That was quite a weekend in all kinds of ways. But most of all it was a changing of the guard. As Marc Márquez rode his victory lap at Valencia, cheered all the way by the frenzied Spanish crowd, Valentino Rossi rode back to his pit for the last time to be greeted by Jeremy Burgess. When JB and VR started working together at Jerez in December 1999, kid genius Márquez was six years old and had just started motocross.
You can imagine the atmosphere in both pits was somewhat different: complete joy at Repsol Honda, sad goodbyes on one side of the Yamaha garage, the inexorable rise of the young warrior and the gradual, inevitable demise of an old warhorse.
A history of success
I found myself getting a bit emotional about JB’s departure. During my rookie season as a GP journo – 1988 – JB was working with defending champ Wayne Gardner. WG was having a horrible year: every race looked like a fight to the death with his Honda NSR500. The previous year’s NSR had been a sweet-handling (ish) rocketship – good enough to take Gardner to the title ahead of Eddie Lawson’s Yamaha.
But, as was the tradition in those days, HRC changed their whole 500 GP engineering group for the following season and the new engineers created a horrible piece of machinery, which tried to kill Gardner every time he got on it.
Finally JB got out the hacksaw and the welding kit, cut and shut the frame and the swingarm and all of a sudden Gardner was on a roll. He won three straight races and was leading a humdinger of a race at Circuit Paul Ricard (arguably the greatest premier-class confrontation of all time) when his engine ate itself. The title returned to Lawson and Yamaha.
All through that year, JB was happy to talk about why the bike didn’t work and what he was doing to improve it. Ever since then he’s been the same. During 2013 he was open and honest about what he needed to do to Rossi’s YZR-M1, even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Yamaha.
Seems like everyone in the paddock signs NDAs these days, which is why many engineers simply look sheepish and walk away when you ask them a question about their motorcycle. The loss of JB and others like him is a huge loss to journalists – and therefore to you – because truth and reality become hidden behind pit garage doors.
Premier-class titles Burgess had a hand in
Freddie Spencer, 1985 (Honda)
Wayne Gardner, 1987 (Honda)
Mick Doohan, 1994-’98 (Honda)
Valentino Rossi, 2001-’03 (Honda) 2004-’05 & 2008-’09 (Yamaha)
JB is nothing if not a pragmatist, which is why he was so good at his job, and it’s why he took his unceremonious sacking on the chin.
“It’s sort of understandable,” he told me after he had arrived home in Australia. “Valentino didn’t have anywhere to move to and he wanted to do something, to be seen to be doing something.
“It’s a Nick Faldo/Roger Federer/Andre Agassi-type decision – it’s late in his career and he feels he needs something different. But if he succeeds, it’ll come from him, certainly not from the change. I admire him for trying to do something but it’s probably not going to do much at all.
“On Sunday we crowned the youngest-ever premier-class World Champion and Valentino wants to reinvent himself as the oldest-ever MotoGP champion. The figures clearly don’t stack up, but I admire his courage.”
In fact, JB is a tad out on his stats (which doesn’t happen often). The oldest premier-class champ is Les Graham, the Second World War Lancaster bomber pilot who won the inaugural 500 world title in 1949 at the age of 37 years and 340 days. If Rossi were to win the 2014 MotoGP world title at the end of next season, he would be knocking on 35. It’s not impossible: Phil Read won the 1974 500 crown aged 35 years and 208 days and Mick Doohan won his last title in 1998 aged 33 years and 122 days.
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But, as JB says, “we live in a changing world”, in which young talents achieve things at ages that would’ve been pretty much impossible a few decades ago.
Burgess turned 60 back in April and has been looking towards retirement for the last few years, which might be one reason why Rossi made his shock decision.
Burgess and Rossi in 2004
“It’s come at the right time, to be honest,” added JB. “To get 34 years out of this industry was fantastic and I’ve been smart enough to realise this day was coming for a few years. But I’ll always be interested in motorcycle racing – that won’t go away.”
Engineering by committee
The changing world had already had an effect on the satisfaction that JB gained from racing. The switch from two-strokes to four-strokes in 2002 took a lot of magic away from his job. No longer was it him alone who made things work or not, and that process of the individual becoming overtaken by the committee has accelerated in recent years as the bikes and the rules have become more and more complex.
“There’s now five of us who make the decisions as a collective group in the set-up of the motorcycle, so I’m 20 per cent of the overall equation,” explains JB. “We’ve got a suspension engineer, we’ve got a telemetrist, we’ve got the guy who writes the programmes to save the fuel and do all the mapping, we’ve got a Japanese engineer and we’ve got myself, so it’s not like it was 15 or 16 years ago when the chief mechanic made the call on the suspension, the jetting and everything else.
“It’s a bigger organisation now, so at the end of the day I’m only 20 per cent of it, but I’m probably the only 20 per cent that could be changed to create some sort of impetus that Valentino thinks will help him to go forwards, and I hope it will. But his bikes have been competitive all this year, no question about that.”
Burgess doesn’t yet know what he will do in the future. Like the rest of Rossi’s mostly Australasian crew, he still has a year to run of a two-year contract with Yamaha. He may stay home on the farm, tinkering away with his beloved classic cars, or he may turn up as a consultant at some races, or he may turn his hand to helping some young Aussie racers in national racing. He’s in no hurry to make a decision.
Whatever JB decides to do, I wish him well. For 25 years he has been one of a select band of personalities in the paddock who always tells it like it is. Sadly, it’s that group of people is ever-diminishing in a World Championship where PR and brand promotion often seem more important than bike racers and motorcycles.