Inside a MotoGP rider/crew chief marriage

MotoGP

Maverick Viñales has changed crew chiefs for the second time in less than three seasons. So what’s so important about a crew chief? We spoke to ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, Kel Carruthers and Jeremy Burgess to find out

Kenny Roberts 1980

Kenny Roberts in 1980 with crew chief Kel Carruthers (to his left) and mechanics Nobby Clark and Trevor Tilbury

Paul-Henri Cahier / Getty Images

Maverick Viñales recently got married and became a dad for the first time. Hearty congratulations to him, Raquel and baby Nina!

However, the 26-year-old Spaniard is already on his third pitlane marriage, because many riders and crew chiefs will tell you that their relationship is like a marriage.

To make a rider/crew chief union successful requires many of the same attributes that make a marriage: good communication, understanding, honesty, empathy, forgiveness, management of emotions and so on.

So why has Viñales already divorced two crew chiefs? And who is to blame for the collapse of his previous two pitlane relationships: him or Ramon Forcada, him or Esteban Garcia? And will new garage partner Silvano Galbusera be able to give the 26-year-old what he needs to harness his undoubted talent?

In other words, do Viñales’ problems come from inside or outside?

To understand the bigger picture perhaps we should look back at some of the great rider/crew chief relationships; most famously Valentino Rossi and Jeremy Burgess, who had previously won world titles with Mick Doohan and before that with Wayne Gardner.

During 23 seasons JB won a remarkable 13 500cc and MotoGP titles and he never divorced anyone. Honda first assigned him to Gardner, then Doohan and finally Rossi, who unceremoniously sacked him in favour of Galbusera at the end of 2013

As always JB’s assessment of that event was frank and accurate.

“I’ve read enough sporting biographies to know that sportsmen change their coaches towards the end of their careers,” he told me a while back. “It can give them a spike in results but it doesn’t change the overall story.”

All good MotoGP crew chiefs understand that they must perform two very different functions: they must be psychologists as well as engineers, which are very different jobs.

“A lot of my job is to create an air of confidence rather than an air of negativity,” said JB in 2001. “If we have a problem and we give the appearance that we may not be able to fix it, obviously that’s not a positive. The important thing is to work on the positives and to keep everyone in a positive frame of mind. We will have bad races, and riders will have bad days, you’ve just got to stay positive.

Jeremy Burgess, 1976 Suzuki

Jeremy Burgess racing a Suzuki RG500 before he became a crew chief

Burgess archive

“It’s important to create an attitude of, ‘We can fix it’. Things will come right if you work hard enough. If you have bike problems, you mustn’t move that negativity into the rider. Last year [2000] when the Repsol Honda team were in dire straits, they destroyed themselves. We had a worse bike because we were number four in the pecking order but we isolated Valentino from the nightmare next door and just worked at getting the best out of our bike. We applied ourselves and worked through it logically.”

Burgess always liked to keep things simple in his garage.

“It’s the same in all sports,” he says. “Look at soccer, there are three sides to the game – when they’ve got the ball, when you’ve got the ball and when no one’s got the ball. How much more difficult than that can it be? It’s the same in motorcycle racing – the bike either works or it doesn’t. The rider is going to have problems, and problems are only questions that don’t have answers, so you find the answer anyhow. And when your rider comes into the pits he’s always going to speak about his biggest problem first, otherwise he’s a complete nitwit. It’s that simple. I don’t know, maybe I’m so dumb I can only see the big things but I think you should fix your bigger problems first and then you move on. A lot of people get wound up about small things.

“If I was to describe myself, I was the non-specific guy. A modern racing motorcycle is so sophisticated that it’s impossible for one or two or even three men to work on it, it demands much more than that, but there has to be someone who has an understanding and a feeling for what the rider is trying to explain. Plus there’s a lot to be done, so someone has to organise and prioritise how much time we can give between one practice and the next on a particular problem and what steps we’re going to take to reduce that problem.”

There were great rider/crew chief pairings before JB and his riders: Wayne Rainey and Mike Sinclair, Eddie Lawson and Erv Kanemoto, Freddie Spencer and Erv Kanemoto and Kevin Schwantz and Stuart Shenton and ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Kel Carruthers.

Even before that there was Geoff Duke and Norton’s Joe Craig, Mike Hailwood and Honda’s Michihiko Aika and Giacomo Agostini and MV Agusta’s Arturo Magni, but those were less intimate relationships, more like rider and factory functionary.

Therefore I’d argue that the first modern rider/crew chief duo was Roberts and Carruthers, who stormed Europe in the late 1970s, taking a hat-trick of 500cc world titles at their first attempt.

Valentino Rossi, 2014 Philip Island

Silvano Galbusera (on Rossi’s right) at Phillip Island, 2014

Yamaha

The pair were very close, because Yamaha first asked Carruthers to look after Roberts when the youngster started roadracing in the early 1970s.

“The rider/crew chief thing is a marriage,” says Roberts. “It’s the same thing – ignore the small shit to get the big stuff done. And you’ve got to know what to say and when to say it.

“Motorcycles isn’t like Formula 1, where the crew chief is an engineer. In bikes it’s more of a human relationship than an engineering relationship, because motorcycle racing is very touchy-feely. If you aren’t feeling it, if you aren’t comfortable, you aren’t going to win, I don’t care who you are.

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“You’ve got to have a rapport, because if you’re in a tense situation and the rider says something wrong about the bike then the crew chief will be in deep shit. You’re always going to have disagreements. I knew that and it wasn’t a problem for me. Many times I could easily have thrown a fit and said, ‘I need a new guy’. But everybody is human and makes mistakes. Then you get the guys that blame their problems on the crew chief – Max Biaggi was a lot like that.”

Carruthers had won the 250cc world championship a few years before he started working with Roberts, so he knew what he was talking about. Many of the greatest crew chiefs are former riders, because it’s easier to understand what a rider is talking about if you’ve been in that same situation. Burgess, for example, raced at a high level in Australia.

“I think it helps if the crew chief has raced,” Roberts adds. “It’s not the end-of but it probably adds a bit more credibility when they’re talking to the rider. If the rider respects the guy he’s working with that makes a hell of a difference.

“A lot of times Kel knew what I was going to say before I said it, but he let me say it anyway. Kel and I spent a whole lot of time together, so if you don’t like the guy it’s impossible. We got on and I had faith in him, although he did put my brake pads in backwards at Assen in 1981. I was on pole and it was the first grand prix the managing director of Yamaha had ever visited. I didn’t get to start the race, but you’ve got to be able to laugh that stuff off.”

Yamaha trusted Carruthers so much that its engineers gave him freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted to the bikes – things that would never even be contemplated now.

Maverick Vinales, 2021 Qatar GP

Esteban Garcia (on Viñales’ left) after victory in the 2021 Qatar GP

Yamaha

“I had a lathe and a milling machine in the back of the truck,” Carruthers says. “One year the new 500 arrived, and it was useless, so I machined a millimetre off the bottom of the cylinders, modified the cylinder heads and changed the port timing. Another time the rotary-valve inlet timing was all wrong, so they sent complete 360-degree discs and I cut them myself. Once they even let me cut the front end off a 500 chassis and weld it back at a different angle!

“When I first went to Europe with Kenny we were basically on our own; we had one Japanese guy who basically just took notes. The Japanese engineers told me they were learning from me what it was all about. It eventually got to the stage where they had learned a lot, they became more involved and the bikes got better.”

After Roberts retired from racing at the end of 1983 Yamaha occasionally asked him to help younger riders who were getting lost with all the complexity and responsibility of top-level racing.

“Yamaha came and asked me to talk to this 250 rider whose head was all screwed up. This guy told me, ‘I’ve got this problem with the truck and with this mechanic’. I told him, ‘They’re not your problem, your problem is that you’re not fast. You’ve got to forget about everything else and start worrying about being fast.”

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Roberts was lucky to have Carruthers at his side when he first came to Europe in 1978, because the Australian didn’t only fettle the bikes he also looked after Roberts and shepherded him around the Continent. Carruthers always led their motorhome convoy because Roberts had no idea where he was going.

“Wherever Kel went, I was in his draft, driving my motorhome with Patty, Chrissie and Kenny [his wife, daughter and son],” Roberts recalls. “When we arrived at Hockenheim it was dark and the only thing I knew about Germany was the war. At seven the next morning there was this screaming noise: ‘Achtung fahrerlager! Achtung fahrerlager’. I said: ‘Oh f***, we’re in the wrong goddam place and they’re going to shoot us’. I ran out the motorhome and I was beating on Kel’s door and he said, ‘That means attention paddock, now go back to bed’.”

Viñales finished sixth in his first race with Galbusera on Sunday but was credited with fifth after team-mate Fabio Quartararo was hit with a penalty. His best finish since his win at the first race was fifth at the second race, so there was no magic turnaround with his new crew chief at Barcelona.

“We are going step by step because we need to go slow in building confidence,” he said. “Silvano is a smart guy with a lot of experience, also with Valentino. I think he can help me with a few things.”

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that results at this level come from inside, not from outside. The results sheets over the next weeks and months will tell us if that’s true or not.