ECU, OMG, WTF?

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For years now, it’s been possible to remap your car/van and magically unlock horsepower with the touch of a few buttons (and a few quid). It’s slightly different with bikes.

Remapping or flashing ECUs is nothing fresh, and some are reprogrammable without ‘hacking’. Since the late 90s, Aprilia has offered map options on the RSV, where you can switch from a road to a race map with upgraded ignition timing and fuelling edits. Although there’s no mystic 20bhp-unlocking feature, you’ll still gain a few ponies.

But locked within today’s ECUs, and unbeknown to even some UK divisions of manufacturers/importers, there are endless amounts of control and adjustability waiting to be molested. Take the most undiluted litre bike currently surviving: the Suzuki GSX-R1000, for example. Switchable mapping, an autotune function (which is damn cool), ignition timing, fuelling across throttle position/RPM/gear position, raising rev-limit, secondary throttle bodies (for engine braking) can all be fiddled with. There are even inbuilt datalogging capabilities, and all without race kit additions.

And we’re not just talking about sportsbikes destined for track skulduggery: happy shoppers like Suzuki’s Gladius and the Kawasaki ER6 have a large amount of fuelling and ignition editing options, as well as ram-air compensation and rev-limiter changes. Whether or not this has anything to do with their racing connotations, we’ll never know, but it’s highly improbable you’ll need a race map for the daily commute or a trip to Tescos.

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Of course, you still need the software and knowledge in order to flash an ECU. In recent times, especially in racing paddocks across the globe where ECU tampering is rife, there’s been an emergence of software that enables exploitation of OEM hardware. There are quite a few companies now offering the programming capabilities to crack ECUs, in varying degrees of execution.

A large percentage of tuning shops offering so-called ECU remapping aren’t actually remapping, instead replacing a standard map with a tweaked generic version – turning off warning/FI lights and exhaust flapper valves, removing speed limiters and correcting fuelling. The software is also used for diagnostics (checking cooling fans, tachos etc) but we know of some firms abusing the technology.

It’s still a very grey area, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Manufacturers spend years and big bucks developing ECUs, only for some inexperienced numpty, trying to earn a quick buck, go and mess with various fuel/ignition parameters – things can get dangerous.

The introduction of ride-by-wire and potentiometers sending a signal to the throttle bodies’ servomotor via the ECU, rather than a mechanical cable, has opened up a world of adjustability and rider aids, and official manufacturer software ‘updates’ are becoming more common.

It’s also made things slightly trickier to control. Put Yamaha R1s and R6s into 4th gear at 2,000rpm, open the throttle tube to 100%, the throttle bodies won’t reach 100% until 7,000rpm. In fact, most ride-by-wire models won’t allow a 1:1 connection until around that magical 7,000rpm, except for when a remapped ECU intervenes.

Unless you’re racing and that Magneti Marelli system isn’t financially viable, these inbuilt Gucci features of an ECU are unlikely to be of any tangible benefit. It’s still fascinating to know there’s an abundance of goodies in that little black box, and even more fascinating that manufacturers don’t want you know about it. The most cost effective (and safest) way to map your bike is still through a third-party fuelling module, and until ECU adjustment becomes less of a taboo subject, it’ll stay that way.

Thanks to JHS Racing for the technical input…

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