Dani Pedrosa has been with his crew chief Mike Leitner for over ten years now, since Pedrosa's first season in the 250cc class in 2004. Pedrosa and Leitner have been a strong partnership, with the Austrian helping Pedrosa win two world championships and 41 victories in the two classes they have been together.
The arrival of Marc Marquez into MotoGP has had a profound impact both inside and outside the Repsol Honda team. Marquez' natural speed has forced Pedrosa and his crew to rethink their approach to the races, to try to match the pace of Pedrosa's young teammate. At the beginning of the season, Pedrosa complained a number of times that he felt the revised strategy taken by Leitner was not working as hoped, and that had left him unable to compete.
Though Pedrosa's competitiveness has improved, the Spaniard being the first person to beat his teammate with victory at Brno, it has still left tension in Pedrosa's garage. Rumors are circulating that Pedrosa would like to drop Leitner and change his crew chief.
Intrigued by the question of what exactly had changed in Pedrosa's race strategy, we spoke to his crew chief Mike Leitner. The resulting conversation gave a fascinating insight into race strategy, and how teams approach each MotoGP race. Leitner talks about how Pedrosa was the first rider to realize that pushing hard from the earliest laps could be a profitable strategy, and how other riders have now followed his lead. He talks about the potential and the dangers of the Bridgestone tires, and how crucial the starts have become in MotoGP.
Leitner also talks about how the extra soft tire the Ducatis have has complicated the first part of each MotoGP race. He went on to link this to the rubber left on the track by the Moto2 race, and how that changes during the race, and can affect strategy.
What Leitner does not talk about is the possibility that Pedrosa could decide to look for a new crew chief for 2015 and beyond. It was a question I would have liked to have asked, but I was told that the topic was officially off limits, including tangential questions (such as how Leitner felt the crew chief change had worked out for Valentino Rossi). Despite not being able to ask directly about that question, the interview with Leitner provided a fascinating insight into MotoGP racing.
MotoMatters.com: All this year, Dani has been talking about the change in race strategy, and that he wasn't happy with it, that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't work. In previous years, he was so fast at the start of the race but not so fast towards the end. Dani told us you changed strategy to allow him to be faster at the end of the race. Can you explain what the idea was and give an idea of what you changed?
Mike Leitner: We worked on some different ideas of chassis settings, suspension, and the normal things, mapping of the bike, these kind of things. I cannot tell you the details. At the beginning of the year, we made quite big steps, and now we become more to a point where we say, let's more or less go that way.
MM: Why did you make the changes?
ML: If you have to go faster and you get to a limit, of course you have to change things. This is the only reason.
MM: And the limit you were finding was at the end of the race?
ML: Just in general. The lap times were getting faster, and Marc is very fast, and Dani always wants to be better. So let's say, if the things you are riding now are not enough, you have the feeling you must think in different ideas.
That's what actually happened, but this started already in the winter tests. We worked on that.
MM: So it wasn't specifically to be stronger in the second half of the race, just to be faster all round?
ML: It was to improve the performance in general, from the beginning to the end. Sure, sometimes you have races where you are a little weaker at the end, and sometimes you have races you are weaker at the beginning. So we tried to lift both sides.
MM: Dani was always fastest off the line, and often first into the first corner.
ML: Yes, but one thing is clear, many people have been watching that. And they react. This is clear. For example, last year Jorge made a big step on that. He was super fast at the beginning. Then when he had the crash at Doha this year, he went one step back, because it's not so easy to do it. And now, these riders are all prepared to push hard from the beginning on, right from the start. I don't think we made a step back, I think we stayed where we are. We just improved a little, because we were already at the limit, but the others also made a step.
MM: Basically, Dani had the advantage and now everyone has caught up?
ML: Yes, yes. He was really one of the first riders who saw how important the start was, so he already started to do it. Then of course, when you are another rider, you think how can I do the same? Then you start to work on that.
MM: How important is bike set up to Dani's idea to get away fast from the start? How much does it determine the set up?
ML: Sure, it's a complete combination. It starts on the gear ratio, the clutch setting, the mapping … it's a big package, you know? And sometimes you have to suffer something in the race to let you do that. But it's lucky we are not cars! If you can go a rhythm, and keep your lap time constant, you don't have to win every start. But it makes things easier, you can stay out of traffic, take less risk, this kind of thing.
MM: Do the Bridgestone tires allow this specifically, because they can warm up quickly if you push them very hard?
ML: Yes, but this is a long process. This is not recent. Something a rider really has to work on.
MM: Because it's also a mental thing?
ML: Yes. For example, when we moved from Michelin to Bridgestone, one of big learning moments he had in Phillip Island when he crashed [at the Southern Loop on the first lap – MM]. So he didn't know the tires in that way, and in that moment to learn, learn learn. But also the others are looking for the same advantage.
Anyway now, it's very difficult, with this different situation in qualifying. With the different tires that Ducati get, the softer tires, they can do something extra. Let's say if you are not 100% spot on, you can end up two tenths behind them, like in Brno. And then suddenly, you are two bikes behind on the starting grid, where on race pace, they won't be there. But into the first corner, they are there, so this is tricky.
MM: The softer tire for the Ducati has made the starts much more difficult?
ML: Yes of course. If you are behind, it's not so easy to overtake them. They have the advantage in the first laps of very good grip, and the engine is strong, as we know. So for the riders, they have to take really extra risks if you cannot get in front of them in qualifying. Marc managed, but Lorenzo was not there, Valentino was not there, Dani was not there. Bradley did perfect in Brno, he did his lap on the same tires ...
MM: And he still ends up behind the two Ducatis …
ML: Yes, so this makes things quite tricky for the starting position.
MM: To an extent it's good that Marc is bad at starts …
ML: I would not say bad at starts, maybe his starts are not his strongest point, but some starts he did brilliantly. I mean, a start, you need luck also, especially when you are on the second row. You cannot plan everything. The hole has to open in front of you, if you are unlucky, you have to close the throttle, otherwise you crash into another bike. If people start changing lines, there's nothing you can do, it's really bizarre.
MM: Could you plan those starts? When you say, there are some riders who change lines, are there some riders whose lines are predictable?
ML: It's always a chain reaction, I think. The first guy is doing this, the second guy is doing this, and suddenly you are in the mix and things happen. I think you need super reactions, and you really have to take care not to make a mistake.
MM: We talked about the Bridgestone tires and how they get up to temperature if you push them. To turn to the end of the race, are they as good at the end of the race, as they are at the start?
ML: Of course not. No tire is as good at the end of the race.
MM: No, but maybe two or three years ago, you would see the fastest lap of the race set on the 25th or 27th lap...
ML: This happened sometimes this year also, but I mean, this depends on more factors. The bikes get lighter, they have less fuel, and maybe you push harder because you are fighting for this position, but in general a tire always goes down at the end of the race. But it depends which compound they are bringing, which track temperature they will have, depends on the weather. Many times also the track changes quite a lot after the Moto2 race.
MM: Interesting. I asked Guy Coulon about the track changing after the Moto2 race. All the riders say the rubber makes the track totally different. Coulon said, he doesn't think it's Moto2, it's the change in temperature, it's a different day …
ML: No, I don't agree with that. Because it's not so bad sometimes in qualifying, or FP4, and there always Moto2 is after us. And actually, all the weekend, the Moto2 is after our session. And the race is always the first time the Moto2 is before us. And it's not on each track the same. I have the feeling some asphalt can adapt to it, and it's not so much, but on others, it's bad.
Also, if you listen to rider comments, he will tell you the first ten laps, it was terrible, and suddenly, bam, the grip comes back.
MM: Because you've cleaned the track ...
ML: Yes, and if one rider tells you that, then OK. But if suddenly eight or ten riders have the same comments, then there's something going on.
MM: One more thing about tires. Michelin come in 2016. Do you have any expectations of Michelin? Have you started thinking about 2016, how it might affect the bike and the set up?
ML: Now the manufacturers start the testing with the test riders, but this is the first process. For us as the racing team, we only know that it will be a 17-inch wheel again. I have no idea at all how the tire will be, because I also think we will start with a lot of different tires, and then we will decide from this.
MM: What difference will a 17-inch wheel make?
ML: Of course, normally the handling of the bike is a little more heavy on bigger wheels. But I don't know right now which tire they will use, they could use a lower tire, but I don't know. I really don't know. I don't have any idea how the new tire will be, if the outside diameter will change, anything.
MM: Do you expect them to maybe have the same feeling as the Michelins from 2008, the last year they were in MotoGP?
ML: I don't know. I really have no idea. Because the only thing, and I don't know this, I just hear it and also read it, Michelin want to have the same dimension because they have it on the street bikes. So they want to race with the same kind of profiles like they sell. But really, it's too early.
MM: So you will only really start to think about them when you get to test them for the first time at Sepang...
ML: Of course, the first time we test them, it will be the first time we will actually see the tire!