At its core, motorcycle racing is a war of diminishing returns, where manufacturers, teams, and riders dive ever deeper into the details in search of an advantage. The latest battleground is in rider coaching, with riders and now teams using rider coaches / spotters / observers / analysts to help riders identify where they are strongest and weakest.
Spotters and rider coaches have been around for a while. Wilco Zeelenberg started working with Jorge Lorenzo at Yamaha in 2010, and now has a similar role for Maverick Viñales. Jonathan Rea has worked with Keith Amor in WorldSBK, Amor also filming Rea to help him perfect his technique. More recently, Valentino Rossi started working with former 250cc world champion Luca Cadalora, and has employed a rider coach for the VR46 Riders Academy, the talent pool of young Italian racers Rossi has taken under his wing.
Current Red Bull KTM MotoGP rider Bradley Smith was also a relatively early adopter. The Englishman has worked with former 500cc legend Randy Mamola since his entry into MotoGP, and is fulsome in his praise of the idea. "I had Randy and I see that as a massive help just in terms of having eyes outside of the track," Smith said. The Red Bull KTM spoke about rider coaches, their role and benefits, to a small group of journalists at the Sepang test.
Eyes of a hawk
Smith drew parallels with watching other sports as a spectator, praising what a careful observer can see if they care to look. "It's amazing," Smith said. "I watched a downhill ski race a week ago and even just us stood there watching - I'm a fan, but I don't know the sport - but you stand their and watch 20 guys go down: You knew exactly who was fast, who was slow, who took the cautious line, who took the aggressive line, who had big balls, who didn't, who was erratic, who was smooth."
The same approach works in MotoGP, Smith says, though it takes an expert to spot what is really happening in front of them. "You stand there in a 45-minute MotoGP session and watch 24 guys going through, you know exactly what's working, what is not, who is good on the brakes, who is good on acceleration. That's something that data will never tell you and it's something that some guys can never see. But you find the right person, the right coach, and they can bring that package. I think that the coaches, as long as how they relay the information to the team and rider is done in the correct way, it's nothing but beneficial."
Rider coaches or track analysts are often used not just as to help racers improve their own riding, but also to watch what other riders are doing and make comparisons. So did Bradley Smith believe he benefited more from what he learned about himself, or what he was told about what other riders were doing? "It depends on if you are not looking yourself, let's say. If what you are doing is not working in a particular corner, they can tell you, 'so and so is attacking the corner in this way and someone else is doing it that way'. Then you could try both of those and see which one works for you. It gives you a couple of different options to try in areas where you are weak."
"I think it's just a case of using the mass of 24 of the best riders in the world, 24 of the best bikes in the world. If they are all doing it in a certain way, you need to do it like that and find a way of making that happen. I think that's the important thing," Smith said.
Watch, learn, adapt
But each bike has different strengths and requires a different approach, meaning that lessons need to be filtered through the lens of each machine. "You can't overlay so much - a KTM will never do what another manufacturer will do, and another manufacturer wouldn't do what a KTM would do. You have to take all the information and digest it. Basically it just helps you understand is something really stands out. You might not necessarily be able to use the option, because of the difference between how the bikes work, but at least it gives you that option. Sometimes you can't see it, if you are riding round by yourself for example."
"That's why we still see riders trying to follow each other. It's not always to get a tow, it's to see, what's his motorcycle doing that mine isn't? What am I going to come up against in the race? But you don't always have the possibility to study your rivals in that way because they shut off, wave the other rider by and so on."
This is where a rider coach or track analyst comes in. "A coach can basically supply that kind of information," Smith explains. "A little bit second hand, but that's better than not at all. First hand following someone is the best information you can get. Next thing is second hand and then try to back that up with the data. What's completely useless is riding around hitting your head against a brick wall and not learning anything."
TV helps too
With Dorna providing full coverage of every practice session, with multiple camera views available for many of them, did Smith use the TV sessions as an aid to his riding? "I watch myself because you know what a 'good you' looks like on the bike," Smith said. "You know what you look like when you are comfy, certainly not riding like you’ve got a pole up your backside! You don't always know when you are riding, but when you see it [on TV] you know straight away. Because body language is really clear and there is always a reason for an action, or reaction."
The trackside TV footage may be useful, the onboard coverage was less so. "Onboard is pretty useless for me," he said. "The only thing we can learn is other people's gearboxes. If they are using second or first in a particular corner. That was more important last year because we didn't know which gear ratios, so it helped us to understand. Onboard can also help to see if someone is short-shifting in a slippy area or to stop wheelie. That's something you can note, but both of those things are from looking at other guys rather than your own onboard, and then you have to decide which differences you can transfer it across."
All of this information goes into the mental melting pot, in the hope of finding the details which can make a difference, Smith explained. "All of that is information that you can not necessarily use first hand, but something you can think about and get creative with. The same for things like when you are watching a practice session and you see someone overtake a slower rider in a certain place. You can remember that as an option. Or if you see someone run in deep in some places but still have the ability to make the turn."
The thing about all of this is you never know when – or even if – it may prove useful, Smith went on. "It's just basically gathering information that maybe you pull out in the race on the last lap. Or maybe you need for qualifying, perhaps a kerb that you didn't think you could run over in a way that you didn't think you could. You see someone else do it and then if you take a bit of kerb there it means there is less angle or a slightly different line into the following corner."
This was particularly useful last year, on a brand new bike with no existing data, Smith explained. "When we've got a new bike, let's say, we are thinking so much about the bike that we are not always thinking purely about the track. Whereas there are some guys who are so confident with their bikes they can just focus on the track. So you can use the TV and other people to draw that information from. It's important."
In racing, as in any other pursuit of perfection, the devil is in the detail. Rider coaches, track analysts, TV coverage, following other riders, all of these are avenues riders use in pursuit of the final tenth, the last few hundredths which can be the difference between success and failure. As the technical regulations make the racing closer, those details grow ever more important. The genie is very much out of the bottle.
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