To get the inside scoop about the new, adjustable Pilot TS ski that comes standard on 2016 Ski-Doo MX Z Blizzard, Renegade Enduro and Grand Touring SE models, we sat down with Ski-Doo project manager Claude Trahan for a Q&A about the new technology. The engineer walked us through the genesis of the idea and the challenges the design team had along the way, he addressed concerns about wear and durability and, more than anything, he offered insight in what’s involved in bringing an idea like this to market. For the complete story about new technology on 2016 snowmobiles, pick up the October 2015 issue of Snow Goer magazine.
To see other Q&A interviews that led to new 2016 technology, search “Tech 2016” on the SnowGoer.com site.
SNOW GOER: Let’s start at the beginning: How long has the idea of an adjustable runner better under consideration at BRP?
Claude Trahan: This one is quite easy, because it’s been awhile that we’ve been discussing an increase in the aggressivity of the Pilot 5.7. Because, as you know, we have a very good ski for trail riding but as soon as you have a few loose inches of snow it starts to have some under steer – you know, pushing in the corners. Some customers were complaining. The first guy who came with a kind of an idea was [BRP CEO] Jose Boisjoli. He brought a sketch of this kind of ski, this kind of idea, and he has a patent on it. The first type of the Pilot TS ski, the first patent that we have is Jose Boisjoli’s, it has his name on it.
SG: And that was when?
Trahan: That was about five years ago, that he came with the sketches. The first prototype that he drew featured a kind of a blade, the same kind as the Pilot TS, but the pivoting point was toward the front of the ski. There was only one point, and it was going downward at the rear of the ski. That was the idea behind the sketches.
SG: So, to make sure I’ve got it right, the adjustable runner dropped down deeper only at the back of the ski?
Trahan: Yes, at the back. So you had a pivot point attached to the front of the ski, for example, and after that you had the mechanism for the adjustment at the back of the ski. So the blade was going at an angle, but it was increasing in depth [at the back] so you could get more aggressiveness from the ski. He came with the sketches, and we had one guy working on that kind of idea for one and a half or two years to make it work before we had a real method to develop ski adjustability.
SG: Obviously you don’t get much higher on the corporate ladder than Jose Boisjoli – does he bring ideas often to engineering.
Trahan: You know, very often. Jose is a very good rider, he is a tough rider, his speed is quite fast and he likes to push the vehicle to its limits. I am always impressed with how many miles he puts on a snowmobile each year with the job he has. But he is always bringing ideas and always challenging us to do better and better.
SG: So the gentleman who was working on it for the first couple of years to get it to the point where you can start testing it, what type of different iterations did he try? Were you going taller, shorter, more toward the front, more toward the rear, deeper, wider, thicker, etc.? Tell me about that process.
Trahan: Exactly. The problem we had with the first prototype, what we were trying to do was increase the aggressiveness of the ski but we didn’t want to increase the steering input and increase the darting. Those were the three pillars of the concept – if we were to increase the aggressiveness, we needed to minimize or keep the same steering effort and reduce the darting by itself. With many of the skis you have in the aftermarket, they are very aggressive but as soon as you increase the aggressiveness they dart like hell, and the steering effort goes up. And that first prototype, that’s exactly what happened. The aggressiveness was there, but the steering effort was too much. It was due to the location that was a little bit too much behind the ski bolt. So, it took a lot of time to figure out how to make it work, and when we are talking about making it work, we need to think about all kinds of snow that we have. You know, it could be very hard, almost like a hard surface, you could have wet snow, you could have powder snow. Any kind of snow condition, the ski must work. So about three years ago we had a mandate to make it work. After about one year, this is where I came in and started as the project manager, in 2012. We tried a different kind of pivot point, a different kind of setup, we were trying to reduce the steering effort and the darting. So we moved it around a little bit, we found out the idea was very good, we liked the concept but we needed to find a way to make it work. We had a new guy, his name was Felix Antoine Laurence, and Pascal Gagnon, one of our suspension engineers working on this. We came to the conclusion that if we wanted to do something, it would be almost impossible to reduce the steering effort or minimize it with an angled blade. We would need to come with a parallel blade [dropping equally front and rear] coming out of the ski. This is where we started with the new concept. We had so many brainstorms with that kind of vision before we arrived with the last version, what we put into production, we had a lot of ideas. One used a chain with rollers, any kind of idea that you could have about how we could have a blade going down parallel to the bottom surface of the ski. That was our challenge.
SG: You said a chain? Like a little bicycle chain or something?
Trahan: We had a kind with two pivot points, at the front of the ski and the rear of the ski, with two gears, and we joined them with a chain, and you had a kind of a handle you had to unwind and the blade would go down, with a kind of a cover over it. Ooof. It was an idea, OK? The thing is, when you design something, sometimes the first idea is not the best execution, but as soon as you have a concept that is working – and this is exactly what happened – as soon as we tried it we knew we had something. It’s easier. Now we had to optimize the weight and the costs, the design, the reliability, you know, all of these design parameters. Sometimes an idea is quite simple, and we will have two or three weeks building the prototype, but to bring it to production takes two years. Because you need to validate, the durability, in any kind of condition, any kind of snow. You need to think about the FPS – the functionality. You need to consider everything that could happen on the trail.
SG: Your final design has that blade moving up and down a total of a half-inch. Did you try 1 inch? 2 inches? How did you end up at this final spec?
Trahan: We went a lot more than a half inch. We went up to 1 inch. For sure it was a good design, it was very aggressive, but we wanted to make sure it works for every for any kind of rider with confidence.Sometimes when you are developing an aggressive ski, you need to make sure that when you drive the vehicle that you’ll be able to feel the vehicle. This is one of the biggest problems you can have, when you don’t feel the vehicle due to the aggressivity – that it will tip over [or highside] so fast that you will not be able to react. This is why we took the decision in the end that a half inch is exactly what we want. It makes it equivalent to our racing skis when it’s at the No. 5 position, and that was enough so that we could still have acceptable steering effort, with good aggressivity, and predictable, and with less darting.
SG: We’ve seen one Canadian-based company produce a blade type runner – did you work with that company? And how important have having a blade versus a standard host runner bar to the effectiveness of this design?
Trahan: First of all we did not work with anybody, the concept is BRP’s, we didn’t work with anyone other than Woody’s to manufacture the carbide and the blade. The concept was clear, that you could increase the aggressiveness with the blade. The usual, half-inch rod was too wide. So we came with a blade at the beginning and kept it like that.
SG: So why exactly was the blade important?
Trahan: The blade gives a side surface for turning in soft snow. The other thing we found with the darting was, with the shape of the keel, when the runner is round, it is very difficult when you are in a track [cut by a previous ski] it is very hard to get out. The blade will allow you to turn a little bit to get out of the track and reduce the darting. Another thing is fuel economy. We try to reduce the contact surface, that’s another reason why the ski’s keel is square compared to round is to reduce the total amount of ski surface when you are on top of the snow. It was a combination of factors.
SG: What would you say to people who are skeptical of a blade? I’ve heard of people calling it a pizza cutter and doubting whether it works. Were there any internal doubts when developing it?
Trahan: The internal doubt that we had is what kind of mechanism we could develop to have a parallel blade coming out with the minimum number of parts, because we know that the ski is ridden very hard. That was the toughest part. The other thing was how we’d be able to make a notch in the ski and make sure you minimize the snow getting in and getting stuck and, if you drive through dirt or grass – you never know what you’re going to hit – that the mechanism will work. That was our toughest part at the beginning. More on the execution than whether it would work or not, because we had proven it internally to ourselves early in the process.
SG: In terms of durability, does the carbide wear out first? How do those two products wear, the carbide insert vs. the blade?
Trahan: It is very similar to what we have right now. If anything, it’s maybe a bit stronger than what we have because the process is critical. We increased the carbide size but it is as strong as what we have right now. The toughest part for a customer to understand, when you are on a trail or you hit something, that’s not the problem, because the carbide will take it. It’s when you go to a gas station, for example, what is very critical for the carbide is heat and speed. If you maintain a slower speed, everything will be OK, but if you drive too fast on the asphalt, you will increase the heat on the blade, and this is where you’re going to damage the carbide. That goes exactly the same for the old type, but sometimes the customers don’t knowthat. That’s why I tell them, just go slow and everything will be OK. The carbide is so strong and durable that the asphalt will take all of the wear.
SG: Are there any trade-offs or compromises made when going from a host bar to a blade?
Trahan: When you are on the asphalt, and on one side you have the dirt and the gravel, that may be the worst place to go. Some people think, if they go there, they will minimize their carbide wear. The problem that can occur with the blade design that we have is, the dirt will get inside the blade and after that your ski surface that will be beat up, because you don’t have any [runner] surface that will hold you out of the dirt. The problem is you could damage or sand the bottom of the ski. You’d be better off to stay on the asphalt than to go in the grass or the dirt. Sometimes it’s hard for consumers to understand that. They think they’re better off going into the grass.
SG: If a person typically wears out a set of carbides in 750 miles, for example, will they get roughly the same on these?
Trahan: Yes. It is really dependent on where you ride and how you ride. If we have snow, there are no problems at all. What damages the carbide is heat on the dry surface.
SG: Explain the stock setting with carbide versus other options that are available. We know there is carbide along the whole bottom of the carbide, but not all of it is cutting carbide.
Trahan: It’s just a question of the aggressiveness and the steering effort. Four inches [of carbide] is what we decided [to put on stock] in order to arrive at the aggressiveness and about the same steering effort we had with the Pilot 5.7, but as you know we have an option with [Ski-Doo’s parts division] that offers 7 inches. You just need to change the blade and you will be able to change the ski aggressiveness. In front of and behind the steering carbide is flat carbide. So with the flat, we want to make sure we have a lot of carbide to protect the blade. That is why we put it almost all the way under. It was not the intention to have [cutting] carbide on the whole underside. You have the cutting section, and the rest is for durability.
SG: We’ve seen and heard some consumers speculate about whether the blade will cause more or less damage to their garage floor or their trailer ramp and deck. Have you done testing in that area?
Trahan: It’s going to be the same as what they [previously] had. If you have the floor painted and your drive your sled on it, you will have a line, you know, the carbide is very hard, and for sure the paint will go away. But it is exactly what we have now with any type of ski. The only thing that we would recommend is that, if you normally drive at No. 5, the most aggressive setting, that you reduce that before you drive into the trailer, for example. But it’s exactly what we have – it’s no difference.
SG: Did you do anything different to the keel of the ski to work with this new blade?
Trahan: The thing that we found and it was a part of the test because we did a lot of changes on the keel to try to reduce darting – for sure the blade itself is helping but the keel by itself is too. The new design is more square in shape. We had what we called a boat shape, it was more of a triangular (keel), with the square shape that we have, it helps with the darting. In combination with the blade, it helps to make sure that when you are in [somebody else’s] track that you are able to get rid of or reduce the darting. It was more a question of the darting with the new shape than to make sure it was working with the blade. With the Pilot 5.7 we always found it with good aggressiveness, with good performance in trail riding in any kind of condition. When you look at the design of one versus the other one, it is quite similar. It’s part of the DNA of Ski-Doo, when we are talking about overall driving experience.
SG: As far as the positioning of the controlling knob, what did you have to consider when making sure that thing stayed parallel?
Trahan: We had some targets for what we wanted to achieve. First of all, we wanted to have the pushing point exactly in the middle of the ski. Another thing is that we wanted to make sure we pushed very near the ski bolt axis. So when you are doing that, of course, the steering will be equivalent on both sides of the bolt [front and rear]. So that was another thing that was very important. That was maybe the toughest point of the design – how you could be sure that you reach the center of the bolt axis when you have your ski leg there.
SG: So you want to be sure that you’re pushing down at the center of the ski, directly below the spindle, and the rest will follow?
Trahan: Yes, because you are exactly in the center, so that makes you push on the center, which means it will be equivalent on both sides of that ski bolt – front and rear. The other thing that we did not want is that, if you do not push exactly underneath your ski bolt it means that on one side or the other side of the ski the blade will come out a little more, and that will change a little bit the predictability of your ski. That’s why you see a different spindle this year – so the bolt can access that and it can move directly downward from that point. Another thing that was very tough was how we could have an adjustment without tools. In the beginning, we came up with some ideas [where you had to use] a ratchet or some other tools, but you needed something from your garage. We challenged our engineers [to design a solution] so we didn’t need any tools. After discussion, we had a bearing inside the mechanism reducing the friction so that, just by turning the handle, you were able to lift the vehicle. Because that’s exactly what you are doing – if you are moving the blade downward, you are lifting at the ski, which is almost a quarter of the total weight of the vehicle. Sometimes with a good customer or a good driver will be able to find the difference between a half turn or a turn, or a quarter turn, because it makes a huge difference at the end. But when we designed it, what we wanted to achieve was that at position two, for example, we have the same level of aggressiveness that we had on our Pilot 5.7 on [recently] groomed trail conditions. So we have more aggressiveness on the Pilot TS vs. the Pilot 5.7, but we know that some customers sometimes prefer to have less aggressiveness because they don’t care if it has some under steer, they don’t want to have any kind of ski lift. On the Grand Touring or Touring ski, for instance, they never want to have any ski lift, so that’s why we have a low position – position one. And for a very aggressive driver, they could turn it up to a 5 and that would make a sure difference – when you turn [the handlebars] you turn. And the other thing is that it is dependent on the snow conditions – and this is very important – one of the weakest points we have with our Pilot 5.7 is, when you have about 6 inches of brand new fresh snow, where with the Pilot TS, you just increase the blade and it will help you turn because you’re increasing the keel or side surface and it makes a huge difference.
SG: One of our writers, when he first saw it, his largest concern was how exposed that big knob is – that it might be damaged when backcountry riding by hitting a stump or branch or something. Have there been many instances where these things get crunched from hitting something, or if you break that know off do you have bigger problems – because other front suspension components would be gone at that point as well?
Trahan: We’ve hit a couple of times different things, but we never, ever had any problems with durability of that knob. If you hit something that is so bad, you will bend the front arm or something else. The mechanism itself is protected by the ski. It will hit the handle of the ski first, the ski will pivot and it will protect the mechanism. It is almost impossible to hit that mechanism. It is also very big and very strong, and it has never had any problems. Not with that part.
SG: Similarly, being at your front contact point, one concern would be getting sand or gravel or ice into the mechanism. Is there an expected life of that mechanism?
Trahan: Right now, we have many years that we are testing it and we never had to add grease or anything. If you’re a person that has their vehicle sitting outside all summer, you may have some rusty parts, you may need to protect that, just like any parts on the vehicle. But as for the maintenance, there is no maintenance required that is specific to that thing.
SG: In your own words, describe when you want it at each position.
Trahan: Position 1, I would use it for very setup snow or when 2-up riding, you know, where you want to make sure your ski always feels the bottom and you are in control of the vehicle. More on the touring side, or even on the ice, where you would not need to increase your blade out. I will tell that these are the two conditions where you would not need to turn it out – very icy surface or the touring side, and again it all depends on the driver. Position 2 is more on the groomed trail. Position 2 or 3, the ski is aggressive with good predictability and it is not too tippy, and it is always with the driver ability. I will always recommend that you start lower and the more and more confident that you get you can go higher with the aggressiveness of the ski. That’s something that is important that sometime when you have five or six different people trying the machine – get used to it and make sure that everything is under control and you know exactly what you are doing with the machine before increasing your speed. And, with powder snow, increase your blade depending on how you want to have it. On a groomed trail, if you are a very sporty rider, you may want it on a 4 or 5, and when on powder snow. It also depends on how much load you put on the ski and the front suspension adjustment, too. I’m talking about the front suspension and also the rear suspension and the ski lift and the transition. A lot of people like to have a good transition, some like to have the ski [suspension] bottom, so for sure you will need less blade out compared to the one that wants to have more weight transfer. If you adjust the back of your suspension to positions 1, 2 or 3, that will make a difference.
SG: What is the weight of the system, per ski?
Trahan: About 4.5 pound more than compared to another ski. So the amount is about 9 pounds for the two skis.
SG: Coming directly from the factory, if I get an MX Z Blizzard that comes from the factory with the Pilot TS, and my neighbor gets an X without it, will our suspensions settings be different to accommodate for the different skis?
Trahan: It will be the same. There will be no difference if you take the Pilot 5.7 versus the TS.
SG: My last question is a chance to let you sell it to our readers: From your perspective, what is the best part of this system – what advantage does this give riders?
Trahan: The ski is so dependent on the snow conditions. Sometimes you never know what you are going to hit or how you’re going to feel. It gives you the advantage that you can adjust your front aggressiveness the way you want to make sure that the vehicle is turning. This is probably the biggest advantage. Sometimes you don’t know why it’s pushing in the corners, and it under steers. With this you would be able to adjust it to make it exactly the way you want, as you are driving that day. I think this is the biggest advantage. When you think about it, if the sled is pushing in the turns now with a fixed carbide, where you can’t adjust it, you have a choice to fix it and that’s to adjust the suspension. But if you like the way your suspension is working but your front end just isn’t gripping really well, you now have the chance to leave the suspension alone and just adjust front end for more bite.