How much quicker does traction control make the average rider, if at all? Take one rider, a Suzuki GSX-R1000 and a BMW S1000RR, an empty track and let’s find out shall we?
From the comfort of my couch, I like nothing more than watching factory racers strangling the throttles factory superbikes, usually at the point in a corner where I know I’m normally poking my tongue out of the corner of my mouth and sparingly adding throttle like a chef adds salt. It’s all too easy to convince yourself that if you had traction control, you’d be able to get on the gas earlier and go miles quicker. But just how much quicker? Really?
In this office, I’m the closest thing to an average rider. Unlike Chris Northover, I’ve yet to line up for a race. Getting past a few bikes in the fast group on a track day is as good as a win to me and for that reason I felt perfectly qualified to strap the datalogger to my back and head out on track. The plan was simple: ten laps on the traction-controlled BMW and then ten laps on the amazingly unrefined and (until this year) analogue Suzuki GSX-R1000. This isn’t a test of either bike’s limit, far from it. I wanted to find out if I could go any quicker because of the safety net that ABS and TC provide. I know the Dunlop test circuit at Mireval well enough to not have gained an advantage by going on one bike before the other. I can feel a win coming on, let’s see which me reaches the flag first.
Getting ahead of myself
Off the line and up to fourth gear on both bikes heading towards turn one. Before I get on the brakes, I’m already travelling ten mph quicker on the lightning BMW at 132 mph. The quick shifter and the monstrous 190 horsepower motor no doubt giving me the edge, over, erm, me and the slightly less frenzied GSX-R. The speed gained on the straight is carried to the apex, where on the GSX-R I slowed to 77mph, rather than 84 on the BMW. Although only one corner in, the BMW has gained an on track advantage of about three-quarters of a second.
Heading downhill towards a double right section of the circuit, I actually start to catch up on the Suzuki. You could never accuse the BMW of lacking midrange clout, but evidently in my hands at least, the Suzuki is more than capable of matching it. Let’s not forget that the BMW was carrying more speed off turn one though, maybe enough extra speed for me to feel that I’d reached the limit of what I was happy with, whereas on the Suzuki, I got off the corner and realised I was riding like a girl, hence the extra speed carried into the next complex.
Despite my opinion of the weak-feeling Brembo brakes on the Suzuki, and the sky-high confidence the front end on the BMW gives me, I actually braked later and harder on the GSX-R. Critically, if you look at the speed trace between the two bikes at this point of the lap, you can see I’m trying to add speed on the Suzuki, rather than keeping everything smooth like I am on the amazingly scary red bike.
At the apex of turn three, I’ve closed the gap on the BMW to within a tenth of a second, as well as travelling three mph quicker at the apex. At this stage in the ‘race’, I’m way closer to the BMW than I thought I’d be.
It’s a short shift from second to third gear for the slightly uphill left-hander at turn four. This is the first point where it’s clear that traction control is playing a part. Not physically, but mentally. The TC me is happy to wind the BMW on in third the second I pick my knee off the floor. Though both bikes get on the gas at exactly the same point, the key point to note is how much harder I’m able to drive from apex to exit. Both bikes are within one mile per hour of each other at 66 and 67mph, but the S1000RR allows me to drive up to 89mph for the apex at turn five. At this point, the BMW has turned the even stevens gap on track into a lead of a second.
The drive onto the fourth gear straight that follows allows me to stretch the gap further still. Getting on the brakes for the left-right flick at turn seven shows that I slowed to nigh on the same speed on both bikes at 44mph. Before I slowed to this, I was travelling at 119mph on the BMW compared to a weedy 106 on the Suzuki. The exit speed off here is, again, identical at 53 mph. That was my limit there, not the bikes’. I could have been riding Casey Stoner’s Ducati and I doubt I’d have been going any quicker. Likewise, I bet if I were on a CBR600RR, at that point in the track, the scaredy cat that separates me from MotoGP stardom would have been doing 53mph, too.
Up the short straight that leads into the turn 8-9-10-11 complex I manage to squeeze 90mph from the BMW, compared to 87 on the GSX-R. By now the gap between the two is approaching two seconds. Again, I slow to a speed that I’m happy with and at the apex, both bikes are matched in speed at 42mph. The double left complex at turns nine and ten is knee down all the way through, right on the edge of the tyre, a steady hand is required (in my mind) to prevent bad things from happening. The speed trace shows, however, that on the BMW, I was happy to wind on throttle in the hope that I’d stretch that gap further still. It felt much messier on the BMW but it proves to be worth it as the exit speed is five mph faster on the S1000RR at 48 mph.
With only two corners left of the lap. I’m carrying a comfortable two-second lead on the BMW. Again I find that the traction control that helps me get off corners harder and earlier on the BMW doesn’t help me get into the following corner any faster. I get there quicker on the stopwatch but at the apex of turn 12, I’ve slowed both bikes to the same speed at 58 mph.
A constant 59mph is carried around the uphill second gear right-hander that delivers me back onto the start finish straight. Although the speed on the two bikes is the same, the small gaps that the traction control has allowed me to add around the lap have added up to a lead of 2.013 seconds across the line. Even the last corner allows me to sneak onto the gas earlier, equating to a six mph speed deficit for the Suzuki, which crosses the line at 115mph.
So what does it all mean?
Traction control is a commodity, but confidence is the trading tool that’ll allow you to make the most of it. While it was obvious I was bound to go quicker on the TC’d BMW, that 2.013 second gap over one lap equates to a typical race distance advantage (over 24 laps) of 48 seconds. I’d like to think that if I was following someone that was (at some stages of the lap), less than a second ahead, then I would have dug in and closed the gap on them. The problem with that is what lead to me to try this in the first place. I liked to think when I saw Leon Haslam giving it rock all that I’d do the same thing if I had all of the rider aids he has. It’s clear now that while it would slightly reduce my lap times, TC doesn’t really gain me any more speed in the sectors where I’d reached the limit of my confidence. It also shows that the average rider doesn’t transform into a riding god just because of ABS and TC. If you’re in the market for a new sports bike it’s also worth remembering that, if you weren’t quick in the first place, you’re not likely to gain that much of a speed advantage out there in the real world. Add a few rows of traffic to overtake and the threat of jail time to a sunny ride and you’d probably find it hard to gain any advantage at all.