The music has stopped for the MotoGP riders, with all of them now having taken their seats for next year. That does not mean that contract season is over, however. We are in the middle of another migration, this time of crew chiefs and mechanics.
It all started with Jorge Lorenzo. The Movistar Yamaha rider's move to Ducati for next season left him needing a crew chief. Once his current crew chief Ramon Forcada made the decision to stay with Yamaha, and work with Maverick Viñales, who takes Lorenzo's place, that precipitated a search for someone to work with the Spaniard at Ducati.
It was a search which took some time, but which saw Cristian Gabarrini tempted back to Ducati. The quiet, reflective Italian had been set somewhat adrift after the retirement of Casey Stoner, with whom Gabarrini won MotoGP titles at Ducati and Honda. First, he acted as engineering advisor to Marc Márquez and his crew chief Santi Hernandez, but Márquez made it clear he wanted only to work with Hernandez. Then he was put in charge of Honda's Open Class project, and managing the bikes.
Gabarrini returned to a role as crew chief with Jack Miller, when the young Australian was catapulted directly into MotoGP from Moto3. That project has started to meet with some success, especially since Miller started to work with Alberto Puig, who has helped knock the Australian into shape. But the temptation of a shot winning another title has lured Gabarrini back to Ducati.
Gabarrini's departure leaves a vacancy alongside Jack Miller, and that vacancy looks like being filled by Ramon Aurin, currently Dani Pedrosa's crew chief. Though Pedrosa has worked with Aurin for many years now, the Spaniard having been the data engineer for Pedrosa, his promotion to crew chief has not worked as well as Pedrosa has hoped.
Filling Aurin's place did not turn out to be easy. Pedrosa had tried to persuade Juan Martinez to make a return as crew chief, but the Spaniard, who was formerly Nicky Hayden's crew chief at Ducati, turned him down. Martinez has a job with Spanish TV offering technical analysis and commentary, and has just become a father for the first time. He neither needed nor desired to take on a far more stressful existence which would see him away from home.
In the end, HRC managed to tempt Scott Redding's crew chief Giacomo Guidotti away from the Pramac team, to take on the role alongside Pedrosa. Pedrosa is said to have wanted to see Aurin remain with him and return to a role as data engineer, but Jack Miller's needs were judged to be more important.
It is not just the top level riders for whom crew chiefs are important. When Eugene Laverty decided to switch back to World Superbikes, he asked his long-time crew chief (and brother-in-law) Phil Marron to go with him. Marron is believed to have had options to remain in MotoGP, meaning that he had to make a choice. Given his close association with Laverty, it seems certain that Marron will choose to go with him to World Superbikes.
Even in Moto2 crew chiefs can be an issue. After winning the Moto3 world title last year, Danny Kent has struggled to find his feet in Moto2. In an attempt to fix his problems, he has decided to part ways with crew chief Peter Bom, the man who was such a big part of his championship last year.
A matter of trust, above all
In a way, Kent's decision to drop Peter Bom is illustrative of the entire, complex relationship between crew chief and rider. Bom is an experienced crew chief in Moto2 – he won a championship with Stefan Bradl back in 2011 – but Kent has lost faith in Bom's ability to fix his problems.
Is Danny Kent right? That is an impossible question to answer, and cuts to the heart of the issue. The rider-crew chief relationship is built on trust and communication. Without those two factors, the rest is almost irrelevant. Once a rider stops trusting their crew chief, they will never be fast, no matter what the crew chief does to the bike. A crew chief could provide their rider with the best bike in the world, or the worst bike in the world, and the rider would be just as slow on both.
HRC principal Livio Suppo agreed that when trust between a rider and a crew chief disappears, it never comes back. "I’ve never been a rider but I think when you think that there’s something that doesn’t work, even if he tells you the truth, something that is the right move, then the rider won't believe it."
Losing trust can be an issue even for a rider in the middle of the season. When he learned that his crew chief would be leaving to work with Pedrosa, Scott Redding was deeply disappointed. "Then your crew chief decides that he wants to go somewhere else. So again, it’s a different feeling," Redding said at Misano. "It’s different looking at someone knowing that they don’t want to be with you next year. So that’s the main thing. It’s not a distraction, more looking at someone in the eyes knowing they’re not going to be there next year."
Getting to know you
Just establishing that trust in the first place is difficult. When I interviewed Aleix Espargaro last year about how he worked with his crew chief Tom O'Kane, Espargaro described the first meeting he had with O'Kane as "like being on a first date." Rider and crew chief have to establish communication, and have to get along. They need to have some kind of chemistry. And unlike a first date, they don't really have a choice to decide not to go on a second date: in most cases, they are stuck with each other, for at least a year.
"I think it’s very, very important this kind of trust with each other," Livio Suppo said. "The rider feels a lot if the chief mechanic trust him, and vice versa." How they build that trust, and how that relationship develops, varies a lot from rider to rider. "For sure what is super important is that the rider trust [the chief mechanic]," Suppo said. "Some riders need a stronger chief mechanic. Some riders need a super technical and very able to explain details. So it’s very, very difficult to speak in general about these things. My experience is that sometimes it’s better to have a crew chief with less technical background but more human aptitude."
Matching crew chief to rider is something of an inexact science, Suppo explained. "Sometimes we are lucky. Sometimes it works really well, like between Gabarrini and Casey [Stoner]. He’s a pure engineer with Casey and empathy was good. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Not because the engineer was not good. The feeling, the chemistry between the two didn’t work."
Suppo gave the example of Christhian Pupulin, Nicky Hayden's crew chief when he first joined Ducati. "He [Pupulin] is a really intelligent guy. Filippo [Preziosi, then Ducati Corse boss] trust him a lot, but the chemistry between him and Nicky was not good. Then I was the one to speak with Filippo at the beginning of the season and after the winter test. I don’t remember exactly when, but Juan [Martinez] joined again the team, because with Juan the background is less [pure engineering, less technical] but his attitude and relationship with the rider is what Nicky needed."
The admission that technical ability is not the sole criteria by which crew chiefs are judged may come as a surprise to some. But all the technical ability in the world cannot overcome distrust between a rider and his crew chief, nor the lack of it break the trust built up over years. Sources with knowledge of the situation have intimated that HRC are not overly impressed with the technical level of Marc Márquez' crew chief Santi Hernandez, yet they were happy to let Hernandez take over from Cristian Gabarrini, whose technical expertise is beyond reproach. Márquez insisted on working with Hernandez, having built up a fantastic rapport with him over the years they have worked together.
When I asked Suppo about the decision to allow Márquez to choose Hernandez over Gabarrini, Suppo referred back to the issue of trust. "For Marc the relationship with Santi, he trust Santi more than anybody else in the world. So he wanted Santi even if he had no experience. He wanted to grow up together with Santi. Marc even if he was young has a strong character so he was able to convince Nakamoto-san to do it."
Márquez' devotion to his crew goes very far. The Repsol Honda rider eats his meals together with his crew, and when he is not talking to the media or has other obligations, he spends his time in the garage with his team. Up until last year, Márquez did not even have a motorhome, regarding it as a waste of money if he is never there. That only changed after the events of Sepang last year, when Márquez also dropped his business contacts with the Nieto family, who run the GP Rooms business, where riders sleep.
This is common among riders and teams. In Moto2 and Moto3, riders will often share a hotel room with their crew chief, giving them more time to bond. Team managers organize group events with the teams and riders, trying to build trust between the various members. This can sometimes be an awkward process: riders are often young men in the late teens and early twenties, and crew chiefs old enough to be their parents (or even grandparents, in some cases). But it is crucial nonetheless.
All in the mind
What all this comes down to is the fact that at heart, motorcycle racing is a sport which happens almost entirely between the rider's ears. It is a deeply mental sport, and the relationship with the crew chief is just as much a part of that mental aspect. Establishing and maintaining trust is vital, and honest and open communication between the two can help.
That does not mean that the crew chief always tells their riders the complete truth. A crew chief will still send a rider out on a bike that is unchanged, after telling them that they have changed it to help with the areas the rider reported struggling in. But that, too, requires trust: the crew chief has to understand how much of the problem is with the bike, and how much of the issue is between the rider's ears.
Being a crew chief in motorcycle racing means constantly having to juggle the feedback from the rider with the data from the datalogger. When it matches, they can be happy. When it doesn't match, they have to decide what needs to be massaged, the bike or the rider. If they get that wrong, the whole relationship can fall apart, and end any hope of being competitive.
Macho nonsense makes you slower
It is something of an unfair burden on the shoulders of the crew chief. The crew chief is often all too keenly aware of just how fragile the mind of the rider is, and can see in the data where the rider is coming up short, and failing to push. But the macho culture which surrounds riders means that they fear seeking any form of mental help, any methods of improving their performance. Where in other sports, it is standard operating procedure for athletes to get help from a sports psychologists, in motorcycle racing, that is seen as an admission of weakness.
The exception here is Jorge Lorenzo, surprisingly enough. Lorenzo has explored several avenues to make himself stronger, including yoga and krav maga. He tailors his physical workouts to MotoGP length, to develop the mental endurance as well as his physical fitness.
In a way, the dirt track racing of Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi serve a similar purpose. They hone the hunger for victory, the alertness, and the mental fortitude needed in racing, by developing it in the relative safety of dirt track racing. It is easier to develop the killer instinct when you are using it a couple of times a week against the people you are training with.
A happy marriage?
So many aspects, psychological and physical, go into succeeding as a motorcycle racer. A rider's crew chief is just one building block on the path to success. Sometimes, they feel that their crew chief has become more of a hindrance than a help. Once they lose that trust, the relationship is effectively over. Riders and crew chiefs are like married couples in many more ways than you might think.
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