Once a person gets a motorcycle, they will never stop hearing the word “counter-steering.” We have been doing it since we were kids on bicycles, but it now becomes a much talked about art. This can leave many beginners wondering if MotoGP riders counter-steer.
MotoGP riders do counter-steer. All of the complicated physics involved in counter-steering can be missed as a MotoGP rider takes a turn at 85 mph, but they are using counter-steering. This technique helps them maintain high speeds and allows them to make turns safely and as fast as possible.
Counter-steering is not the only skill MotoGP riders need to use to corner at such high speeds. Riders must perfect leaning, body position, braking, speed control, and being in sync with their sophisticated machines. We discuss the importance of all of this below.
What Is Counter-Steering On A Motorcycle?
Counter-steering is the action of turning the handlebars on a motorcycle in the opposite direction to that in which you aim to turn. Counter-steering relies on various physical principles, most notably gravity, inertia and centripetal force, to allow the rider to turn their motorcycle.
When told that counter-steering is slightly turning the handlebars in the opposite direction one wants to go, it can seem like someone is giving you advice to make you crash. In fact, the slight movement is what makes the bike lean and begin to go in the desired direction.
Without going back to school for a physics degree, the basic principles involve gravity, inertia, centripetal force, rotational force, and the center of gravity. At speed, the counter-steer is what makes the bike lean and shifts the center of gravity.
A Simple Explanation
Essentially, motorcycles are a gyroscope with an engine, and the principles of applying force opposite the axis of rotation creates the opposite effect. The basics of what is happening when you turn your handlebars to the right are as follows:
- You turn your handlebars to the right
- The front wheel begins to go to the right, moving it out from under the bike
- Your body, and the bike’s center of gravity, are now ‘shifted’ to the left relative to the front wheel
- The bike (with you on it) starts leaning to the left
- The bike becomes momentarily unstable, as your body and the bike are both leaning in the opposite direction to that in which the front wheel is pointing
- You correct for this by turning the handlebars to the left (although really the bike does most of this itself) and begin to turn left
If you had instead attempted to simply turn left by turning the handlebars to the left, the bike would effectively try to throw you off in the opposite direction, and you would find yourself leaning to the right, and beginning to turn right. If you resisted the natural leftward movement of the handlebars, you would simply fall off the bike.
At low speeds, the forces involved are small enough that you can turn the bike by turning the handlebars in the direction you wish to go and leaning into the turn. But at anything more than around 15-20 mph (depending on the weight of the bike, among other things), doing this will not turn the bike in the direction you wish to go.
Why Do You Need To Counter-Steer On A Motorcycle?
If you have ridden a bicycle or motorcycle, you know that counter-steering comes fairly naturally. You may not even have realized you do it every time you try to turn on your bike. This is because, once you learn the muscle memory of riding, it becomes very natural. You don’t consciously try to correct for that momentary instability, and the weight of the bike turns the handlebars itself.
It’s The Only Way To Turn
Mastering this skill makes you a better and safer rider. Not only does it help you navigate turns in the road, but also obstacles. A quick reaction to seemingly steer towards a danger will actually make you avoid it. For most of us on the street, this means a pothole or a car pulling out. For a MotoGP rider, this could be another rider and his bike sliding across the track.
In order to keep the bike upright and under your control, counter-steering is a skill every rider should be mastering, whether you’re racing or just riding to your local coffee shop. If you don’t counter steer, you’ll simply end up turning the wrong way!
Do MotoGP Riders Counter-Steer?
MotoGP riders do counter-steer. While it’s quite hard to tell when watching them corner at speeds of up to 85 mph, MotoGP riders must use counter-steering for the same reasons any other motorcycle rider uses it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to corner at such high speeds.
Despite having the most high-tech bikes out there, no one can avoid the need to counter-steer. As mentioned above, there are a lot of physics involved, and those laws are more binding than most. But it’s hard to see when MotoGP riders counter-steer, and the minimal steering lock means the rider can’t move the handlebars much anyway.
It’s Very Hard To Spot
MotoGP riders have mastered their sport to the point that they counter-steer without thinking about it. It is just one of many movements they make to remarkably fly around corners. As a spectator, you’d never see the slight movement because you’re too transfixed at the state of the rider’s lean, and trying to understand how it is physically possible.
Their counter-steering is what will get their bike on its way to being balanced and moving in the right direction. This is happening in the tightest of turns to the smoother “S” curves on tracks. The amount of speed they carry in the corners, paired with the 60+ degree lean, makes it almost impossible to spot the counter-steering in MotoGP.
They Do It Without Thinking
Riders carefully study tracks and where they will set up for turns. MotoGP riders are professional athletes. They no more think about a counter-steer as an Olympic diver thinks about how to twist their body off the diving board.
They have perfected lining up for the turns, using their knowledge of counter-steering, braking, shifting body weight, suspension, and throttle control. For MotoGP riders, it all becomes second nature.
Why Do MotoGP Riders Lean?
We all love to see the gravity-defying optics of a lean. And many motorcycle race enthusiasts love to get a knee down on their local twisty roads, with varying degrees of success. However, the knee protection is there to protect and offer guidance, not slide along the asphalt (which creates drag).
Many riders dream of dropping a knee, but there is much more to the lean than looking good. Not only do we want the lean, but the bike also wants to lean as well. As we mentioned above in the description of what counter-steering is actually doing, when you turn the handlebars one way, the bike begins to naturally lean in the other direction.
When you try to turn any object, be it a car or a motorcycle, around a corner, the centripetal force naturally wants to push the bike over, in the direction opposite to the turn. Think about when you’re in a car, and you go around a corner at any reasonable speed. You might feel yourself being pushed away from the turn into the side of the car (or your fellow passengers).
The same thing is happening when you turn on a bike, but because there are only two wheels, the bike becomes unstable as the bike begins to effectively topple over in the opposite direction. This is what causes the lean that allows you to turn the bike, and so a lean (when performed correctly) is basically just controlling what would otherwise be a fall off the bike.
How Far Do MotoGP Riders Lean?
MotoGP riders reach lean angles up to 64 degrees or more. Their high speeds and grippy tires make this possible. The degree of lean varies between corners, but Marc Marquez recorded a lean of 70 degrees during a tire test in 2019, which although not in a race is a record for the sport.
Unlike most of the casual riding people do, MotoGP riders are constantly moving on the bike. They use their weight and body to maintain their center of gravity and balance, finding the right amount for each turn.
While in a lean, riders bring their bodies out and off the bike to get as low as possible. Their shift in weight helps maintain balance while allowing the bike to not have to lean as far. This also helps keep a larger contact patch on the track. As riders and bikes lean, they lose area where the tire meets the asphalt. This can lead to the bike washing out under riders as the tires lose grip.
Why Do MotoGP Riders Stick Their Leg Out?
MotoGP riders stick their leg out to transfer some of their weight both down and backward, helping with braking stability. Having a lower center of gravity also helps with turning, and there is a small aerodynamic benefit of allowing the leg to act like an airbrake in the direction of the turn.
Valentino Rossi was the first rider to truly exploit this technique, and many riders claim the benefits go beyond boosting performance. The strain riders are under in the braking zones due to the high G-forces mean that any additional stopping force and stability can take some of the pressure off their arms and core muscles.
Do MotoGP Riders Touch The Ground When They Lean?
MotoGP riders do often touch the ground when they lean. This is simply because they lean so far – at angles exceeding 60 degrees – in order to bring their center of gravity down and make high speed turns much easier. It also allows them to lean more than the bike has to lean.
By maximizing the amount their body leans off the bike while keeping the bike at a lesser angle, the rider can maintain a larger contact patch with the tarmac. This allows them to still corner at high speeds by shifting lots of weight to the inside of the corner, while also maximizing the grip of the tires to further increase their cornering speed.
MotoGP riders also touch the ground with their knee to act as a gauge of how far to lean in each corner. They wear rubber knee pads to protect their knees while they do this, and this is a valuable skill they can use to perfect their turns.
MotoGP riders do use counter-steering. It’s hard to see a MotoGP rider use counter-steering as the bikes have very little steering lock and they use their bodies to lean excessively into the corners at high speed, but as with any motorcycle, counter-steering is a necessity in MotoGP.