From a press release issued by Winston Ten Kate Honda:
THE LEARNING CURVES
Racing a highly-tuned, world championship motorcycle can be a complicated business. The myriad suspension permutations available, different tyre compounds and variable engine settings must all combine to create the perfect set-up on a wide variety of circuits around the world.
And that’s just the bike.
The rider, too, must be on top of his game, know the circuit like the back of his hand and have the ideal feel for his machine in order to find those extra tenths or even hundredths of a second that can make the difference between success and failure.
But when bike and rider arrive at a circuit that neither has been to before, how quickly can the two reach that perfect symbiotic state that gives them the best possible chance of victory?
When superbike ace Chris Vermeulen and his Winston Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR arrived at the new Losail circuit in Qatar in February 2005, he and his crew chief, Kor Veldman, had to prepare for their first excursion on the track with none of the data that has become such a vital element of world championship motorsport.
Construction began on the Losail International Circuit in the summer of 2003 and the outstanding facility was completed, at a cost of 58 million US dollars, just over a year later in time for its inaugural MotoGP event in October 2004.
Located in the desert approximately 30km north of Qatar’s capital Doha, Losail is a flowing, 5.38km combination of six lefts and 10 rights, bordered by artificial grass to prevent the local sand from blowing across the track surface.
“The sand is definitely a problem,” says Vermeulen, 22, winner of four races in his debut World Superbike year in 2004. “Basically, it narrows the racing line here and one of the first things I do when I get to a new circuit is to walk the racing line.
“It’s important to know where you might go if you run wide,” he explains, “and what the level of grip is like when you do.”
And so begins the young Australian’s methodical build-up of new circuit knowledge – a drive round in a hire car to get a general feel, a ride on a scooter to get more of an idea on two wheels, and that detailed walk to examine the track’s surface and its rumble strips.
“The width of the racing line is important,” continues Vermeulen, “because, if it’s narrow, it will be difficult to pass in the race; so it’s important to know the surface everywhere, where there’s grip and where there isn’t.”
The 22-year-old, of course, has already displayed his skills at quickly learning a new superbike circuit, as demonstrated by his double victory at Laguna Seca in the 2004 World Superbike championship – his debut superbike season and his first ever visit to the Californian circuit.
“When I eventually take to a new track on the race bike,” he says, “it’s a real gentle ride – a couple of laps rolling around in third or fourth gear, trying not to use any brakes.”
Vermeulen then builds up to four- or five-lap stints, working on two, maybe three points on the circuit at a time, then returning to the pit box to relax and think about where he’s just been. He also concentrates on the particularly heavy braking areas.
“I don’t really worry about the middle parts of any corners,” he says, “because when you’re there, there’s not much you can do, apart from crank the bike over a little more. The really vital parts are going into and coming out of the corner.”
What is equally vital to the Winston Ten Kate Honda rider is to take it all in bite-sized chunks. “I find it’s really important not to do too much at once,” he adds. “I like to get away from the track and sleep to stay fresh. Otherwise I find I just keep making the same mistakes over and over.
“After 25 or 30 laps, we’re beginning to build it up,” continues Vermeulen, “and we start to make some changes to the bike. To be honest, the bike is at about 90-95% before we even start at a new circuit but those last few bits can take a lot of work!”
Kor Veldman is responsible for making those changes to get the Honda CBR1000RR as close to 100% as he can, but his approach to a new circuit starts in a similar way to that of his rider.
“Yes, the bike is maybe at around 90% before we start but I walk the track, too!” says Veldman, 30, from Staphorst in Holland, who has been with the Dutch Ten Kate outfit since joining as a 15-year-old apprentice. “I like to see what the rider sees when he’s out there.
“We use data that we have from other circuits and compare it with a new track like Losail,” he says. “It’s a smooth, flowing circuit here, with cambered corners – a bit like Silverstone or Assen, and those are places we know quite well.”
From a base setting, Veldman and his crew wait for feedback from Vermeulen, which he reckons usually starts coming from the second session on track. “Chris learns a new circuit very quickly,” says Veldman, “but he doesn’t push too hard, too fast. He showed this at Laguna Seca last year but it was very difficult when we first arrived at Losail, because he had flu so badly. This really limited the amount of new data we were able to gather.”
As well as the all-important tyre selection, it is ride height and suspension that are the keys to getting the CBR1000RR working at a new circuit and, as the laps are built up and further data gathered, so the minor changes start to be made.
Vermeulen admits that often he’ll end up with a set-up not too dissimilar to where he started but he says: “We have to try other settings to know that what we’re using is right.”
Veldman agrees, adding: “We do create a lot of data and most of the time it backs up what the rider is saying. But for all the technology we use these days, there really is no way you can replicate what a rider is feeling on the bike.”
It’s that feeling from a fine-handling machine prepared by a patient and professional crew that has already netted Vermeulen a World Supersport title in 2003 and four World Superbike wins in his debut season last year.
It’s a feeling that his Winston Ten Kate Honda crew knows must be right to improve on that record in 2005.
Vermeulen Takes His Time Adjusting To New Tracks
© 2005, Roadracing World Publishing, Inc.
From a press release issued by Winston Ten Kate Honda: