One of the most fascinating areas of MotoGP is the relationship between rider and crew chief. The way that those two individuals communcate and interact can be the difference between winning championships and riding around mid-pack. Riders need a massive amount of talent to go fast, but they also need to understand what the bike is doing underneath them and be able to communicate that to their chief engineer. Likewise, crew chiefs have to have a solid grounding in race bike physics and an understanding of how to make a machine that is capable of lapping very fast, but they also need to be able to listen to what their rider is really saying, and understand what he needs to allow him to go faster.
It is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. At Estoril, I had the chance to interview Jorge Lorenzo together with his crew chief Ramon Forcada. 2010 World Champion Lorenzo came into MotoGP off the back of two 250cc World Championships in 2006 and 2007, and was joined by Forcada, a 20-year veteran of the Grand Prix paddock, in the factory Yamaha team. Both men were known for their ability, but they had to find a way to work together to get the best out of the relationship, and out of the Yamaha M1. Here is what they had to say about how that relationship works:
David Emmett: What I’d really like to find out from you is how you two work together. Because to me the combination of rider and crew chief is really important, it is like a chemistry, it is like a marriage.
Ramon Forcada: It’s much more easy.
Jorge Lorenzo: It’s much more easy because you spend less time together than a married couple.
RF: Basically, he request what he need, and I try to do it for him… End of interview! [laughs]
DE: It can’t be that easy. There must be more to it, you have to be able to understand each other. The two of you were thrown together, when Yamaha signed Jorge, they separately asked you, Ramon, to come and join him as crew chief?
JL: Actually, I chose Ramon, together with my manager. We decided that we wanted Ramon, and asked Yamaha for him.
DE: So you knew Ramon before?
DE: Not as a person, but only of his reputation.
JL: Professionaly. He was with Sito Pons mainly, and he was Spanish, which is important.
DE: Yes, because obviously you two speak Spanish together.
JL: English normally.
RF: Now, normally English, because on the team we have a suspension guy who is Australian, we have the Japanese technicians, and the tire guy is German. And the mechanics and the telemetry guy is Italian, so the common language is English.
JL: I try, but sometimes he has to help me to speak English.
RF: But sometimes it is good, because for us, English is not our first language, to explain in general what happens is possible. But the details, the small feeling, of exactly what you want to say is, what mean the words, to clarify in Spanish, is good for both because then I know exactly what he means, and he is sure that I understood exactly what he wants to say. But normally we speak English with all the team.
DE: How did you feel when Jorge asked to be working with you. Did you have any hesitations?
RF: Yes, I definitely hesitated! [Laughs] No, joking, I immediately said yes, because I knew it was a good opportunity. He was clearly a good rider with a good potential. Also even from outside, just looking at his riding style on the Aprilia and knowing the characteristics of the Yamaha, it was easy to imagine him on the Yamaha.
DE: So you think Jorge’s time on the Aprilia made the step to Yamaha easier?
RF: Yes, I think so. For me, what was easier was not the Aprilia, but his riding style on the Aprilia, to the Yamaha. What I saw from Valentino riding the bike, or Colin, to me it was easy to imagine him on the Yamaha. Maybe more easy than imagining him on the Ducati. At that moment Casey was riding the Ducati and it was a bit more difficult, more different than his style on the Aprilia.
JL: I think one of my best things is that I know exactly what I have to do to go as fast as I can with the bike I have. So when I was in 125, the Derbi was a very difficult bike. It has no acceleration, no low power, it doesn’t have anything, so only medium power and high power. So the only way to go fast is to sacrifice the braking and to carry very high corner speed, to exit the corner with high speed so you don’t need to open the throttle.
And I was fast with Derbi while other riders who won races with another brand weren’t fast on it. So when I jumped onto the Honda, the bike give me the feeling that I had to brake very late. So I braked extremely late, very late, the opposite to the Derbi. Because the Honda you can brake very late, but you can open the throttle and the bike has power on exit, you have power very low down, and very easy to use in the middle of the corner, in the slow corners.
When I came to the Aprilia, it was the opposite. I have to brake a little bit earlier, but keep the speed in the middle of the corner, because this bike was critical in acceleration. So I understand very well how I can be fast with the bike I have. But my riding style in general is corner speed.
DE: And that suits the Yamaha.
JL: Yes, that is the Yamaha.
DE: When you first started working together, how quickly could you start to understand each other properly? Was it straight away that Ramon understood what you wanted, Jorge, and that he understood what you were trying to say?
RF: No, it was not so difficult. In the beginning we speak more Spanish than now.
DE: Because his English has improved a lot.
JL: A little bit …
RF: For example in the first race, we got the pole position, in Qatar in 2008, which means that our team, not only me, but the Spanish engineer, the suspension guy, the tire guy, everyone understood quite easily what he wants, what he needs. For me one of the good points of Jorge is that he knows what he needs to be fast. And the second part is to get it, and this is more difficult. But for example, if he feels that he needs more acceleration, or he needs more turning, or he needs more braking to be fast, then that is good, because if we concentrate on this point, we are sure we will be faster.
Our thinking is, okay, we need to give him what he requests, because what he requests is right, always. Sometimes it is difficult, because for some riders, in my experience, sometimes they say, “I don’t know how to improve” and then for me it is, what do we do? We are not the rider and so we can check the data, but exactly what the rider needs to be faster, this is something that rider needs to have in the feeling. To understand exactly what it means, what the words mean for this person.
That’s why in the beginning we used more Spanish, because this is very important in communication between rider and team, is to understand the same. If the rider is talking about cornering, it is very important to know if this means corner entry, or keeping the line, or the exit of the corner, exactly what he means. This is what was easy from the beginning, because we understood very easily, okay, for his riding style we need this kind of bike; this is the stronger point, so we have to make the stronger point work well. We have to minimize the worst point. And that was really not that difficult.
JL: The first year we had, not really a problem, but some difficulties to work on the setting. In the preseason and in the first three races I was quite fast, and I was able to fight for the victory. And we didn’t touch the bike so much. Also when I was with the three other brands in 125 and 250, I didn’t touch so much the bike. I wanted to get the maximum out of the bike we have, without touching it so much. So the first three races we didn’t touch the bike much, but as soon as I started to crash and to have bad results, and not to be competitive enough, I started to ask for something more. I asked Ramon to take out more power using the electronics in the corners, to change the bike, and almost every session we changed completely the bike. Because I asked Ramon.
Ramon, he is chief mechanic, so I think that if you tell him “change this” he will change it, no? He doesn’t say, OK, little by little, first you go fast with the bike you have. So, I asked him to change the bike, and he did. So in this period, we got confused, and every session was worse and worse, and we couldn’t be competitive.
RF: And also one problem in 2008 was that the Michelin tire, the performance was completely different from one circuit to the next. And now with the Bridgestone, with the spec tire, the tire is working, some small differences depending on the circuit, but it is working very similarly. With the Michelin, at that moment Michelin were struggling a lot, because Bridgestone made a big step …
JL: Every track was different. The feel was different at every track.
RF: They tried to find something, the number of tires was free, so at the end they tried to do their best, but sometimes we arrived and we had eight kinds of rear tire and six of front tire to test.
JL: And these would have nothing to do with the tires they brought to the other tracks.
RF: So they brought all these tires for practice, it was impossible. So the first thing to was look at the weather, okay, we discard this one, this one, and this one.
For example, I remember Laguna Seca in 2008, the first Michelin rider was 34 seconds behind the winner. So, when you are in this situation, for sure our job is to try to find the best for the rider. If everything is normal, we can work in the normal way. But if something is abnormal, like the tire at that moment had a completely different performance from one circuit to other one, well… At a track where it works well, for example here, if it were here, with the bike we make, we start on the bike that we change almost nothing on during the weekend because the tires are working well. But in the track the tire are not working at all, we were forced to do something to make the tire work. And in the end the problem was that we were working more for the tire than for the rider.
JL: But everything was a disaster. Too many changes on the bike to solve, too little competitiveness that the tire was giving you, no?
DE: So when you went to Bridgestone that solved a lot of problems just by having one tire.
JL: Yes, with Bridgestone we change less, very little. Much less than now, now we change quite a bit …
RF: But now we are at the beginning of the season, we are trying to find the base setting. This is very important. Because now, for example, in the 800s, the first year we changed tires. But in 2009 we got a good base setting, 2009/2010 we almost changed nothing almost nothing on the bike. In 2011 a little bit more because we are struggling a bit more. But in 2009/2010 we don’t change so much, we had the base setting.
So now we are on the new bike, we are changing a bit more, because now we are trying to find the good base setting. But once we have this base setting, we stay on the bike and we adjust a little something, we don’t change, we adjust to every circuit. But this is important. At first the rider needs to feel exactly, okay, now I feel the bike is okay. Now we need to adjust for every circuit.
DE: Okay, so Jorge’s strong point is that he understands what he needs to go fast, and he only asks for the things which will improve the bike. Jorge, what is Ramon’s strongest point?
JL: I think he is one of the best about suspension, because he was suspension technician, so he has a lot of experience about working with suspension. He has a lot of experience of MotoGP, because he has been in MotoGP from the beginning. He is a clever man. Andhe is Spanish! The strongest point is the suspension.
DE: Yes, he can give you the suspension that you need to work.
JL: And he doesn’t lose his nerves when something is wrong. He always has some solution. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is wrong, but …
RF: Always a solution, good or bad …
DE: So he is stays calm and staying calm is one of the most important things for crew chiefs and for riders?
JL: Yes, because sometimes the way you see your chief mechanic, his feeling transmits to you, affects you. If you see your chief mechanic is nervous, you get a little bit nervous.
RF: For me this is true. For me, I have never been a rider, but I can imagine if he has a problem, he arrives in the garage and the chief mechanic gives the idea that he doesn’t know what to do, for the rider this must be a disaster, must be a frustration …
DE: So sometimes you have to put on a face and say, okay, I understand …
RF: Normally it is clear that he has some problem, and he explains the problem. And then sure, every problem has a way to fix it. Sometimes it is possible, sometimes it is not. But for me this is important. I am lucky, because I worked with Antonio Cobas in the past. He said, something is never impossible until you try. For sure many times we try setting that doesn’t work, but this is normal, not only me, but everybody. But first you need to try. If the rider has some problem you need to imagine the way to fix this problem. Then maybe it is wrong, but for me, I can imagine if this rider, okay, I have a chattering for example, and I say I don’t know what to do for the chattering, for him this has to be a big frustration.
DE: What is Ramon’s weak point, what is his worst point?
JL: Sometimes he is a little closed to trying something. I or the Japanese engineers want to try something, and from his experience, sometimes he thinks that the thing we are going to try, or we want to try, is something he tried in the past and didn’t work, so it will not work in the future. But for me I think that maybe sometimes something didn’t work in the past, but can work in the future. Another track or other circumstances …
DE: If you change something that didn’t work then might work now?
JL: Yes, sometimes he is a little scared to try something, but luckily sometimes it is easy to convince him to try it, finally.
DE: What is Jorge’s weakest point?
RF: One thing that he has, it is a combination, when he is on the bike, he is always 100% trying to be fast. And sometimes we have something to try on the bike, sometimes we want to try two or three things together, but he focuses on being quick. For example, if we want to try some different settings on the electronics, but he goes out and the bike already feels good, he comes back to the garage and he didn’t try it. And sometimes for us, even if the result is not good from trying a setting, this is good information.
JL: I don’t see any important thing, or big difference, I say, I don’t feel any difference, but I don’t have information.
RF: Sometimes he also forgets, when we try three settings, and he comes back in the first setting because it was okay. But it is not a big problem, sometimes we make plan which isn’t used, because he focuses on the riding. This is also a positive point, that we never waste time on the track. Sometimes we plan to test something that we cannot because he forget or he decides not to try, but we never go on the track two seconds slower to waste the time, never.
JL: Never in my life I have been 70% or 80% on track, I have always been 95% or 100%. I never was less, so I don’t know how to do this. I never exit the track, exit the pits, to go to see how the bike is or to see a setting, I just try to go around as fast as possible. It is difficult for me sometimes.
DE: Last question. I know you Jorge, are a very strong willed person, and from what I have heard from other people you, Ramon are also a strong willed person. Is that difficult sometimes? Do you clash?
RF: It is difficult for ten seconds! But also, after four years of working together this is easy to understand. For people like me who have a very strong character, they need the time to relax. So if that happens to me, I am sure it happens to Jorge. If he comes back to the garage very angry because something doesn’t work …
JL: And he is angry, also …
RF: But it is much better to wait 5 seconds or 10 seconds, when feelings cool down and then we start work. If he is angry and also I am angry, and we try to fix the problem with big points, this is a disaster. So this is what we learned in the past four years. I remember, the first year, he was much more angry – not more angry, but maybe longer than now when something doesn’t work. This is something that, also sometimes I try to be and I try to teach him, to relax and then to start talking. I learned to count to 100 and then start to ask him things.
JL: We respect more each other’s angry moments.
RF: Yes, because if you don’t respect the angry moments, you make them longer, and then you are just wasting more time. Because when one of us is angry or both, this is useless time.
Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.