The difficulties of perception in MotoGP

5 minutes

During competition, MotoGP riders reach top speeds of well over 300 km/hr. Their surroundings fly by in a heartbeat, and they have very little time to react. How do these brave souls manage to get their bearings when high speeds decrease their visibility?

Marc Márquez pilotando muy rápido se acopla a la moto
The difficulties of perception in MotoGP

Looking at the asphalt is simply not an option; there’s no time for that.

It’s a fact that the faster we travel in a vehicle, the less time we have to react to the curves and obstacles we’re about to face in the track. The surroundings we percieve move at the same speed, quickly bypassing our field of vision. We can only imagine how difficult it must be for Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo to navigate atop their MotoGP bikes.

First of all, the riders don’t focus on what’s close to them, but instead plan their reactions based on reference points located farther off in the distance. Signs, indicators, and curbstones are highly useful when racing on the World Championship circuits. The riders navigate turns, gear changes, braking, and steering by relying largely on muscle memory and their familiarity with the circuit. Márquez and Pedrosa use their intimate knowledge of each track to seek out the best route. They decide how to handle each section before they get there, using the information they have from previous laps and the visible reference points. A profound understanding of space and distance is clearly a big help when deciding how to react at top speeds.

Marc Márquez Red Bull Ring GP Austria 2017
Marc Márquez Red Bull Ring GP Austria 2017

While reference points and the experience on the track gained during training can be useful in finding the best routes, riders have got an additional challenge to grapple with. A rider is never alone on the track: he’s got to avoid the other riders, block their path, and get ahead of them. When two bikes go around a curve, there are always risks involved, and the riders’ quick reaction times are critical. If our rival is ahead of us and we’re trying to overtake them, there’s not much of a problem because we can see them clearly and analyze their movements. The other rider is in a more difficult situation. The noise from his own engine prevents him from hearing the bike on his heels until it’s practically on top of him. That’s why the team communicates with the rider using the pit-board. The information the competitors receive from this board helps them analyze the situation and make decisions based on the model of the bike behind them and the rival riding it. Occasionally, although it’s strongly discouraged, we may see riders turn their head to catch a glimpse of their rivals’ positions.

Álex Márquez taking a corner
Álex Márquez taking a corner

The sense of touch plays an essential role in how riders perceive their surroundings from atop a MotoGP bike. Looking at the asphalt is simply not an option; there’s no time for that. The track conditions and how the bike reacts on a specific surface is assessed using feedback from the wheels, the suspension, and the frame, especially on the front end of the bike. This source of information is vital for MotoGP riders; knowing how to interpret the data from the motorcycle allows them to push the limits without going too far.

Finally, although a circuit is permeated with typical smells, in rare cases riders can use their sense of smell to detect a problem with their bike. This does not happen very often, since aerodynamics usually pushes air away from the rider, but when it does occur, it usually means that rider needs to stop the bike to prevent greater problems.

As we’ve seen, information is key when making decisions at top speeds, and during a race everything happens very quickly. That’s why Marc and Jorge have to make the most of every tiny detail they’re able to perceive with their senses, and, very frequently, they’ve got to trust their intuition.

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