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. The list of champions and great riders he has produced is almost endless: Marc Marquez, Johann Zarco, Jack Miller, Sandro Cortese, Luis Salom, Danny Kent to name just a few.
To find out how he does it, I sat down with Aki Ajo at Valencia and spoke for nearly half an hour. The results of this interview were fascinating, and offer a great insight into the how to get the best out of a rider, to help them achieve success. In the first part of this interview, he shares his philosophy of racing and team management, of motivation, and what keeps him going. He also talks about the difference it makes working with a rider the second time around, and why he is happy with his current crop of riders in Moto2 and Moto3.
Q: You always seem to find the right riders?
Aki Ajo: Not always, but sometimes, yes!
Q: Often, though. And sometimes you will take a rider and give them what they need to succeed. What is it you are looking for in a rider? What is talent?
AA: First of all, myself, and also many people in my team are very similar, we are very passionate. Maybe we are not always looking for the easiest way, because we have passion. We are looking for a challenge, and we are ready to work for it. Sometimes you see something, that someone is winning, someone is close to winning, but maybe there is something in that rider that you don't feel this fire, this passion. But maybe in someone else who crashes all the time, you do have this feeling.
Someone who has a really good attitude, good character, not so fast yet, but you have this feeling that maybe we can be fast together. Maybe he can be fast when we work together. So I'm looking for challenges always, and somehow if this happens, that when you start to work with a rider that nobody else is looking at, I think it's even more enjoyable than the standard way. And many times in these cases, the attitude of the rider is much better. Because he's not already a superstar, he doesn't have everyone looking at him and saying, you are the best, you are the best. I'm looking for passion, and the right attitude of the rider. Of course he needs to have some talent and to be fast also, but everyone is quite fast here, so what's important is talent. But even more it is the attitude and passion.
They have to be ready to sacrifice. Binder is such a good example for this, he is ready to sacrifice everything. Zarco also, he is ready to sacrifice everything! Everything!
Q: Sacrifice everything, because you have to if you want to win?
Q: So that warrior attitude is what you want? Someone who is prepared to fight and sacrifice to achieve a goal?
AA: Yes! I need to see in their eyes that they really want it. When you have this in the eyes, you are ready to sacrifice. You are ready to do everything for that.
Q: I have a theory that riders have to have a difficult road to succeed. Spend time on a bad bike, have a hard time. That teaches riders what they can do beyond what the bike can do.
AA: For sure! At least part of your theory is true. But I'm always a little bit careful to choose just one theory, because I have worked with I don't know how many riders, I never counted them here in GP, but many. Some people say 20% of the riders in the championship are our ex-riders, I don't know if it's true.
But I have worked with so many, so I'm thankful and lucky that I have had the chance to work with and learn from so many riders. Always they say to me, what did you teach Marc Márquez? I say for me, it's difficult to say what I taught him, for sure something, but I always say I taught him that men should cry when a man wants to cry. That's just one example.
A better question is to ask what I learned from him. People say, but he was only 17! I say to them, hey, we need to be open. Of course I try to work together and teach also something, but I also get something back all the time. I think this is one important thing, that you are really open with everyone. From the guy doing fairings here or the 16-year-old rider.
And this is what I am so thankful for, that I can do this kind of job and we can do our job as a group, that we have so many special days, we have always some new characters every year, and we have a chance to learn different things. That is the most enjoyable part of this job. Even more than winning sometimes. I want to win, but to learn and improve is more important, and for me it's not important to win all the time. I want to win, but even more important is to keep improving, keep improving, improving. Learn, learn, learn more! For sure you are winning also. I am not putting in my head, you need to win, you need to win. No, the win is the result of the work. Learning and work.
Q: Sometimes when riders leave you, things don't go so well for them. Sandro Cortese, but Danny Kent did better.
AA: Exactly, everyone says that normally, riders are winning here, and when they leave they are not winning, but Danny is the opposite. OK, he was also winning with us, but not the championship. He left, and he won the championship. So I would say, I didn't learn really perfectly how to work with them.
Q: Do you try to work differently with different riders?
AA: Yes. Before, when I was younger, I was more proud, and I felt I was more clever. When you get older, you understand that you are not so clever any more. So no one has any reason to be proud in this world, we are all on the same level. This makes me more open for everything, for learning, for listening, and especially to try to find always the correct way to work with each rider.
In the beginning, I always follow the same style, my style is quite similar, I'm quite strong, I'm straight. But I try to find with my crew, I'm not working alone, we try to find always the right way with each rider. Trying to analyze what this guy needs now. What this guy needs in terms of everything.
If I feel that today, he needs to be relaxed and he needs to have three beers, we will go for beers. If I see that this ****ing guy is not training enough, I have to find a way to motivate him for training. Whatever. Each case is different. And that's why it's so interesting also. That's why we are so passionate! Because every day is a new day and a new challenge.
I'm so enthusiastic for next week (the Jerez Moto2 test in November). Again I have one more new rider I never worked with. I get back also one rider which I like so much and I am so enthusiastic about, Miguel Oliveira. With Niccolo Antonelli, I really like his character. Italian guy, but not a superstar. Many young Italian riders, it's in their character, that they are getting quite confident quite quickly. Antonelli is different, I like his character, and it's a big challenge for us to work with him and I really enjoy it. My crew, we are very enthusiastic about it.
We are also very enthusiastic to get back Miguel Oliveira – I like this guy! He has such huge talent! He has some weak points also, but I hope that now this second time we work together, we can understand even better his weak points. We already won many races with him, but we also had difficult times. Now it's the challenge to find the best way together again and start to win with him again.
Q: Is it easier to work with someone the second time round?
AA: Yes, somehow yes. Some good examples, (Johann) Zarco, (Sandro) Cortese, and I hope with Oliveira also. Also even with Danny (Kent). We didn't win the championship with Danny, but Danny was first with me, and it was quite a difficult time. Then he came a second time, and we got many podiums, and it was easier. But especially Cortese, two years with us, he leaves, he came back, we win the championship. Zarco, with us it was challenging, we win some races, fighting for the title but not really ready. After a few years he came back and we win two titles.
So somehow I think that if you get a second chance, for sure you get an even bigger chance, because you already know each other, you have had time to think about it. Normally when you work with someone for the first time, maybe you are not open enough. But when you have a little bit of distance, you think, "Hmm, Aki, you were a little bit wrong in this, wrong in that. Maybe you need to work a little bit in this way or that way with this guy." The second chance for me is for sure an even better chance. You are more ready.
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