Santi Hernandez On Marc Marquez, Part 1: On Strategy, Taking Risks, And Learning From Mistakes

Motorcycle racing is a team sport. Even when exceptional talents come along, they need help to succeed, from mechanics, from crew chiefs, from the people around them. Freddie Spencer had Erv Kanemoto, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi had Jeremy Burgess, Casey Stoner had Cristian Gabarrini. And now, Marc Márquez has Santi Hernandez.

The Spaniard has been with Márquez since he moved up to the Moto2 class in 2011. Since then, he has been Márquez' crew chief for the Monlau Repsol team, and the Repsol Honda team in MotoGP. In their eight years together, the pair have won six of Márquez' seven Grand Prix titles, proving the success of the partnership.

But Hernandez is not just a vital part of the engineering side of Márquez' success, he has also been instrumental in the other ways in which the reigning world champion has changed the face of racing. Márquez and his crew are renowned for understanding strategy better than anyone else in the paddock. It was Márquez who first went for a two-stop strategy during qualifying. It was Márquez who gambled on coming in early when the track was drying at Brno in 2017, going on to win by 12 seconds. It is Márquez who finds advantages in places other riders and their teams fear to look.

Santi Hernandez is a key part of that decision making. I sat down with Marc Márquez' crew chief in Austin, to talk about how they identify and choose new strategies, why they can afford to gamble, and what happens when it goes wrong. In the second part of this interview, published on Saturday, we go on to discuss what makes Marc Márquez such a special rider, and how he manages himself under such extreme pressure.

Q: I want to talk to you about strategy. Marc is an amazing rider, but it's more than just that. He also has people around him who come up with different strategies and different approaches. You were the first team to do two bike swaps in fifteen minutes of qualifying. You also do the strategy is races differently as well. I think maybe in Australia in 2013 you had a different strategy in mind to others, which didn't work out. First of all, who thinks about this strategy? Is it you? Is it you and Emilio [Alzamora]? Is it Marc?

Santi Hernandez: Basically like you say, if we are talking about the flag-to-flag race in Australia, it was me and Marc, because at that time in that team we were just Marc and me, because the other mechanics came afterward. We learned a lot from that race. For me, the bad result is the most important because it's where you can learn more. The positive result is for enjoyment, but the negative is for learning. It's where you learn more. Sometimes it's like in life. Someone has to give to you a big punch to learn, but it's the right way.

Then about the strategy, we think about everything. Like you say, we were the first team to use both bikes, the first team using three tires in the quali, many things. But always with Marc he's giving more than 100% on the track. Also he has improved his riding style. Like a team, we have to do the same. Of course we think about everything with the mechanics, me, with Marc.

Of course if I say I'm the only one who decides because I'm the best, I'm the one to make the strategy, you know I will be not telling you the truth. It's like I have no respect for my team, because my team, we have big meetings many times and everybody can say what he thinks. This is the good point. In the end, talking is where the ideas come. Sometimes someone says, why we don't do this? This is crazy. But why is it crazy? You start to think, maybe it's not crazy but if you do this and this… Then after we say, we think about that. What do you think? Sometimes we do what we thought. Sometimes the opposite. Marc comes with a crazy idea. "I want to do that. What do you think?" But it's all part of the team. This is not only one person. I'm wrong if I say the strategy is only me. It's a group process.

Q: Is it the whole team, all the mechanics, all of the engineers? Is it a small group – you, Emilio, maybe a couple of other people?

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You can find part 2 of this interview here.

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(Sounding like the interview was before the race). Thanks David. Looking fwd to the next part, and I am still pondering Marc's over the limit style and the race mistake. Will he reel things in a tad? Are bike mechanicals behind them? The garage certainly has been innovative. The culture in there is as good as it gets. It doesnt hurt that they are winning of course. Being all Spaniards may help cohesion? Yamaha could do well to pay attention to the culture and dynamics.

As I read this, an opposite comes to mind. Ben Spies and crew chief Tom Houseworth. They put a bubble around the two of them, and pushed their strategy through any outside influences. Even bringing their old AMA data/electronics guy in against the wish of Yamaha staff. It was insular. Echo chamber amongst a few Americans. It had worked with a R1 Superbike, but transposing that to MotoGP and forcing it? That may have been the "Spies ghost."

The Suzuki MotoGP team has a similar "family in the round" model. Not just the garage either, it extends further. Looks good from here, eh? What do you think, Yamaha? Could you cultivate more of this?

there used to be bike #1, "the good bike". Then there was the backup bike, which was clearly #2, and only to be used in case of emergency, when bike#1 wasn't available.

Has this changed to both bikes being equally as good, given factory manufacturing tolerances are probably better? And teams are arguably better at setup. Or do some riders still prefer bike #1, "the good bike"?

This question comes about from the two-bike strategy MM uses during qualifying.

do factory bikes get so dialed in they’re all perfectly the same, or does one have a better nature than the other chassis, like we mere mortal experience? 

I believe almost everyone has a #1 bike they prefer and their #2 bike is the backup. The outlier, as usual, is MM93 who just rides the wheels off whatever's underneath him seemingly equally effectively.

They do, in that they have an A bike. But don't, in that there isn't just one single entire bike that goes through a season for the factory guys.

An important part of it is how setup is being worked with. The A bike has the regular conditions set up as best the baseline has gotten, with the preferred current options for parts. It isn't to be messed with. B bike can be set up in different ways, trying parts out sometimes, or has a set up for atypical conditions. Parts are shuffled about, with tracking on how many laps they have on them relative to their tolerance for use. What constitutes a bike? The chassis? What if they change the swingarm? How many times is the frame changed on the A bike over a season?

Customer teams are different. Crutchlow at Tech3 for instance made sure it was Rossi's A bike wheeled over to his garage at the end of the season. But that bike wasn't the "actual one" that had started Vale's season. Hope that makes sense.

It is interesting to contrast the "same A bike for the whole season" customer Tech3 Yamaha with for instance the KTM. There basically hasn't been a KTM bike that has had the same set of parts being used for any length of time. They have been throwing parts at it like the main 4 manu's would at a bogey track with mixed conditions. Pol is riding the heck out of whatever they give him. Opposite of, say, a Lorenzo. And speaking of Jorge, having two riders seeking to set up utterly different bikes must make it much more difficult to successfully do so. The engineering challenge may make for a more rounded machine from that factory over the long term, but in the short term it is much preferred to have a Rossi-Edwards sort of situation. Honda may have a fly in their ointment right now, and it has captured attention. Me? I am still in awe of the 2018 Tech3/Zarco 2016 parts bin C bike special. It was in a race with the Suzuki as the best Yamaha out there for plenty of weekends. Beau travail!

"This is my favorite axe, had it for a long time. Replaced the handle 3 times, and the head twice."