Aki Ajo Interview: On 2021 success, maintaining inter-team harmony, educating riders and fixing Moto3

Even for a team manager of Aki Ajo’s standing, 2021 has been quite the year. The Finn has resided over one of the most successful seasons ever for his squad as his riders Remy Gardner and Raul Fernandez contest the Moto2 World Championship, while Pedro Acosta comfortably leads the Moto3 standings.

The success of Ajo’s team came into focus at the recent Austrian Grand Prix, where Fernandez scored the 100th victory for Ajo Motorsport, quite an achievement for a squad that made its debut with Mika Kallio all the way back in 2001. Incredibly, his riders have won 14 of the 24 races in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes this year.

But more than results, the Finn and his slick Red Bull KTM Ajo structure play a key role in developing and educating young talent for the Austrian factory. Take a look at the current MotoGP grid and Marc Márquez, Johann Zarco, Jack Miller, Miguel Oliveira, Brad Binder, Jorge Martin and, to a lesser extent, Iker Lecuona have all passed through his garage – that’s 31% of the current MotoGP grid.

In his own words, Ajo sees his job as “50% is to achieve results and 50% to educate and develop riders for the future, for MotoGP.” That is just one of many topics covered in this interview, held in June before the summer break. Across 20 minutes Ajo also shared his thoughts on maintaining team harmony when both his riders are fighting for a title, working with the bright talents of Fernandez and Acosta and how to fix the current problem that is Moto3.

Q: What has been the secret to your team’s success in 2021?

Aki Ajo: First of all, I’m happy the season has started so well. But on the other hand, I’ve been here long enough to understand it cannot be like this all the time. In Moto2 we are thankful and happy that since we started in 2015 we’ve won races every year. I can’t say we’ve had difficult or bad seasons in Moto2 so far. If I remember correctly nearly every year we were top three in the championship, and each year we had podiums and several wins.

So we have to be really happy. This season we have such a strong team and such a strong couple of riders. Hopefully we can continue at least close to this performance. But we understand it cannot always be the same and that problems are sometimes coming. That’s why racing is so challenging and interesting. But it’s not easy.

In Moto3 I’m so happy that last year, when we changed our team structure back to two riders, we found the old feeling and the old system again. Already last year we were quite happy after two or three difficult years with a one-rider team in Moto3. But we found the success again. We know Moto3 is a really challenging category at the moment and it’s really difficult to be there all the time. Riders are fast in practices, even some riders are dominating practices but in Moto3 you never know who will win. It’s so much about tactics, strategies and also luck. It’s sometimes like a war rather than a race. Even if you find good pace and speed, it’s even more difficult than the bigger categories to guarantee your rider is on top every weekend. So I’m really happy that we’ve been fighting for the podiums in nearly every race.

Q: One of this year’s big stories has been Raul Fernandez’s speed. It was your decision late last season to move him up to Moto2 even though he hadn’t won a single grand prix at that time. What was your thinking at that point?

AA: I have known Raul many years and I was interested in having him in our team for many years. When it happened nearly two years ago, already in this moment I was sure he would be a rider for us in the bigger categories. His riding style and how he was practicing with the bigger bikes showed us. Last year was really challenging because the season started so late. It basically started in mid-July and by August everyone was waiting for you to make decisions if riders were going to Moto2 or not.

I was breaking this situation because I wanted to see more if he was mentally ready. Riding-wise I didn’t see any problem. But mentally? On the other hand we were working a lot on this. Raul improved a lot mentally last year. He showed really good and big steps, how he was maturing during the season. Especially he was much calmer and more focussed on everything. In the second half of the season he really improved his race performance. OK, it was quite late. But when we were talking with Red Bull, KTM and our main partners, it was really clear. It was late but it was clear.

Q: No one in Moto2 history scored as many points in the first half of their rookie campaign as Raul. How do you explain this?

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Such a great caracter. Always nice to read what he has to say.

The numbers speak for themselves.

I haven't even yet read it yet, but this is the one I've been waiting for!

I wonder how the transition to MotoGP will work out for Gardner and Fernandez. Oliveira, Binder and Lecuona all rode a KTM chassis with a steel trellis frame and WP suspension in Moto2, so they were used to the feel of that when hopping on the RC16. Gardner and Fernandez are riding Kalexes with aluminium beam frames and Öhlins suspension, so I wonder how well this prepares them (and future Ajo riders) for riding the KTM MotoGP bike.

Besides that, I think it looks a bit silly that two Kalexes - with Triumph engines - are riding with a giant KTM logo on it. It's like a Yamaha YZR-M1 being sponsored by Honda. I'm too much of a purist, I guess...

Spec racing makes strange bedfellows - Ben Franklin probably