The Brains Behind The Bikes, Part 3: Andrea Zugna On The Rider vs The Bike, The Need For Narrative, And Boats vs Bikes

Marc Marquez at Silverstone in 2017, photo by Tony Goldsmith

In the first two parts of our interview with Andrea Zugna, the Italian engineer who contributed to the success of both Yamaha's and Honda's factory teams talked about how he got into MotoGP, his history in the sport, how data has changed motorcycle racing, as well as talking about some of the great riders he worked with, such as Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez, Casey Stoner, and Dani Pedrosa.

In the final part of the interview. Zugna talks about how he sees MotoGP developing, and the generational change from which MotoGP is not immune. And he goes into some of the reasons for switching disciplines completely, leaving MotoGP to work at the highest levels of sailing, helping to developing the control systems for Italy's America's Cup challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team.

First, though, we talked about Marc Márquez' 2019 season, and how it stacked up historically. Was this the best performance Zugna had seen from Márquez during his time at Honda? "I don’t know, honestly," Zugna replied. "It’s different. I prefer to judge how much effort the rider had to put in order to overcome the limitations of the bike. If you look at the numbers he had in 2019, probably, or 2014, maybe now he is more mature, so fewer errors."

Rider, not bike

Perhaps Márquez' success when competing when the Honda RC213V was clearly slower than other bikes should be rated higher, Zugna suggested. "On the other hand, the biggest achievements for Marc were when he was with less power, for example. Then he could beat Dovi in Ducati with more power."

That was more a testament to the difference the rider made. "It’s different, what you see as the final result and what really the rider has to find in himself to win anyway," Zugna pointed out. "So I would say maybe the best year for Marc, where Marc was the best, was when he arrived in Valencia against Dovi and won, because it meant he had to work harder to get to the championship somehow."

Márquez' other-worldly ability as a rider is visible in both the 2017 and 2019 seasons, Zugna believes. "So in 2019 to see how exceptional Marc is, you see it in the points gap. But in 2017 you see it in the smaller points gap, but fighting harder to finally achieve the championship."

History repeating

Márquez' title in 2017 came more from his riding, compensating for the weakness of the bike, Zugna explained, making a comparison with Valentino Rossi's exceptional season in 2004, the year he switched from Honda to Yamaha. "The reality is you can take Valentino in 2004. He was murdered on the straights, and then he had to go twice the speed as the others in the corners," Zugna said.

The same lesson applied to Márquez. "For Marc, when the Ducati was passing him on the straight, again he had to do it only in the braking and in the corners. So when he started to have the power, then you can play, you can manage. But if you don’t have the power on the straight… Honda has done a great job to give the power to Marc, in the end."

After spending sixteen years in MotoGP, Zugna was approached about taking a completely different career direction. He was invited to become part of the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team, Italy's challenger for sailing's most prestigious race and the pinnacle of boat design.

But Zugna's decision to leave didn't mean he was bored with MotoGP. "No," he said. "There’s always something new to learn. I was not even looking to leave, but I’m a sailor, and the America’s Cup is kind of the F1 for sailing, super highly technological. So when they approached me I thought, okay. Let’s have a look. I liked it, and so I decided to change but it was more of a new challenge again."

A change is as good as a rest

"I’ve been sixteen years in MotoGP. I could stay another sixteen, probably because what drives me, again as I said before, is more when you have to innovate on the ideas, and nowadays in MotoGP on the development, you push a lot on development, but with a very closed regulation." Working on development meant also being one step removed from the racing, and that means missing out on the raw intensity of a race weekend. "But also when you are in development, you are out of the emotions of the win. You are not there every weekend to try to win a race because you have kind of a parallel path through the testing, development and so on."

The time was ripe for a new challenge, Zugna said. "So at this moment for me, it was a good time to change. But maybe if I would have been the mapping guy at the track, then maybe I wouldn’t have left. It’s just a matter of, I thought, let’s do something new. Nothing negative that drove me out of MotoGP. It was more, 'Okay, I found a new toy. Let’s play with the new toy.'"

Zugna has seen how MotoGP has changed, but worries more about how the fans are changing. Once upon a time, motorcycle racing was a young person's sport, but as vehicle ownership wanes, Zugna fears that interest in all forms of motorsport declines with it.

Is the sport heading in the right direction to address this? "Not an easy question," Zugna says. "If we look at spectators and so on, I think for the people at home the technical part doesn’t really matter so much. So from that point of view, you have a close field. You have close racing. It’s great. I think if one rider dominates, it’s not a problem. Nobody had anything against Valentino dominating or Doohan dominating, so that’s also not a problem. But what I feel is that the sport is getting a bit old for the young people. In general the engines, going fast with a car or with a motorcycle is not a dream of the people who are 15 or 20 years old now. But maybe there’s nothing you can do about it."

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Thank you David for this fantastic 3 part interview. The insights and perspective from working inside various teams is unparalleled. The point he makes about appealing to newer generation is something of a reality check "Now the iPhone is the dream, not the scooter."