125x125 banner
Stylish Motorcycle Riding Gears

The Two Basic Styles of Motorcycle Cornering

Marc Márquez’s point-and-shoot style has made him the most successful MotoGP racer in the last decade.

Marc Márquez’s point-and-shoot style has made him the most successful MotoGP racer in the last decade. (MotoGP/)

So much is owed to dirt track because so many racers learn their basic skills there and later move them to pavement.

An appealing basic principle is that of corner radius: the larger the radius on which we are turning, the greater the speed possible at a given angle of lean. This has led to the “geometry lesson” diagrams found in so many racing how-to books. They tell us to turn on the largest possible radius, entering high, apexing low, and then exiting high so as to carry as much speed as possible through the turn. This is the basis of the corner-speed style.

This assumes that traction is constant everywhere, and it seldom is. When I first asked Kenny Roberts about this years ago, he made fun of corner speed as a poor bet to make against the real odds. When you use high corner speed, you expose yourself to the danger of traction loss all the way around the corner because you are at full lean angle, as close as you can come to grip loss through the whole turn. At the time, this was the style of Ron Haslam on the unconventional ELF-Honda GP bikes.

Flat-track racing has led many riders to success in roadracing, including King Kenny Roberts.

Flat-track racing has led many riders to success in roadracing, including King Kenny Roberts. (Cycle World Archives/)

Dirt-trackers know that grip changes constantly, not only from the start of an event to its end, but during each race. The more variable and less predictable the grip becomes, the worse the odds become against the corner-speed rider because he or she is betting that grip will remain uniform and predictable.

Experienced riders of powerful, fast-accelerating motorcycles therefore developed a “safety style” that tilted the odds back in favor of the rider. This style, today called “point-and-shoot” or “squaring off the corner,” concentrates the risk of grip loss and falling in a small zone of rapid turning, and even there minimizes that risk by making that rapid turning at a lower apex speed than that of the corner-speed rider. Elsewhere in the turn some turning is taking place, but at less than maximum side grip. That allows the rider to control the total grip being demanded from the tires by modulating the brakes going in and modulating the throttle accelerating out. In this way the rider can compensate for grip variation through the corner.

The rider enters the turn at less than full lean, slowing to an early apex at a comfortably low speed, does most of the turning there (“squaring off”), and can then use the rest of the turn as a “curved dragstrip” on which a powerful motorcycle can recover an exit speed as high as or higher than that of the pure corner-speed rider.

As big two-strokes took over in US roadracing from 1972 onward, riders discovered that what had worked well on dirt could also work on pavement.

Riders in smaller classes, or on machines of otherwise limited power (such as the classic 500cc four-stroke single Nortons of the 1930s to the 1960s) had no choice but to ride in corner-speed style. Their bikes lacked the acceleration to recover the high corner exit speed essential to a quick time down the next straight. Corner-speed was therefore the more-or-less “official” riding style of European GP racing.

In 1978 Kenny Roberts invaded that scene, riding his factory Yamaha two-stroke 500s in dirt-track style, braking late and hard, apexing at low speed to get turned early, and then steering with the throttle during corner exit. He exploited in his style what the motorcycle does best—accelerate—and minimized exposure to what it does worst—turning on its tiny and vulnerable tire footprints.

A few years ago someone at Honda released the information that apex speeds of 125s and 250s were at least 15 percent faster than those of 500s.

In the present era we hear riders describe the “clash of styles,” as the lines taken by corner-speed and point-and-shoot riders are quite different. Corner-speed riders take “the great circle route” while point-and-shootists “stop in midcorner,” as today’s corner-speed men like Aleix Espargaró describe it, their lower apex speed blocking the graceful line of the great circle riders.

Why not pass rather than be blocked? If you are moving fast enough to pass, you will probably need the higher grip on the racing line. If you move off it, grip may be lost.

Gary Nixon was an early proponent of this blocking. While a “big line” rider such as Calvin Rayborn was entering wide, Nixon would go straight to the apex, arriving there just in time to force his much faster (at that point) opponent to lift and run wide to avoid running into the back of him. Nixon solved the problem of acceleration by fitting a first gear of a lower-than-normal ratio. Block and pass. He raced other men, not racetracks.

Just when it seems that the corner-speed style is finished and must die out, along come tires that can often, when properly managed, continue to give the high side grip that style requires.

There is also evidence of some hybridization in styles. Valentino Rossi, during his sabbatical at Ducati, fell behind the rapid riding style change then in progress. When Marc Márquez arrived in MotoGP in 2013 from two years in Moto2, he brought with him a highly effective tire conservation riding style that immediately made his tires last longer than could either Rossi or that greatest of corner-speed masters, Jorge Lorenzo. Its essence was to minimize the time spent on the tire edges. Although the most visible difference was his extreme whole-body offset in corners, that was an adjunct to the vee-shaped, squared-off line of the point-and-shoot dirt-tracker. Out of the seven seasons 2013–2019, he was MotoGP champion six times.

Whole-body offset continues the discovery made by John Surtees in 1956. He found that by moving his own mass inward and down in corners, he could thereby push his MV up a bit, moving off its tire edges and onto broad rubber that hooked up and accelerated rather than spun.

When Rossi returned from Ducati, he learned as much of the new style as he could manage, coming fourth in the championship his first year back on Yamaha, then second the next three years. Lorenzo, departing for Ducati in 2017, spent 18 months remaking his style to what the Ducati required, after which he won three races in 2018. Maverick Viñales, after initial success on Yamaha, found himself at odds with that bike’s corner-speed nature. At present he is fighting the same battle with the Aprilia whose corner grip works so well for Aleix Espargaró. By insisting that the bike be adapted to him, he is asking that company to run two racebike development programs simultaneously.

Corner-speed bikes need stability most of all, as a means of remaining controllable at peak grip all the way around long corners. That calls for a longer wheelbase and lower build, with a chassis and swingarm providing enough lateral flexibility to make the tires track over pavement irregularities rather than skip from crest to crest. This bike does best on long, sweeping corners where its ability to turn at sustained high side grip has time to build an advantage. It does less well in “small” corners.

The point-and-shoot bike must have a stiffer chassis to remain stable during the late, hard braking it must perform. It must be taller than the corner-speed bike in order to promptly transfer its weight to achieve powerful initial braking, then acceleration. It must have quick steering—right on the edge of instability—to respond instantly to the rider’s effort to turn in and get the bike turned in minimum distance, then lift and accelerate. This bike does best in small corners that can be “pointed-and-shot,” and poorly in long, fast corners that require continuous turning at high grip that is made impossible by their chassis stiffness.

View full post on Cycle World