Bazzaz Performance Traction Control
Extended Review and Turning Tips
by Sam Quarelli Fleming
Confidence. Confidence is the sense of well being that leads us curious primates to spread our arms, breathe deep and take chances. The US economy runs on confidence. When business owners are confident they take out loans, expand, and hire more people. When those people are confident that their jobs are secure they take out more loans, buy houses and cars, and upgrade their cable subscriptions. Those actions in turn increase employment and keep all the wheels turning.
However, when that sense of well being is replaced by a single question of “What if?” the game ends. ‘What if’ housing prices don’t keep climbing? ‘What if’ the dollar continues to slide? ‘What if’ the price of oil goes to $150 a barrel? ‘What if’ I lose my job? Once that doubt enters the collective psyche, society as a whole begins to subconsciously roll the throttle closed and the cycle of lay-offs and pay cuts begins.
When straddling a 160 horsepower motorcycle, that confidence is the difference between lap time improvement and stagnation. A rider flush with a sense of confident infallibility (whether its origins be ignorance or skill) will start feeding in throttle just before the apex of the turn. Confidence in the tire, the suspension and the condition of the track, our intrepid racer will open the butterflies and let the engine breathe. However, if every time the rider attempted to open the throttle the bike kicked violently sideways, our previously bold pilot will begin to have creeping doubts that, should he continue with his risk taking, he will be forced to suffer the ultimate indignation of having his ass wiped for him while his two broken wrists heal. Once those insidious visions take root they are appallingly difficult to dislodge.
Or such was my train of thought on one lap of Barber Motorsports Park in 2008. The spinning tire on the back of the Brand X R1s (ranging from mild to violent) was strongly discouraging me from decisive throttle action and, as my confidence deteriorated, I became increasingly less willing to drive hard out of the turns. Higher entrance speeds helped to some extent but eventually I was just running wide at the exits, further compounding the problem with exit acceleration.
I know now, and knew then, that what I needed to do was sack up, light up the rear wheel, and finish the turn in one long tire smoking drift. However, being emotionally attached to the feel of toilet paper on my own fingertips, my brain was strictly ruling out that course of action. I rationalized it all by remembering the Michelin tire tech who told me that the ideal spin was 3% and that anything beyond that was simply costing time.
Kicking it old school, my first attempts at increasing my confidence at the corner exit was to increase the rear wheel grip. The bike was fitted with an incredibly nice TTX Ohlins shock. The problem with the shock was that we were at a WERA National, not a World Superbike race, and there was no Ohlins truck to change the springs or re-valve the stack. Sometimes fancy is not as good as ‘serviceable’. We pulled the Ohlins and fitted a Penske. The Penske allows for quick spring swaps and has a broad range of damping adjustment. Although perhaps not as internally sophisticated, its ease of use allowed for fast tuning in the limited time frame of a small pit crewed team. That said, the Ohlins 25mm cartridges in the forks were simply beyond belief in their smooth action, feedback and feel.
The shock swap, and subsequent ability to quickly find a good spring rate, helped but I was still never sure when the tire was going to stop driving forward and start stepping sideways.
Over the past few years I have had conversations with various AMA and World Superbike racers about their use of traction control. Most professed to not liking it while all of them confessed to using it. The key seemed to be in having it tuned perfectly so that it always allowed for maximum acceleration without killing so many of the engine cycles that it sacrificed drive. The optimum set up would be one that always allowed for the maximum drive possible from the available traction at any moment given the countless variables involved at the contact patch.
In the winter of 2008 I inherited the two Brand X ’08 R1s and set to revising their set-up for use in some WERA Endurance races for 2009. Although Army Of Darkness is officially retired it seemed logical to perform our equipment tests in a real race setting.
To that end I pulled off the Dynojet Power Commanders and installed Bazzaz Z-FI TC modules with integrated traction control, fuel injection mapping and quick shifters. The install was straightforward with a well-designed wiring harness that had inline plugs for the fuel injectors and the coils. It also had a couple of tap connectors to pick up throttle position and a couple other sensors. Tap connectors always make me nervous because of a well-developed fear of DNFs but this type of connector is common so I faced my fears and reached for the wire crimpers.
Although I had two R1s I economized (we are in a recession) and only purchased a single exhaust pipe sniffer and the add-on module for dynamic fuel mapping. This portion of the kit places an exhaust gas sensor in the pipe and sends data to the Bazzaz box. The Bazzaz box then analyzes the data and makes suggestions for re-mapping the FI. The operator can then either accept or ignore the suggestions. If it all worked it would save at least one trip to the dyno and perhaps hours of tedious fuel mapping work.
The traction control map was much more daunting. The map looked like a spreadsheet with RPM along the X axis and throttle position across the Y axis. As delivered, the map was all set to the numeral 5. Bazzaz offers a handlebar mounted switch to allow the rider to turn the traction control up or down across the map but stories of riders turning the knob the wrong way in the heat of battle and sending themselves to the land of recuperation discouraged me from that course of action. The endurance racer’s axiom of Keep It Simple Stupid meant no handlebar switch.
The Bazzaz technology works by comparing the rate of change of the speed of the crankshaft, not the rear wheel. This means that Bazzaz technicians have preprogrammed how fast a crankshaft in a given motorcycle should be able to accelerate in a given gear without spinning the wheel. Anytime the crank begins to accelerate faster than the pre-programmed limits the Bazzaz unit instantaneously, but softly, kills sparks until the crankshafts rate of acceleration is below the accepted limits. Remember, it is not how fast the crankshaft is spinning that is the important factor, it is how fast it is accelerating.
I happened to be hanging out at the Las Vegas Speedway during a race in January and ran across a Bazzaz technician. Our discourse was an object lesson in the cultural divide of East and West. It went something like this:
“Hi, I just bought two Bazzaz units and want to map the traction control. What would your suggestion be as a starting point for the numbers?” I opened optimistically.
“Put in higher numbers if you want more TC and smaller numbers if you want less” he responded with the patience of someone lecturing to the developmentally delayed.
“Yeah, but, for instance, what would your suggestions be of where I would want smaller numbers and larger numbers?” I continued with caution.
“Wherever your rider tells you to put them.”
“Thanks for your time.”
Fortunately I had occasion to then chat with Andrew Trevitt of Sport Rider fame. He had recently been working with a Bazzaz unit and he brought me up to speed on his process. “Imagine where the engine and throttle will be at each part of the turn. You want more TC at full lean when you have high torque and low grip. So, wherever you have low RPM and medium throttle, put in more TC. Then fade the numbers out as the RPM and throttle position rise, as that is when you will have the weight back up onto the meat of the tire. When you get it right it is really something special but be careful as one of our guys high-sided himself to the moon even with the TC.”
Armed with Andrew’s insight I sat down in a quiet place and envisioned four laps of Roebling Road racetrack. I created my first traction control map visualizing exactly where and when I wanted to further rely on micro processors for my health and well being. I did pause to muse that the R1 was now going to be a little schizophrenic. The big Yamaha has a fly-by-wire throttle so twisting the handgrip only sends a signal to the ECU to open the butterflies; an action that is then executed by servo motor. But if the ECU opened the throttle more than the tire could contain then the Bazzaz box was going to kill the spark. I just hoped that the two intelligent boxes would be able to reach some sort of détente and not start talking shit about each other to the impressionable starter relay.
In March of 2009 we unloaded the bikes at Roebling in a cold foggy Georgian murk. Although the Spanish moss-draped oaks lent an air of mystery to the proceedings I would have been a lot happier to have 80 degrees and sunshine warmed tarmac.
The first ride was impressive. The bike never stepped sideways and my only indication that the TC was working was a fluttering tach needle at the exit of some turns. The track conditions were sketchy with cold temperatures and damp patches but my confidence increased with each lap because the bike never misbehaved. I even had the rarest of experiences where I was able to run with my teammate Ben Walters.
I had programmed the TC such that I still retained a fair margin of control over its behavior simply by how far I led the motor with the throttle. Feeding in modest amount of throttle (say, 50% or so) kept me safely in TC territory but if I went to 80% or 100% throttle the TC would fade out as the RPMs rose allowing the motor to scream. Instead of having to ride the bike with the throttle within one or two percent of “tire spin” point I could lead the tire by fifteen or twenty percent without the rear breaking lose. That extra amount of fuzz in the system gave me the confidence to open the throttle earlier and wider and my laps times tumbled.
Ben’s first reaction, however, was negative. Ben has a well-developed throttle control technique from years of flat track and liter bike road racers. He immediately felt that the TC was softening the bike to the point where he couldn’t get a good feel for the tire. For the first session he was running out of track because the bike would not let him finish the turn with the throttle.
After carefully comparing our two experiences I remapped the TC to allow for a greater snap at full throttle and raised the fade points such that we had less TC in a few of the long sweepers. I did not turn down the TC to the point where Ben would be able to spin the tire at full throttle, I just eased it off a bit.
At the same time I also loaded the suggested fuel mapping changes that the Bazzaz unit was recommending.
With the changes to the TC map and the FI map the bike was even better. I was able to drop another second or so but Ben was able to drop three. Once he began to trust the TC mid-corner he was able to capitalize on the ability to lead the bike with the throttle and any hope I had of staying with him on the track quickly vanished.
We both ended up turning times that were about a second faster than our previous bests at the track, including Ben riding those exact bikes, on a track that was in far from ideal conditions.
Life conspired to prevent another track outing for us until the Summit Point national race. Summit Point is a track that is exceptionally tricky due to its topography and ever changing pavement conditions. The available traction varies from turn to turn as well as from ambient temperatures and a myriad of other meteorological factors.
Although I was very happy with the TC performance from Roebling, I wanted to play with an additional feature available with the system. The TC programmer allows for the selection of gear wide trim settings. This, in effect, allows the programmer to increase or decrease the TC across the entire map by gear. In practice I could hear the TC kicking in on the front straight as the undulations in the pavement would cause the rear wheel to unweight and, temporarily freed from gravity’s pull, spin. When riding the bike the popping of the TC kicking in is not audible but it is audible from the audio track of the small video camera we were running in the cockpit as well as from trackside. I trimmed 4th, 5th and 6th gears by –1 to cut down on the straight line TC action. I also increased the TC setting in a couple of spots specifically thinking of turn nine. Turn nine is a high RPM, high throttle third gear turn that usually results in long, time-wasting slides. I move the TC settings slightly with that corner specifically in mind.
Our development session was cut short by torrential downpours that curtailed testing on the Friday practice day.
Saturday morning Ben and I both turned decent lap times and agreed that the bike felt neutral and natural to ride. Ben took the start of the endurance race and was dicing with the leaders turning his best ever laps times (again, even compared to the prior year on the same bike). Unfortunately we discovered that the mean time to failure on an R1 transmission is 5,000 miles, when the gears disintegrated in the engine. Since Yamaha had canceled their contingency program and we were not racing for championship points, we elected to restart on our ‘B’ bike to just enjoy the rest of the race.
In my stint I found the R1 was incredibly easy to ride. My previous best at Summit was a 1:18:5 but I rapidly got down to the low 1:17s. 1:17 is far from the leader’s pace but, during my stint, I was the third fastest rider on the track. I was immediately struck that I was consistently a second a lap faster with far less drama, all from some new electronics and careful programming. I began to use traction-enhancing riding techniques like lifting the bike up onto the tire at the corner exits secure in the idea that, if indeed such antics were adding grip, the electronics would be able to capitalize on it, but that I was not gambling my throttle position and my collar bone that they would.
Our next outing was the Michelin Tire National Championship races at Barber Motorsports park in late October. This was a national level sprint race with a fair amount of Michelin tire money on the line. Ben and I entered in the expert liter class. We were joined by Melissa Berkoff who had brought her endurance SV to race in the twins class as well as against 600s in the women’s class.
Unfortunately we lost the set screw out of one of the Bazzaz quickshifter switches so Ben’s bike lost that functionality due to a now out of adjustment switch, so Ben was going to have to ride sans quickshifter. I kept the same TC programming and FI maps from Summit point in the bikes. The Michelin race format was such that Saturday had its own qualifying and races and Sunday had a different set of qualifying and races. Ben quickly went out and took pole position in the expert class; I qualified in tenth. We were both turning lap times roughly 1 second a lap faster than our previous bests at Barber. Melissa qualified on pole for the women’s class on her SV against a field of 600s.
After a bad start Ben ended up finishing third in the race and celebrated the podium finish by running off in turn one after the checked flag and flipping the bike in the gravel trap. The brakes had faded to the point where he got some interference between the brake lever and the throttle housing causing reduced brake effect. I ended up in a race long dual with a Buell 1125. We were roughly matched on top speed and horsepower so it was an interesting contest. I felt that I was consistently stronger at the entrances of the fast turns and seemed to be losing a little time coming off the slow turns. This could have been due to me being too cautious with the TC programming (ie, having too much TC in 2nd gear) or it could have simply been one of the places on the track where I was giving up time. Whatever the cause, I was eventually able to make a high speed pass coming off the back straight into the scary downhill left and put in some quick laps to keep him behind me to the finish. For the Melissa Berkoff fans, she took third in the women’s 600 class on her SV and finished sixth in the thunderbike class.
Sunday’s races were a different set of challenges. It was cloudy and overcast and an overnight rainstorm left tricky wet patches on the track. Ben had qualified about fourth and I was in eleventh. The clouds gathered, the temperature dropped and the rain began.
Our race was flagged in an absolute drenching downpour. Fortunately we had elected to fit rain tires to both bikes before the start of the race. Ben tried to adjust his brake lever on the grid and hit his kill switch at the two board. The starter didn’t see his waving arm and went green with the flag.
Coming around to the spider turn on the first lap I knew that everyone would be taking it really easy so I lined up on the inside and passed about six bikes up the inside before flopping the bike over and, putting my trust in electronics, poured on the throttle and hoped that the TC would take care of the rest.
I was able to keep the drive and made the bold pass stick. I kept my head down and tried to keep a rapid pace although the front wheel was going sideways when it hydroplaned across the deep lakes forming around the track. The visibility was horrible but just as I was starting to get excited about a terrific rain finish a crash in turn two brought out the red flags.
We restarted the race from original grid positions. Ben was able to keep his bike running and my strategy of “ride stupid on the first lap of a rain race because the conditions are never as bad as you think they are” paid off again as I was able to get by Ben and about four other riders. Ben rode cautiously (still feeling bad about crashing one of my bikes the day before) but eventually, in a repeat of our experiences at Roebling Road, he began to trust the TC and his lap times dropped. He was able to catch and pass me with about a lap to go. We finished 6th and 7th. All of my scary moments on the bike were from the front wheel hydroplaning, not from rear wheel slides. Melissa took fourth in the women’s race but crashed in the Thunderbike race at about 90mph, picked the bike up and finished 9th.
Our last test with the bikes was the last WERA endurance race of the year at Road Atlanta. We enlisted World/AMA Superbike refugee Matt Lynn to ride with us. I was particularly interested to see Matt’s impression of the bike given his curricula vitae of very expensive motorcycles.
I started the race on a wet track with rain tires although the rain had stopped falling and the track was drying. My thought was that, given the size of our tank, we would need to have a short stint at some point in the race so we might as well have it be the first stint and make some time on rain tires while everyone else was on DOTs or slicks.
I was running in fifth place (respectable for me at a national) when I almost high-sided myself to the moon coming out of the second gear 10B on a wet track. I was full on sideways, feet off the pegs, ass over the seat, out of body experience looking down at the bike when by sheer luck (or twenty years of experience) I landed back on the seat and gathered it all up. Most likely I let familiarity breed contempt and I got over exuberant with the throttle and put it past the 80% mark where the TC starts to fade off. Once the rear tire is free spinning there is no longer acceleration on the crankshaft and so the TC will let it spin until the rear tire regains traction or the rider eases off the throttle.
Point taken. Once the track dried to the point where the rear tire was fishtailing down the long straight as I tried to put 160hp into a couple millimeters of contact patch I pitted and we switched to dry tires. Ben took out the bike and immediately joined the front runners, albeit a lap down. Ben was able to run the pace of the front bikes immediately.
And although he had never ridden an R1 before, and we were running hard endurance tires, Matt Lynn clicked off the third fastest team lap time of the race. Matt’s impression was “You have the suspension set up for an endurance race so it was real easy to ride at that pace for a long time but it would be a little soft for sprinting. I haven’t liked traction control when we have used it before but I never felt the traction control at all on this bike. It just felt totally natural.” We ended up taking third overall in the race.
Reflecting back on the experience I can say unequivocally that I love the Bazazz electronics and felt that they easily dropped a second off my lap times everywhere I went along with increasing the ease of running that pace. Ben shared my impression, particularly towards the end of the race when the tire started giving up grip. Matt Lynn’s comments made me wonder how often a rider’s negative impressions of traction control are based on poor set-up. To work properly you need to match the system to exactly the amount of available traction at anytime. If you err too much on safety all you do is slow the bike down but if you don’t use enough then the rider can never develop the needed trust in the system to extract the most out of it.
The only thing I was wishing was that the unit had a memory chip in it so that I could dump a record of the RPM, throttle position, gear, and when the spark was being killed by the TC unit. I ended up using video clips filmed off a cheap camera to do some of the fine tuning; actual data would have been more convenient. If they throw a GPS lap timer into it as well then Bazzaz will have the ultimate consumer priced electronics race package. I am confident these ideas have also occurred to the Bazzaz engineers.