or working proress
When it comes to setting-up a modern MotoGP bike, you could imagine that it may get a bit complicated. In fact, it might even be quite difficult, we suppose.
On every new weekend, the bike may feel different to ride, the temperature might be more
or less than last time the team was there, the surface may have been re-laid, the rider may not have had his favourite breakfast cereal, there will always be a new engine map or tyre to evaluate, the moon in Uranus is probably now waning in Capricornů you can see why making sense of all the ever-changing influences on the ultimate performance of John Hopkins' and Chris Vermeulen's Rizla Suzuki GSV-Rs is no small undertaking.
Ironically, the very freedom MotoGP teams have in adjusting every aspect of the machine, either by old-fashioned spanners or by leading edge software, only helps the overall cause if it's all under control, and the team can predict what a click here or a laptop keystroke there might mean, as their rider tries to take the 160mph Turn 11 at Istanbul at maybe 160.1mph next time.
Of all the various people involved in improving on-day performance, the rider is ultimately the one who matters, but next to him in terms of weekend performance is his Crew Chief. Part confessor, part motivational speaker, part mind-reader, and not exactly a beginner with a set of wrenches or a telemetry printout to hand, these are the guys who translate talk and tech into an improved package for the rider.
For Hopkins, his window to the technical world is Stuart Shenton, for Vermeulen, it's Tom O'Kane.
Each pairing obviously share similar experiences on a day-to-day basis but they clearly have different approaches to their identical tasks - which brings a heartening human aspect to what is very much an equipment sport.
That is as much to do with the riders themselves as any previous experience they have, as Shenton relates. "All the guys I've ever worked with are totally individual characters. Whether that is part of what makes them good at what they do or not, I don't know, but they are all totally different characters."
Of his current charge, Shenton states, "John doesn't say much in the session, he says what he feels and what he likes and dislikes, and in that respect he keeps it very simple. Then it is up to me to interpret what he means by each comment. In some ways that doesn't sound very good, but in others it is. A lot of this job is taking care of the details, and keeping it simple."
You might imagine that after a racing career on street derived machinery, even at the highest levels and with 200bhp plus under his control, MotoGP rookie Vermeulen would have taken time to adapt to the rigours of MotoGP technology and testing workload. According to O'Kane - not a tiny bit of it. "Chris is the most professional rider I have ever worked with," says Vermeulen's Crew-Chief, who has worked with a few real talents in his time. "He is completely focussed on every aspect of what he has to do to actually go faster - whether that is understanding the chassis set-up or understanding the tyres. He understands, or tries to understand, everything about the bike."
Hopkins is clearly focussed only on his own job during sessions and leaves a lot of the changes to the vast experience of Shenton. "We try to be very organised in every practice session, and one of the main things with John, is that during the course of the weekend he doesn't like too much change," affirms Shenton. "So, what is important is that a lot of time goes into the initial setting of the bike, and we go through a lot of data from previous years - gearboxes, suspension, geometry - to try and make the best starting point possible, so we won't have to change it too much over the weekend."
This being Vermeulen's first full year, some special preparations were made for him, of course, with O'Kane filling in the gaps where possible. "This year is a little bit difficult, because obviously some of the racetracks that we have gone to he hasn't ridden on before, so at the beginning of the year I prepared a dossier of all the circuits for him, and that goes into a folder. The first thing he does is look through that and look at the lap times and qualifying times from the previous year. He will get an assessment then, look at how the different tyres and different machines went."
Much to the relief of those who love MotoGP racing as an intimately human endeavour, conducted at inhuman speeds, Shenton punctures one modern myth of MotoGP racing. That it's all got so machinery-oriented and so analytical thanks to telemetry that the rider is now playing less of a part in the deal when it comes to set-up. "Telemetry is only another tool. That's all it is," says an unequivocal Shenton. "It isn't the answer to anything; it's only another tool to use, to look at, to go along with the rider's comment. The guy riding the bike is still important. If the telemetry says one thing and the rider another, the rider is still the one turning the throttle."
The man in the team with the keenest interest in overall performance is the man responsible for not just one Rizla Suzuki rider, but both, Team Manager Paul Denning. His unbiased viewpoint has shown him that there is never just one way to go about things when different personalities are involved. "Each of the guys is quite different in their approach to work in the pits and in how much they want to know," said Denning in summation. "John has a saying that goes, "the more you know, the slower you go." For Chris, he is a lot more interested in how everything on the bike works, and is a bit more analytical in his approach. However they go about things, it works well for each of them."