The veteran crew chief knows better than anyone the work that went into Sam Lowes’ title challenge in 2020. The Frenchman speaks to Motomatters.com on keeping his approach simple and giving his rider the freedom to work on himself.
Sam Lowes at the Qatar Moto2 test - Copyright Marc VDS/Mirco Lazzari
On the eve of the 2021 season, it’s fair to say Sam Lowes’ hopes for round one are quite different compared to a year ago. Recruited to Marc VDS’ slick operation after two tough seasons in Moto2, the Englishman’s 2020 got off to the worst possible start when he suffered a fracture-dislocation of his right shoulder in a testing spill. It meant the Lincolnshire rider was forced to sit out the first race of the year despite riding in Friday’s sessions.
The turnaround from there was impressive and surprising in equal measures. From joining the Marc VDS team, Lowes worked on himself off the track, visiting a sports psychologist and reworking his approach. He worked on himself on the track, too, smoothing out his riding style and adapting his braking method. The results spoke for themselves. But for a free practice spill at the penultimate race, it is no exaggeration to say the 30-year old would have been entering this year as a reigning champion.
Not to worry. A productive, if short, preseason sees Lowes start 2021 as one of – if not the – preseason favourite for Moto2. He topped the times on the final night of testing in Qatar and showed a searing rhythm to boot. Marco Bezzecchi, surely another contender in this year’s fight, claims Sam is the “super favourite.” And after the end of a turbulent 2020, who could argue with the fuzzy-haired Italian?
Behind this recent turnaround, crew chief Gilles Bigot has been an analytical and calming presence in the Marc VDS garage. The Frenchman has over 30 years of experience in the grand prix paddock, and tasted the ultimate success by winning the 500cc title with Alex Crivillé in 1999. In Lowes, he found an interesting challenge: a fast rider, who occasionally fell from moments of promise. Rarely bound to displays of emotion, Bigot insisted on keeping the approach simple, and suggested some ways in which his rider could work on himself to ensure consistency.
A strong working relationship was formed. On Bigot, Lowes recently told the Paddock Pass Podcast, “He’s different to me but that’s a positive thing. We bounce off each other. When something is not going good or not going in the right direction, he doesn’t panic or say anything negative. He just tries to work it back into a good way. It’s the same when things are going great. You don’t get much from him either. I think it took three race wins in a row to get a nice compliment off him last year! But I respect that and like it. It’s nice to work with someone that is like a flat line. He’s got so much experience and I love talking with him over dinner about everything he’s done and achieved in his life. It’s great for me. I really respect him. The bike is more or less workable every time I get on it. That’s gives me great confidence.”
Motomatters.com had the chance to sit down with Bigot to talk about Lowes’ time in the Marc VDS garage, and how the Englishman restored his confidence to become a leading name in Moto2 once again.
Q: What were your impressions of Sam before you started working with him?
Gilles Bigot: The thing I felt about Sam was sometimes we could see him crashing. Sometimes from the outside it looked like a bit of a silly crash when someone has a strong will and they cannot control what they were doing at that time. The last year I was watching him was in 2018 when I was with Tom Luthi. He was racing for the Swiss team (in Moto2). At that time Julien (Robert), who is our data guy, was working as his crew chief. That time it was the same thing. I was asking, ‘Why did he crash?’ It wasn’t like he was out of control, just that he was over-trying. That was my first view.
In Brno in 2019 when Mr. Van der Straten told me I was going to work with Sam I thought, OK, that is interesting. Already we have Julien who was working with him. We could start to talk about how Sam works and the way he reacts. Every rider has a different attitude when he’s riding or when he has a problem on the track. Before the end of the season, we started talking with Sam, planning ahead. It was very interesting. Sam is a very open guy and he is not shy to talk about himself, which is a good thing. Many times lots of riders try to hide, thinking they might look ridiculous or we might laugh at them. We said, ‘We know you have the speed; that’s not the problem. We just have to understand why sometimes you are not able to control yourself and why you crash.’ I knew already from the team in 2018. I asked him how it was with Gresini. When we were talking, he never said a bad word about the team. He said this is happening because of this.
I’m a bit of an old guy so I’m a bit more pragmatic. I don’t rush, making decisions. If a rider comes to me and says this is a problem, I’m not jumping up. We sit. We talk. And we try to figure out what it is. He said, ‘OK, I like this kind of attitude.’ I told him we’d try to find a method. But at the same time, he would have to work a bit on himself. It goes together. We can help. But in the end he’s the one who is riding the motorcycle. He had to control a bit his desire, or emotion. Most of the time those guys are riding by emotion.
Q: What did the early tests at the end of 2019 tell you about Sam?
GB: We did two tests in Valencia (at the end of 2019). The first day was quite good. The second day was not so bad, but I could see something was a bit different. I gave him some time to think. I kept talking with Julien. We are all human and different to express our emotions. The first day he was fast. On the second we had a few things to test. He would only do two or three laps and say, ‘This is not good.’ I think the first day was good so the expectation went up. That day I didn’t have the response or know how to control this. When you start working with a rider, you have to understand them.
I said, ‘I hope we have a friendly relationship.’ But I also said, ‘I won’t be your friend. Your friends are the ones you grow up with. I won’t call you every two days to ask if you are fine. This is not really my style. Also, I’m not going to talk about technical stuff with you, because I don’t think you need that.’ Of course you can share something from the technical side with the rider. But if the rider wants to know too much about the technical stuff, when he gets on track he’s thinking more about what he’s got on his bike, rather than challenging himself to ride better. We are the crew. He is the rider. But of course, we need his help to win your feedback to make the bike better. But don’t try to play the technician. He said, ‘That’s fine by me, I’m not very interested in this.’ He was honest from his side. So (now) he comes (to the box), I tell him we have this tyre and this tyre. That’s it – no need to talk for an hour.
I did a mistake in the past. In my first year as a crew chief I would say, ‘This race track is like this, maybe if we do this…’ If you try to anticipate before what will go on, you can find yourself in trouble. If you talk too much, you can give a false impression the rider is going to be fine. Then he goes on the track, struggles and thinks it’s not working. Instead of being in a state of mind: I’ll try to feel how it is and you push, push until you find the limit. If you go immediately and think I should be doing a 1'35 lap, but you start at 1'37… Ahh!
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