Editor's Blog: Size And Sensitivity, Or Why Dani Pedrosa Is A Test Rider

The start of the new year has released riders from their previous contracts, and freed them to talk. For some, though, the new year also places new restrictions upon them. So in a fascinating interview with the Spanish sports daily Marca, Dani Pedrosa is forced to refuse to talk about his role testing for KTM. "I'm not allowed to say anything about this, but I can say that I love the work I am doing with KTM, because for me, the challenges never stop."

One of the more interesting things Pedrosa does talk about is the reason he left Honda. That had nothing to do with the tension which had existed between himself and team boss Alberto Puig, Pedrosa said. In fact, the decision not to keep Pedrosa on as a test rider came from higher up in Honda.

"I had other reasons to change factories," Pedrosa told Marca. "KTM offered me a great project and showed their full confidence in me, while HRC president Yoshishige Nomura told me that he believed that my size would prevent me from taking the project required by their current riders, Márquez and Lorenzo, who are physically larger than I am. They felt that Stefan Bradl was more suitable for this function."

Choices abound

HRC rejecting Pedrosa because of his size offers an interesting insight into the different perspectives on testing. When I interviewed KTM's MotoGP team boss Mike Leitner about this last year, he took the opposite view. Talking about Mika Kallio, who is a few centimeters taller than Pedrosa (Kallio is listed at 1.65m, Pedrosa at 1.58m), and who he hired as test rider for KTM, Leitner explained that he believe smaller riders were more sensitive. "For me, he was always a very good rider, because his size, his body size, you have to be a very sensitive rider, because he is smaller," he said.

Did that mean that smaller riders like Kallio and Pedrosa have to understand the bike better to go fast? "Yes," Leitner answered. "When I watched him in Moto2, he was already riding the bikes with a lot of technique. So most of these riders have a very good feeling for a bike, a good understanding. And Mika is one of them."

The point Leitner is making is that where taller riders can learn to use their body to compensate, moving their weight around to find grip or change the behavior of the bike that way, a shorter rider is limited in that respect. Shorter riders have to get a better feel for what the bike is doing, and try to exploit it to go fast. Taller riders can use their body to ride around the limitations of the bike. For both shorter and taller riders, this is something which comes naturally, learned over thousands of hours on the bike.

What factories want from a test rider is to give feedback about the bike, and how it is behaving. This is where Leitner believes shorter riders are better: they are more directly limited by the limitations of the motorcycle, rather than finding a way around those limitations.

So why go taller?

So why did Honda choose a taller rider over Dani Pedrosa? Stefan Bradl is indeed right between Márquez and Lorenzo. Marc Márquez is 1.69m, Jorge Lorenzo is 1.71m, while Bradl is 1.70m. Choosing a rider who is closer in height to what is roughly average in the series allows a more direct comparison sometimes, especially in terms of weight distribution and where the rider is placed on the bike. Two riders of the same height will sit more or less in the same place on the bike, whereas a shorter rider will have to reach for controls and footpegs. That gives factories more options when testing the effect of moving riders around.

Who is right? The pat answer is that both are. Who you hire as a test rider depends far more on what you are trying to achieve with your project, and what stage the project is at, than anything else. If you are in the middle of trying to find the right development direction for a bike, and bringing a lot of changes, then you want the most sensitive rider you can find. In KTM's situation, they have so many parts and ideas that the quicker a test rider can define the right direction and discard the parts which don't help, the better.

If, on the other hand, you have a bike which is already competitive, and you are looking to refine it in a few specific areas, it may well be more useful to have a rider of a more average size, to make the bike usable for the riders you have. And perhaps, given the situation Honda is coming from, with Marc Márquez, who is always able to ride his way around problems, and Dani Pedrosa, who was much shorter than average, having a standard-sized rider can help pull the bike in a direction which will make it easier to ride for more riders. That is one of the reasons why Cal Crutchlow has been given an HRC contract: not just because he has been highly successful on the LCR Honda, but also because he is much closer to average than either Márquez or Pedrosa were.

No heat

Perhaps Pedrosa's biggest disadvantage is his weight, however. That made it extremely difficult for him to get heat into the spec Michelin tires in 2018, his last year in MotoGP, after they stiffened the construction at certain races. Will this not severely hamper him in his role as a test rider? Won't he have the same problem with the tires?

Not necessarily. Testing is very different to racing: at a race, everyone is working with the same tires, and competing to go as fast as possible with those tires during the fixed sessions of practice, qualifying and the race. During a test, the riders are given a selection of tires to work with – usually tires which Michelin believe will work at a particular circuit – and have much more freedom in both tire choice and timing of when they are out on track.

A test team will turn up with a program of work they wish to get through, and items and setup they will want to test. The aim is not necessarily to go absolutely as fast as possible all the time, it is to understand where the bike can be improved, and whether the ideas developed in the factory will make the bike better around a race track. That does mean taking the bike to the limit, but that can be done in a much more controllable way, without the pressure of fixed practice sessions. The limitations Pedrosa ran into while racing should be much less of an issue as a test rider.

There is much more that Pedrosa had to say in his interview with Marca. He spoke a little about his recovery from surgery on his collarbone, which is being treated with stem cells. He spoke of finally taking a vacation once he had finished rehab and was finally fit enough to go windsurfing again, and finding space in the testing program to do just that. He spoke of the possibility of doing some commentary work for the new Spanish MotoGP broadcaster DAZN.

You can read the full interview (in Spanish) here. Or you can watch the 30 minute documentary Red Bull put out about Pedrosa on the Red Bull website.


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Comments

A lot of people are sharing the opinion that Dani was very unwise to leave Honda, focusing on the benefits of staying in the fold as a representative of the brand. I couldn't disagree more. Puig or no Puig. Promotional duties as the best teammate a champion could want? Ugh.

Dani is working, a very valued part of an exciting project. He doesn't want to go fishing and disappear. KTM is growing exponentially at this stage. Their development team is a big deal. It is very innovative, and rider focused in a way that the "engineers rule" Honda program isn't. And then, yes, there is the gut puncher Puig, which is a factor regardless of open statements to the press. Pedrosa is in the game in Orange, not getting in the way and unable to view proceeding from behind Doohan. Great decision Dani!

Contrast Zarco in Orange. Horrible timing mate. Things move so fast around here, hungry kids are grabbing at seats. One can look at the grid of riders like a wine cellar. When to drink what varietal from which vintage and region? Look at a curve for a likely peak. Pop it open then, especially a very special one (praying for no moldy or vinegary Spies cork).

JZ05's remarkable trajectory has reached a waiting area. Purgatory in Orange. Just where a rider is in their trajectory is compelling. Like Beautista was just in a departure from a crest but exceeding expectations, Zarco has been approaching a zenith while doing so. Actualizing potential. Now I see him trying very very hard, enjoying it like cod liver oil, and possibly getting injured by overriding a bike that just won't do the basics. Watching Morbidelli, Rins et al on TV. They could have been in his tail onboard view as he chased podiums. Not just approaching him in a race, but in career trajectory. Of current and recent riders, just a few have been situated as such. Vinales at Suzuki may be his predecessor.

Seldom are there numerous great options for riders. Could Zarco have possibly gotten on another bike? Yes. Which? Not a factory Ducati, Honda or Yamaha. Outside if that, there were options. The KTM at this particular time? Debatable as a tie for last with the Aprilia seat. Zarco is something special, and we know it. We may never know how special now, and that is a shame. Hope I am wrong.

On development riders and size/stage of project, beautiful piece here. It makes tons of sense. Adding appreciation for Kallio, his wildcard rides were really good! If we are considering development teams at this time, perhaps it ought to include Factory Yamaha? They have, after two seasons of loud and clear prompts, taken bold and much needed changes underway. Their whole project had maintained adherence to a race line rail, just like their bike, for too long. The Japan-based superbike endurance riders, one of whom could get the bike on pace, have been joined by Folger. They are based in Italy. They added a third Factory bike to the grid. They partnered with SIC/Petronas funding and infrastructure, and deepened their rooting in the Asian market. They are focused right now on the engine. They have added a Magneti Marelli staffer finally to toss their salad better. Honda and Ducati just lost their piggy back sensor packages in favor of the likes Yamaha have been running. Did we see this much promise from the Honda project at the end of 2016? Great job over there Yamaha!

Injuries addendum - Honda starts 2019 at a limp x3 (poor Cal too, horrible injury). Ducati is fit. Suzuki happy and exercised. Yamaha has a non-physical ailment that can be exorcised. KTM has one that cannot, but Pol's fitness should be much improved. Aprilia fit and perked up by competition in their garage.

Okay Dovi and crew. No pressure, but...here is your cue! Rins/Suzuki, can you slide into that slip stream as well?

Good peice.

Wild card to ride Jorge Lorenzo's bike at Qatar, Sete Gibernau ? Mick Doohan? Fausto Gresini ? Alex Marquez ?

What tires teams use for privat testing? Last years race tires? Tires custom made for them?