Dear Next Big Thing:
So you made it into Moto3. Well done. That feat alone makes you one of the most talented motorcycle racers on the planet. You may think that the hardest part of the battle is behind you. You would be wrong. You have your foot on the bottom rung of the ladder to MotoGP stardom. It is a rickety old thing, slick with grease, littered with broken rungs and what look like short cuts and easier routes.
Before you embark on your Grand Prix adventure (and what an adventure it is!) some words of advice from someone who has been in the paddock long enough to have his illusions shattered.
1. You will get nowhere on talent alone
The fact that you are in Moto3 means that your talent is not in question. To get here, you will have beaten the kids your own age, simply by being better at racing a motorcycle than them. That is already an impressive achievement.
The trouble is, Moto3 is full of kids who have all done the same. They have come up through the same system, beat the same kids, towered head and shoulders above their contemporaries. They are at least as good as you are, and some of them will now have a couple of years of experience on you. Getting into the Grand Prix paddock is 90% talent. From here on in, you can't rely on just talent any longer.
So how do you beat a rider who is just as talented as you are? You work on the details which make a difference. Switch your focus from talent to preparation, from being fitter and stronger than the riders you face. The fitter you are, the less quickly you tire. The less quickly you tire, the easier it is to concentrate as the race goes on. You need to be able to sustain your body at or above your anaerobic threshold for 45 minutes. If you can't do that, then the equally talented kid who is fitter than you will beat you in the last five laps.
Fitness and talent together are a good basis, but they are not enough either. The last two pieces of the puzzle are by far the most important. Intelligence and attitude are the difference between a competitive rider, and a rider capable of winning. Intelligence is not pure IQ. It is being aware of what you know, and what you don't know, and what you need to know. It means understanding what your role is, and how you can play your part in winning. It means being able to analyze what you are feeling on the bike, prioritize what is most important, and communicate it as clearly as possible. It means deciding whether the dive under braking, mid-corner chatter or lack of grip on corner entry is your current biggest problem, and telling your engineer about it.
Which brings me to attitude. Get the people in the garage on your side, and they will go the extra mile to help you win. Sure, you can be angry when they make mistakes, and angry when you don't achieve the results you want. But shouting all the time won't make you faster. Use your anger when it matters, when it will achieve results, but focus on what is important. You want to win? You need the help of the people around you.
2. You need a manager, but beware of the sharks
You probably made it into Grand Prix thanks to the hard work of your parents, or perhaps a friend of the family. Along the way, they learned a lot about dealing with teams, and the way the business of motorcycle racing works. They want to make the next step with you, and will want to help you on your way.
They won't be able to provide the help you need in Grand Prix, however. The Grand Prix paddock is a village, and like all villages, are a spider's web of relationships, a network of trust. Unlike most villages, however, the paddock sees a mass of new faces every year. Most only last a season or two. Very few newcomers make it past their third or fourth year.
If you want to get on in the paddock, you need one of the old guard, one of the established members of the village to look after your interests. Managers who have been in Grand Prix racing for a while will know the teams, will know team managers, and most importantly, will have a network of sponsors they can call on for backing. Your manager from outside the paddock may be able to find you a great deal with a team. What they won't be able to do is sort out your helmet and leathers sponsorship, energy drink sponsorship, and a host of other smaller patches which will fill your leathers and make the difference between scraping along and having a solid financial foundation.
A word of warning here, however. Most of the managers you will meet will be vampires out to suck you dry, signing you to deals which generate the most income for them, but which could potentially jeopardize your future in racing forever. For far too many of those who play at being rider managers, they see it as an easy way of making money, leeching off the back of the talented.
Your problem is distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the ugly. How to do that is the hardest thing in the world, and something I can't help you with. Beware of big promises, and always ask yourself what a manager hopes to gain when they present an offer to you. Talk to other riders, and pay special attention to their horror stories. Those stories are probably your most important resource.
3. Ditch your dad (or your mum)
Your parents are the most important people in your life. Their hard work and sacrifice is what put you in the situation you are today, staring your big opportunity in the face. Without them, you would not even be here.
Time to ditch them. The Grand Prix paddock is full of people who have far more experience of every aspect of motorcycle racing than your parents ever had, even if they are former racers themselves. Your mother and father can't help manage you, they can't help set up your bike, they can't help motivate the team, they can't help you manage yourself at the racetrack. In any direct role at the racetrack, they will be more of a hindrance than a help.
That does not mean that you never see them again. It can be a comfort and a help to have one or both parents around. But their role should be just that: a support, and a comfort. Someone to talk to away from the track, someone to help your relax, a shoulder to cry on from time to time. Above all, someone to help with the practical aspects, driving to and from the track, organizing travel and carrying bags.
Once at the track, though, they cannot help you. After all, do you go their place of work and tell them how they should be doing their job and how they should handle their boss?
There are great examples of how a parent can help alongside a rider. Dek Crutchlow, father of Cal, is one. He provides practical support and help, and is around to provide entertainment and light relief. His only involvement at track side is to hold Crutchlow's pit board. That is enough, and in that role, he is a hundred times more helpful than some of the parents hanging around other garages.
4. You need a good team
You are talented. You know you are fast. You have taken my advice about physical fitness, about hard work, about attitude, about using your intelligence to heart. You enter the paddock filled with hope and optimism. You are ready to conquer the world.
Unfortunately, you face perhaps the biggest hurdle of all. The paddock is filled with teams which are at best mediocre, and at worst verging on incompetent. That is not to say they are not passionate about racing – they give up so much to be here that they have to be passionate – but passion alone is not enough.
What do they do wrong? They don't work systematically, relying more on instinct to try to set up the bike than raw data. They don't have the experience with analyzing data to be able to use it properly. They don't have the right personnel to do the work needed. They don't have the skill or experience to prepare every tiny detail of the bike as perfectly as the top teams do. Most of all, they don't have the money to fix these problems.
Most likely, they have turned to you to solve this issue. You, as a rider, have been told you need to bring money to help pay for your ride. This is your bargaining chip: find out who the good mechanics are, who the good data engineers are, who the good crew chiefs are. If you are paying to ride, you want to buy the best ride you can afford. That means having the right people in place to help you.
How can you tell which team you should ride with, which crew chiefs you should be working with? Compare the results of riders when they switch teams. If a rider goes from running in the top 5 one year to struggling for points the next, the chances are the new team is to blame. Likewise, if they went from struggling one year to podiums the next, you know which of the two teams to join. It may not even be technical expertise or experience, it may be simply not understanding how to manage a rider. Want an example? Mika Kallio, 2014 to 2015. At the Marc VDS Racing team, he had a crew chief who understood him, knew when to follow his feedback, and knew when to pull him back and tell him to ride what he has. At Italtrans, they listened to Kallio too much, and he disappeared down the rabbit hole of minutiae which Kallio believed would lead him to perfection. Instead, it led him to the middle of the field.
5. Paying for a ride? Make sure you get value for money
Unless you came in with a top team, you will have been asked to pay for your ride. It is a deplorable aspect of motorcycle racing, but it is hardly new. We used to call racers who paid for a ride privateers. Now we call them, well, riders.
Given how hard it is to get in to Grand Prix, you may well feel a sense of gratitude at being given a chance. Lose that feeling as soon as you can. The reality is that a team which is asking you to pay is probably not very good at something, namely, raising sponsorship. Why are they not good at raising sponsorship? Because they don't have the people to help their riders get results, and they don't have the people to sell their product – motorcycle racing – to potential sponsors.
If you are bringing money to a team, you are a customer, which means you get to make reasonable demands. You need assurances of good equipment, and good people around you. If you end up paying €300,000 or more for a seat on a Moto3 or a Moto2 bike, you had better make sure you get value for money. That's a lot of cash to stump up to finish 28th every week.
6. It's not about you - don't take criticism personally
The biggest shock you will face in Grand Prix racing is when you return to the pits after the first session of practice. All of a sudden, three or four people will crowd around you, pens and clipboards at the ready, waiting to take note of your every word. That can be extremely intimidating, and can cause you to feel nervous about what you say. Some riders even just either shut up altogether, or say anything, so as not to look stupid in front of their team.
Don't do that. All those people who surround you have the same goal: to get you around the track as fast as possible, and hopefully, ahead of everyone else. Be honest about what you feel on the bike, tell them what the biggest problem was preventing you from going any faster, tell them what the bike did well and what it did badly. If the bike felt fine, say so. If it didn't, say what was wrong, and where it was holding you up.
Be honest and open in your criticism of the bike, do not hold back to spare the feelings of your crew chief and mechanics. But in turn, be prepared for them to criticize you. You may tell them that the bike feels terrible going into a particular corner, but they may respond by telling you that the problem is with you. They may see you need to brake later, or harder, or deeper, or sit on the bike differently, or any number of different things.
Don't take that personally: it really isn't about you. Their comments are not an attack on you as a person, as a young rider. When they tell you to brake at a different point, they are not saying you suck at braking, they are telling you that they know from the data and from experience that that particular corner needs a particular approach. They are offering suggestions to you to help you go faster, not saying you suck. You need their honest feedback to help you go faster just as much as they need your honest feedback to help make the bike better. The end goal is the same: to go faster.
7. The bike will always be shit
And now, for the greatest secret to success of all. The hopeless hunk of junk you just jumped off, that won't allow you to brake where you want to, that can't get you out of the corner how you want to, that needs all your strength to get around the corner? That's as good as it is going to get. The bike you have underneath you is what you have to deal with, and will never be anywhere near perfect. It won't even be particularly good.
What about all the great racing motorcycles of the past? I hear you say. The honest truth is they were all awful. That magnificent Yamaha M1 which dominated 2015 with Rossi and Lorenzo? Sure, it went round corners and accelerated, but it was weak on the brakes, wouldn't let you force it into the corner, and needed to be treated with kid gloves in every corner, or you would lose half a second. The dominant Honda of Stoner and Márquez? Sure, it was a monster on the brakes, but it had a horribly aggressive power delivery and took every ounce of strength just to control it.
So how did Lorenzo, Rossi, Stoner, Márquez all win their world championships? Like all of the great champions who came before them, by shutting up and riding the bike. By understanding that they can make the bike a bit better in some places, but that it would always feel terrible in others. By working on their riding styles, their approach, their technique to get the best out what the factories had given them. By understanding what strengths of the bike they could exploit, and how to minimize the weaknesses of the bike.
When Casey Stoner was on the Ducati, he had to trick the bike into overcoming its understeer, find a way to lose the front and save it just to get around the track and win anyway. At the ripe old age of 36, Valentino Rossi had to teach himself a completely new riding style, to manage a bike very different from the one he rode when he first entered the class. He watched the young kids who had painted a target on his back, then worked his ass off to copy and improve upon the tricks they used against him.
This is the point. The bike your team will give you will be the best bike they can build for you, using your input to try to get the set up as near perfect as possible. They will try to give you a bike that gives you the confidence you need to lap the racetrack as quickly as you can, and quicker than the rest. The bike will still feel awful, it won't do the things you want it to, and it will be worse than other bikes at some points in the track. It will feel like the bike wants to pitch you into the gravel everywhere, and is looking for a way to betray you.
What you have to remember is that your bike isn't the only one that is shit. Every other rider on the track is going through exactly the same thing. They too are screaming in their helmet about how awful their bike is, how it won't turn, won't brake and won't accelerate. They are using exactly the same words to describe their bikes as you are. The only difference is they are doing it in a different language, in Italian, Spanish, Czech, Japanese, German, French, or Dutch. Their teams are telling them the same thing as your team is telling you: brake earlier here, or later there. Use more throttle here, and less there. We can fix this on the entry to Turn 1, but we can't do anything about Turn 3.
A final word
Motorcycle racing is a mechanical sport. The machine on which you compete is a key part of the equation. But the key part of any sport is the human factor, the individuals involved. The bike is important, but not as important as the people you surround yourself with, and the way you communicate with those people. Whatever the machine you find yourself on, in the end, it will come down to you. You will make the difference between success and failure, by your approach, your attitude, the effort you put in, and the way you treat those around you. It won't be easy. In fact, it will be the hardest thing you have ever done. But it isn't impossible.
Good luck. You will need a bit of that too.
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