The silicon-enhanced BMW S1000RR rocked our analogue world in 2010. It heralded the start of the electronic rider aids revolution. Here was a European machine that stuck two fingers up at the Japanese. Not only did it come with a GSX-R1000/Blade/R1/ZX-10R-crushing 190bhp, it also boasted a plethora of ride-by-wire-enabled electronics never seen anywhere outside of racing: traction control, rider modes, racing ABS, wheelie control and a quickshifter.
The Beemer quickly became a trackday favourite. Just throw some sticky tyres on and it would turn in lap times a racer would be proud of. Blade and GSX-R1000 excepted (for now), every new big-capacity sportsbike worth its salt now has big power and advanced rider aids.
But electronics have evolved at a rapid rate and the latest, cutting-edge sportsbikes have sophisticated internal gyros that allow such refined traction control they’ll hold you in a finely controlled power slide. They also have auto-blippers, launch control, electronically adjustable suspension damping and engine braking control.
But with these incredible electronic rider aids comes the inevitable debate. Do they actually work? Should bikes even be fitted with them? Some insist that bike control should all come from your right hand, using skills developed over years in the school of hard knocks.
Others feel more confident riding with their silicon safety nets. Up and down the country there are riders happy to lean on their electronic crutches at trackdays, pinning their throttles out of corners, rain or shine – happy in the knowledge they’ll be going home in one piece.
There’s no denying that riding with electronics is safer, easier and less tiring, and because of the confidence they instil they can help riders lap faster. But do they take the skill away from riding a fast bike around a circuit?
To find out how electronics have changed the way we attack our circuit riding, we head to a trackday at Donington Park to speak with race legend Ron Haslam to get his verdict on the electronic revolution.
It’s a good thing, especially for the road. It can even save a crash when you roll out of the shop with slippery new tyres. On track it’s nice for the normal road lad to make traction control work. They can safely take it to a point where it comes in and they can feel what it’s like close to the edge.
The trouble you get with basic traction control is that it comes in a little bit early and it’s dead hard to get it to racing standards. But as a guide to going fast, it’s really good.
Quickshifters and Autoblippers
A quickshifter will improve your lap time on track, but on the road it’s pointless and all you’re going to do is wreck your gearbox.
Everyone gets quickshifters wrong: it’s not because the gears shift quicker, it’s because you’re not disturbing the fuel flow into the engine where you don’t shut off. During a normal gear change you have to close the butterfly or slide down, which slows the engine. A quickshifter keeps the engine wide open, which improves performance and is where the lap time comes from.
Autoblippers are really good, because a lot of people find it difficult to blip and change down at the right time. When you’re doing it the old fashioned way you understand how much to blip it and sometimes it’s such a small amount on the throttle to make it work at its best. A little bit too much and it pushes the bike forward; not quite enough and it will lock the back wheel.
Not many people flip a bike, so anti-wheelie is OK, but I think you can cope without it. The only trouble you get when you start adding all these rider aids together is that one overlaps the other. You can’t tell if it’s traction or wheelie control coming in and it’s difficult to know what’s holding you back – it’s so easy to slow the bike too much. To get a better understanding go one at time – start with traction control first and wheelie control after.
Racing with electronics
Leon [Ron’s son] has gone from riding WSB bikes with full electronics to BSB with none and back again with the Suzuka 8-Hours bike last week.
When you’ve got a team that knows how to set the electronics and the bike up, it becomes easier for the rider. You don’t have to take so much care with traction control and you can be aggressive with the throttle. Electronics can even help the engine characteristics of the bike. If the delivery is quite powerband-ish all the extra electronics help to calm it down and make it more rideable.
Some of the current BSB engines are very aggressive without electronics and they can be a nightmare to ride – like back to the old days of the 500cc two-strokes with their vicious powerbands, which made them so hard to ride.
Electronic Controls: The Verdict
Electronic control systems fitted to sportsbikes have changed the way we ride on track. Traction and slide control, like the system fitted to the latest R1, can stop us crashing, keep us safe, gives us confidence, make us faster and happier. Traction control can also increase tyre life, and when the rubber stops gripping the latest systems will still let you ride quickly.
Quickshifters, autoblippers, anti-wheelie and variable riding modes make our lives easier, and electronics will tame a fast, but peaky engine. The only thing we don’t seem to like is ABS on a dry track and the fear that the electronics will suddenly stop working, although it’s rare.
The electronics debate will always rage on. Of course, you can always turn them off – but we bet you don’t.