Superbike Riding Skills: Finding an Apex
Eric Wood has been the head instructor for the Penguin Racing School advanced course since 1994. He brings over a decade of national road racing experience together with a background in mechanical engineering to provide keen insights for motorcycle riders of all levels.
His riding experience ranges from 1000cc superbikes to vintage motorycles to Pro Thunder Ducati’s. Eric has won three national Formula USA racing championships, accumulated several wins at the AMA national level and set several track records at venues around the country.
His unique instructing style is effective in making complex concepts easy to understand and has proven very successful in raising rider confidence levels. Below are some superbike riding tips from Eric Wood.
The apex – your first priority
The process of deciphering a corner begins with the selection of your apex. The apex is defined as the exact point where you are closest to the inside edge of a given corner. Why is this important?
There are many reasons, but perhaps the simplest answer is that without a clear apex it is impossible to determine your major turn point. How can you know where to turn or how hard to turn if you do not have a precise target to aim for?
To add to this point, your brake point (in an ideal world) should be set so that it allows you to approach your turn point at exactly the speed that will just allow you to make the apex. Without a clear apex, turn points and brake points become impossible to pin down and the entrance to any corner becomes confusing.
What type of corner am I in?
The problem begins because many riders don’t know exactly how to set an apex. In recent years at the Penguin Racing School, we have been teaching our students how to first determine the type of corner that they are approaching in order to help them in the process of establishing an apex.
Once the basic type of corner is determined, our students are able to tailor their line to match the proper strategy for that corner. For the sake of simplicity, we try to take all corners and place them in one of three categories: entrance focused, roll speed focused and exit focused.
Not every corner on every track will fit perfectly into one of these imaginary "boxes", but when riders examine most corners there are almost always obvious clues that provide a good place to start. For many riders, the confidence derived simply from being able to pick out an apex moves them well along the way to relaxing and riding harder.
The same principles apply to everyone
The great part about this process is that it doesn’t matter if you are a racer or a track day rider, it works for everyone. When your line through a corner is centered around a properly chosen apex you will be able to both ride faster and with less risk.
Imagine Valentino Rossi riding through a corner at the very limit of traction on nearly any line that he wants (he can). However, even when factoring in his immense talent, if Valentino were forced to ride the wrong line (say, the line of a new track day rider) he may not even be able to keep up with good regional expert who was on the right line.
What you lines selection really means
Lines, in the end, determine how much traction you have available for braking, turning and acceleration. The more upright the motorcycle is on the way in, the more front grip you will have available to brake with.
The same principle applies to exits and acceleration. In addition, the less time you can spend actively turning the bars (loading both the front and rear tires), the more grip you will have available to carry corner speed.
This is a very important concept that we will expand upon in a future article. The main challenge is that a rider cannot brake, turn and accelerate at a maximum through any single corner.
Every act (for example, getting on the gas before the apex) comes at the expense of something else (being able to trail brake deep into the corner). The key to analyzing a corner properly stems from the conscious application of these simple principles.
Speed is the driving force
The focus of any corner should always be where the speed is. When you think about it, majority of corners out there involve substantial braking, acceleration or both. The most important factor when analyzing most corners is not the corner itself (unless it is a very fast corner).
Rather, it is most often what precedes and what follows a corner that has the greatest affect on our apex and line selection. Maintaining speed from a long straight or getting a good drive onto a long stretch of racetrack are always top priorities.
Roll Speed Focus – A common starting place
When getting started, most riders place the apex in the center of the corner and use the classic "outside-inside-outside" strategy. This roll speed focused line is OK when you are getting started, but is truly correct only in corners where the primary focus is to increase roll speed through the corner.
This strategy is a good choice if your corner is a "connection" corner that does not involve significant acceleration or braking. In addition, if the corner itself is very high speed (4th-5th gear) then maintaining roll speed becomes increasingly more important and a roll speed focused line should be considered.
Good drive is the top priority
The first priority that should be considered when establishing your corner strategy is the length and speed of the straightaway that follows the corner. The reason that this takes priority over the entrance is that an important straight can be 2500+ feet long.
Starting a long straight with a 5mph head start will help you ride faster for 2500 feet. Most braking zones comprise, at most, the final 20% of the straight. It only stands to reason that it does not make sense to gain 5mph on the entrance if it means sacrificing 5mph on the way out (when you are covering 5 times the ground).
In order to get a good drive off of a corner, your bike needs to get upright as soon as possible. The more horsepower you have, the more important this principle becomes. The entrance trajectory is wider and there is an area just prior to the apex where this line tightens up, signifying a defined turn in point before the apex.
This extra turning requires the sacrifice of some entrance speed, but the reward is that the motorcycle is much more upright at the apex. This allows the throttle to be opened before the apex and the motorcycle gets to full throttle much sooner than when the rider uses a roll speed focused approach. This exit focused corner strategy is what is often referred to as the "classic" racing line.
A focus on entrance speed
If the corner you are analyzing does not have a significant drive on the exit then you will often want to try to maintain that entrance speed as long as you can. In order to do this the motorcycle should be upright as long as possible so that the braking zone can be extended deeper into the corner.
With this strategy, we often make early trajectory change known as a "pre-turn" that allows us to come into the corner on a slightly shallower line while leaving the bike more upright. The apex in a corner in this category will come earlier than in a drive focused or roll speed focused corner.
Since there is no drive on the exit of this corner, the rider can afford to use the available traction to turn the bars after the apex. Many tracks will have at least one corner like this.
It is important to note that while the early apex line is an extremely valuable strategy in certain corners, it is also very often the mistaken path taken by a rider who panics on the entrance of a corner and turns in too early.
If you ever find yourself putting in significant bar input after the apex of any corner that has any kind of meaningful acceleration on the exit (this is the key factor) – Stop!
This post apex bar input during acceleration is the single most common reason that newer riders fall down. The combination of acceleration (which un-weights the front tire) and turning is often enough to exceed the limits of traction of the front tire.
Final riding thoughts
This method of establishing a corner type to establish an initial apex has proven to be very effective in giving riders a solid place to start. Once a rider recognizes the focus of a corner, the pieces begin to come together quickly.
Remember, the focus is always where the speed is. With the goal in each corner identified and reference points identified, we’re now ready to start working on our riding (the fun part)! For those of you looking for more, there’s always a class at the Penguin Racing School.