Aki Ajo is one of the most significant figures in the Grand Prix paddock. The Finnish manager has seen a long string of talent pass through his team on their way to greater success. Ajo explained how he goes about identifying talent in the first part of this two-part interview. In the second part, he gives more insight into the process of building a winning team.
Ajo talks about how he nearly ended up working with Romano Fenati in 2017, and some of the factors which prevented it. Ajo also explains why he believes Moto2 is the toughest category in motorcycle racing, and the daunting challenge stepping up to the intermediate category can be. The Finnish team manager also dives more deeply into the importance of a team, and surrounding a rider with the right pieces to help him get the best out of himself.
Q: You don't have a background in psychology, this is all just learning from experience?
AA: No, no, this is racing. My life is racing. Always. It's basically just the school of life. I was riding myself, and at that moment, it was already a big school. When you are riding yourself, you have big pressure, I had to find money, I was the tuning guy, I was everything. This was the big school for me. Maybe I was not good in anything, but touching on everything a little bit and learning a lot.
Q: Are there riders you wouldn't want to work with? There was talk that Romano Fenati wanted to come here, Fenati seems to be a difficult character to work with.
AA: Possibly. Sometimes I see that maybe his confidence is a little bit too high. But I think also it depends so much on the people that you have around you. Maybe he is also now looking for a fresh start. When I talked with him last summer, I felt that he is ready for the new start. He is looking for something. And that's why he and his mother, they were so keen to come here. We had some good talks.
Already in 2012 or 2013, I remember, before Rossi made his own team, we were already close to bringing him here, but then Rossi opened his own team, and of course Fenati was part of the project. But I already was mentoring him a little bit at that moment, and I think we both had good memories of that.
So that's why maybe he was keen to come here. Unfortunately, we didn't find a solution. I was interested about this, but there are many reasons that we couldn't do this. Of course, I am not making all the decisions alone, I have to respect my partners, I have really important partners, so there could be many reasons, and this time we didn't have a chance to work with Fenati. But maybe one day.
Q: Will the fact that he has had to spend half a season at home mean he will be a better racer, more motivated, a better approach? Is this the best thing that could have happened to him?
AA: I think so. This is his biggest chance to grow up. Especially after difficult times, when you are sitting at home and thinking. For me, many riders make the biggest improvement step during winter. Especially after a difficult season. If they have a difficult season, they stop, the stress goes down, they are a few months at home, training. When they come back, boom! They improved a lot, even though they didn't spend one hour on the bike. But they improved.
Q: Is there any rider you would like to work with?
AA: Everyone! Everyone! Everything is for learning. I don't want to say one name, I don't have one name in my mind, because I am so happy and enthusiastic about the riders that I have now. And again, especially for the new challenges next year, that we can keep Bo Bendsneyder who I think has a lot of potential. Brad Binder also has excellent character and we can keep him and move up for the new challenge in Moto2, so interesting. So I'm so enthusiastic. Like said, Oliveira, I love Miguel and his character, he is coming back. Antonelli, I really like this young buy, what I see in his eyes. I hope that we can do something big together. Enthusiastic, very enthusiastic!
Q: Any idea why people find it so hard to go from Moto3 to Moto2? There have only been a few riders who have been fast straight away?
AA: OK, every character is different, the learning curve could be different also. But first of all, Moto2 at the moment is a category at an incredibly high level. MotoGP is always number one, but I'm so happy that in this championship, Moto2 and Moto3 are excellent categories. In some countries, they are a little bit underrated for me.
In some ways, Moto2 is even the strongest category. It's such a wide range, there are so many GP winners, so many podium guys, so many world champions there. And if their day is not perfect, they are in 25th position! Ouch! This is psychologically very hard. Even if you haven't ridden one time in Moto2 yet, you start to think, how the hell do I survive? And some guys handle this psychologically really well, some guys not so well.
I think that's the biggest risk. There are psychological reasons for this. Some maybe get so stressed in advance, maybe they think, ****, this level is high! And that is difficult to maybe control yourself in that situation. It's hard, it's tough. Psychologically, it's so tough, so tough.
Moto3 is different, slipstreaming, light bikes, everything makes your life different. Even the lazy talented guy can sometimes do quite well in Moto3 – not so good in practice, but in the race you are coming, you have talent, you have skill, you do a good race, you do a few good slipstreams, you fight for the win. In Moto2, that is impossible. You need to really learn how to work systematically, and be really mature to be successful in Moto2.
Q: How much do you have to be systematic to be a champion in MotoGP, Moto2, any championship?
AA: It's different. But in some points, in Moto2 maybe even more than in MotoGP. But of course in MotoGP, there are so many things that are different, there are more electronics, so many things. It's difficult to compare, but in both categories, you have to be really systematic and experienced to do a good job.
Q: Does the fact that it is all Kalexes in Moto2 make it even more necessary to be systematic?
AA: For me, Moto2 is somehow a little bit underrated for being so really tough. You need to be really mature to survive there.
Q: We saw that Johann Zarco was sometimes strong, sometimes not so strong in 2016. Any explanation?
AA: For me, it was mostly psychological reasons. Just how you feel and how you conduct yourself.
Q: Was defending the championship harder than actually winning it in the first place?
AA: That could be one reason, but I think there are many reasons. But it's tough. I would say that like we said before, in some ways Moto2 is maybe even more tough than MotoGP. It depends on which position you are fighting for. In MotoGP, OK, if you are fighting for wins and podiums, it's really tough, and a really really high level category. But let's say that riders who are riding around tenth position, maybe it's even more tough in Moto2.
I think that in Moto2, the people around you and your staff are even more important than in other categories. Even more than in MotoGP, I would say. Really, the people close to you, how they work with you, how they handle you, how you handle them, how you work together, that is so important in Moto2.
Q: So not just team, but also friends, family, trainer, everything?
AA: It depends what kind of system you have. There are different systems. Some riders have only the team, they are really close, and everything is there, and they train alone. That works, it works for many riders. Some riders have many people around, maybe it's even more difficult to control this. If you keep it simple and you only work with the team, and you are strong between the races, or you will have support from the team, you can keep a small group, maybe it's easier.
Q: In every sport, athletes use sports psychologists to improve their performance, but not so much in motorcycle racing. Why is that?
AA: This is a difficult question. Let's say that I am a guy who is always a little bit careful with psychologists and people with a psychology background, especially those who come from outside the sport. OK, if they grow up inside the sport, still I'm a little bit careful, because for me, the best psychological people for the rider are the ones who are really close to them. Their assistant coach, or maybe sometimes even better, the team, the people in the team, the crew chief.
These are the most important people. Because you need to trust 100% in the people around you, and if you have too many people it's so easy to get confused. Maybe your psychologist says this, your riding coach says that, and the crew chief says something different. You are confused!
People need to work together. OK, there can be some help, but the key is how these people work together. Psychologists cannot come from outside and talk to the rider bypassing the team. That's very risky. Riding coaches cannot take the rider into the office and talk to him alone. It's all done together. Basically, inside the team, it's the crew chief who needs to lead the project. The rider needs to have 110% trust in this guy. Everyone else is supporting his work with the rider.
Q: So first it's the rider and crew chief, and then the rest?
AA: Really important. Normally, that's the best, in my experience. If the rider and crew chief have a good relationship, and some clever experienced people around him who support this work – not support the rider, support this work! That's what I try to be as a manager also, that I am not going there to make confusion, I am trying to support the rider and connect the rider with his closest staff. There I can help, I feel. All the rest, maybe I can create confusion if I get involved too much. But try to make the rider and crew chief and his closest staff even more close, even more connected.
Q: Moto2 in 2019 there will be a new engine supplier, do you have any idea what will happen?
AA: It's too early to say anything, because we don't know what will happen, but I'm always open for changes, it's something which motivates people more. Of course they need to make the right decisions, but whatever is coming, I think everything new is fresh, I will try to keep this attitude.
Q: Is it more interesting because we are changing engines or does it not make any difference?
AA: I think change is always more interesting, in any case. If it's a more powerful category, or a more interesting category, I don't know, but for me, changes are always interesting. But of course it's too early to say when we know no details. We don't know if it will be one engine manufacturer only or if it will be open like Moto3.
Q: What would be the ideal Moto2 bike for you?
AA: I don't think there is one ideal bike. Hard to say. But the bike is good, but for me it's difficult to say what could be better. OK, maybe a bike which is a little bit lighter, a little bit smaller. But I'm really open now and enthusiastic for the future.
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