Following Valentino Rossi's shocking decision to part ways with his long-term crew chief Jeremy Burgess, there has been much speculation about Rossi's reason for the split. Mick Fialkowski spoke to the experienced Australian earlier this year at the Sachsenring, where Burgess shed some light on the last few seasons of their cooperation. Burgess told Fialkowski about their time at Ducati, the return to Yamaha, and where Rossi has struggled this season. With the benefit of hindsight, this interview makes for a highly illuminating read.
Mick Fialkowski: Jeremy, what went wrong at Ducati when you were there for two years with Valentino between 2011 and 2012?
Jeremy Burgess: I think you probably have to ask that to Ducati, because we tried very hard to get them to work in a way that we had been using for many years but unfortunately it was a mentality of Ducati which even Valentino wasn't able to change. As much as we tried and as you can see this year, the situation doesn't seem to have improved significantly at all. I think there have to be some really big changes in the way Ducati believes that they should go about their MotoGP racing.
Q: What do they need to change?
JB: The people at the circuit are very good. These projects are not lost by the people working at this level. The people in each garage here work to the level of the equipment and the funding that they have. If there is somebody in the higher position that is blocking the development or not believing what the riders are saying and believes that their design is OK, then this is when it suffers at the race track. Ducati regularly tests in Mugello, they compete in MotoGP and see the results every week. It's really in the hands of the directors of the engineering group to put the right people in place back in Ducati.
Q: After years with Honda and Yamaha, were there any significant differences between working with a Japanese and an Italian factory?
JB: Very much so. The Japanese factory listens to what we say and responds to our requests. Ducati, whether they've listened, they've heard, for sure, but they didn't respond. They believed for some reason that what they've had was good enough and that in some miraculous way everything would be OK next week. And then it wasn't and of course you start to lose the bond between the engineers and the rider to work together to improve the machine. Fundamentally Ducati needs to regroup, go back, try and build again and perhaps hire the very best rider, change their structure and their strategy somewhat.
Q: What were your first thoughts when Vale told you that you're going back to Yamaha for 2013?
JB: I for one was really happy. I never wanted to leave Yamaha. We were winning races here. We had a year in 2010 with his broken leg at Mugello but that was the first really bad injury that Valentino had suffered. Jorge was getting stronger. We had the same bikes, we were the world champions in 2009 and 2010. We were winning races in 2010 even with the injury to his shoulder which he suffered earlier in the season. We missed some races with his leg injury of course. He had surgery on the shoulder at the end of the season but of course by that time he had made a decision to go to Ducati. Ducati wanted me and the team to go with him, so we did.
Q: How difficult was it to leave Yamaha back in 2010?
JB: From the point of a new challenge with Ducati I thought it would be interesting. You always learn something new by going somewhere else. It was an experience to work with Ducati. I learned a lot. In many cases I've learned what not to do. The Ducati people at the circuit are absolutely fantastic. But from the point of view of leaving Yamaha, there was no reason to leave Yamaha in my opinion. Valentino perhaps felt that Jorge was getting stronger and it was perhaps an opportunity to establish himself as the number one rider in Ducati. Unfortunately the results didn't come.
Having said that I can go back even further. There was no need to leave Honda in one sense but I'm very glad we did in 2003. We had won the last three world titles, we had a very good bike, team and a very good rider, but as Valentino said, there's more than that. He wanted another challenge and that challenge was to come to Yamaha which hadn't won another title since 1992. We were able to deliver that championship for Yamaha in 2004 and 2005, which was fantastic. Perhaps there was some sort of belief that we would be able to do that again in Ducati, but the challenge was just beyond us.
Q: Half way into the your first season back with Yamaha, what are the major differences between the M1 from 2010 and this year's bike?
JB: They're still very similar. The actual layout of the bike and the appearance, if you looked, like I've always said to the people at Ducati; the handlebars, the grips, brakes, levers, these are parts that once you have them right, you never have to change them, because the human body doesn't change. The vision of the bike is the same. The aerodynamic package is the same. The engine is of course the 1000cc. We're a little bit longer in the wheelbase because of the extra power but conversely when we went to the 800s in 2007, we went shorter with the wheelbase. Essentially the bike is the same with the normal developments you'd expect with pushing the boundaries each year. Of course we had to come back to a 1000cc with a fixed diameter of the bore, which is 81mm, whereas before that was open, and we have 5 engines. There are challenges for the engineering group but the general layout of the bike, with the suspension, brakes and chassis is just trial and error and experiment, but the general appearance is more or less the same.
Q: You've had some turn-in problems earlier in the season and Valentino said the tyres are a bit different now to what they were in the past with a softer construction front. What was wrong and how did you managed to fix it?
JB: They changed the tyres three or four races into last year and this was something that wasn't a very clever thing to do. I remember Casey and the Hondas complaining a lot about that. I was very much of the opinion that they [Stoner and Honda] were right that this softer construction tyre wouldn't suit Valentino's riding style, but on the Ducati it wasn't as obvious as it is when you come back on a good bike where you want to improve your lap time by putting more pressure on the front tyre. It was always my feeling that this tyre wouldn't suit Valentino at all and this has been proved to be correct. We've had to go about a lengthy testing procedure after Barcelona and in Aragon, to arrive at a front suspension setting that minimizes the wheel rate loading on the front tyre.
Q: So what have you actually changed?
JB: If I'd told you, other people would probably find out, so we'd let the other engineers do exactly what we've done and if their riders don't have the problem, there's no need for them to do it, because with different positions of the front wheel, different amounts of weight and different amount of transfer load are placed on the tyre, depending on how you like to ride the bike and what sort of riding style do you have, the problem might not has been as great for those guys. And if you're half a second a lap slower, maybe it wouldn't be a problem either, but for Valentino it was and my job is to make the bike suitable for Valentino. That was one of the challenges that we've had when we came back. The bike had of course been developed in a general way for Jorge and he's been very strong as a rider for the last few years, so as much as we've tried to ride his style of bike, we found out that more and more we needed something a little bit different, so it took us some time together with Yamaha to do this, but Yamaha would do this, unlike Ducati who didn't seemed to wanted to do enough.
Q: The turn-in problems Valentino had earlier this year, was that something similar to the Ducati's understeer from last two years? If so, would that change you've made recently, worked with the Ducati too?
JB: The problem is perhaps similar in general terms but it's not similar at all. The Ducati wouldn't turn. The problem we had with Valentino this year was that when we went to the qualification, the extra pressure he'd put on the bike to load the front to maximize the performance of the bike, compressed the tyre too much and then the bike wouldn't stop. This is different again. It was a braking issue and a tyre load. The Ducati on the other hand doesn't have enough pressure on the front tyre and it was a turning thing. It was an understeer problem constantly with the Ducati and also an engine that was way too powerful for the chassis that they had.
Q: Anything in particular still holding you up with the Yamaha?
JB: At this moment we're still experimenting with the linkage systems with the bike but we're closer than we have been. Unfortunately Sachsenring and Laguna Seca make it very difficult to really test anything because they're quite unique. It's better to just get on with the job and get through it. That's what we've done here, we've worked with the hardware that we've had from Assen and we've got a lot of work to do as well with engine mapping for the race. To use all of our practice time to try and develop something is probably not the wisest thing on these two circuits. It's better to take what you know. When we get to Indianapolis, which is perhaps more normal and Brno for sure, we're in a position to move forward again, I hope.
Q: How is Valentino after these two difficult years? Has he changed in any way?
JB: Hopefully he won't think about moving again! I think he was disappointed of course that the things at Ducati didn't work. He always believed that he was a better rider than the results were showing. As he said to me on one occasion; “I might not be at the level of Jorge and Casey as I was then, but I'm not seventh or eight” - and I think that has been proved by coming back to Yamaha. We might not be at Jorge's level, but we're capable or racing with Dani and others, and if Jorge isn't at the race for one reason or another, or isn't at full strength, we also have some advantages over him.
Q: As a rider, has Valentino learned anything new with Ducati?
JB: I think that for the art of motorcycle racing there was absolutely nothing to be learned from Ducati, but from the point of view of a human being, I think the lesson is to learn very carefully before you jump ship.
Q: Your relationship over the last few years, has it changed, evolved?
JB: Not at all. We're here for the same reasons and perhaps we haven't won as much in the last three and a half years. We came back here, we need to make some changes, we had a victory already and believe we can improve on this. As long as we can race at the front, for the podium, I think we can tell by how many people are out there waving flags for Valentino, that he's an important part of this.
Q: What are the differences between Valentino and Jorge in terms of their riding styles?
JB: Valentino's riding style is the riding style of a very experienced rider, who's been around and won Grand Prix races for a long time. Perhaps he's a little bit more conservative and by being more conservative he's a little less at risk. He's still very good over a race distance, he's consistent, as long as he doesn't get tangled up with Bautista or people like that. We're talking about a guy who has won nine titles, so anybody who has won nine titles in any sport is not going to be young. You have age, experience, you have Jorge who has won two titles in 250s and two in MotoGP, he's still only 26 years old and probably at the peak of his experience, fitness and desire and still very strong. Valentino is keen and enjoys the racing very much but there are differences at all levels. If we can give Valentino a bike that he's very comfortable with, he can race very well.
Q: If you overlay data of a lap of Vale and Jorge with similar lap times, where's the difference as far as how they brake, which lines they take and so on?
JB: Valentino's change of direction might be slightly slower than Jorge's but would be more safe. If the lap times are the same, pretty much most of the data is so close to identical, you can't see any difference but if Jorge is faster, normally there's a little bit more risk. But it's not a risk for Jorge. We have to give Valentino a setting that he's comfortable to push at that level with and that's what we try to do all the time.
JB: Risk is not really the way to explain it. His level of comfort is perhaps a little bit closer to what Valentino would put at risk, but that's what you get when you go fast and sometimes you crash more. The idea is not to crash. Taking nothing away from Jorge, he's the World Champion and he's won most of the races this year so he has done an excellent job. The issues here and in Assen are more or less uncharacteristic and it was just unfortunate.
Q: Valentino is now saying he's confident he can fight for the wins for the rest of the season. How do you see it and what are your expectations?
JB: I'd like to think that we can win more races and from my experience you need to win basically six races to win the title. We've won one of seven so we've got a lot of work to do. If we can win some more in the future, then we've got a chance to look at that situation. As we're standing here this afternoon, the championship is in a very interesting position, because if Jorge and Dani don't ride in Germany tomorrow and both miss Laguna Seca for example, you could see that four or even five riders are very close in the championship, which would create a very interesting nine or ten races.
Q: Your thoughts on Jorge racing at Assen with a collarbone broken two days earlier?
JB: The right decision in the end, you'd think. I have absolute faith in these guys and their ability. They are not going to put themselves at risk or their competitors. This is not a club game, it's the top level. If anything, Assen was a race of many parts; Valentino winning, Espargaro beating the factory Ducatis, the disaster of the Ducatis, Jorge's brilliant ride and then Dani who didn't capitalize on the situation where he should have taken the maximum points away from Jorge and for some reason which we have never found out, he was unable to do that. From Jorge's point of view it was clearly a great decision to ride there. Before it happened everybody would have had question marks perhaps but after the results we saw a race of many stories.
Q: What if Valentino says “I'm going to Suzuki in 2015”?
JB: I think we could talk hypotheticals forever but I'm very happy at Yamaha. If someone like Valentino were to make a decision like that, and I don't think for one moment it would happen, I think it's a 1000% unlikely, because Yamaha has been so good to him to come back here. His future after his retirement is very locked into the promotion and ambassadorial type role with Yamaha, so to go to Suzuki is probably the silliest thing I've heard for some time. I'm ready for retirement so if he were to make a sort of decision of that sort, whether that's there or somewhere else, I'm quite comfortable to go home and do other things.
Q: … and if he were to stay with Yamaha beyond 2014?
JB: I would be happy to stay. It doesn't change anything. If he's happy to keep going, and he'd only be happy if he's getting the results which he considers worthwhile, if he's not getting those results, he'd probably do something else.
Mick Fialkowski is a Polish MotoGP journalist and TV commentator working for Polsat Sport TV, MotoRmania and UK's Motorcycle Racer Magazine