Developing a racing motorcycle is a complex process. Information flows continuously from rider to engineers to factory and back again, along with a steady stream of parts, some of which improve the bike, some of which don't.
There are a few key people in this design process. The head engineer in the racing department, who oversees the entire process. The crew chief, who interprets what the rider says, and combines it with data to turn it into information the engineers can use. The rider, who not only has to ride the bike to the limit of its performance, but also explain where that limit is and why it is stopping them from going faster to crew chiefs and engineers.
As journalists, we are in the privileged position of being able to talk to most of these people, and try to learn about the process from what they are willing to tell us. Given what is at stake, that is far from the complete picture, the factories jealously guarding information to prevent other manufacturers from figuring out what they are working on, and losing any advantage they might have.
There are some people we don't get to talk to, however. Many of the key engineers involved in leading the development of the bike are kept away from the media. These are the people doing the hands on – and brains on – work of finding ways to make the bike better, to improve its strengths and negate its weaknesses.
The name behind the big names
Sometimes we get lucky, however. Over the winter, I was fortunate to interview Andrea Zugna, one of the most important engineers of the past fifteen years or so. Zugna played a significant role in helping develop the Yamaha M1 which Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo took to victory in the period after Rossi switched to Yamaha. Zugna was then poached by Honda, where he helped design the bikes that Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez used to rack up MotoGP titles. Zugna left Honda at the end of 2019 to work on a new challenge, developing the control systems for Italy's America's Cup challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team.
Who is Andrea Zugna? The Italian grew up in the Italian border city of Trieste, and studied mechanical engineering at the university there. In the last year of his studies, he did an internship with a Belgian company, LMS Engineering (since acquired by Siemens), who he went to work for after graduating. LMS worked on projects for Japanese automotive companies, including motorcycle manufacturers.
Zugna had been fascinated by vibration and the dynamics of mechanical systems at university, and that was the area he worked on for LMS Engineering. "The main customers were Japanese, like Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and so on, a lot of automotive, more for production," he told me. That was how he met Masao Furusawa, then working at Yamaha in the ATV division. Furusawa, like Zugna, had spent a lot of time thinking about the role of vibration in engineering.
"I also did a project with Yamaha where I met Furusawa-san, before he became head of the racing department," Zugna explained. "So then it was a coincidence. I read that he was going to be head of racing, so I asked him to see a race from the paddock." Furusawa invited Zugna to Barcelona, to watch the Catalunya Grand Prix in 2003. That meeting proved to be a turning point in Zugna's life. "There, Furusawa-san offered me the job in MotoGP. It was kind of lucky. I was still trying to go into F1 at the time, but this chance came through and I got it. So I started in 2004."
Zugna didn't know it at the time, but the head of Yamaha racing had big plans for the Italian. "Actually, Furusawa-san had a master plan for me even though I didn’t realize it! He wanted me to work on the development, but he realized that I needed a practical side. So in 2004 he basically put me with Ichiro Yoda, who was still with Yamaha at the time. So I spent a year with him, and with Fiorenzo Fanali."
Fiorenzo Fanali had been crew chief to Marco Melandri, who had raced for the Yamaha factory team in 2003. Fanali was a man with vast experience in racing, but when Valentino Rossi switched from Honda to Yamaha for the 2004 season, Rossi brought his entire crew with him, including crew chief Jeremy Burgess.
"So Fiorenzo went a bit in the background, but he ended up being my teacher," Zugna explained. "So I was very lucky to have people like him, and also Jeremy as well to get the wisdom of all the paddock regulars before computers came in."
Theory and praxis
This proved to be another pivotal point for Zugna, and had a long-term effect on how he viewed motorcycle racing. "I got a lot of practical knowledge from them, which then I could match with what I was doing on my computer, my calculations. But it was really the way that accelerated a lot my learning," he said. That year, 2004, helped Zugna create a bridge between the old school of race engineers, where experience was all important, and the new era driven by data and computing.
Zugna got a deeper look at the data side in the following two seasons, when he worked with Colin Edwards. "Then Furusawa-san told me, now you will do two years as data engineer for Colin, just to learn really what racing is," Zugna said. "Then he brought me back to development from 2007." Furusawa had created a path to turn Zugna into a great MotoGP engineer. "So he had the master plan, I didn’t even realize," Zugna told me.
Having worked both in a support role and directly with a rider, Zugna had developed a deeper understanding of racing, learning to see the bigger picture. "It was great because I saw both sides, and that was the way to be then a better development engineer," he said. "Because I did the mapping for Colin, we went to dinner together. You saw the mood of a rider. Also the ups and downs of when you had the podium or when you did position ten."
Making the difference
Seeing that helped him see the difference the rider could make, and to know when the problem was the bike, and the rider was making up for its deficiencies. "Because in the end when you work with the super champion riders, sometimes you think maybe you have done a really great job and you don’t realize how much they have compensated," he explained. "Engineering-wise you think, we did first, second, first, third, first, fourth, and so on. So you think, wow, the bike is great."
That was not always the truth, however. "Sometimes you don’t realize how much they are really doing as a sportsman and maybe masking the problems of the bike," Zugna explained. "But when you work with - they’re all great riders, but not the super, super champion - then you immediately see also that if you do a not-so-good job, you are tenth. You do a better job, you are maybe on the podium. So that’s also a good learning process, more than being with the top riders sometimes."
Talent masks trouble
The danger of working with exceptional talents is that it can lull the engineers working with them into a false sense of security. Casey Stoner's time at Ducati is the classic example: the Australian was competitive throughout his time with the Italian manufacturer, even though the results of his teammates told a very different story.
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