Last year MotoGP suffered its saddest loss since the death of Marco Simoncelli in 2011. Talented racer and genius engineer Warren Willing passed away on September 5 following a long battle with cancer. Willing played a major role in five world championship victories, working his magic with Team Roberts, Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati, KTM and others.
He spent most of his career working for Team Roberts, the UK-based outfit that was more go-ahead than any other team in GP racing and won four world titles in the early 1990s. Then in 2000 he played a crucial role in Kenny Roberts Junior’s title success with Suzuki.
‘King’ Kenny Roberts raced against Willing in the late 1970s and took him into his team as an engineer in the late 1980s.
“I don’t think Team Roberts would’ve been Team Roberts without Warren,” he says. “Me and him was like me and Wayne [Rainey]; he was one of the people that just fitted into the mould. I always had a lot of time for Warren. I helped him with his riding when he was racing, then he figured out he wasn’t going to be a racer and he needed to be an engineer. Of course, the crash in Ireland speeded up that process. As an engineer he was unstoppable: he wins the world championship with Junior, breaks open a bottle of champagne and the next day he’s back on the computer; that was Warren.”
The crash that precipitated Willing’s move from one side of the pit wall to the other happened at the 1979 North West 200. Two riders crashed at the 170mph sweep into Coleraine and their machines lay burning on the track. Willing and his Yamaha TZ750 rode through the wall of smoke and flame, only to strike the wreckage at high speed. He was badly injured. Barry Sheene’s Suzuki team-mate Tom Herron also rode into the carnage but came out the other side, only to lose his life in another accident later the same day.
Willing’s leg required 18 operations and yet he still walked with a hefty limp. During the 1980s he worked for Yamaha’s Australian superbike team, where he brought up youngsters like Mick Doohan and Kevin Magee.
When he arrived at Team Roberts in 1988 Willing started working closely with Tom O’Kane (below), the young computer expert who brought big-time data-logging into GP racing. O’Kane currently works at Suzuki, as crew chief to Aleix Espargaro.
“Warren was obsessed, like a lot of people in the sport,” says O’Kane. “He was absolutely obsessed with how motorbikes work. He almost never stopped thinking about it. We both knew it was something that would keep us busy until we couldn’t do it anymore. There’s just no way of knowing everything you need to know. Every question you answer leaves you with two more questions that need to be answered. It’s just the way it is – you keep going off on tangents.”
Willing’s riding background obviously helped, though there are few pit-lane engineers that haven’t raced at some level.
“If you’ve raced you’ve got some idea what it feels like,” adds O’Kane, who also raced. “When you’re developing stuff or working with a rider as a crew chief you have to get a feel for what that particular bike is doing. If it’s a new bike you know when you first start working with it that you won’t have a feel for it, but once that feel comes then you can start to be really effective. Warren for sure had that feel for every bike he worked on.
“Warren was a talented racer. He told me he had made the decision to stop racing before the accident. He was racing with Kenny and Kenny had been 1.5 seconds faster during a session, so Kenny said ‘why don’t you do this here and that there?’ So Warren went out for the next session, did it all and gained a second and a half, but Kenny was still 1.5 seconds ahead because he had made the next step. Warren realised the stuff Kenny was telling him came to Kenny naturally and if he needed to depend on a rival for his lap time then the writing was on the wall as far as riding was concerned.”
Team Roberts did development work in the late 1980s and 1990s that changed the face of Grand Prix racing. They were the first to use data-logging to its full extent, the first to use carbon brakes and probably the first to work seriously on chassis flex, mass centralisation and a cure for chatter.
“Early on we were convinced we needed more chassis stiffness so we asked Yamaha for a stiffer chassis,” O’Kane continues. “When that chassis arrived for the 1993 season the bike was much worse. It chattered and it had less grip, so that’s when the whole investigation into chassis stiffness started.”
The team also learned two important lessons about chatter and mass centralisation during their early days of data-logging. O’Kane’s nascent data-logger was housed in the seat unit of Rainey’s YZR500, and because it was a relatively large and cumbersome device it was only used during practice and qualifying. Rainey and his crew would get the bike perfect on Friday and Saturday, then the bike developed a serious chatter problem for the race, which had a catastrophic effect on his lap times. After several GPs the team realised that the weight of the data-logger, mounted at the very back of the bike, had been damping out the chatter problem.
O’Kane also worked as Willing’s number-cruncher. “One of my jobs at Team Roberts was doing the maths; that was the only thing he didn’t have,” adds O’Kane. “Warren didn’t go to university but make no mistake, he was an engineer in every sense of the word that mattered. Unfortunately some people missed that, especially in the later days, because these days some people tend to look no further than the letters after a person’s name, and that was their loss.”
Willing’s last world title came at Suzuki, where he went at the behest of ‘King’ Kenny, to look after Junior (below with Willing). His knowhow was essential to Roberts’ 2000 title success.“Warren was really driven to win,” recalls Suzuki team manager Garry Taylor. “He wanted to win every race and brooded when we did not. Every race we didn’t win was to him a wasted opportunity. He did not suffer fools at all and some people found him difficult, but he was a great engineer and a great friend. Warren was instrumental in giving Kenny Junior a bike he could win on. His own success as a rider meant that riders respected his opinions. He was one of the last great tuners.
“He had a thirst for anything in the way of new technology and was always evaluating everything for its potential to add to our chances of winning. He trawled technical magazines and TV shows for anything that might be modified to be relevant to bikes.”
During the final years of Willing’s first stint at Team Roberts he worked with motocross legend Jean-Michel Bayle, who proved he was one of the greatest all-rounders of all-time by beating Doohan to pole position at Brno in 1996.
“When I got that pole I had stopped ten minutes before the end of qualifying to get a new tyre,” Bayle recalls. “Doohan had just improved his time to take provisional pole, so I wanted to leave the garage immediately, but Warren asked me to wait because he wanted to check the data of my fastest lap. Four minutes later, he came back and explained where I was correct and in which turns I could go faster to earn a few tenths. I did what he told me and managed to find those few tenths in the two curves he had told me about. When I went over the line I saw I had improved my time by more than four tenths. At that time, I did not know if I had managed to beat the master Mick Doohan. Only when I returned to the box where all the team applauded did I understand I had succeeded. Warren, staying in the shadows as always, gave me a simple glance.”