GP motorcycle racing has seen bikes evolve significantly during its nine decades of competition.We take a look at the engine choices over the last ten years and their impact on the sport.
MotoGP has always been a spectacle, and its bikes are a key part in this. While many may feel that the improved mechanics and modern electronics make the bikes undemanding and easy to ride, the machines that we see today are the pinnacle of years of development.
Though the ongoing advancements in MotoGP bikes are often controversial, it does mean that riders can experiment more with how they use the throttle, brakes, traction and their own body weight – all with the goal of becoming that bit faster.
In the decade that KTM joined the premier class with a factory-supported team, satellite teams such as Pramac Ducati and LCR Honda gained access to up-to-date factory bikes for the first time in MotoGP history, and the premier class raised its maximum engine capacity to 1,000cc; manufacturers have been forced to be both competitive and creative, finding new ways to maximise their engine power.
And it’s the V4 powered bikes that have come up through the ranks. Initially used by Ducati, the V4s have an 88% success rate to date, topping speeds in 47 out of 50 of the last races, and partly responsible for the highest speed ever set in MotoGP history – 221.5mph set by Andrea Dovizioso aboard the Desmosedici at the 2018 Italian GP.
The V4’s effectiveness comes down to many aspects, including more horsepower, less friction and less pumping loss, with a shorter, stiffer and stronger crankshaft. Alongside a 90-degree configuration, used by Ducati since 2003 and Honda since 2012, the engine has the perfect balance, which strengthens its advantages on the track.
For KTM’s return to MotoGP in 2017, their new factory team with Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro embraced the V4 with their four-stroke RC16. Aprilia followed in their tyre tracks, becoming the only factory to unveil a completely new MotoGP bike at this year’s pre-season tests. Moving from a 75-degree to a 90-degree V4, the Italian factory said they had failed to achieve desired horsepower and performance with their previous engine.
Honda also hit the gravel with similar problems between 2011 and 2012, and made the decision to switch their 75-degree 800cc RC212V to a 90-degree 1000cc RC213V, copying Ducati’s successful layout. And since the beginning of their dominance with Marc Marquez at the handlebars, it appears to have paid off.
But as Aprilia has shown this year, it does require significant investment, and many teams use an inline-four engine instead due to its successful racing heritage, easier packaging and mass centralisation.
The difference between the inline-four and V4 isn’t limited to a single ingredient, but a few differences for the inline include less parts, shorter and wider dimensions and simpler positioning. Yet when track layout allows, inline-four bikes such as Yamaha’s YZR-M1 and Suzuki’s GSX-RR can be faster, with superior corner speed. However, as it’s easier to overtake on a straight, this isn’t always useful in race situations.
With the rise of the V4, MotoGP inline-four designers must tackle crankshaft flex, crankcase flex, friction, vibration and pumping losses, to ensure their engine can produce equal horsepower without problems.
Suzuki and Yamaha have struggled to keep up with Ducati and Honda in recent years, and some fans blame the inline-four engine – predicting the end of the line for it. But as Rins successfully challenged Marquez to the title twice in 2019, there’s still a glimmer of hope for the inline-four.
Whatever the outcome for the next year and however the bikes continue to strive over the next decade, fans should have no concerns over missing the 2020 spec engines’ performance, since MotoGP will continue to use 2020 bikes next season as part of cost-saving measures to ease the financial impact that coronavirus has had on the series.