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Maverick Viñales at the 2017 Grand Prix of Spain

The MotoGP Headgame

Jul 202017

Danger, pressure, international stardom (in some countries much more than others) and acclaim, wealth, exhilaration and personal achievement: it is far to say that the life of a top-ranking MotoGP racer is an unusual and special one. Most successful professional athletes hold that rare trait of uncompromising commitment and chemistry a little different to the guy on the street.

With a wish to try and tap into how Grand Prix motorcycle racers strive to reach the heights and then claw and fight their way to stay at the peak of a sport that can be ruthless and perilous, we asked former GP man and Rider Performance Analyst for world championship winning team Movistar Yamaha, Wilco Zeelenberg, for some cues. The 50 year old (51 in August) worked for nine years (and three MotoGP titles) with Jorge Lorenzo and is now assisting the plight of Yamaha rookie Maverick Vinales; the rider with the most MotoGP wins at the halfway point of the 2017 season.

You have had to deal with a myriad of riders and personalities and staff since you came into MotoGP with Yamaha in this advisory role. What has that required from your side? A very open mind? You must have your own beliefs on the best way to go racing…

This is a good question…of course you need to be very flexible. The whole group here is very determined to win, from the mechanics to the riders - everybody basically - and they all have their own way to work. They’re very experienced but they still have their own methods and sometimes it can clash a bit. In a group dynamic it is always important to communicate and find the best way for the team and it is not always easy to do that. So you have to keep an open mind to others and what they need. The last thing you want is a big dogfight and I have learned that the best way doesn't mean just one way. In the past, as a rider, you think ‘this is how I want to do it’ and in my case I wanted to know technical details of the bike because I wanted to know what was going on. Jorge was different. He didn't know a lot about the bike, technically, but he was so good with concentration and finding the limits of the tyres that he didn't need to know. So there are different ways to find race wins and this is the interesting part and it opened my eyes a lot.

The cliché is that ‘you always learn’ but you’ve raced in Grand Prix and also done private racing schools so are there really new things you can take from all sorts of riders? Can you still absorb things?

You have to. They have this belief in themselves - for Maverick especially this is unbelievably big - and as soon as you start to take that away then you make them weaker. Sometimes what they are doing might not be the best, but if they believe in it then it’s imperative not to take that away. It is better to find what value you are able to add to the race weekend; to be the eyes and ears and give them information that they need to be able to fight. The belief of being the best in the paddock is so important.

‘Taking something away’ does that mean asking them questions? Causing them to doubt some aspect of their performance?

No, it is about handling pressure and I think these guys can handle a lot but at a certain point – a home GP or whatever – it can be just a little bit too much and [they] can collapse. I’m always afraid of that. In my experience it is also not easy for them to collapse because mentally they are unbelievably strong…but they still need to be a bit careful with what they say in press conferences and in public to manage that pressure, at least until Saturday afternoon when they know their pace, their times and their feeling on the bike for that given weekend. It is about avoiding too much expectation. It is about keeping calm and quiet.

Does it take time to know the person and win their trust? So they can use your advice and guidance?

Yes, you need to point out the right things and offer suggestions for them to try. Often they can try a different bike and explain well what is going on to the technicians but sometimes it can also be complicated because there are a lot of electronics involved and parameters and I can see them look into my eyes and say “what do you think?” The rider realises that you see a lot of things – including other riders – and this makes him curious. The rider only really sees what he is doing, his own bike and situation. He doesn't see other situations. If we switch bikes or settings I can see [from trackside] if the bike is turning better or not. If he doesn't mention it then I will, and little observations about what they are doing on the bike helps him build confidence in me and that I am around and I am another set of eyes and ears for him. I’m not here to point out where he is going wrong but I can confirm his story or thoughts. I’m not always trying to be a smartass!

How have Grand Prix riders changed since your day? More money? More fame? More character/ability?

If you look to the young boys in Moto3 then they are still kids like we were in the past. OK, they are ‘developed’ better by something like the Rookies Cup whereas we had to do more by ourselves. Now the bikes are too expensive and you need more mechanical support. So the way to come to MotoGP is a bit different. You need to be very determined to do your best and be the best. As soon as a rider gets to MotoGP then I don't see many things that changed. Maverick is very down-to-earth and calm. OK, money now is a different story and as soon as they get titles then things change a bit; they have reached their goal and need to maintain the way to win and it gets more difficult. Maverick trained so hard and is so strong physically. The guy has a lot of ‘standard’ energy; he wakes early and trains hard. After a race he doesn't sweat. Riders are all different. Jorge didn't have that reserve of energy. He was always tired and he trained hard but he doesn't have what Maverick does because he is a different person. It is also interesting to see that riders can have the right day and right race at the right time and win. Determination to win is nearly the same across the board.