It's almost an accepted cycle now. Once a rider starts to dominate a series, winning race after race, the accusations of traction control begin. Those accusations dogged Miguel DuHamel in 1995, Mick Doohan in the late 1990s and now have centered on Mat Mladin. Rivals and the press have noticed that Mladin's Suzuki Superbike engine sounds like it loses a cylinder when exiting a corner. Just when the engine begins to spin to the meatier portion of the torque curve, where you'd expect it to overpower the tire, some say that the engine actually seems to drop power, then the rear tire hooks up and he motors away. Whether this is the result of traction control, great tuning or simply masterful throttle control is unknown.
The AMA Pro Racing rulebook bans traction control in AMA Roadracing with this rule: Electronic devices designed specifically for traction control are prohibited. This includes sensors that can determine front wheel speed, and any electronic control to the brake systems.
In reality, the current traction control rule is ambiguous as a result of the phrase "designed specifically", because if one is looking for evidence of a stand-alone traction control system on a Superbike--for example, searching for tell-tale wheel speed sensors or a button on the clip-on to activate the system--you won't find any, because most likely any traction control benefits are tuned into the engine mapping of the ignition or fuel injection system.
|"Look at the facts. Last year he was beating them on a bike that wasn't as good as the current Suzuki. The new bike is clearly better than the old bike. Do they expect him to go slower?" |
--Jim Leonard, former factory Superbike crewchief
It's highly doubtful that Mladin is using active traction control like systems seen in car racing, where wheelspin is monitored in real time. In that scenario, when the rear tire spins, a system backs the power delivery off, enhancing traction.
While no one intimately involved will talk on the record about how traction control works in Superbike racing, it's assumed that torque curves are customized via the ignition and fuel injection maps, per gear, so that wheel spin is minimized. Having massive wheelspin in fourth gear exiting turn five at Elkhart? The torque curve is modified so that the engine won't simply overpower the tire, and will in fact hook up and drive.
And therein lies the paradox of Superbike traction control: When does efficient engine mapping stop being an act of tuning for engine tractability or the best traction, and become outright traction control? Every Superbike with electronic fuel injection, ignition or a data acquisition system has the potential to tune the power delivery of the motorcycle so that the 200 horsepower from the engine doesn't overpower its rear tire.
Limiting the power output of an engine via the ignition certainly isn't new technology-several of the infamous Yamaha TZ700-powered dirt track machines of the 1970s had a button on the handlebar which, when pushed, killed the spark to one cylinder. Riders using this system would kill one cylinder exiting corners so the power would not overwhelm available traction. Even then, that tuning technique was at least 40 years old in motorcycle racing.
Five-time Superbike champion Mat Mladin would not comment on whether his team is using traction control, saying, "I'm not even going to get into it. I think it's Honda stirring things up because they're being beaten so badly this year. However, if anyone thinks that I won five Superbike titles because of some technological advantage, they really don't know anything about racing."
AMA Roadrace manager Ron Barrick said he has heard complaints from competitors that Mladin may be using traction control, and he recently received an education on the subject of motorcycle traction control at the Estoril MotoGP race. But, in the end, he is left wondering how stringent traction control rules would be enforced in US Superbike racing.
"I've heard complaints that Mat is using traction control but I have not seen any evidence of this with my own eyes," Barrick said. "I just returned from the MotoGP race and while there, I was given a pretty good education on the methods that MotoGP teams are using for traction control and launch control. I think we'll be bringing the subject up at an upcoming Advisory Board meeting and discussing it. But I really don't know what we can do to tighten the rules up because I suspect we'd be hard-pressed to actually find the system they're using because it's so complex."
A sanctioning body wondering how to write traction control rules they probably won't be able to enforce is nothing new. CART (aka Indy Car, Champ Car) has flip-flopped on traction control in their series. They allowed traction control several years ago because they found it impossible to police. Today, the use of traction control in CART is illegal. Moreover, traction control is illegal in NASCAR, but rumors of the fastest teams clandestinely using it have dogged the series for at least a decade.
Former Vance & Hines Yamaha/Ducati crew chief Jim Leonard weighed in on the traction control in Superbike issue. Leonard said today, "I'm sure that it's possible to build a system to measure crankshaft speed in each gear and then, once the crank speed goes over a certain (RPM) limit in a gear, it retards the ignition, enhancing traction. That said, I think anyone who thinks Mat is winning races solely because he has traction control is clueless. Look at the facts. Last year he was beating them on a bike that wasn't as good as the current Suzuki. The new bike is clearly better than the old bike. Do they expect him to go slower?"
Leonard pointed out that several big bore sport bikes come from the factory with a system that retards the ignition in the lower gears for safety reasons. "That obviously shows what can be done without a wheel speed sensor," he said.
Mladin's rival, Eric Bostrom, has been a rider on three factory Superbike teams since the late 1990s, and he also rode one-off races in World Superbike for Kawasaki. When asked about the accusations of Mladin using traction control, he chose his words carefully.
"I'm pretty sure they are using some sort of traction control over there," Bostrom said several weeks ago. "Probably, anyway. But, you know, traction control has been around for a long time in Superbike racing and a lot of teams have used it. Honestly, it isn't such a big help, and in many cases it is a moot point. It pains me to say it, but the Suzuki is a good platform, a great Superbike, and if you're looking for the reason Mat is winning, that's a major factor."
Traction control has seen limited use on streetbikes, starting with the late 1990s Honda ST1100, which had a traction control system built into its ABS braking system.