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A MotoGP™ crew chief is the vital link between the rider and his machine. And no crew chief knows more about how to turn a season into a success than Jeremy Burgess, the man who guided Valentino Rossi, Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner to world-title glory.
Jeremy Burgess is arguably the greatest pit-lane guru of motorcycle Grand Prix racing’s first seven decades. During his 28-year career as a crew chief – looking after Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi – Burgess won an astonishing 13 premier-class world titles and took 148 Grand Prix victories.
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During those 28 seasons and during his earlier years as a GP mechanic, the Australian experienced victory and defeat and everything in between. Few people in the paddock knew so much about how to win races, how to motivate riders and how to work with a group of people in all kinds of high-pressure situations.
Burgess – who retired at the end of 2013 – raced in Australia before he came to Europe in 1980, when he got a job working for Randy Mamola in the factory Suzuki team, almost by accident. Back home he had learned to think for himself and to fix problems himself while growing up on the family farm, surrounded by agricultural machinery. He was a self-taught engineer.
He arrived in Europe with a straightforward, practical, intelligent and hard-working attitude to racing, always resolving to solve problems quickly, rather than getting side-tracked by the complexity of modern racing. And that’s what made him so successful.
“I always liked to simplify things,” says Burgess. “It’s the same in any sport. Take soccer as example; there are three sides to the game: when they’ve got the ball, when you’ve got the ball and when no one’s got the ball. How much more difficult than that can it be? It’s the same in motorcycle racing. Everything on a motorcycle is mechanical, so it either works or it doesn’t. The rider is going to have problems, and problems are only questions that don’t have answers, so you find the answer anyhow. Then you fix the bigger problems first, because a lot of people get wound up about small things.”
Each MotoGP™ season begins with winter testing, when riders get to evaluate their new machines and give their first feedback to their crew chief, who interprets the rider’s words and then sits down with the factory engineers to fix problems and make the bike better.
“I enjoyed the testing as much as anything else,” adds the 62-year-old. “I never had the piece of paper that says I’m an engineer, so I didn’t look into the bike in a full scientific way. I didn’t analyse it to the nth degree. I worked with the rider and his problems to try and get a good balance.”
Racing changed a huge amount during JB’s 34 years in Europe, on the racetrack, in the pits and in the paddock. “In 1980 it was just me and George Vukmanovich working for Randy: one mechanic and one chief mechanic. In 2013 it was me, four guys working on the bikes, a wheels-and-fuel guy, a tyre guy, a computer guy, a suspension guy and a few Japanese technicians, so the numbers had increased by a factor of about six.
“If I was to describe myself, I was the non-specific guy. A modern racing motorcycle is so sophisticated that it’s impossible for one or two or even three men to work on it. It demands much more than that, but there has to be someone who has an understanding and a feeling for what the rider is trying to explain. Over the years I became Valentino, so when Valentino went back to his motorhome and the data engineer took some information off the computer I was there to tell him what Valentino was saying. There’s a lot to be done, so someone has to organise and prioritise how much time the guys give between one practice and the next to a particular problem and what steps need to be taken to reduce that problem.”
Part of Burgess’s success was his ability to spend the whole of each season – stretching from February to November – travelling endlessly with his crew from one racetrack to another and working under conditions of great stress.
“In general, keeping everyone happy always works well. If one of the guys particularly enjoyed a certain task, I always made sure that within our working group he did that and was happy to do it, while the other guys did what they were happy to do.
“We always dined together in the evenings, rather than everyone going their separate ways. As a group we got on well and we had a laugh. Our little team was often accused of being too loud! When we were working at Yamaha one of the Japanese came into the pit and said there’s too much “f**kin’ f**kin’” in this team and that pretty much said it all.
“Communication is pretty much the secret in every walk of life. If it’s clear, straightforward and normal, you will be successful. Everything’s out in the open, but if you’ve got one department keeping information from some other department, you’re in trouble. It’s a rule of life as much as anything.”
Burgess’ 148 Grand Prix wins were a remarkable achievement, but his attitude going from one race to the next was always simple and humble.
“When you win, all you’ve done is do your job properly. When Mick or Valentino or Wayne won a race, it was more of a relief than anything, to be honest. We had prepared the bike in practice, done the race and achieved the result. To me there wasn’t a lot to get excited about, it was just a job well done.”
Of course, during his 28 seasons there were more than four hundred GPs, so JB also had plenty of experience of getting beaten. Defeat was a very different emotion, which he utilised to make sure it wouldn’t happen at the next race.
“When you lose a race, the first thing you realise is that you’re not good enough. I never minded finishing second, so long as we had a reason for finishing second. If we finished second and we didn’t have a reason, that’s when we had a problem and that’s what we worked on for the next weekend.”
Burgess scored his most famous success in 2004, when he helped engineer Rossi’s brilliant title victory after moving from Honda to Yamaha.
“We knew that things would be difficult in 2004, but the whole team worked extremely hard, so we were able to overcomes the difficulties,” explains JB, who scored more than a hundred GP victories with Honda before moving to Yamaha. “Of course, we had a brilliant rider but we also had a bike that was seriously slower than the opposition. We held our own and Yamaha delivered what they had promised on time, so the result was thanks to logical forward progress.
“Yamaha’s initial expectation was that they would win two or three races in 2004 and then win the championship in 2005 to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. However, Valentino and I felt that if we gave it our all in 2004 we would get Honda to drag everything off the shelf and we would be able to see what we were really up against.”
During each season Burgess stood between his rider and the motorcycle, using his intelligence and knowhow to create a bond between them. To make sure he got the best out of his rider at every race he understood that he needed to know as much about the human brain as he did about the internal combustion engine. In other words, he had to become something of a psychiatrist.
“A lot of motorcycle racing is about feel, so if the rider feels better riding with golden handlebars, then you give him golden handlebars. As a crew chief you’ve got to be seen to be on the rider’s side all the time and you’ve got to be diplomatic. I always think it’s easier to agree than to disagree. If a rider thinks one thing and you think another, then it’s a lot better for him to prove himself wrong, rather than for you to argue your case. So, in many instances that was my subliminal message: okay, we’ll do what you want, but it’s probably not going to help us.
“So you give them options and if they have options you can determine which option is the best and this is where the psychological game comes into play. You might go testing with someone as brisk as Mick and he would say, what did you build that bike for, I’m not going to ride it! So you’d say, just give it five laps at the end of the day. So at the end of the day he goes out and does a few laps on the thing and he might come back in and say, that’s not too bad, I think we should work more with that.”
Each season Burgess was faced by a different conundrum which were never easy to solve, because motorcycles are a lot more nebulous than cars. Not only does the rider account for around a third of the combined mass of man and machine, he is also movable ballast, so even the way he moves around the motorcycle can have a dramatic effect on machine behaviour, set-up and performance.
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“Racing motorcycles aren’t an easy thing. The car guys look at them as being a bit of a black art. Once again it’s really about working with a guy. It’s very hard to get the lap times you’re chasing without the rider getting the feel and confidence they need from the motorcycle.
“The absolute limit on a motorcycle is falling down, and if you’re nearly falling down you’re going to be slow, so you have to be close to the edge without being over the edge. All the best motorcycle racers tend to have very good brains. They have to understand what they have to do and this is where Valentino and Mick were very, very good because they understand exactly what was required to do the lap times they needed to do for the duration of the race.
“They knew that riding over the edge could be spinning the tyre, because if you’re spinning the tyre then you’re not necessarily going forward at the pace of someone who’s not spinning the tyre. Again, you don’t want to be too much on the slow side and you don’t want to be too much on the spin side. This is where the clever rider comes in; he’s the guy who can maintain his concentration on corner entry, mid-corner and corner exit over 14 corners a lap for 30 laps, doing lap times within 0.2 seconds of each other, always just maintaining that pressure. A lot of other guys try to catch up or try to go fast, but they spin the tyre or they go wide or they go slower. Guys like Valentino, Mick, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Giacomo Agostini or whoever they are, they all understood that it’s all about constant pressure, without being slow and without going past the limit of the grip.”
Burgess completed almost half his 28 seasons as a world champion, an amazing feat. So he usually went home to Australia a happy man, especially after nine tough months on the road with his crew.
“We always worked hard and had a laugh, but the end of the season we always welcomed the break away from each other!” he grins.
Burgess now lives full-time with his family outside Adelaide, where he divides his time between playing tennis and golf and restoring his beloved classic cars.
“All in all, I had a great time going racing. I was very fortunate throughout my career to work with fantastic people and fantastic riders, so I feel very blessed.”
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