TECH DIVE: how important is a good relationship between rider and crew chief?

Wednesday, 13 October 2021 10:21 GMT

WorldSBK commentator Steve English looks at a trending topic and an aspect of racing often overlooked in favour of physical technical development: building trust between a rider and a crew chief is crucial for success…

Environment is key to success in the MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship, especially when the gaps are so close like they are in 2021. A talented rider can make up for a lot of shortcomings but the relationship between rider and his crew chief is essential. Over the last week, this has been a major talking point in the Championship after GRT Yamaha’s decision to split Garrett Gerloff from Les Pearson. Building a new relationship in lightning-quick time can be a real challenge.

TIME CAN BE A CHALLENGE: optimising every moment

It’s one that Kawasaki Puccetti Racing had to do last time out in Portugal, with Tito Rabat joining the team and crew chief Mick Shanley adjusting to a new rider after a season with Lucas Mahias. The challenge is in understanding how to communicate with each other and the nuances of language and emotion. It takes time to fall into the right rhythm with each other and synch into the needs of both sides. The rider’s job is to tell his engineer how the bike feels, and the crew chief’s job is improving the bike in a limited time frame. 

Having an open line of communication is crucial to the success of a team and rider. Developing trust and building a bond is imperative and it’s no coincidence that the most successful riders in 2021 have been working with their crew chiefs for a long time. Jonathan Rea and Pere Riba are the gold standard for this relationship, with the duo in their seventh season together and trying to maintain an unbeaten streak as World Champions. 

A TWO-WAY THING: what’s they key?

Being able to give feedback is crucial for a rider but the team also need to be able to collect data. From electronics to suspension to tyres all manner of data is collected and analysed in combination to the rider feedback. A successful team is only able to succeed if the rider’s feedback and the data all work in the same direction to improve the bike. All members of the team need to feel valued and that’s the biggest role of a crew chief; to harness everyone’s abilities to the develop the best solution possible. 

The crew chief will have a setting sheet that outlines the feedback from a rider, the data from the tyre technician’s relating to track conditions and a mechanic’s data on fuel usage and any number of other variables. During a debrief the emphasis will be centred around the crew chief and the data engineer but it’s a team effort to get ready for racing. It’s easy to only focus on data and let the numbers lead the engineer but at the end of each stint in practice when the rider comes into the garage, the team will log his feedback and then compare that to the results they had expected. The closer to the feedback is to reality the quicker the trust can build. 

INSIDER INSIGHT: looking at numbers, listening to feedback

“I’ve got multiple page spreadsheets which are linked to various programmes,” explains Shanley. “I’ll have our session plan for the day that I give to each of the guys, and afterwards, they’ll give it back to me, so I’ve got the changes made to the bike. We’ll have all the information about the bike and the conditions that it was running in.

“I’ll take that information and add it to my setting sheet and that will give us chassis settings that were used and step by step, we can keep track of the changes and the comments from the rider. By looking at the changes and the comments made by the rider, we can track what was positive and what was negative.”

FINDING SOLUTIONS: does the perfect plan ever give the perfect outcome?

Being able to track the positives and negatives has been even more important in a season as competitive as 2021. One area where teams have tried to find an edge is in understanding the tyres and how to make best use of an allocation. Week to week Pirelli has introduced many new solutions this season and, for example, with numerous front tyre options to choose from, it’s important to understand the conditions. 

For this, the team rely on the tyre technician noting the track temperature, ambient temperature and the tyre pressures. The initial tyre temperature when leaving the pits will be constant, because the tyre will have been warmed to a set temperature and kept in blankets until the last moment. The instant a rider returns to the pits the tyre temperature will be tested, and the result will be noted on the tyre technician’s session plan. The team can assess the wear rate and performance by using the time sheets to show the degradation after a certain number of laps. With lots of analysis of all areas of the bike, the debriefs at the end of each session and the end of each day allows engineers to come up with practice plans and possible solutions for the next day. There’s a constant search for more knowledge and more performance. 

Pooling all the information available is the biggest job for a crew chief. They aren’t necessarily tasked with always finding a solution, but they are challenged to collect as much information as possible and then allow the team to utilise it. Most crew chiefs will come from a specialist area but when they become the chief, their goal is to lead a group of specialists and have everyone pull in the same direction. The more data they have available to them, the better. Perfect preparation doesn’t always lead to perfect performance, but it gives the best chance possible to have a good result on race day. The bike is never perfect. The rider is never perfect. The goal is to be as close to perfect as possible.

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