The Brains Behind The Bikes, Part 2: Andrea Zugna On Practical Experience vs Data, Working With The Greats, And The Will To Win

Data: this is the information which engineers try to mine in pursuit of ever more performance

In the first part of the interview with Andrea Zugna, the former Honda and Yamaha engineer told the story of how he came to MotoGP, brought in by former Yamaha racing boss Masao Furusawa. Zugna talked about the different roles he played at Yamaha. And he gave an engineer's view of the MotoGP technical regulations, and rules in general.

At the end of 2009, Zugna left Yamaha to join Honda. As Head of Performance at HRC, his role expanded to include the entire bike, and not just the electronics. "In general, performance analysis is where you look at the whole package - rider, bike, tires and everything - and you try to figure out where to work, what works and what doesn't, and so on," Zugna explained.

"I think now every company, every manufacturer has kind of a performance analysis group, also because we are at the point of refinement where you don’t make big steps. It’s more about refining, analyzing deeply and so on. So objective numbers are getting more and more important. But, at that time in 2010 it was just starting," the Italian told me.

Things have changed a lot over the last decade, however. "Now, maybe ten years later, it’s common practice. Not only in MotoGP - you have data science, whatever, machine learning, cloud computing… all these terms that are now normal, weren’t ten years ago. So maybe that was more of a general process in how you tried to get the maximum out of the data you had."

An ocean of data

Just as it has in the world at large, the amount of data collected in racing has exploded. And that creates its own sets of challenges and opportunities. "I think we collect much more than we analyze," Zugna said. "This is a general trend, I think, even in normal industry, not just racing."

This has forced a different approach. "At first everybody realized, OK, now we have to do data science, so they just started to spend money, collect data and getting nothing out of it. Then they started to say, now we have to do machine learning and so on. Now the latest trend in the industry is to say, we have to put the data scientists in contact with the people who know about the subject. Because in reality, data science without the common sense of knowing the subject you are studying is sort of giving you the obvious. But then you want to look at what is the difference from the obvious and go deeper and deeper and deeper."

This is where Andrea Zugna feels he benefited from the approach taken by Yamaha boss Masao Furusawa, who put him through an apprenticeship of sorts, as he explained in the first part of this interview. "The key point was analyzing data knowing the practical side," he told me. "That’s why I said Furusawa had the master plan nearly sixteen years ago where he said data people have to first know how to learn the basics, do the mapping for the rider, then go to the development, then put it all together. So this is the thing that makes a difference now in MotoGP."

Wetware not hardware

It was not always an easy ride, however. As valuable as working with engineers from an earlier era, whose education and style had been far more hands-on and practical had been, those engineers had not exactly welcomed him into the fold. "It helped, but also it was quite hard at the time because there was a lot of rejection," Zugna told me. "For example, when I showed up in the garage for the first time in 2004, and JB was in the winter before the first year of racing with Vale [Rossi] in Yamaha. So I came there, they introduced us to each other. I said, I’m here, I’m young, I will work on data analysis. The first thing he told me was he started to count the computers in the garage and he said, 'We don’t need computers here, we need good brains. If you come here with a computer, you are useless.' So that was sort of, 'we have too many computers in the garage'."

Despite the lack of a welcome, there was a lot for Zugna to learn. "At the beginning there was a lot of rejection, but for me it was very helpful to listen to people that had to make a good, winning bike without the help of computers. So it sort of told me, OK, you have to do at least as good as them and then something better with the computer. Not trying to match what they could do with their brain with your computer, or reinventing the wheel with a computer, replicating what a good brain could do already by itself. This kind of approach."

Marginal gains

Zugna benefited from entering the sport in that transitional period, in the time after everything was done by experience and feel, and before data dominated. And that helped him as times changed and riders who grew up looking at data entered the class. "They definitely use data a lot," he explained. "The debriefs have gotten longer and longer, but not because the riders of the past were more clever, no. It's simply that the more you get closer to the optimal performance, the more a small gain comes with a big effort."

This is all part of the development of MotoGP as a sport over the past couple of decades. As the bikes have become more equal, and the riders have become more professional, the margin for finding an advantage has become slimmer. "So about 15 years ago, all the steps were more gross, or bigger," Zugna explained. "So brains counted more, but because you were working on ideas more than really the last millimeter. While now everybody is sorted out on the basics, almost, and then you are really working on the last millimeter or the details."

This brought its own set of dangers, Zugna warned. "There is a danger now that some people think about the millimeter and lose contact with the big picture. So sometimes you could have a totally wrong weight distribution, but just think about the fine details and not just make one step back and look at the big picture sometime. Forget all the details. That’s the danger with the young generation of engineers. (Now I can say young because I’m getting older, so I can talk about young people, not me!) So that’s a risk. They are deep with their nose into their screen and they lose the grand picture."

Working with the greats

Being talent-spotted by Masao Furusawa and given the opportunity to develop, and then earning a reputation as an engineer that could help make a bike competitive meant that Zugna got a chance to work with not just the best engineers and technicians, but also the best riders in the world. "I was so lucky to work with the greats: Vale (Rossi), Jorge (Lorenzo), Casey (Stoner), Dani (Pedrosa), and Marc (Márquez), all of them. Dovi (Andrea Dovizioso) as well, because in the end, when he was in Honda in 2011 we could do third in the championship, which was great from him. From there on he even improved further to become the challenger for the championship in the last few years."

Working with arguably the six best riders of recent years was a privilege, but it also made it that much more important to be able to understand and use their feedback. "The first thing is you have to learn the language they use. They are not engineers so they will maybe use inappropriate words to say the correct thing. So first of all, you have to make this first layer of translation," Zugna explained. "Then they have their routines with the crew chief, so you let them go and maybe at the end you can ask one or two questions."

Each rider was different, in the feedback they gave and how to translate it. "Vale was the guy that you felt you could listen to him and you didn’t need to switch on your computer afterwards at the time, because he had already explained in words what you would see in the data," Zugna said. "This was Vale."

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Thanks David, so much valuable insights in this interview!  Zugna shared a quite detailed view on the rider feedback from Vale, Casey, Dani and Marc, but not so much from Dovi and Jorge. Would be interesting to get his more detailed feedback related to Dovi and Jorge as well, if he shared that? Or that is coming in part 3? Anyhow very nice reading in the process of preparing for the new season that hopefully starts soon!

People like this, the constant drive for success, fascinates me. Reminds me of the Michael Jordan doco where he was so driven that he didn't give a shit about how he treated the people around him. Sounds a little similar in Mr Zugnas case also?

How do these people look back and see their time spent competing at the highest levels. What makes someone like this? What sacrifices were worth it and which ones were not in hind-sight?

Without people like this the limits aren't tested. But I for one would like an insight into this drive, what makes a person persue this life and their refections on the costs after the fact. Great series David.