It is hard to overstate just how important the relationship between a motorcycle racer and his crew chief is. A rider must have complete confidence that his crew chief both understands what he needs from a motorcycle to go fast, and is capable of giving it to him. A crew chief must be able to interpret the sometimes confusing and mixed signals from his rider, filter out the non-essential information, identify priorities from that which will offer the greatest gains, and assign the work to the rest of the crew in the garage. There has to be complete trust between the two, or neither rider nor bike will achieve their full potential.
This was made all too apparent when I interviewed Ecstar Suzuki rider Aleix Espargaro and his crew chief Tom O'Kane for a story I wrote recently for the Dutch publication MOTOR Magazine, due out later this month. One part of the interview which did not make it into the magazine was the relationship between Espargaro and O'Kane, and how they first started working together. However, it is a story which offers a fascinating insight into how a rider and their crew chief work together.
Aleix Espargaro explained how they first met. Suzuki had already arranged for Espargaro and O'Kane to meet at Aragon last year. Espargaro had been uncertain, as he had been asking Suzuki to allow him to bring his own crew chief with him. "Actually before when I started to talk with Suzuki in the middle of last year at the beginning I pushed to bring my crew chief with me, Matthew [Casey]. Because I had good feeling, three years working with him, so it was good for me."
That turned out not to be possible, but the change had worked out well. Espargaro was very happy with the change, he said. "Matthew is a very, very good crew chief but with Tom I discovered that I can work really, really good. Sometimes it’s not bad to change. With Tom, the feeling I have is fantastic. He’s very good. I met him in Aragon last year and we start to talk there. He was really quiet so I thought that it would be difficult to work because I’m completely different, but he’s the opposite. He’s helping me a lot."
That first meeting was a rather sensitive affair, because both rider and crew chief know that it is such a crucial relationship. The first meeting is like a first date. "It’s a date, it’s like your girlfriend," Espargaro explained. "I talk a lot of times with some riders and for some riders this is like a job. They go, they do the setting, and go to the motor home. I can’t. I need to feel like he’s my friend. It’s very important for me to feel that the people working with me are my friend. I don’t know if I’m right or not but I need to feel this. It’s very important. And with Tom I feel this."
Tom O'Kane agreed with Espargaro's assessment that meeting a rider he was to work with was a lot like a first date. "Yeah, I would say exactly the same thing," O'Kane told me. "I knew from other people who have worked with Aleix, and I know a lot of people who worked with him, I knew the type of person he was. I knew he’s a really, really good guy. But that’s no guarantee that you’re not going to knock the rider’s helmet off the bench onto the floor or something. That’s a really stupid example but there’s no guarantee that you’re going to gel, and you’re worried about that. I was worried about it. As I said, I know Aleix was a really good guy, totally apart from the level of rider that he is. You’re always worried that something won’t go, but from the very first time I met him, how can you not get on with Aleix? I was worried about the other way." The fact that they were such different personalities – O'Kane quiet and introverted, Espargaro loud and talkative – had made no difference, the relationship worked well. "Yeah, it works for me anyway, that’s for sure. I really like working with him," O'Kane said.
A sign of just how close they are is the contact the two have outside of the races. There is a constant flow of messages between the two, discussing matters both inside and outside of racing. "I feel that with three months [working together] we can talk a lot of things apart from motor racing. When I’m in my house we talk a lot by email."
As an example, Aleix Espargaro spoke of the role O'Kane played in dealing with the thumb injury he picked up at Le Mans. After surgery, O'Kane had sewed a mock up of a brace, to hold Espargaro's thumb in place while riding at Mugello. Espargaro's leathers sponsor Spidi used that as a model to create a small model. Espargaro: "With this injury for example, Tom was working some taping for me. He brought taping for me [of the thumb brace]. He was other weeks sending mail for us. So this for me is the most important thing." The psychological effect of that support was crucial to Espargaro. "I need the support. This is why last year, I think my team was competitive but I didn’t feel the support at all. Maybe it’s just my fault. I’m not saying it was a bad team, maybe it’s my fault but I didn’t feel the support at all and I need to feel the support. In Aspar I felt like I go to the races with my friends like on holidays and I think the feeling here is similar, so it’s good. "