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Jul 11, 2012

Superbike Electronics: AMA Pro Team Managers Talk About What Rules Should Be For 2013 And Beyond, Part Nine

Yoshimura Racing President Don Sakakura (left) on the podium with rider Blake Young at Road Atlanta. Photo by Brian J. Nelson

By David Swarts

In January, AMA Pro Racing announced that it will implement a hardware price cap of $18,000 per motorcycle for engine control and data acquisition electronics in the Superbike class, beginning with the 2013 season and continuing through 2015. The only previous restriction required that hardware be homologated and approved for use by AMA Pro Racing Technical Director Of Competition Al Ludington.

But teams say that hardware cost is not the biggest concern, with the cost of buying or developing software and hiring qualified technicians to run the complicated systems making up the bulk of the expense.

Yoshimura Racing admits to spending $300,000 per season on electronics hardware, software, development, testing and personnel for its two-rider effort in AMA Pro Superbike. Yoshimura uses Magneti Marelli Marvel 4 systems and employs multiple technicians to run the systems. Monster Energy Graves Yamaha also runs Magneti Marelli Marvel 4 systems on its Superbikes and employs multiple technicians, but says one technician is assigned to run the Magneti Marelli SRT systems on its Daytona SportBikes.

Jordan Suzuki and National Guard Suzuki use Pectel systems run by multiple technicians, while KTM uses Magneti Marelli SRT systems run by a technician who flies in from Italy for each AMA Pro Superbike round.

Most of the other teams use much-less-expensive, much-less-capable, readily available race-kit black boxes (a.k.a. Engine Control Units, or ECUs) that retail for less than $3500 including wiring harness. Examples include Suzuki's EM Pro system for GSX-R1000s or Yamaha's YEC system for YZF-R1s. The BMW kit box for the S1000RR sells for about $4000 and plugs into the standard wiring harness. The Kawasaki kit box and wiring harness for the ZX-10R sell for less than $1500. The Kawasaki kit box and wiring harness for the ZX-10R sell for less than $1500. A KTM kit box and setting tool for the RC8 R sells for under $1200. An EBR kit box for the 1190RS sells for $750.

Meetings held as recently as last month between AMA Pro Racing officials and team representatives have revealed a deep divide in the paddock, with the majority of teams wanting to switch to kit boxes across the board, with a few notable holdouts. AMA Pro officials have openly admitted that they established the 2013-2015 rule now on the books based on one winning team's threat to quit the series if it wasn't allowed to continue using the Marvel 4 system currently fitted to its racebikes.

To check where the top-10 players in the AMA Pro Superbike class stand on electronics rules, we posed the following questions:

1. What should the AMA Pro Superbike electronic rules be for 2013-2015 and why?

2. What do you say to someone who claims they need a year or more notice to get ready for any rule change, including switching from the currently allowed advanced electronics to kit boxes?

Part Nine:

Don Sakakura
President, Yoshimura Racing
Riders, Blake Young, Chris Clark
Electronics, Magneti Marelli Marvel 4

"I know AMA had already released a proposed change for 2013. I think there's a [price] cap for all electronics, meaning data logging and engine management and control systems. Quite honestly I don't know if that's going to have a whole lot of effect on what we're faced with now.

"My opinion is we just need to look at a re-balance there with the electronics and the majority of our technical rules. The rules now state the direction the AMA has led us in is more and more production-based components, especially the engine side. I believe from the head gasket down it's primarily standard components. Cylinder head work, maybe there's some minor gains to be found there but typically nothing out of the ordinary. But again you fall into the electronics package and it seems like it's unlimited right now. So I definitely think there needs to be a revisit on a re-balance of that rule.

"We've had some discussion internally on price capping with kit-level ECUs, possible even standard-level ECUs. There's pros and cons to everything. Hopefully reconsideration looking into the future there, I think there's a need for that.

"I would say the quickest and easiest would be the kit-level, because all of the OEM manufacturers offer what I call a kit-level. At Suzuki we call ours an EM Pro. It has very general, basic functionality, some options on adjusting the basic engine parameters, which I think is necessary for different fuels and different specs of engines that everyone's running now. But other than that it's pretty standard. I think you see a lot of the teams now are using the product. And sure, it doesn't have some of the features of the other systems, but is it really necessary to keep the health of the paddock strong? I think that's something we need to look at now, as well, in trying to make sure that we try to grow our paddock for the future and not collapse it like we've seen here this last couple of years. I think by offering that that would be an incentive to other teams to participate on a very even playing field.

"Suzuki and Yoshimura have strong supporters of AMA Superbike Racing since its inception. Yoshimura has been fortunate in that we've had the opportunity to technically experience Suzuki's motorcycle evolutions. In competitive Superbike racing, teams must strive to gain a technical advantage, otherwise you lose. Of course, high levels of technology are extremely costly. In my opinion, the spirit of today's 'production-based' AMA Superbike racing should warrant the consideration to feasibly re-balance our electronics regulations."

What about people who say they need a year's notice on rule changes?

"A year or more going to more of a control-type electronics package would be something I wouldn't quite understand why they would need that long. I mean, the systems are designed generally to be a plug-and-play system. They require some electronic harnessing. I know Suzuki does. I think other OEM manufacturers do as well. But there's a complete kit that's available, harnessing, replacement ECU and generally that all you need to get up and running at a fairly reasonable cost.

"It's all been discussed internally with AMA and with ourselves. I think the AMA needs to be flexible and understanding with what everyone's faced with right now financially trying to keep teams involved and competitive.

"Obviously you can compete but it's at a different scale and a different level than everyone else. We've had the luxury to having access to some of that product, but again, does it help the level of competition? I'd say the balance that you gain there versus the dollars that you spend needs to be reconsidered."

Peter Doyle
Team Manager, Yoshimura Racing

"There's a number of things here. The first one is that there's obviously with the rule we've got now you've got three choices. Obviously, you can leave it where it is, or you can pull it back, or you can do what the AMA has done, which I don't believe was the right choice, what their plans are for 2013. We're quite open about that. We believe the proposed regulation was the last in line because it's not really going to change anything. It's going to make more work for everybody.

"While we are not a fan of a lot of controlled products we see that the AMA Superbike Championship has gone from being a world-level, factory-supported development class to just another domestic series. Hence, we believe it doesn't need MotoGP electronics in there.

"So it's not so much our opinion, it's the state of the series and whether it's the competitors, the manufacturers or the governing body have driven us here it's no longer a recognized development series for manufacturers and developers around the world. That's the bottom line. So why are we continuing to look at [electronics] systems that cost three, four, five, six times the retail price of the motorcycle?

"If it was AMA Superbike and we were still running rules along the lines of World Championship racing then we should have the electronics [rule] where it is now, but the fact is we're not.

"The story of what we should end up with I think really needs more discussion, but obviously there's a vast majority of people out there [who] are looking at the kit-style box or homologated style box. I think in the case of the four Japanese manufacturers and the BMW I think that's a very simple fix, because they've all got them. In fact, most of them are probably made by the same company.

"I have heard some debate or discussion from companies like [Erik Buell Racing] and KTM and Ducati. People are talking about what ECUs they come with. Again that's subjective because in the case of the KTMs and Pegram's Ducati a while back they came over as works bikes. So they already came with a much better ECU than standard. However, all the companies have what they call a kit ECU, because that's what they use to develop the motorbike in the first place. So I'm guessing everybody's got them.

"To me the rules and the direction of the series, which our governing body's dictated, rule out the electronics that we're running.

"It's not our decision to make. The direction steered by our governing body, in our opinion, dictates the need to reduce the cost of the electronics. We didn't make the decision as to where the series was headed. It's our governing body that has driven us to a point where I don't believe the electronics are a fit for the class. That doesn't mean I disagree with the use of the electronics, but that's a personal opinion.

"I believe the current Superbike electronics rules are not suitable for the class and they need to be pulled back, and the [price cap] proposal that the AMA has put on the table does not go far enough, and it's all subjective. It's not going to do anything to reduce costs because people are already fudging the system.

"I just think it's got to be changed."

What about people who say they need a year's notice on rule changes?

"They're full of s---. I've heard the people before. As far as I know, every kit box that comes out plugs and plays."

To be continued...