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The Battle for Aerodynamic Supremacy: MotoGP’s New Internal Winglets
The 2016 MotoGP season saw the rise and fall of aerodynamic winglets. Engineered from countless hours spent in wind tunnels, MotoGP teams strived to gain an edge over their competition in the form of stabilizing aerodynamic bodywork. While the effects may have appeared to be minor, .001 seconds per lap adds up over the course of an entire 40 minute race and in a league where the margin of victory is often measured in thousandths of a second, this small advantage made a noticeable difference.
Ducati was the first team to get the ball rolling with winglets first appearing on the Desmosedici GP 15 (Ducati’s GP machine) in 2015, with the winglets growing larger and more humorous for the 2016 season when every other team hopped on the winglet bandwagon. Winglets became a normal fixture for the 2016. Regardless of the advantages offered by these winglets, many riders expressed serious concerns about the potential safety hazards involved with not so smooth parts protruding from the bikes. Repsol rider Dani Pedrosa compared them to blades and asked how it was that MotoGP could be so concerned with safety in most areas, and then simultaneously allow these questionable and arguably dangerous new aerodynamic additions to the machines. Below you can see Marc Marquez getting uncomfortably intimate with Andrea Ianone’s bike’s winglet and you should get a sense of the danger many riders were (justifiably) complaining about. The potential for a rider getting snagged is a valid concern.
So MotoGP organizers and race direction announced last year that external protruding winglets would be banned from the premier class starting in 2017. So when the first round of testing began and we got our first look at the team's 2017 bikes and liveries, many people, myself included, were confident that manufacturers were keeping their new aerodynamic designs hidden from the public eye (as well as the eyes of other teams) in an attempt to get an aerodynamic leg up over the other teams. Keeping a trick or two up their sleeves is pretty standard for preseason testing. So as per usual, I was right.
Although Ducati test rider and demigod Casey Stoner was able to clock some truly impressive lap times aboard the Ducati sans winglets, teams were not willing to take a step backward developmentally for 2017. An aerodynamic advantage was there, teams just needed to find and develop it, and they did. Enter: Internal Winglets. The new safer form of aerodynamic stability for premier class machines. These specially designed internal winglets are essentially fairings shaped to provide downforce while accelerating and cornering, not unlike a spoiler on a car. Its unclear at this time whether or not the internal winglets will provide the same amount of additional stabilization that the external winglets delivered, but MotoGP teams employ the best of the best so you can safely assume the internal winglets should provide a decent amount of supplementary downforce while also looking straight-up awesome. (Or we wouldn't be seeing them!)
Unlike 2016’s external winglets that more or less looked the same regardless of which team was designing or using them, the 2017 internal winglets look wildly different team to team. Movistar Yamaha’s are subtle, with the fairings tapering less as they go from front to back, leaving an open space for air to travel through on either side of the front wheel. Ecstar Suzuki seems to be pushing the boundaries with their low profile opening on the front faring which sends air through the new wind channels to further stabilize the 2017 GSXRR. I hesitate to call Suzuki's Winglets "internal" but they're without a doubt much less dangerous than last year's. Gresini Aprilia also has a less than subtle design, albeit a very cool looking one. (Photo below). Unsurprisingly Ducati, who lead the original winglet charge, have unveiled their new front fairing’s internal winglets and they look pretty crazy. They’re best described as a spoiler on the nose of the bike with an intake hole with large "winglet holes” on either side of it to channel air. Months ago Ducati had rerouted their GP machine’s exhaust system and moved some electronics components to under the tail, suggesting that something on the front of the bike would be changing. (The electronics were formally housed underneath the front fairing). Between hiring a new rider that has no experience on the Ducati, (after spending 9 straight years on a Yamaha), and the very real threat Maverick Vinales will present this season aboard the Movistar M1 (yamaha), Ducati seriously has their work cut out for them so any advantage they can get their hands on is an advantage they’ll be more than happy to take.
As round one of the 2017 season rapidly approaches with the first race kicking off on March 26th at the Losail International Circuit in Qatar, teams are making the most of their final days of testing and development. With one of the most competitive (and superhuman) grids of all time, who will win the 2017 premier class world championship is up in the air, but nonetheless this season is almost guaranteed to be one for the history books. (Ya know, all those motorcycle racing history books?). Winglets are a great representation of the level of detail and performance, near-perfection and ultimately results expected of MotoGP teams, demonstrating that every minute advantage matters in a world where the one thousandth of a second is the difference between Two-wheeled glory or looking up at the podium from parc ferme.