As the moment approaches that Valentino Rossi is expected to announce that he will be joining Ducati, speculation is turning to the future of his crew chief, Jeremy Burgess. The Australian veteran has been Rossi's crew chief since the Italian moved up the then 500cc class with the HRC-backed Nastro Azzurro team, and has been with him ever since. Burgess followed Rossi from Nastro Azzurro to the factory Repsol Honda squad, and from there to Yamaha, where he helped Rossi become just the second rider in history to win back-to-back championships on two different machines.
So the paddock at the Sachsenring saw a string of journalists sidling up to Jerry Burgess to make discrete enquiries about what his plans were for next year. But Burgess has been in the paddock for a very long time, and has mastered the art of the Sphinx-like response, that supplies little in the way of information and leaves everything to the imagination of the journalist concerned.
This skill probably explains why there has been a string of conflicting reports in the Spanish and Italian press over the past couple of days about where Jeremy Burgess is heading next year. According to the veteran Spanish journalist Manuel Pecino in Solomoto, Burgess is heading to Honda, to work with Casey Stoner and more importantly, to help develop Honda's 1000cc MotoGP bike, due to be introduced when the rules change for the 2012 season. Yet the Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport is reporting that Burgess will be staying at Yamaha, leaving Rossi to depart for Ducati on his own.
So which of these two conflicting accounts is true? Taking into account Burgess' guile at handling the press, it is very hard to say. There are a lot of reasons why the Australian veteran could make the move back to Honda, the company he spent 21 years with between 1983 and Rossi's departure to Yamaha in 2004. Since the arrival of Shuhei Nakamoto as vice president of HRC, Honda has pursued a radically aggressive hiring policy with respect to both riders and technical staff.
HRC poached electronics experts Andrea Zugna and Cristian Battaglia from Yamaha to work on the new electronics package fitted to the 2010 Honda RC212V. At the same time, the Japanese giant lured former Ducati team boss Livio Suppo away from the Bologna factory, to act as commercial director and team manager for the factory Repsol Honda team from next year. Honda has sinced announced the signing of current Marlboro Ducati rider Casey Stoner to a two-year deal with the factory team, probably as a teammate to current Repsol rider Dani Pedrosa.
Given Burgess' reputation at developing motorcycles - the turnaround at Yamaha, from an uncompetitive machine to the bike that Rossi won the 2004 world championship on and went on to dominate in 2005 on, is put down in very large part to Burgess' technical skill and his ability to get things done - he is clearly a prime target for Honda to help develop the 2012 Honda RC213V ready for the new rules.
But Burgess himself may also be ready to move on. The Australian always said that he intended to retire when Rossi retired, but as the Italian multiple world champion extended his career, so did Burgess. A switch to Ducati with Rossi would be going over old ground for Burgess, attempting to repeat the success of his switch from Honda to Yamaha. Burgess has always spoken of his desire to work with young riders, to help them develop their skills along with the bikes they are working on, and the opportunity to work with Casey Stoner could be just the challenge the Australian is looking for.
However, Burgess has also expressed his loyalty to Yamaha, telling the Gazzetta dello Sport "I've worked so much with this team and I'm happy to stay here." Burgess plays a key role in the development of Yamaha's YZR-M1, helping it to remain probably the best bike on the MotoGP grid, and could continue that role for the new bike expected to be introduced when MotoGP switches to 1000cc in 2012.
If Burgess does stay at Yamaha, however, he would be unlikely to continue in his current role as crew chief. Jorge Lorenzo already has an excellent working relationship with his own crew chief Ramon Forcada, the Spanish pairing solving the rear grip issues early in the season where the Rossi/Burgess combination continued to struggle. And with Ben Spies almost certain to move up into the seat vacated by Rossi in the factory Fiat Yamaha team, bringing his own crew chief Tom Houseworth with him, that position is filled on the other side of the Fiat Yamaha garage as well.
Speculation has grown that Burgess could take on an overarching role, acting as a technical coordinator between the Fiat Yamaha garage and Yamaha racing, but no plans have been confirmed for the creation of such a position. With both crew chief positions filled, that would be the only role that would seem to fit Burgess at Yamaha, though.
Interestingly, there are few signs that Burgess will follow Rossi to Ducati. Burgess himself has been vague on the issue, and when Rossi was asked at the Sachsenring whether he would be working with Burgess next year, he replied coyly "You'll have to ask Jeremy!"
The early expectation was that Burgess would go to Ducati with his rider, but there are a number of factors mitigating against it. Firstly, Burgess has spent all of his career dealing with Japanese racing departments, which have a completely different culture to the one prevalent at Ducati Corse. Secondly, Ducati Corse is an almost exclusively Italian affair, with the vast majority of its personnel hailing from Italy, and often from close to the Ducati factory in Borgo Panigale.
Perhaps most significantly, Ducati is the one factory at which Valentino Rossi would be able to drive development without a helping hand from Burgess. Rossi lives just a ninety-minute drive away from the Ducati Corse offices in Bologna, and is good friends with Ducati's MotoGP chief and technical guru Filippo Preziosi. Communication with Preziosi would be extremely direct, in a way that is simply not possible with a racing department halfway round the world.
Most of all, Rossi's analysis and development skills, and more importantly, his ability to express himself clearly on the changes needed, mean that Ducati and Rossi will be able to communicate perfectly well without any intervention. When Rossi rode Yamaha's YZF R1-based World Superbike machine at Misano and Brno, Yamaha's WSBK engineers said afterwards they'd learned more in those couple of hours than they had learned all season from their regular riders. With the ability to communicate directly in his own language, and with a hotline into Preziosi's office, Ducati may be the one team where Rossi does not need Burgess' assistance.
Just where Burgess will end up will probably only become clear at the end of the year. Rossi is expected to announce his signing with Ducati after the race at Brno, but an announcement on Burgess' future could come much later, perhaps as late as Valencia. As the Rossi-to-Ducati story starts to wind down, the story of his crew chief is set to run and run.
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