Racing heavyweights: Europe v Japan

Since the middle of the last century motorcycle racing has been dominated by these two heavyweights. With the most explosive race seasons in living memory upon us, who’s top dog?

MotoGP Bikes: Ducati Desmosedici v Yamaha M1

The best bikes in MotoGP are back to battle it out once again; same lap times, same rulebook, two completely different machines. How the hell does that happen?

There’s no doubt which are the best bikes on the MotoGP grid. They are the Yamaha M1 and the Ducati Desmosedici. They split pole positions last year nine to six in favour of the Ducati; wins went six to Ducati, nine to Yamaha. Factor in injuries and the weather and you could argue that there’s very little to split them. However, all Ducati’s success is down to one man, Casey Stoner. In contrast, two men won on the Yamaha, three set pole with it and all four M1 riders put it on the front row.

Historically, really dominant motorcycles – the MV Agusta 500 and Honda NSR500, for example – have been developed by a lead rider with whom the factory’s engineers developed a deep understanding; Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan in these cases. Sometimes other team riders could get on with the bike, sometimes they couldn’t.

Explaining why Stoner and only Stoner can ride the Desmosedici in the way designer Filippo Preziosi intended is not easy. After all, the bike was basically finished before Stoner even sat on it. It just so happened that it suits the Aussie perfectly. Preziosi’s philosophy is simple: make as much power as you can, then work out how to make it user-friendly. At the start of MotoGP Ducati toyed with the idea of fielding a V-twin. That proved impracticable so they kept the V-configuration and made it a V4, but their other hallmarks – desmodromic valve operation and a steel-tube trellis chassis – were kept. I once asked Valentino Rossi how come Stoner and the Duke work so well together. He shrugged, spread the fingers on both hands, then brought them together so they interlocked: “Perfect fit”.

Now imagine the first meeting at Yamaha headquarters after the MotoGP regs were announced. Do you seriously think anyone suggested an engine layout other than an in-line four? Would the marketing people who’d unlocked the piggy bank when they heard the magic words ‘four-stroke’ would have allowed something that didn’t directly relate to the R1? It took a while for it to work. In fact it needed the combined talents of Valentino Rossi, Jerry Burgess and Masao Furusawa.

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State of the Art Sportsbikes


The most desirable new production machines of 2009 will also be fighting for World Superbike

supremacy. We weigh up the protagonists ...


The Testastretta Evoluzione, the absolute epitome of V-twin power, is one of the most successful engines in World Superbikes. Thanks to careful evolution and the fundamental rightness of the desmodromic system, which mechanically opens and closes the valves, Ducati have been able to extract every last puff of power out of an engine layout more in keeping with drawing water than winning world titles. The layout is simple – liquid-cooled, four valves per cylinder in a 90° layout – and it’s been retained as the capacity’s grown inexorably from 916 to 1198. The original race-spec 916 produced 144bhp; the 1198 racer has added a ridiculous 60bhp to that. In road trim that figure has grown from 115bhp to 170bhp.

The sixteen-valve, four cylinder Yamaha R1 comfortably pumps out over 215bhp in race spec; a ridiculous amount that’s nevertheless par for the course for a Japanese race engine. In road trim the all-new crossplane-cranked 998cc unit is still good for a claimed 184bhp. The crossplane crank’s uneven firing order delivers power in a more linear and rider-friendly way than conventional inline fours. This allows an earlier and more aggressive opening of the throttle and quicker lap times.

We wanted race technology for the road and in the new R1 we’ve been given arguably the most faithful and accessible display of race-bred technology on any platform, two-wheeled or four.


Harnessing power has become much more of an issue than waiting for tyre technology to catch up, as was the case in the 500cc Grand Prix era. Traction control plays as much of a role now as tyre choice. Ducati’s flagship road bikes now have an eight-stage traction control system designed by a team of Ducati racers from both MotoGP and World Superbikes. Wheel-speed sensors pick up on differences and adjust spark patterns to restrict power precisely and immediately. It also restores traction before reapplying the amount of power dictated by the position of the throttle, something only previously found on true race bikes.

Yamaha have fitted their R1 road bike with three power delivery settings, controlled by the ride-by wire throttle and a brainy ECU. The rider-friendly power delivery of their new engine means Yamaha have taken a step back from introducing a traction control system for the road – they reckon you can use your judgement to decide which of the three power delivery modes you want and can swap between them on the move. Having now ridden the 2009 R1 it seems the brutal mode A is largely pointless for the road while mode B, which delivers a softer spread of power until half throttle or more, looks to be the best option; mode C seems useful only on cold or wet days – traction control is way more useful.

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Riding Talent - Byrne


Is there such a thing as a European or Japanese riding style and, if so, which is best for winning?

Shane Byrne

Shane Byrne’s dominance in the 2008 British Superbike championship couldn’t have come at a better time for him. At 32 he showed maturity, speed and a clean pair of heels to a strong field – great for a racer but better still for one looking to move up to bigger and better things in 2009. Thanks to Max Biaggi trundling up pitlane, leathers in hand to ride for Aprilia, Byrne found his seat in the Sterilgarda Ducati garage. Though only a year younger than Nori, Shane started track riding a lot later after early years riding junior trials and schoolboy motocross. He won his first ever club race in ’96 but also broke a wrist that year. It wasn’t until 2003 when Byrne rode the Monstermob Ducati to his first BSB title that he hit the big time. In the same year he also annihilated the WSB grid riding as a wildcard at Brands Hatch.

So how does Byrne feel going up against the fully factory-backed and more experienced Haga? “I followed Nori at Portimao in pre-season testing, passed him a couple of times and had a good ride with him for five or six laps. I had a good look at his bike and there is no point in complaining about it when I know I can go with him”.

Byrne’s relaxed off-track manner carries over to his racing, provided he has the necessary set-up time. If he’s in control he’s hard to beat. James Whitham likens his riding manner to Troy Bayliss’ in that if he has a bad experience on track he doesn’t back-off, choosing instead to knuckle down and go hard. “Going into a championship on a bike that he already knows will be an advantage for Shane,” says Whitham. “There is nothing worse than feeling your way round a new track following riders you’ve never ridden with on a bike you hardly know. That said Noriyuki’s familiarity with the World Superbike tracks will win through eventually.”

Of course Byrne’s 2009 campaign didn’t get off to the best of starts, with off-track excursions in both races. “Before Phillip Island I only had two and a half days testing on the bike, which isn’t not enough for me,” explained Byrne, “Sure I ended up riding the bike hard but when the set-up isn’t right then I end up over-riding the bike, which is never good.”

Byrne Stats:

  • First race: 2002, Silverstone
  • First podium: 2003, Brands Hatch
  • First win: 2003, Brands Hatch
  • WSB races wins: 2
  • Pole positions: 6

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Riding Talent - Haga

Noriyuki Haga

Following a win with Colin Edwards in the 1996 Suzuka Eight Hour on a Yamaha YZF750, Noriyuki Haga found himself in the factory limelight. In 1997 Nori won the Japanese superbike championship while also putting in some strong rides in the World superbike championship. Even then Nori displayed a fairly unique style, preferring an aggressive machine set-up with the kind of geometry normally suited to clowns and unicycles. This makes for an extremely twitchy bike which Haga overcomes by riding in a traditional style; braking straight, turning late then standing the bike up and firing the thing out just as soon as traction allows.

“Testing has gone well for me on the Ducati,” explained Haga, talking before the season kicked off. “I feel that I just need to spend time with the bike adjusting to the different characteristics, finding a good setting for me and my riding style.”

Historically Ducati’s best riders – Carl Fogarty, Troy Bayliss, Neil Hodgson – have all been high corner-speed merchants, a fact at odds with Haga’s tendency to spend as little time as possible cranked over. Whether his riding style will suit the Ducati, which is generally longer than the in-line fours he has seen most success on remains to be seen, though a win at Phillip Island suggests the transition hasn’t been painful in the slightest.

“Of course this bike is different to the Yamaha so my riding style has had to change,” says Haga. “If I rode it like I did last year the lap times would be down. I have to be smoother. The change has been fairly easy but I will get better the more time I spend on the bike.”

So, will 2009 finally be Haga’s year? Perhaps his only weakness, a hot-headed temperament and propensity for the occasional mistake (remember Qatar 2008 where he took his hand off the bars to gesture at Max Biaggi, and then promptly highsided himself?), looks to be a thing of the past, so far at least.

If there’s such a thing as a Japanese riding style Haga has perhaps evolved one that’s aggressive, visibly quick and now consistent, the crucial component in any world championship bid.

Haga Stats:

  • First race: 1996, Sugo
  • First podium: 1996, Sugo
  • First win: 1997, Sugo
  • WSB race wins: 34
  • Pole positions: 6

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Ducati’s 800 Grand Prix bike is quite appropriately the ultimate incarnation of everything the Italian firm believe is right when it comes to building fast motorbikes, and it is fast – if you absolutely, positively have to get around a racetrack as quickly as possible, the Ducati is the bike for you. But no one remembers who got the most poles. Taking the title is all that matters and not only is Yamaha’s M1 the better bike with which to do that, it’s also the more democratic machine – you or I could almost kid ourselves we could ride it. To witness Stoner on a hot lap is to know the same can’t be said of the Desmosedici.



That Yamaha have evolved the in-line four-cylinder production engine to be more like a Ducati is less an admission of defeat and more an indicator of the state of play. On road and track alike power is no longer the goal to which engineers strive – with a surfeit of the stuff already, the challenge is gone after with the crossplane crank while Ducati have pushed forward with traction control for the road. Which is best? At the time of writing the score in World Superbikes is one apiece. On the road, in 2009, the nod goes to the Ducati – insanely fast, easy to ride, electronically advanced and, though expensive, hugely desirable.



The man at the top of racing right now is European – Valentino Rossi’s dominance of MotoGP is little short of a stranglehold. In World Superbikes recent honours have been split between Europeans (Hodgson, Toseland) and Australians (Bayliss, Corser) but Haga has been a consistent



Winner - Europe

What they pioneered was the short engine/long-swingarm layout, which Furusawa-san will tell you wouldn’t work as well with a V4. Plenty of people will argue with that statement but there is no doubt that despite the M1 being developed around Rossi, the Yamaha team produced a bike that last year proved flexible enough to be suit four riders with very different styles on both Bridgestone and Michelin rubber. Along the way Furusawa had to come up with the crossplane crank design. It’s been known for a years that big-bang and long-bang engines can be faster than conventional screamer layouts, it’s just that no-one could explain why. Furusawa, whose background is in the science of harmonics, came up with the first decent, data-based explanation as opposed to the guesswork about tyres slipping and gripping we suffered previously.

A look at the top-speed sheets will tell you that Furusawa has not made the fastest motorbike out there. That’s Preziosi’s territory. What he has made is the most user-friendly motorbike. What the crossplane crank has done is give riders the ‘connection’ they always talk about; a direct, one-to-one relationship between what they do with the throttle and what happens at the rear tyre. The approach with electronics appears to be to set limits on power delivery on every part of the track, which change with time as the engine management system monitors what’s happening. Put simply, the Yamaha won’t allow you to exceed what it thinks is the limit. That doesn’t mean there’s no wheelspin, just a predetermined maximum.

In the red corner the philosophy appears to be the polar opposite of Yamaha’s. Let the bike get out of shape, then calm it down. And before anyone starts honking on about the bikes being too easy to ride, I’d like an explanation of why no-one else can ride the Ducati like Casey Stoner. Those who have seen the readouts say his corner entry is where he gains most. Last time I checked, traction control couldn’t help you there.

Ducati’s big leap this year is the change to a carbon-fibre chassis; it’s the latest attempt to make the bike more user-friendly. It is quite amazing that it’s taken bike racing this long to use composite materials. Ducati are first because their design consultant Alan Jenkins was a pioneer of the material in Formula One. About all he doesn’t do is the engine. The subtle alterations in lateral stiffness that all the factories have been experimenting with should be easier to fine-tune in carbon.

Will it make the Desmosedici easier to ride if your name isn’t Casey Stoner? Ask Nicky Hayden in about three months time.

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Just as their engine’s evolutionary, so Ducati haven’t strayed far from the trellis concept they introduced on the TT2 race bike some thirty years ago – so now that’s over 200 horsepower being harnessed by metalwork just 1.4mm in wall thickness and weighing a miniscule 9kg. Ducati have rightly stuck with a system that works for them. Granted the MotoGP bike is running a carbon frame but from a homologation point of view this isn’t a financially viable avenue for road bikes. Chassis width, thanks to the engine layout, is advantageously slender when stood shoulder to shoulder with an inline four; just 680mm across the frame compared to the R1’s 715mm is a huge difference in race bike terms. Incidentally the 1198 is actually narrower than a 916 by half a centimetre.

Yamaha have also stuck to the Deltabox twin-spar frame design, one that’s also been around in various guises since the 1980s. Ducati have long struggled against the inherent length of their V twin configuration and while the 1198 may only be 1.5cm longer than the R1 in the wheelbase at 1430mm, that translates into a completely different chassis, one with its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Success For all the success Ducati have enjoyed in superbike racing, it was Yamaha that lead the way over Ducati back in 1988. Fabrizio Pirovano finished second in the rider standings on a Yamaha while Marco Lucchinelli could only manage fifth. Yamaha also took third in the manufacturer tables with Ducati finishing down in fifth place. Ducati moved on from this with the 888 and 916 to win the World Superbike title numerous times and, as it did so, road bike sales success followed. Since then Ducati have bagged thirteen rider titles and fifteen manufacturer titles.

Regardless of the parity of the superbike regulations, nobody can question their dominance. To say that Yamaha have been making up the numbers on the grid doesn’t do them justice, but they have lacked consistency. This year, with Ben Spies on the all-new growler R1, the outlook is brighter than it’s ever been for Yamaha – it’s been a long time coming.

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