In racing no stone is left unturned. The bikes are tuned to perfection. Development takes place for months behind closed doors. Wind tunnels, fluid dynamic testing, analysis of data, and tyre modelling are all key components in getting the most out of the motorcycle. It’s a never-ending cycle of constant improvement with the goal of going ever faster.
The process of fine tuning the machine mechanically was always in stark contrast to that of the rider. For much of the sports history the partnership of man and machine has been talked about but while the bike is fine tuned the rider has largely been left to their own devices.
Training, nutrition, and mental preparation have been areas focused on by all teams for years but now they are starting to open their eyes to rider coaching. Over the last five years we have seen this area become increasingly important. When Valentino Rossi and Jonathan Rea both employ a coach it’s clear that even multiple World Champions can enjoy the benefits of another pair of eyes.
Improving the rider
In WorldSBK Yamaha have taken this a step further. By hiring Niccolo Canepa, the manufacturer's official test rider and a former Endurance World Champion, the manufacturer is doing what they can to help the rider to find improvements.
“I think that to achieve the best performances in racing now you have to take care of all of the little details,” explains Canepa. “The small details of the bike and the rider are very important and this type of analysis is very important to make a difference. Teams are now really trying to take care of the smaller details because all of the riders are super fast and super talented, so it’s difficult for the rider to make the difference.
“With my experience of knowing the bike so well it helps, and also I have a great relationship with the teams and crew chiefs. It means that when they make a change they ask me to check for the improvement they expect. I can give an opinion about the technical changes. For the riders I try and see if there’s an area they can improve - maybe it could be improving the tyre durability or finding an area where they can be a little safer - so I work with the team on the technical side and the rider from what I see track side.
“Sometimes it’s easier for me to explain it to the rider with the video. When we talk about a single corner where maybe the rider is a little wide on the exit, they are doing this for a reason, so I need to be able to understand this and explain to them how other riders are doing it. I think it’s a very effective way to improve.”
Video and data
Using video overlays comparing riders has been a useful tool to Canepa, but arguably the biggest insight comes from studying the data with the team. Being able to look at individual sections and corners on the track means that he then can use his footage to illustrate to the rider the improvements that can be found. Instead of relying on gut instincts of what looks right he has to demonstrate the reasons behind it. In racing there are no hidden secrets and all decisions are data driven.
“My process starts when I am at home before the races. I’ll analyse the previous year’s data and know the sector times and what we can expect from the Yamaha. I can analyse and see if there’s a sector that they struggled in last year and then use this as the first area I’ll focus on during the weekend. The level is so high this year, so you need to work really hard on all of the small details.
“Once I get to the track I’ll have the live timing open so I can see who is pushing hard or who is worth watching. From watching track side and knowing the bike I can see if there’s an area to improve. Sometimes I’ll use the video with a rider, but other times it might be easier to just tell them what I see. This job is about using my experience, analysing the data and then using the videos to help the rider to understand everything. It’s all about the details.”
While Canepa will work with the riders to explain what he sees he is also very involved behind the scenes. During the technical debriefs at the end of each day, when the rider has given their feedback and the team are trying to find an area of improvement, Canepa will be found with the engineers going through the data. His input can be very important at this point to bring a fresh set of eyes to the table.
“For many years I have worked as a test rider in addition to my racing. It has helped me to understand the technical side of racing, but also to understand the technical language for the engineers. It helped me a lot in my racing career and now I get to work with some of the best riders in the world and pick up some of the things that they are doing on the bike. It’s actually helped me a lot for my racing in endurance, because I am working with riders with a very high level of talent. I can see how talented they are, but they also really listen to me and want to get better for the next session or the next race, and that’s what makes this job great.
“Toprak [Razgatlioglu] is very strong in braking and it’s very impressive how he can stop the bike. Michael [van der Mark] is incredible in how he can find something in the race despite struggling in practice or qualifying. In a race he can always find something, and that’s an incredible mental strength. [Federico] Caricasulo is very talented, and we saw that in SSP last year and he’s improving race by race.
“With Garrett [Gerloff] he always wants to improve and his attitude is great. I think he’s very similar to Alex Lowes because they both want to focus on every single detail to improve. They always want another video or another conversation to improve and you can see that he is always working with his data engineer and his crew chief.”
Having riders that are open to new suggestions is incredibly important to unlocking their full potential. Gone are the days when a rider could throw their leg over a bike and be let loose. Now there’s a lot more to the process of riding and getting the most from themselves. After decades of fine tuning the process of developing a bike we’re now starting to the see the same happen on the human side of racing.
This is part of a series of articles published in partnership with RacingLowdown.com, run by MotoMatters.com contributor Steve English.
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