Yamaha's Alex Briggs: going MotoGP racing in a time of Covid

MotoGP

Factory Yamaha mechanic Alex Briggs on how has paddock and pit-lane life changed due to the global pandemic

Valentino Rossi's Yamaha crew, 2020 MotoGP

Rossi’s crew at Jerez, from left: Bernard Ansiau, Alex Briggs, Brent Stephens and Mark Elder

Yamaha

Alex Briggs raced motocross when he was a kid, got a job as a motocross mechanic as a teenager and landed his first gig in roadracing in 1993 with Rothmans Honda, working with fellow Australian Daryl Beattie. He joined Mick Doohan’s crew in 1994, winning five 500cc titles with the Aussie and has worked with Valentino Rossi since the Italian graduated to the premier class 21 years ago. His bikes have won 12 500cc/MotoGP world titles and 133 grands prix.

Going racing during the Covid-19 pandemic is especially complicated for Briggs because he lives in Australia. Due to travel permit difficulties he didn’t arrive at Jerez until last Thursday, the day before official practice commenced.

“You can’t leave Australia unless you apply to the government, because there’s a broad travel ban in place,” says Briggs, who lives in New South Wales. “The only categories allowed to travel are anything Covid-related, medical science, the energy industry and so on.

“The group I fall into is non-essential, so my application had to go before the immigration minister. You can only apply online and you can’t contact them. I applied three weeks before my flight, which was due to get me into Spain the Saturday before the race.

Related article

“On the day of my flight [from Gold Coast airport to Sydney, Sydney to Dubai, Dubai to Europe] I’d still heard nothing. So Ellen [Mrs Briggs] and I drove to Gold Coast airport – we’d got the permit we needed to cross the Queensland border – and we thought the airline could contact border security to see if my travel permit was good to go. But they didn’t know, so we drove home. When I got home I changed my flights. Flights are very limited at the moment, so the best we could come up with was four days later. So I made the change, checked my email to see if the flight details had come through and there was the email from the government to say it was okay to leave the country!”

Briggs flew from home to Sydney last Tuesday, where the airport was deserted. Instead of the usual 200 flights per day the airport is handling only four or five, because the government is limiting incoming passengers to 450 per day, with a maximum of 50 people on each flight.

“When I got to Sydney airport it was just empty – I found the whole thing very Day of the Triffids [a 1960s disaster movie in which carnivorous plants take over Earth, killing millions and leading to social disintegration]. It felt like something had happened to everyone else in the world and the only people left were these people wearing masks. I was a little nervous, because it didn’t feel quite right.

“I got on the plane, wiped down my seat, the TV and everything, like Naomi Campbell, and flew to Dubai. I’d already had my Covid test, which was negative, so I was thinking, what if I get it on the plane? After 24 hours of flying I went to Madrid for another test, in case my first test had expired because of the flight delay. I got to Jerez the day after the Wednesday tests.

2020 MotoGP paddock

Entering the Jerez paddock: where temperatures and COVID apps are checked

Briggs

“At the track your phone is your most important possession because it’s got the Covid app on there. You have to have your phone with you to enter the circuit and to exit the circuit. No one even looks at your pass, they look at your phone.

“Driving to the circuit in the car we’re all wearing masks, then you get to the entrance where everyone’s wearing masks and everyone’s got their phones in their hands and you’re not supposed to socialise with anyone from other teams. Someone tests your temperature, you show your app, they beep the QR code, a guy squirts hand gel on your hands and you’re in. To exit the circuit you need to show the app again.

“Once you’re in the paddock and working it feels like you’re going preseason testing because the place isn’t that busy. You’re wearing masks the whole day and after 12 or 13 hours the backs of your ears are burning and it feels like the bridge of your nose is broken, so we’ve made little adaptors to make them a bit more comfortable. It’s a relief to take them off.

“The masks make communication in the garage a bit tricky. We’re using more hand signals, because the radio channel is busy, because everyone’s on it. And even the radio is slightly muffled because everyone is talking through their masks.

Related article

“It’s f***ing hot at Jerez, like the first race in Qatar, in 2004 [when pit-lane ambient temperature exceeded 40 degrees]. We’ve got some aircon in the garage to make things a bit more bearable, but we flick it off when we’ve got the tyre warmers on.

“During the weekend I had the usual first-race-of-the-year nerves and I was also nervous because it was our first race in such a long while. Otherwise everything just seemed the same, I had the same nerves and worries as usual. The lack of a crowd had no effect on me because our focus is so small. People always say to me, ‘How did your rider go in the race, where did he come?’, but all I know is who was in front of him and who was behind, because I help Mark [Elder] with the pitboard, so all we do is stress about watching the sector times pop up and getting them on the board in time. We rarely see the race properly – you see it better at home on TV!

“In the paddock there’s definitely a bit of anxiety and tension, about getting ill and about things closing down again, or for people like me getting stuck here and not being able to get back to Australia.

“The virus is starting to ramp up in some places, so I’m looking at the infection graphs that look like in nine or ten days from now some places could be close to as bad as they were before. Then what happens, will they close borders again?

“For me and for other guys from outside the Schengen area our visas only last three months and this year we’ll be in Europe for four months, so between races we have to go places that are non-Schengen. The closest is Andorra, so we’ll go there and make sure we get a stamp in our passport. There’ll be lots of Aussies and Japanese descending on Andorra before the next race! Then we need to get another Covid test to make sure our apps are green and ready to go into Czech. They’re also doing random Covid tests in paddock.

Yamaha Covid rules 2020 MotoGP

The factory Yamaha team’s Covid-19 PPE protocol

Yamaha

“It’s strange. Sometimes everything seems back to normal – you’re working on motorbikes with your mates, stressing about making a settings change, so you completely forget about it, then five minutes later the mask is giving you shits, so it’s coming and going all the time. You can’t escape the fact there’s a pandemic because everyone is wearing a mask. I tell people I’m not wearing this mask for me, I’m wearing it for you! I reckon the no-maskers are in the same boat with the 5G-ers.

“Teams need to go racing and I think it’s good that we’re putting out the message that wearing masks is good and it’s good for people’s mental health to see some racing on TV, but I’m also worried that people will see us racing and think things are back to normal.

“This season will be a bit of struggle for some, especially for those that can’t go home for four or five months. But this is my life, so it probably won’t be an issue. There’s definitely some anxiety about being stuck here or getting sick on the other side of the world from home. That’s always in the back of your mind.

Related article

“Travelling around Europe could be tricky because as we’re making plans to travel there’s hotspots popping up here and there and the rules are changes. Will the calendar change again if there are spikes of infections? Dorna are doing everything they can, but what happens if borders get closed, so the trucks can’t get through?

“We’re looking at doing as much driving as possible, so we’re in rental cars and wiping everything down like crazy. Then you’ve got to find a hotel that’s open and then you’re wondering if they care about sanitising the rooms. The hotel where we’re staying at Jerez is doing the right thing, but we don’t know about other places.”

Briggs and the rest of the paddock go racing again at Jerez this weekend, then cross Europe for the Czech GP on August 9 and a double-header at the Red Bull Ring, the Austrian GP on August 16 and the Styrian GP on August 23. He won’t see home again until late November at the earliest.