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Intelligence gathering

16 August 2005

A successful motorcycle racing team relies on many things: competitive bikes, talented riders; skilled and dedicated mechanics; a strong team ethos; and information... lots and lots of information.

How a team analyses and uses that information - known as data-logging - can often mean a few precious tenths of a second per lap; and that, in turn, can mean the difference between victory and the almost unbearable alternative.

The Winston Ten Kate Honda team takes its information gathering very seriously and uses it in conjunction with rider feedback to make crucial performance decisions.

Peter Bom looks after all the necessary hardware - sensors, wiring, laptop computers - and the Superbike side of the garage while Gerard van Laar develops chassis programs and has responsibility for Supersport data-logging.

The team's Honda machines carry more than a dozen sensors all over the bike, measuring wheel speed, water and oil temperature, battery voltage, suspension, rpm, throttle position, acceleration, deceleration, clutch and brake pressure, gear selection, etc.

The data gathered during each outing is stored on a hard disk on the bike and downloaded as soon as the rider returns to the pit box.

Because there is so much information to digest, it is separated into channels and then it's up to Bom and van Laar to interpret it and convey it to the riders and their mechanics.

"There's only so much you can conclude from the data," said Bom, "no matter how many sensors you have on the bike. That's because there are a lot of grey areas – for a start, you have a 70kg rider moving around on top, compensating for all kinds of things that you can't simulate on a computer."

Peter also reckons the riders can even be too talented at times: "At this level, they can sometimes be riding around a problem without even being aware of it. For example, if the front suspension is too soft, they might subconsciously brake less aggressively to compensate."

For all that though, the riders remain the primary source of information about how the bike is behaving and the data is used to corroborate their feedback.

"These are very experienced riders, who know what's happening underneath them but we always tell new riders to the team to concentrate on what they are feeling, not to think about solutions. We use those feelings and the data to make decisions about which direction to go in," revealed Bom.

It's the practice and qualifying sessions that tend to be the most frantic for the data-logging engineers, when they must download and interpret the data and then make informed decisions with technicians and riders about what changes to make.

When the session is over, the team will spend more time looking at the data and then, back at base after the racing weekend is over, they will go even deeper and engine tuners will look at sensors that are not even monitored during the weekend.

"By definition, the sensors are sensitive," confirmed Peter, "because if a rider can feel a 1mm change in ride height, our computers must be able to see a 0.1mm difference.

"But the computers don't give us answers, just the information. It's still the riders and team who make the decisions," he concluded.


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