Casey Stoner has made a return to the paddock. He turned up at the Algarve round of MotoGP for a number of media appointments, which included a press conference in which he discussed several fascinating subjects at length. Although I will be posting the entire transcript at a later date, I want to highlight one or two of his statements to discuss.
Despite the fact that he hated talking to the media – we did not help him go any faster, so we were wasting his time – Stoner was always one of the best people to ask about technical aspects of riding, or machinery. He had both a deep understanding of bikes and riding, and the eloquence and clarity of thought to be able to explain it deeply. It helped that English is his first language, of course (at least for those of us with the same mother tongue).
So it is worth highlighting some of the things Stoner talked about, and examining it a little closer. First up is something he said about adapting to the bike, rather than adapting the bike to you. He was asked why it was so difficult for MotoGP riders to switch bikes. Jorge Lorenzo took a year and a half to adapt to the Ducati after he left Yamaha, and Andrea Dovizioso is finding it similarly challenging aboard the Yamaha, after so many years on the Ducati.
The Australian started off with a proviso: "I’m not inside that person or their mind or anything like that." But went on to explain the way he saw things. "Everybody has their way and their system of getting to grips with things. Lots of people like to do lots of laps and get their feeling. They want this feeling to sort of come to them."
Working with the bike
Stoner approached it differently. He knew that the feeling would not come to him, so he set about working out what the bike needed from him, to go from merely fast to genuinely competitive. "I knew until the last kind of half a second, I knew how to go that quickly on almost any bike," he said. "I know if I brake there, get it to that point, I can do everything with relative ease. Let’s say, maybe the last second. You can sort of get it to that point quite easily. Then it’s just the fine tuning and trying to understand what you need to change in yourself."
The biggest thing for Stoner was adapting to the bike, rather than adapting the bike to him. "I think the biggest thing that I did that maybe others don’t is I’m more happy to adapt. There’s lots of riders out there that go, the bike doesn’t suit me, doesn’t suit my style, doesn’t do what I want. Well, either you get it to do what you want or you do what it wants."
The secret was to try to understand and exploit the strength of the bike. "There’s always positives in every bike out there. They all ride differently. They all have strengths and weakness. It’s all about compromise on your setup. It’s compromise on how you want the bike verses how it wants to be ridden. There’s all kinds of things. There’s a lot of elements to it that makes it difficult to adapt to."
Follow the bike
For Stoner, he saw it as having the humility to accept that the bike was the leading element in the partnership, and it was up to the rider to extract the bike's potential, rather than the engineers' responsibility to make the bike work for the rider. "For me, the biggest thing was I didn't have pride in the fact that I wanted everything to work for me. I was always willing to work with the bike and try and figure out what it wants. My engineer was very, very good. I was always very happy with Cristian [Gabarrini]. He was good to work with like that."
This is something you see most clearly when riders move between classes. Especially when they go from Moto3 to Moto2, which remains the biggest jump in grand prix racing, going from a small, low-powered bike where corner speed and slipstreaming is all that matters, to a bike with twice the weight and power, with much fatter tires, and with the torque to get drive out of corners. Stopping the bike is totally different, corner entry is different, corner speed is different, corner exit is totally different.
Even the approach to practice and qualifying is different. In Moto3, you can get a long way just by cruising around looking for a tow. In Moto2 and MotoGP, the key to going fast is spending time out on track riding alone. Only that way do you understand what the tires do, how to carry your own speed, rather than trying to steal it from your rivals' slipstream. Sure, you can follow a rider to figure out lines, but there is nothing to be gained from spending all your time looking for a tow.
There are plenty of examples of successful transitions, of riders who have adapted quickly from one class to the next. Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez were quickly winning races after moving between classes, either from 125 to 250, 250 to MotoGP in the case of Rossi, or 125 to Moto2, Moto2 to MotoGP for Marquez. But Joan Mir won a Moto2 race in his sole season in Moto2, after winning the Moto3 crown.
Fabio Quartararo spoke in the championship press conference of the change he made in Moto2, the moment he realized the bike was not going to come to him. "The toughest moment for me was when I was in 2016 and 2017, and also a key point that really woke me up was in Argentina," the Frenchman said looking back on his time in Moto2. "The thing is when I was qualifying on P28, I was close to the safety car. I think this moment is the moment where I just say, wake up. I was starting close to the safety car. I was scared that maybe he can overtake me too."
That was the point where he new he had to adapt to the bike, Quartararo said. "But it was a moment where we said, okay, my riding style is totally not working on Moto2, so I will totally change. We talked with the team. I said, okay, guys. Maybe the next two races I will finish really bad, but I need to change something. Since that moment, we finish all the races, all in the top ten apart from Brno. From that moment, we made a big, big step and I won in Barcelona, Assen podium, and it took me to the seat of MotoGP."
That lesson, that you have to adapt to the bike, is what brought Fabio Quartararo the 2021 MotoGP title. The man who stood in his way underwent a similar process. After two mediocre season where he fought with the bike, a change was needed. 2020, especially, was an eye opener: when the weather was warm, Bagnaia was fast, but when it was cold, he struggled badly.
Bagnaia spent the winter training hard to work on that. He changed his style, changed his approach to riding, to force heat into the tires right from the start, whatever the weather. That paid off this season, with three wins, five other podiums, five pole positions, and a real run at the championship.
Sleeping with the enemy
While Stoner raced two of the most important motorcycles in MotoGP, the Australian did have one bike he would have liked to try, and the reasons he gave for wanting to try it were fascinating."I’d probably have to say the Yamaha, just because it was my biggest competition through all my career," Stoner told the press conference. "Doesn’t matter what bike I rode. It was always the most difficult one to beat."
What Stoner wanted to know was why it had been so difficult to beat. "It would just be interesting to know more what I saw from racing with it versus how it actually felt, the feel versus real, kind of thing. So, I suppose the Yamaha would be the most interesting for me just to get an understanding of if it was possible to ride it differently than how my competitors rode it, or if you had to ride it as they did. It would be very interesting."
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