down, keeping as much or as little MotoGP influence as you could afford in the roadbikes. Which would eventually become World Superbikes someday, pre-developed for racing to an unprecedented degree.

We would surely, imminently, see high-performance Honda vee-somethings on the street, funny front ends that actually worked, engine management systems we could tune on the go and carbon chassis for the masses. Alas though, we haven't.

For starters there was an immediate two-year clause in the regulations that you could not produce a roadbike replica, and when you did you would have to ditch the race version. That stipulation is now no longer in the rulebook, according to the FIM regs and enquiries to the powers that be, but even after four years of MotoGP the closest we've got to a 'real' replica is the promise of the V4 Desmosedici RR.

According to Ducati sources, it should be unveiled as a finished article in spring 2006 (during World Ducati Week was the original desire), then on sale '07. Personally, I can't wait for it to show up, sooner the better, even if it'll cost upwards of 50,000 Euros.

Four-stroke MotoGP has certainly been as irresistible and technologically diverse as expected, at least at the start. Full marks to all for embracing their own new ideas and giving it extreme effort, even if most things didn't work as planned for the majority of each manufacturer's first prototypes. Except the Honda, which, as we could've predicted, really worked back then, and works every bit as well now.

So where, after four years of the RC211V, is our Honda V5 with lights and indicators? Where is the syncopating beat of the 16-valve roadgoing M1, for that matter? Where is the gorgeously tiny Kawasaki Ninja, the green version of the funny firing cycle? Where is the V4 Suzuki? Or the three-cylinder replacement for the Aprilia Mille twin? (Oh that's right, Aprilia went splat, partly through trying to keep up with the Japanese Joneses. And no wonder, when you consider the next point.)

The reason why we haven't seen MotoGP roadbikes yet, or something approaching them, is down to one thing: money.

Money in the sense of looking at the sheer cost of building a V5 Honda, and how to recoup it from no-one but rich collectors. Tooling costs alone for the bigger producers would be huge - and to make only a couple of thousand of them, at the most.

In the words of HRC Managing Director Satoru Horiike, cost is certainly the main reason, especially in the comparatively small world of motorcycling.

"If we make a plan to produce any street bike," he says, "we need some amount of expectation to sell. At this moment, we cannot expect an appropriate amount of sales of a MotoGP replica. So if we make a MotoGP replica, it will be very expensive."

If Honda can't see it as a green light project right now, what of the smaller fish? How much would Aprilia, for example, have punted any possible three-cylinder Cube roadbike for, to cover its manufacture in a warrantable spec? A cubic metre of 20 Euro notes? Even without the pneumatic valves?

Marketing considerations for whole ranges, rather than just single models, also count for something. Can Ducati suddenly devalue its range of top performance 1000cc twins by producing a V4 as anything other than a golden sliver of fringe exotica, a 'wildcard' oddity from an already prestige marque? When sales of 999s ain't so hot in some territories, why lose profit from another couple of hundred of them on what will very possibly be a loss leader?

Yamaha sure can't sell a funky firing order M1-derived engine without uprating normal engine parts and transmissions to the point of reducing most of the gains it might have made in streetbike trim. Think back to early R7 models for an example of highly stressed race-ready specials on the street, then add in bigger bangs to the whole drivetrain deal.

So which of the current MotoGP bikes is most like the real roadbike the majority of bikers can realistically afford to buy? Which has the closest DNA match?

The new and roomier Yamaha R6 has taken a major step forward in volume roadbike design by featuring a fly-by-wire throttle, claimed to be designed by the same team of boffins that made the original for Rossi's M1. The exhaust routing is another MotoGP-derived oddity, even if exhaust design in the GP paddock seems to change by the week. What of the supposed MotoGP-alike styling? Well stick it next to the M1 and they really look nothing like each other. As aerodynamic/intake/cooling ducts again change a few times a season in the real racing world, none of that should come as much of a surprise.

In styling terms, only Honda comes pretty close. If we can step back from the delicious but currently insane idea of the whole V5 roadbike engine for a bit, there are some undeniable RC211V styling touches in the CBR600RR and CBR1000RR. But they're still not true visual replicas.

It's strange that even Honda, with its resources, has not made a more utterly direct copy of Nicky's bike from the visuals of brake design to the razor-sharp tail. It cannot surely be beyond the might of Honda to clone all the RC211V styling points, even if it adds a small premium. The bodywork of the Fireblade is actually so (kinda) similar, what price making it a plastic clone of the carbon Kevlar GP original?

Horiike san, one of Honda's men with huge racing and roadbike experience (cultivation of which is company policy), cites four main benefits we have now seen adopted right from MotoGP to Honda's top roadbikes. Good aerodynamics at speed (thanks to the RC211V styling), is one. Improved handling (maybe even especially under braking), is another. Reduced weight of components (thanks to practical results with even lighter materials in MotoGP, we assume), makes three. Of course, improved power is always a top trump grail quest in any engineering crusade, and this fourth main indirect improvement comes thanks to what Horiike san calls 'engine power output technology.'

Asked what he thinks will be coming on-stream from MotoGP in the immediate future, his response is inscrutably vague.

"I think that electric control systems will be adapted soon," he says.

Suitably decoded, what this means is that electronics will be everyone's way around the next big challenges. Stricter emission control allied to even better power, torque and throttle response, in all conditions, will depend on who manages the best design and development electronics and software. We're already down that road some way, but we're going to go at it faster and harder than ever. It sounds like a cure-all solution, one every major manufacturer has put huge faith and resources into.

This would seem to be the only reason why the Japanese would agree to something so costly, so illogical for roadbike development and so damaging to the smaller teams as to opt to change the rules again to an 800cc MotoGP limit. Think it's for safety? Well, watch how fast the 800s go from the start, and how comparatively tricky they will be to ride.

Given the huge expense of trying to compete in four-stroke MotoGP, maybe another reason we have no imminent prospects of close-to-source MotoGP bikes is that staying ahead on track actually robs vital development funds from the more esoteric bikes in the showroom model ranges.

Whatever the 800cc MotoGP rules will herald, they will almost certainly break any rational link with a later road-based bike. The idea of a MotoGP race replica will become even more remote. Not only does the new capacity itself bear no relation to current roadbike marketing streams, but also what's the point in producing a small run of GP clones if they will almost certainly have to be slower than even current 1000cc streetbikes? Think of the jewel-like Honda NR750 techno-babe of years gone by.

Eight valves per cylinder, oval pistons, incandescently red carbon bodywork and worth not much less than my first house.

An astonishing collector's piece, but an ordinary Fireblade could still kick the life out of it on the road and track. At least in the car world, specials are generally more effective than their 'ordinary' equivalents.

The best reason why we won't see greyed-out MotoGP bikes on a roundabout near you anytime soon is that the current crop of hypersports bikes are ferociously already. With 170bhp at the back wheel, beautiful road manners, aggressive styling all their own and a price tag under 10 grand, any one of the big four can sort out the most avid road riders and track day freaks with a bike fit to overload the senses. After all, when World Superbike teams decide to keep stock swingarms because they work better than their own trick race versions - even with 210bhp on tap - litre roadbike design may finally have reached a real point of diminishing returns.

So it seems that all our preconceived notions of having any sort of genuine road going replica of a MotoGP bike - for a four-stroke RD500 or RG500, or even a quirky modern-day equivalent to the NS400 - were all just fruitless twinkles in our minds' eyes. Unless and until, of course, that promised Ducati, or a top-secret wildcard Honda finally makes it to production and blows our minds in one fell swoop of intoxicating GP performance. Pure Mugello and Motegi juice for the proles.

In the meantime, make mine a double absinthe, because maybe the closest we're ever going to get to seeing a Melandri/Rossi/Nakano/Hopkins replica is in the fog of an artificially induced dream.