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Are MotoGP Bikes Automatic? This surprised me!

For those of you who ride motorcycles, you might agree that gear shifting can be a tedious part of the whole experience, requiring ample amounts of concentration and coordination to perfect, let alone replicate at triple-figure speeds. Shifting gears with a conventional manual gearbox (even when done right) causes a sometimes-unsettling jerk in forward momentum that can wreak havoc on your nerves should you need to grab a new gear mid-corner.

So, how do MotoGP riders circumvent this cumbersome necessity? Do they even have to shift gears? And if so, what does that process entail?

Don’t let the silky-smooth sound of a MotoGP bike and the obvious lack of clutch-hand action from the TV footage fool you; MotoGP bikes have manual gearboxes, only all of their gears are “upside-down” compared with normal motorcycles you or I would ride (unless you’re a racer) In this modern age, MotoGP riders don’t even have to release the throttle or engage the clutch lever to shift gears.

Motogp bike

What is a seamless shift gearbox?

Amongst a collection of electronic “training wheels” designed to keep the rider in control of their 300-horsepower MotoGP bike, there is something very clever happening down in the gearbox.

In other words, a seamless shift gearbox is a gearbox capable of ultra-smooth gear changes, one that can be operated without the need for using the clutch or throttle to assist the gear change.

What makes seamless gearboxes different from every other motorcycle gearbox we’ve previously seen is their ingenious design, which allows the selection of two gears simultaneously, with the next gear effectively “waiting in line” for the rider when they need it. This produces faster and smoother gear changes, meaning when a rider gets on the gas out of a corner and starts selecting higher gears, the bike remains stable and easier to control, with less disturbance of the front end.

Alternatively, when a rider is slowing down and wishes to select a lower gear, there is often an “auto-blip” feature that automatically blips the throttle in order to avoid jerkiness or a loss of stability when changing down the gears quickly.

Are quick shifters and seamless gearboxes the same thing?

Over the last decade, quick-shifter (for lack of a better name) devices have found their way from the hearts of shiny new production motorcycles to plug-and-play kits available for many motorcycles we love that didn’t come with a quick-shifter as standard. Loosely speaking, quick-shifters and seamless gearboxes aim to achieve the same goals:

  • Engage gears faster
  • Remove the need for clutch/throttle
  • Minimize loss in momentum

By effectively “killing” the throttle input the moment a sensor located on the gear lever assembly detects movement from the rider selecting a gear, the load is reduced on the gearbox, allowing the desired gear to be selected. These systems work in harmony with the ECU to allow such rapid, precise actions to be performed with pinpoint precision every time.

Seamless gearboxes found on MotoGP bikes are not quite the same; there are many complex aspects within the gearbox itself designed to reduce loss of momentum, benefitting areas such as handling and braking more than acceleration, for example.

The origin of the seamless shift gearbox

Seamless-shift technology, originally pioneered by the Honda MotoGP team back in 2010, quickly got everyone in the paddock talking. Such a thing was unheard of, and naturally, people wanted answers. Was any cheating taking place? Could the advantage of having a seamless shift gearbox be measured?

Well, getting your hands on that kind of information is virtually impossible, but some tests carried out using sound recordings taken trackside offer some fascinating insights into just how revolutionary Honda’s “magic gearbox” was on its first inception.

Often, when a new form of potentially rule-bending tech is discovered, it’s up to the opposing teams to either carry out their own investigative work to comprehend how they could copy it for themselves; failing that, they could always slide it under the door of the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), hoping it could be banned. 

Interestingly, it was the former that occurred, kind of. Figuring out how to crack such a complex problem wasn’t as simple as going and knocking on Mr. Honda’s door and asking for his recipe; it took Yamaha and Ducati a couple of years to design, test, and develop their own seamless gearboxes, with Suzuki taking a bit longer, all the meanwhile Honda could exploit any potential gains from being ahead of the curve on such a new feature.

Despite the other factory teams appearing with their own seamless gearboxes to give Honda a run for their money, the difference a few years head-start on the opposition can make can perhaps be seen in Honda’s success with World Championships won with Caser Stoner in 2011, and an astonishing six times with Marc Marquez from 2013-present.

The future of gear shifting?

With rumours circulating that Ducati, among others, is working to bring a form of the seamless gearbox to a consumer street bike sometime soon, one can only speculate where the technology within MotoGP will head next.

Which improvements could possibly be made to improve what already looks like a fantastic way of shifting gears on a motorcycle? It seems inevitable that as more and more elements of motorcycle riding become assisted, or in some cases, completely managed by one electronic device or another, the days of gearboxes even being remotely considered as “manual” could be numbered.