Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Adjustment Bureau

I have ridden motorcycles for many years, but was never really that interested in watching racing until I started to do so with someone that understands the game. As it turns out, there is alot more to it than meets the eye.

I like watching the top class of racing, called MotoGP, which is a limited field of manufacturers putting forward the most cutting edge machines they know how to build.

There are rules - for safety, and to make the races somewhat 'fair', but essentially, money is of no object, and each manufacturer participates pretty much for the prestige of winning .... and great advertising of course.

At this top level of performance, the margins of error are very, very, slim, and the bikes so fast that a thousandth a of second is equivalent to a few inches/centimeters, or the difference between winning and coming second, so everything has to be as near to perfect as possible.

Obviously, seeing these guys navigating a track at incredibly high rates of speed is cool all by itself, but if you are taught how to look at the whole picture, you realize just how many elements can be adjusted to give that couple inches of edge over the competition, and how complex the whole enterprise is.

The first variable the team has to consider is the course they are racing on - Each one is different.
Each crew has to pay attention to what makes it unique: Does it have more right or left hand bends? How is the surface of the track? Smooth? Grippy? Bumpy? Are there other issues like the ever present sand that blows onto the track at Quatar, or the side winds of Phillips island?
How long and fast are the straightaways, and thus how important is top speed? What kind of corners do the fastest sections run into - so how extreme is the braking that will be needed to negotiate these transitions?

How about the weather? Is it raining? How warm is it? Tires can degrade through use, especially if they are softer for more grip, and especially if it is very warm. Conversely, if it is cool, they have less grip, and so can be more unpredictable for the rider. Should they choose the softer, faster, tire for advantage near the beginning of the race, but which may become unridable later on?

All this information has to be assessed and then connected to the design of the bike itself, for designs are always a combination of compromises.

For instance, you can build an incredibly powerful engine, but if you cannot transfer that power through the transmission and the frame into the tires, the wheels will just spin. Conversely, the better the transfer of power, the greater the stresses, so the weight of the bike might have to increase so it does not shake itself apart .... which also means the brakes must be able to handle it ... as will all the connectors holding the suspension and frame together as it flexes against the stresses and strains of the constant acceleration, deceleration and turning ....

And talking of turning .... the bike, left to it's own devices, wants to go in a straight line, so the rider has to literally force it to turn. Make the steering and front suspension too sensitive, and it can be dangerous and unpredictable. Make it predictable, and maybe it becomes less agile.

And the rider .... often these guys are small, to keep the weight down, but they still need to be able to man handle these powerful, unstable, objects round twisty, turning tracks as fast as they can possibly go, right at the edge of where they might wreck through a split second error or loss of focus. All this on two contact patches where the tires meet the ground that probably amount to less that 2 square inches.

Each has a particular riding style, things they do better, things they need to improve. Each prefers to ride different lines around the corners, and this has to be taken into account when combined with the geometry of the bike - how late the brakes can be applied, how it picks up from leaning to upright, out of the corners, how easily the front wheel wants to lift off the ground when the throttle is opened, all have to combine with the rider's strengths and weaknesses.

Every time a team turns up at a track to race, their job is to adjust the bike in whatever way they can - shorten this, lengthen that, change the ride height to throw the geometry into a potentially more advantageous position, move the seat for a different weight distribultion.
They have to choose tires, gauge how much fuel to put in the tank, watch the weather, note any injuries the rider is riding with ..... fix anything that breaks.

All the choices made are based on knowledge, experience and feedback - data from the track itself from previous visits, the conditions (track surface and temperature/weather) on the day, and most importantly the feedback they get from the rider going round.

In essence they come up with a 'best guess' for race day, and all the geometry, mathematics and physics boils down to a 'feeling' that the rider describes over the course of a couple days of free practice round the track before the actual day of the race.

So many variables, so many considerations, from the pattern of the bolts on the frame, to a few degrees in temperature variation on the day, all coming together through the verbal descriptions of an experience a real human being is having, riding the bike in real time, coupled with their ability to describe what is happening.

You will see the riders testing the track a few times, then ride back to the pits, huddled in the corner of their garage with a track map and the technicians, describing problem areas, perhaps the lack of drive out of certain corners, or the loss of feeling of what the bike will do when the front end gets light. All these descriptions are then combined with the experience of the team and the designers as to how to change things for the better.

I find that knowing all the pieces that effect the race enhances my appreciation many fold .... but find it just as fascinating that every single piece adds up to a tactile, in the moment, experience, still subject to the vagaries of chance, timing, and luck.

So why bother?

Anything where the results depend on a narrow margin of error, where the line between win and lose is extremely fine, and the price of loss, whether it be injury or death, is high, demands the same considerations. You COULD trust to luck and wing it .... but why would you if it was in your power to influence?

In a way, one on one combat with swords, is no different (even though we really risk nothing nowadays), though I think many fail to appreciate the benefits of understanding the underpinnings of the game. How precision can enhance everything, and the large field of parameters that can be adjusted.

Many think of it just as 'going round the track faster than anyone else', but there is much more to play with if one cares to look. Perhaps the lack of necessity has weakened the incentive to exploit all that is available? ..... After all, it takes a great deal of trial, error ... and practice  ... with no real consequences for choosing not to.

Still, it's all there, for those that care to explore ..... just have to find someone who can see the big picture, and the small details, next time you are 'watching the races'.

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