Why F1 tech threatens to destroy the magic of MotoGP: Racing to grasp and exploit the fickle world of aero

Formula One can hardly put a foot wrong these days. From the advent of the Netflix documentary series "Drive to Survive" to the introduction of sprint races, motorsport's premier series has seen its popularity balloon, with television audiences more than doubling in the U.S. since ESPN began as the sport's American broadcaster in 2018.

It's hardly a surprise, then, that MotoGP -- the two-wheeled equivalent of F1 -- has borrowed from its four-wheeled counterpart's playbook. It has launched documentary series of its own, and the 2023 season will feature sprint races at all 21 rounds.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, MotoGP's admiration for F1 is no more apparent than in the motorcycles themselves. Manufacturers have steadily been introducing aerodynamic elements to help tame these incredible 300-horsepower machines since Ducati first began experimenting with winglets in 2015, but the 2023 preseason has been headlined by teams' frantic race to understand and exploit the fickle world of aero.

Ducati and fellow Italian marque Aprilia lead the way in this space, as Motor Sport Magazine's Mat Oxley notes, hiring aerodynamicists away from Ferrari. In a bid not to be left behind, Red Bull KTM has partnered with its longtime energy drink sponsor to tap into its F1-derived knowledge of aerodynamics.

"It's a very rapidly growing sector in MotoGP," Red Bull KTM technical director Sebastian Risse told ESPN. "Obviously, the place where most of the know-how is ... is F1. Red Bull has huge experience and we generally have this good relationship with Red Bull, being our sponsor in many, many classes of racing. So when we found this opportunity that they would be open to work together with us hand in hand to conquer this area of aerodynamics, we were more than happy.

"I think they have been learning quite a bit already now, what are the areas that do match between four wheels and two wheels, and which ones not. The quicker we can figure this out together with them, the sooner we'll be [at the front of the field]."

Until fairly recently, the primary goal of these aero elements was to aid in acceleration and top speed, creating downforce on the front wheel to keep it from lifting off the ground, such is the monstrous power of these works of art that boast nearly a one-to-one power-to-weight ratio. That's changing, though, as manufacturers see the potential for gains in braking, cornering and other areas.

The "box" or "loop" wings incorporated into the front fairings, keeping the front wheel planted, have become part of the furniture on MotoGP grids in recent years. Last season saw Ducati introduce the "stegosaurus" tail section to create downforce at full lean and create additional grip in midcorner, and this preseason has been dominated by talk of diffusers and ground-effect fairings, which take that endeavor a step further.

"On four wheels, this has happened for many, many years," Risse said. "The focus is much more on that, and on a two-wheel bike, this is quite difficult to achieve. I think now the technology and the know-how has come to a level where you can utilize the aerodynamics more and more to achieve this, to finally increase the forces of the tire on ground and to induce other forces that help the maneuverability of the bike."

There is a downside to the boom in "sticky-uppy bits," to borrow a phrase from F1 TV Tech Talk host Sam Collins, though. As aerodynamics play a larger role in a bike's performance, its wake reduces a following bike's ability to manipulate the air around it.

Livio Suppo has been in the MotoGP paddock for the better part of two decades. He has overseen efforts at Ducati, at Repsol Honda, and most recently at the now-defunct Ecstar Suzuki. He'll tell you that he's not an engineer, but he's been around enough of them and spent enough time with riders to know what this aero revolution is doing to the sport.

"If you speak with some riders, they are not happy to have so much aerodynamics," Suppo said to ESPN. "They say that when you follow, especially a Ducati, the feeling of the bike becomes very difficult to control.

"For example, quite often you see that if they are in the slipstream of another rider, they quite easily lose their braking point because if you are following somebody very close, then the aerodynamic effect is lessened. When they have the full aerodynamic effect, they can brake later, but if you brake in the same place as you brake when you are alone, but you are following somebody, then it's too late."

This is precisely why Formula One introduced new regulations ahead of the 2022 season, which lessened the importance of wake-producing aero elements like wings and bargeboards. Now, a large portion of a car's downforce is generated by the floor, decreasing wake produced by each car, allowing drivers to race closer to one another than at any point in a decade.

To boil it down, F1 wants what MotoGP has long had: close racing. In MotoGP last season, the average gap between first and second was 1.613 seconds. In F1, it was 8.694 seconds. Even if you accounted for MotoGP's shorter race distance (an average of 113 kilometers compared to 305 km in F1) and extrapolated that gap, you'd still come up with half the time between first and second of an F1 race.

That's not to say that aero is what's separating the Formula One field -- that's more a byproduct of the difference in resources between teams -- but its rising importance in MotoGP jeopardizes its bunched-up grid.

"We've probably got there already, but we don't want to go down a direction where bikes racing very closely to each other is not possible because of the aero," chief sporting officer of Dorna, MotoGP's commercial rights holder, Carlos Ezpeleta told ESPN.

We've probably got there already. Indeed. At last year's race at Jerez, then-title contender Aleix Espargaro of Aprilia said overtaking was "impossible."

Passing is where riders have long earned their paycheck. If that's becoming increasingly difficult, then results become more and more dependent on qualifying and the inherent pace of each bike.

That's what had long separated MotoGP from F1. For the past decade, F1 world champions like Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button have demonstrated that it didn't matter how much talent was sat in the driver's seat, if the car wasn't a match for its rivals, success was a practical impossibility. That has never been the case in MotoGP.

"The athlete must be more important than the machine," six-time MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez of Repsol Honda told ESPN. "I'm a big fan of Formula One because I have some friends like Carlos Sainz that are driving there and the Red Bull team, too, but sometimes it's like, if you don't have the car, there's nothing you can do.

"You can be Max Verstappen or you can be Lewis Hamilton or you can be Carlos Sainz, it doesn't matter if you don't have the car. You cannot win in Formula One, even a single race. In motorbikes, if you don't have the bike, sooner or later ... you can try to fight for the top positions."

Gresini Ducati's Alex Marquez, younger brother to Marc and a two-time world champion in MotoGP's junior categories, agrees. If you think of success in MotoGP as a balance between rider and machine, the importance of the rider has long outweighed that of the machine, but the younger Marquez notes that the balance of the equation is shifting.

"I think the rider is still more important than the bike, but before it was like 20% the bike and 80% the rider, now I think it's 40% the bike and 60% the rider," Alex Marquez said to ESPN. "It's moving in that way. Like, in Formula One they think it's 80% car, 20% driver, so MotoGP is not in that extreme point, but it looks like it's going to that point."

Disapproval of MotoGP's growing aero era is not unanimous, though. Red Bull KTM's Jack Miller attributed the increasing difficulty of overtaking to a deeply talented field of riders, and manufacturers who have found incredibly close levels of performance. At the final preseason test before the 2023 campaign gets underway on Sunday in Portugal, the fastest riders from Ducati, Yamaha, KTM, Aprilia and Honda were separated by less than eight tenths of a second -- that's a 0.08% gap over a 1:37 lap.

"I think some people are maybe a bit more [upset] about the whole situation because maybe it's not as easy as it once was," Miller told ESPN, "but I think if you just go off simple stats, the race time between first and last, that alone has definitely shrunk in the time aero's come in."

And it's not going anywhere.

For starters, the series' rulebook is set in stone for five-year periods of time, meaning that the powers that be won't be able to make any meaningful changes to regulations until the 2027 season. Perhaps of more importance, though, manufacturers want aero; it's a means of showcasing their research-and-development capabilities, and brands have begun selling road-going motorcycles with aero elements derived from MotoGP.

"It's a very difficult compromise," Risse said. "In terms of being a manufacturer being part of this class, there's two hearts beating in that same body, because you always want to beat the others. So if a door is left open by the rules, you have to exploit it, you have to take it to the limit.

"This is technically very exciting, but it's not always the best thing for the sporting side and for the show. So we cannot stop this as a manufacturer, we have to do it, and we have to do it even better than others. But if you ask me what is the best for the sport, I don't believe this is the way to go."