I haven't had the best start to my PB column: I’m writing this on deadline day with an hour to go after I got led astray by a mate in Barcelona last night! I was at a KTM management meeting and Jeff Leisk, the head of KTM Australia, must have slipped something in my drink... I’m often helping on a KTM project somewhere, track testing with R&D or the new Customer Racing department, or in the office coming up with ideas on how to adapt KTM’s road bikes for the track. My latest projects are a RC390R for World Supersport 300, and the 2020 Super Duke 1290R... or maybe it’s an RR! Then there’s a 790 Duke for an exciting track project, but more on that later, when I’m allowed to talk... KTM Customer Racing was set up at the start of this year to develop production-based bikes for track/race use, and our first task is improving the RC390 as a race bike. The RC390 World Finals will be held in Jerez at the last WSB round and we’ll have two wildcards in the SSP300 race to gauge whether the bike is competitive enough to race in the series in 2018. Our department supports an Italian team developing the RC390, too – KTM Italy were keen to be more competitive in their domestic championship.
Over the last couple of months we’ve been testing the RC390 with this team and I naively agreed to race the Mugello round to aid development. I got my arse well and truly spanked! I’d forgotten that kids have zero fear and everyone else on the track is considered an obstacle. I finished in seventh, covered in tyre marks and bruises – mostly to my ego. I was relieved to survive, to be honest! But it proved that we are on the right track with the bike. Their regular rider, Omar Bonoli, won the next round at Misano. I was pleased to get to the Goodwood Revival this year – I missed last year due to work commitments. I got pole in the wet qualifying but on the dry Saturday, Michael Dunlop (on an MV with brother William) just cleared off into the distance, and Gary Johnson got by on another MV. But the Dunlop bike broke a piston just after the rider change. On the Sunday, we won by a good margin so we won the event overall. Pat and Sue Barford’s Manx Norton really is a thing of beauty, and we have a great wee team – to win for them is always special.
The ball on Saturday night is an event you’ll never forget – the bike racers and their partners are always in the middle of the dance floor causing a riot. There’s always a good effort with the fancy dress outfits, too... This year we were joined by the touring car drivers Gordon Shedden and Matt Neal with their wives. To be fair, they kept up pretty well for car pansies – Troy Corser kept the mojitos flowing, and as usual we had to be escorted from the venue after everyone else had long gone! After Rossi broke his leg on an enduro bike, there were lots of opinions flying around, but I’ve got the unique viewpoint of someone who’s been there. To be fit as you need to be, and develop the reactions required to ride a MotoGP bike, there isn’t any kind of training available that uses all the muscle groups and brain power like riding a motorcycle does. Riders are risk takers: that’s why they race in the first place.
Racers wouldn’t compete if they actually thought about the possible consequences. They can’t ever let those thoughts cross their minds, and training on a motocross or enduro bike doesn’t even register on their scale of risk. He will always feel that he has total control over whatever he is riding and this sort of training is a perfectly normal (and effective) way to achieve the best results whilst really enjoying keeping fit and alert. Compare what Rossi is able to achieve at the ranch or riding off-road bikes to dragging himself to a gym... the results are always going to be better. There’s also the endorphins released in racing or training: as riders we are addicted to and will always want to replicate those highs – that’s why Rossi still wants to race. He wants to keep hitting that incredible high of winning again or he would have given up by now. When you’ve had a great on-bike training session, you feel good about yourself and you have a sense of achievement. Riding off-road is a win-win to any rider, and the teams that employ them as the fastest bike racers in the world. They will never stop, and I don’t think they should: you just have to accept that they will sometimes get hurt in developing and maintaining what we love about them as race fans.
‘Factories don’t want to take any chances these days, and prefer to take riders from Moto2 or Moto3’
What a month for Northern Ireland... Jonathan Rea lifts his third consecutive world title at Magny Cours, Kris Meeke wins the Spanish World Rally round and the national football team have even made the World Cup play-offs! We had a few nights out in Belfast on JR’s return; we went to the Northern Ireland vs Germany game at Windsor stadium and then out for a few scoops – not a big one, just nice and relaxed with family and friends. He is pretty grounded, but his homecoming the night before at Ballyclare leisure centre was pretty mental. A large group of local bikers met him at a neighbouring town and escorted him in – that was a really nice touch. The halls were packed full with about as many again outside who turned up and couldn’t get in. He stayed until every single person who wanted an autograph or photo got one.
I don’t know where he gets his patience from. We had all long gone home and he was back on the radio when I got up the next morning, then he did some TV stuff... I was a right diva when I got asked to do all that stuff (many moons ago), but he takes it all in his stride. We all have our favourite riders in any championship. You are either a Rossi fan (like me) or Marquez, Davies, Rea, Shakey, Haslam or whoever, and fans are getting pretty staunch these days. Rossi isn’t going to win another world championship by the looks of it, but Jonathan will win another WSB title, at least, and maybe more if he defects to Ducati when the new V4 comes along. He will probably stay in WSB for the rest of his career.
Not everyone agrees but I think it is unfortunate that we won’t see him compete in MotoGP (he is one of the few Lorenzo fans, incidentally). Teams in MotoGP now have a different agenda and have bought into the belief that MotoGP riders will only come from the Moto2 ranks. I think that is a gamble as not all good Moto2 riders make good MotoGP riders. When I watched Scott Redding in Moto2, for example, I thought he would have easily been as good as Marquez when he moved to the premier class. If I was a team owner or sponsor, JR would be top of my shopping list right now. I can hear all the doubters cry, “How do you come up with the assumption that Johnny would make it in MotoGP?” Well, the only other rider currently competing in the class who came directly from WSB is Cal.
He won a World Supersport title; JR had a second in Supersport. Cal achieved a third in BSB; JR had a second... In their first full year in WSB both achieved fifth in the standings. Cal didn’t hang around, and moved on to MotoGP with Tech 3 Yamaha, his first results being 11th and eighth. JR scored an eighth and a seventh as a wildcard on a Repsol Honda, so we could say they were on a pretty similar level throughout their careers. But that’s all academic – my point is that JR is riding at the top of his game (as is Cal) and this would be the ideal time to make a move to MotoGP if a factory seat became available. But this isn’t going to happen: factories don’t want to take any chances these days is what I’ve been told; they prefer the Moto3/2 route. Next up for me is working with young KTM racers at the Jerez WSB round.
My department, KTM Customer Racing, are running the RC390 world final and we have two wildcard riders racing in the SSP300 championship for the first time there. The top three or four riders from each of the nine countries that run the single-make RC390 cup all compete at the final for a chance to get a helping hand next year at their national series. KTM will support the winner of the world final with a step up into a national SSP300 championship. Most regions will replicate the World Supersport 300 series next year and part of the support includes a wildcard ride at a world championship round. The second and third riders will be offered a full test day on a fully prepped SSP300 RC390, organized by our department. And the first 10 riders in the overall classification will be supported with a dedicated Customer Racing sponsoring package, which should help them for their 2018 activities. Yep, I’m flat-out supporting the JRs of the future!
I’m writing this as I head out to race at the North West 200. It’s by far the best event in the road race calendar, and when you get an opportunity to race at it, it’s impossible to turn it down. I’m no road racer and I never thought it would be something I’d get into after MotoGP, but I’ve become addicted to it. Many years ago, I raced in Macau and although I won the first leg on a YZR500, I didn’t return as I needed to concentrate on trying to make it in GPs. Maybe if the GP career had stalled I might have stuck at road racing; with a bit of luck I might even have had a TT win by now. Anyhow, I’m long past spending weeks trying to learn my way around the Island so that’s why I chose to take on the NW200 back in 2012. It still gives me enough of a buzz to get it out of my system; it’s nice being an amateur again. It’s a seriously fast circuit and one you need to have some respect for.
Some things I’ve witnessed are a stark reminder of the dangers of getting it wrong. Respect to the guys like Hutchy, McGuinness and Rutter for keeping the desire to race at the level they do. I have also raced at the Armoy and Tandragee road races and loved it; the jumps are bloody nuts, you need to get along and stand next to them to fully appreciate the craziness of Irish road racing. The NW200 will have been and gone by the time you read this. I’m chasing a third win on one of Ryan Farquhar’s 650 twins. The bikes are works of art as he puts so much time and effort into them, and if you could set one beside a current Moto2 bike, Ryan’s machines wouldn’t look out of place.
Working with characters like him has always been part of the enjoyment. Like all team owners he’s passionate about what he does, and calls a spade a spade so you know where you stand. I’ve ridden for many great team owners and they’re all similar in some ways. Kenny Roberts stands out as being the most colourful; he always had something to say about everything and everyone. Most of the time he was right, but probably shouldn’t have said it. Luckily the team were immune to him, he’d call them for every name under the sun and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He wasn’t really being serious but everyone else in the paddock thought KR was nuts. Kenny was the least politically correct person I know and had some fantastic stories, usually fuelled by a couple bottles of red after dinner, when it would always get pretty lairy. He invited me to his ranch to train over the new year when I rode for him. It had all kinds of dirt training tracks: ovals, flat track, MX, SX tracks; and boys toys like target shooting, longbows, crossbows, a golf range... He took me out when I arrived, basically to show me around and give me a good lesson on the XR100s. He led me straight to the flat track and blasted me. It didn’t matter what I tried, he’d let me past then slide through again just to kick up as much shit in my face as possible, until I gave up.
We laughed about it, had a swim and then everyone jumped into the hot tub with a cold beer. After about an hour, Kenny declared it was time to go back inside, but the girls were happy to sit in the tub. So he got out and peed into the tub, we all moved pretty sharpish. It turned into a crazy week of training and partying. It’s his birthday on new years day and one year he invited his insurance brokers up for the party. It’s a pretty crazy day. Friends and family turn up, and once they’ve all had a few of Kenny’s famous margaritas the KR family tradition is to set off a few explosions, mini canons stuffed with gunpowder, rockets, firecrackers... pretty much anything goes. Shortly afterwards, his insurance company informed him that they were withdrawing cover on the property for one day a year – his birthday! KR is dearly missed in the paddock. His Banbury centre of excellence was ahead of its time. He spent many millions on the latest advances as he tried to replicate F1 technology for MotoGP. The very best chassis and swingarms were made there, engineers had facilities like the Japanese giants at their fingertips, but the money ran out, the factory closed and the team departed prematurely.
The paddock needs more Kennys.
I’ve been halfway around the world again to race in Australia. It’s a long way, but it’s worth it to feel the sun on your face every morning when the UK was snowed in. The annual International Festival of Speed held at Eastern Creek is a jewel of a meeting, and always brings along some big names. Troy Bayliss, Troy Corser, Frankie Chili, Chris Vermeulen, Kevin Magee and Steve Parrish all attended this year.
I got to race Corser again on the big P5 air-cooled bikes; he’s a competitive bugger. We all do a parade event that usually turns into a free-for-all. First lap is half-sensible, then pride takes over and quickly it becomes a race. I was lucky enough to ride an ’08 factory XRF5 Suzuki GSX-R1000, Frankie rode an ex-Laverty Voltcom factory Suzuki GSX-R, Bayliss rode his 2002 WSB Ducati 998, Corser rode TB’s current ASBK Panigale, Magoo was on his Yamaha YZR500, with Vermeulen and Stavros on RG500’s. You tend to forget the value of these rare machines and Corser didn’t help matters when he pulled the pin crossing the line on lap two on the Pani. I went head-to-head with him on my Harris Yamaha in the P5 unlimited race and a beautiful MK8 RG500 in the two-stroke class.
We watched the Thai WSB races in the hotel bar at the track. During race one, Frankie was adamant that Xavi Fores was going to beat Rea, so he had to buy the beers. To be fair, I had to buy them after race two when JR didn’t do the double...
Everyone is talking about the Argentinian MotoGP. In our sport, everyone has their own opinions and these are usually clouded depending on which rider they support. Fans bay for blood, it’s in our nature, but is it acceptable in motorcycle racing? When I watch UFC I find myself drawn in, and regardless of who’s fighting, I immediately take a side. I’ve no idea why but maybe I see one as an underdog. When my guy starts to get the upper hand, draw blood or strangle the other into submission, it’s captivating. We all know that Marquez screwed up but some fans can’t accept he did anything wrong, including not starting from pitlane after stalling on the grid.
Why he continued to barge his way through without any consideration or respect for his opponents is a mystery as he was lapping so much faster than anyone. When Marquez pulls down his visor he turns into some kind of wild animal; if he is penalised it’s like baiting a bear with a big stick. We don’t need to subdue our intoxicating sport into a zero-contact, dull version of what it is today as some contact is inevitable. We’ve all come in with rubber on our fairing and leathers, and it’s fun.
Riders usually have a laugh about it afterwards and this shouldn’t result in dropping a place or a ride-through penalty. Loris Baz actually commented about how much he enjoyed the hard charging and some contact during the Thai WSB race.
There is an argument, however, for race direction to set down some laws for blatant infringements. I guess this is where it gets complicated but for as long as I can remember there has been no consistency for penalties.
In Argentina, Zarco forcefully touched Pedrosa who then highsided on a wetter part of the track that he wouldn’t have been on had he not been forced wide. Petrucci ran into Aleix Espargaro – according to Aleix this was worse than the Marquez move on Rossi, but neither Zarco nor Petrucci were penalised. Possibly the worst crime of Argentina was Aron Carnet’s move on Makar Yurchenko in Moto3 FP1. As far as I could tell, he intentionally took Yurchenko out for getting in his way earlier in the lap, and I’d say it was more serious than anything else that happened during the weekend.
On this occasion, race direction decided it was a racing incident, which carries no penalty. It must be the strangest decision of the decade. It’s time to set out procedures for gross misconduct on track and inform riders what to expect. If Marquez thought he might get a 30-second penalty for overly aggressive riding he wouldn’t have run into that turn on lap 20 at that speed.
Testing all month with KTM on new projects has been as exciting as always – we’ve been working on the next revisions for the Super Duke 1290R, GT and 790 mostly. Then I had a stark reminder of what the reality of being a test rider and a little complacency can result in. I managed to fling myself up the road at about 120mph after running on to a damp kerb early one morning on the test track. It’s actually my first test crash after thousands of kilometres. It wasn’t the perfect start to the day as the test had to be completed by the afternoon, and we only had one bike fitted with the new Bosch test electronics and data storage, laptops, etc, all onboard. I was thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got this, I might just get away with it...’ I held it on the lock-stop for what seemed like an eternity and I was still yelling and swearing at myself as it gripped on a dry patch and I went over the top into the gravel. It was one of those ragdoll, triple-somersault affairs. I destroyed my Shark lid, my leathers were very secondhand, and I was battered and bruised with a dead leg. I jumped up and tried to run to the bike before anyone noticed what had happened, but I was hopping more than running; I felt like a right tool! Luckily the bike slid for about 200 metres without major damage. The team had it back together in 45 minutes – we continued like nothing had happened and managed to get the new mapping settings pretty much perfect by 5pm, thankfully.
I got a nice break between R&D tests to attend the 790 Duke launch in Gran Canaria. I like how KTM conduct a launch, and I’ve been on various bike/tyre launches in my time. This time, we came up with a Moto Gymkhana-type course in the shape of the 790 logo, for a bit of fun. We nicknamed the 790 ‘The Scalpel’ as it’s so precise, so we wanted to see how agile the bike was around obstacles against the stopwatch. And, to be honest, we just love to see the journalists competing against each other as they are almost as competitive as racers.
We drew the logo to scale on the start/finish straight and set cones out to make it as difficult as possible. I’ve never ridden one of these courses but it was so much fun that it became addictive, an obsession to be honest, and the 790 worked so well that all the KTM staff (me included) had to keep doing it over and over trying to set a faster lap. There were a couple of really fast times set by the journalists, but the KTM staff were even quicker; they’re mostly ex-racers from various disciplines – even champions – and still very fast, so they’re a competitive bunch! I did manage to overdo it and fall over backing it in, supermoto-style, around a cone – but it’s all part of the fun. The team have had so much positive feedback that, if I get my way, this discipline will be a feature in the future.
I wasn’t expecting so much from a mid-range motorcycle – how much fun can a 104bhp bike really give? But it’s got a lot of torque for such a small bike, and it responds so effortlessly to your input – it certainly doesn’t need a lot of bossing around. The firing order is the same as the 1290 I spend most of my time working on, so it has the same sort of sound. It’s sharp, and although the suspension isn’t adjustable I didn’t have many complaints. It’s has a lot of features for a bike that’s only eight and a half grand in the UK – traction control, cornering ABS, quickshifter/autoblipper, TFT screen with Bluetooth connectivity...
It’s a lot of bike, and I reckon it’ll surprise people with its ability. Not that you’ll believe me – after all, my pay cheques do come in an orange envelope with an Austrian postmark...Go and test ride one at your nearest dealer and then let me know what you think – I’ll tell the R&D team if you think I’m bullshitting you! Anyway, the holiday is over for me: I’m back on the test track at 9am tomorrow, grinding out more laps for the data acquisition equipment. I’ll be staying away from dew-covered kerbs this time, though...
January is always the worst time of year to be stuck at home waiting for the season to get underway. So, when I was offered a trip to Italy on the new 790 Adventure and the 1290GT, I jumped at it. Sadly, Rome was even colder than home and 50% of the test was on a wet track... but I was pleasantly surprised with the new 790. I hadn’t expected much from the middleweight bikes; I’d wondered what all the hype was about at the Milan show, but then I rode one. I was really impressed by how well the motor pulls and how well it handles. We were testing tyres; I love it – I can have as many new tyres as I want, but it’s tough and you need to be on your game. I did learn that the 790’s power delivery makes it so simple to drift on an average tyre; the throttle connection and long flat torque curve made me look good! With the test completed, and no further KTM duties until February, I accepted an invitation to race at the Phillip Island Classic.
I’ve raced there since 2011 with Roger Winfield’s team, competing at the International Challenge. Four teams of six compete for the overall title, and it has always been a needle match between the Aussies and us Poms. The American and Kiwi teams hadn’t been competitive until this year, when the Yanks brought some of their fast veterans. The Aussies moaned that our bikes don’t conform to period rules, but all the period rules differ slightly as ours are also raced at the Classic TT, but basically they’re all the same. The Aussies are pretty bad losers and this motivates Roger and the team to build even better bikes and recruit the best British riders just to slap it up them. It really is a grudge match, but when all is said and done we do actually have a lot of respect for one another and the event would be an Australian whitewash if there was no British team. The Aussies have always had a formidable team and dominated the event for years before we started winning in 2015. I reckon we could’ve gone on for years but this year they stole the title back from us in the last race, with David Johnson and Troy Corser helping their cause. They did deserve it and it went all the way to the wire in the last race. We lost Glen Richards and the Yanks lost Jason Pridmore; this just swung the standings back in the Aussies’ favour.
The Americans put on a good show with Colin Edwards, Pridmore and Jake Zemke all upping the game using Yamaha FJ motors like ours – 1100 bored to 1250-something, making about 170hp and topping 175mph. We recruited Michael Rutter, Dan Linfoot and Lee Johnston to join Peter Hickman, Glen Richards and myself this year, but it didn’t go as smoothly as it could. Lee got flicked off in qualifying, and we lost the motor when the throttle stuck open. Plus, Rutter got knocked off in practice when he was touring whilst trying to adjust clutch free play as the bike had just been built. Of course, we gave him the sympathy he deserved... When the team got the bike fixed and got him back out for the next session, he started complaining of electric shocks when he put his foot down at the end of pitlane. The HT lead was shorting on to the frame! We were all pissing ourselves when he explained why he couldn’t get off the line because he was too frightened to pull the clutch in or put his foot down.
Before the race, we got to spend some time riding the trails just north of Melbourne with friends. Aussie journo Trevor Hedge loaned me his 250 Husky. The singletrack there is the best I’ve ridden, but we had a few moments along the way with snakes and kangaroos crossing our paths. This huge roo came out of nowhere and scared the hell out of me, but luckily he bolted. Now I just need to convince KTM I need a 250 two-stroke to evaluate... Whichever way you cut it, I’m happy to have callouses on my hands again from all the testing and racing lately – it feels good.
I have what some bike nuts regard as the ultimate day job: testing the 1290 Super Duke R, Super Duke GT, 1190/1290 Adventure and now the new 790 range. I work with the R&D team and project leaders at KTM who are tasked with developing the road bike range and Customer Racing department where we develop road bikes, like the RC390, for racing. Yes, there is a lot of pressure to get it right but there’s plenty of job satisfaction if the bikes are well received by the press and owners.
The R&D department does an outstanding job; every aspect of a bike is evaluated. They can replicate real road riding on test benches in their new facility. The department has grown from about 40 people when I started to more than 500, with many smaller departments within it dedicated to data recording, brakes and wheels, chassis, motor, electronics, suspension... Test riders evaluate everything – tyres, traction control and ABS, chassis, suspension, handling and brake performance, ergonomics KTM – usually at different proving grounds through Europe.
We work with the team to improve the bikes before they’re approved for production. Tyres, for instance, have to pass stringent testing in all conditions at every lean angle on road, track, wet and dry handling courses. How they perform at tip-in, how much effort is required, how they react to rider input, do they have self-steering tendencies or any lift up under brake and acceleration? Where one tyre might outperform another in the dry it won’t make the final list if it doesn’t perform in all conditions.
The bikes go through a severe shakedown. KTM know how stiff a chassis needs to be, and they know how stiff every other chassis on the market is, but this doesn’t mean if you make one with same lateral and torsional stiffness it will react identically to a competitor’s. We start with something the team know will be in the ballpark then change it according to test feedback and data. Street bikes probably have as much data acquisition hanging off them as a MotoGP bike. It takes the engineers days to get through all the data from a test.
When we started with the 1290 Super Duke we had about four WP technicians over the test cycle. We’d have forks and shocks in different lengths, damping and spring rates, and we’d ride up to the top of the roughest roads and mountains in Spain. I’d be hammering the bikes over those roads, then back to normal road riding, motorways, city centres then back to the proving ground with dry, wet, rough and dynamic handling tracks in one facility. Then do all the tests again until we had covered every angle. Every time you ride a bike in a new environment something else shows up. We’d ride two-up with concrete in the tank bags then go to the track and deck the footpegs out to find the best suspension settings. The toughest test isn’t opening the throttle to maximum while dragging your toes on a soaking wet track to test traction control – it’s testing lean angle ABS. Squeezing the front brake to maximum pressure at maximum lean angle on a wet track takes a bit of getting used to.
We worked with Bosch at their facilities in Germany and Japan to perfect the TC and ABS. KTM were the first company to come up with the idea for lean angle-sensitive ABS, and I had the pleasure of testing the early systems. When they first asked me to be the guinea pig it was a relief to find it worked first time and just needed minor adjustments. The test is to see if the bike can hold a line without crashing with full brake pressure – you need to squeeze the brake to about 50 bar pressure. We use no more than 15 bar for an emergency stop...Chassis stiffness is complicated, but the boffins in the design department know where it needs to be.
We have been testing a stiffer chassis lately for one of the bikes as we noticed that when we used super-soft slicks on a track there was room to improve. Flex is good – we need some at full lean angle to aleviate chatter. It is easy to produce a chassis that is too stiff; at maximum lean you feel every ripple in the surface and the bike is not pleasant to ride. To find the best solution we had to beef up one of the current frames to make it stiffer. We went back and forth a few times before making a change; the test is rigorous and it has to work with road tyres in normal conditions and on the race track.
Every rider in the department, including the project leaders, then tests the bike, then the test chassis is measured and a new chassis is designed to the same lateral and torsional stiffnesses. And then we repeat the test...
‘He wanted to stand on top of the podium when he won the championship, so he risked everything’
I’ve done some more coaching in Almeria with Tracksense this month, which proved to be interesting. A certain F1 driver was there for his first ever motorcycle trackday. I was told not to say who, but he’s been a world champ... Almeria is very technical; I’ve been coaching there for more than 10 years and my best lap was a 1.35 on a 500cc GP bike back in 2002. The fastest clients I coach are in the high 1.41s and are either racing at a national level or fast club level. A BSB guy will get a high 1.38. So, this F1 driver turns up and hires a standard S1000RR on his first visit to the circuit and posts a 1.45! My best ever lap on a road-going S1000RR is a 1.41 and that’s pushing because of lack of ground clearance. He virtually wore the pegs and brake pedal away – it was bent backwards when he finished. It goes to show how talented and fearless he is. Speaking of fear, a lot has been said lately about the number of crashes in MotoGP/ Moto2/Moto3. As spectators, we just accept it as part of the risk and assume that every rider must have a similar number of crashes each year. But that’s not so.
Also, the riders who crash more often aren’t less talented, as world champ Marc Marquez has proven with 27 crashes in 2017. The short-term problem with crashing is fracturing a bone or breaking ligaments and not being able to race, but for most people that sentence doesn’t make sense. Breaking a bone is bad enough and usually rest and recovery is the first thing on everyone’s mind, not jumping back on a motorcycle to finish qualifying practice or line up for a race. Racers must be wired slightly differently than your average Joe, otherwise the fear of crashing and injuring themselves would stop them from competing. There are long-term issues with crashing, too – I have arthritis, aching joints, missing digits, back/neck pain, different-length legs and reduced joint mobility. And I was one of the lucky ones. Marquez obviously has no fear whatsoever when he talks about pushing the bike to the edge everywhere to get feedback. He is mesmerising to watch and has taken it to a whole new level.
He doesn’t want to crash but if it happens when he’s trying to find the absolute limit of adhesion, then so be it; he accepts it, as do his team. In Valencia last year, where he didn’t need to win, he still pushed past the limit and could have lost the title. He wanted to stand on top of the podium when he won the championship, and risked everything. Only Marquez could have saved that slide! Rossi, on the other hand, has picked up a few serious knocks over the years and these are now ingrained in his memory, so he maintains a small safety margin throughout FP and QP. But he seems to leave his safety margin in the pit box for the race because the risks are worth the reward. Sam Lowes on the other hand won’t accept that he’s not competitive and will ride over the limit to prove his point, whether his bike is working or not.
Fear doesn’t come into his thinking, he is just dead-set on trying to beat or match his team-mate’s lap time and will take big risks to do it. Like in some other sports, competitors can seem to block out the fear and pain when adrenalin kicks in. We know adrenalin masks pain and lets us continue to a certain degree when injured, and maybe Marquez’s adrenalin is more powerful than anyone else’s. Bautista and Crutchlow are similarly fearless as they’ve crashed nearly as many times. Marquez could have crashed at least 50 times over the season had it not been for his cat-like reactions in saving the front from folding. Watch how he gets so far off the inside of the bike in anticipation of the front Michelin sliding. As his knee is tucked in under the bike because of the huge lean angles he carries, he is in a position to use his knee and elbow as a lever to lift the bike back up. This is a technique only he has perfected. It is another level of riding, but to do this he has to block any fear of getting injured out of his head – he’s something else.
I’ve been trackside at MotoGP for much of this year doing a bit of ‘spotting’ for wee John McPhee in Moto3 – it was his last race for the British Talent Team at Valencia (he’s moving to CIP KTM), and the team are moving to the Junior World Championship in Spain, which is essentially the feeder for the main Moto3 series and every bit as competitive. We’ll be fielding British Moto3 champ Tom Booth-Amos and Charlie Nesbitt, with my help trackside and in the garage, and hopefully put them in the frame for a ride in the full world championship in 2019. I get asked what my role as a spotter is about, and why so many riders are now using them. They’ve been about for years – Kenny Roberts used to watch us from trackside and usually got it bang-on. He would spot when I was trying too hard or staying on the side of the tyre for too long, I knew he was right but I’d shrug it off and tell him it wasn’t 1979! Biaggi would always watch 250cc practice before he went out in his 500 session to learn from other riders which lines worked best. He came into our pit box in Phillip Island when I was riding for Aprilia and told the boys that I’d be on pole that weekend just from watching me in free practice.
They told me, putting me under pressure, but luckily I pulled it off. And then crashed out of the race while I was leading... D’oh! I stand at different parts of the track during every session making notes, then listen to the conversation between rider and crew chief around each session. I then give feedback on areas that could be improved based on my observations combined with their discussion. I’m watching lines, timing small sectors, listening to gear changes and rpm. If the rider can’t attack it is usually pretty obvious – looking for lost fractions on the brakes, the bike’s stability under braking/acceleration, turning in too early or just using too much track on the exit. Sitting talking to the rider afterwards with a track map usually reminds him where he has issues if they’ve forgotten under the pressure of a short session. Most riders will take advice if the spotter is constructive with it. We can also help riders prepare mentally for sessions and races. ‘Try harder, full gas’ doesn’t work – you need to put a bit more thought into it than that. Data and rider feedback helps a crew chief to improve the bike – but some are better at interpreting data than others. Some MotoGP teams are now using an extra team of technicians to study data in great detail as the MotoGP sessions on Saturday don’t give the crew chief enough time to study everything in depth. If a rider is struggling in a certain section, the crew chief might not necessarily see this, particularly if the time lost is minimal. The team can easily spot when the rider loses time in sectors from the screen or timing sheets, but not turn by turn. If the rider believes that he is on the ideal line he may not recognise that he may be losing time unless this is pointed out, or he sees a faster rider taking a different approach and pulling away. Riders have plenty of self-belief so won’t always copy what other riders do unless that rider is topping the time sheets.
Crew chiefs keep libraries of data and usually compare sectors from data that they’ve built up over the years from different riders and teams. Before a session, they’ll discuss things like hesitation on the throttle – not opening cleanly or closing small percentages in areas where the rider should be using more, braking early or braking so late that corner entry is screwed up. All these are compared to suspension travel and changes made, plus the rider’s comments. For example, the average/maximum fork stroke may be in the ballpark on the data but riders only pull the brake as hard as they are comfortable with up to the point where the rear gets too light and upsets the bike. The travel data may show that the fork is not at maximum travel, but he could be losing 10/15 metres in one braking zone. If the rear suspension is soft, then the bike squats under acceleration and runs wide – the rider isn’t able to keep accelerating as he struggles to keep turning. If the rear is too hard, the rider loses time as he is unable to get on the throttle early because the grip is low. The numbers on the data give the team an indication where they need to improve. Numbers on a screen tell you a lot, and riders have a huge understanding of what’s going on – but sometimes, a keen pair of eyes trackside can provide the missing link when trying to find those last fractions of a second.
John had a difficult tail end of the sea son, crashing in Australia, salvaging a fifth in Malaysia and needing a good result in Valencia before he moved on. An eighth from 22nd on the grid was a great way for him and the team to finish the year. I support him as a spotter right until the moment the grid is cleared for the race.
Spying on the spies
The Milan show is special, but it’s difficult to concentrate on bikes with all those beautiful Italian models perched on top of them. Some really stood out (bikes, that is...). The V4 Ducati was nice to see, while we at KTM launched the 790 Adventure and the 790 Duke. My next job is working on a track version – a 790 Duke R - and I can’t wait to show you the pics of this extreme thing as it missed the launch. I spotted Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali with five of his top brass taking notes. Manufacturers really take each other’s new products seriously.
End of season blow-out
I crammed in three days at Jerez coaching at a Tracksense event on my new Super Duke 1290R. If you’ve ridden one you’ll know how much fun they are: it’s a pure beast in track mode. These events are a good way to get together at the end of a season and let some steam off in sunny Spain. A little thanks to FWR for keeping me in tyres while I was there...