From the knee to the need: Moving on in MotoGP
Joan Olivé is a familiar face in the Red Bull KTM set-up. The former Grand Prix athlete and owner of nine podium finishes now helps the current factory riders and has transitioned from one side of the pit wall to the other. We wanted to ask how the transformation felt for the (still trim) thirty-one year old Spaniard and how an ex-racer can still fit into the world where he was once one of the leading names …
Olivé easily smiles and seemingly has time for everyone despite giving off the impression that he has a lot to do and needs to be in three places at once in his role at Red Bull KTM and duties that he assumed since he placed his crash helmet on the shelf for good in 2012. We ask for his time during practice at the Qatar GP and he happily talks in an accomplished English gleaned from this time coming through Grand Prix at the beginning of the century with peers like Dani Pedrosa and at the forefront of the strong wave of Spanish talent that now washes MotoGP. “Joan is a very precise person which is really important for good coordinator,” assess boos and team principal Aki Ajo. “Of course we knew each other already because we have [both] been a long time in the paddock but 2012 when Joan was testing the KTM Moto3-bike we started to be more in contact and finally after that he also started to train and work in our company.”
“I started working with KTM in 2011 and Aki in 2012; wow, how the time passes!” Olivé says. “My role has changed over time because I started as a test rider in those first two years and then with Aki I was watching the other riders around the track and with my experience try to help them in the best way to improve. I started to get more responsibilities and my main job now during the week is to co-ordinate the team and organize all the travel arrangements and testing. I’m in contact with IRTA and DORNA and generally have a hand in the co-ordination. During the weekend I’m also getting around the track because it is something I like to do and I feel I can help. The crew chiefs appreciate the feedback I can give. When we do not have too many guests then I am always around the service roads.”
Have you worked with every rider since KTM came into Moto3?
“Yes, with Sandro [Cortese] and then Sissis [Arthur], Zulfahmi [Khairuddin] and [Luis] Salom, then Jack [Miller] and Karel [Hanika], Miguel [Oliveira], Danny Kent and now Brad [Binder] and Bo [Bendsneyder].”
There are some interesting stories there. Some involving real success and others not so much …
“Yes, not all the riders could be at the top but from our side we did all we could to give them the best. A good example of the difference when it comes to the stories is Jack and Arthur because I had them living on my property for three years and we had contact every day, we trained together, went to the gym, rode motocross … so we had a close relationship. A few of the riders already had experience; Sandro had a lot compared to the others and we had a good package with the KTM. He was able to make a great year. There have been so many different riders and they have all had some good points and were distinct characters. In motorcycle racing it is not always ‘1+1=2’. Some riders are more sensitive and need more care taken of them whereas others are more independent. You can learn a lot from what you have to handle.”
Talk more about the Sissis and Miller situation because it was two Australians who both showed potential. One almost had the title and went into MotoGP and the other went the other way and ultimately dropped out of the sport and into Speedway …
“I still have a good relationship with Arthur and we keep in touch and of course with Jack. It is a pity that Arthur could not progress further but in life you have your own goals and you have to fight for them. I felt that Arthur did not really know what he wanted to do. He started in KTM but then moved to Mahindra which was also a factory team but was also thinking about Speedway. Nothing comes easily for anyone so I think he needed to be clear on what he wanted. Jack was like that; he really wanted success in road racing. These guys are very young and some have clear opinions of what they want and to make it happen while others are not old enough to realize the opportunity that they have in their hands. I think it is a situation where if they had the same chance later in life then they would manage it differently. I think it is a question of maturity.”
But was that hard for you because KTM and Aki could have said “great job with Jack but what are you doing with Arthur?!”
“Haha … no, no. It is teamwork. I go on the track and give my opinions but the results are down to everybody and all the key people. We all give 100% and if we could bring all the riders right to the top then it would be a ‘perfect machine’ but life is not like that … and there are not enough places in MotoGP! Finally it is about who manages the opportunity they have in the best way that arrives to the top; they need that maturity in the right moment. I think all the riders we had had the skills to go fast. It was more a question of the attitude and the right place at the right time.”
What about giving advice? You must remember from your time as a rider that you probably get many voices coming at you suggesting ideas and telling you what to do. It must be tricky to know what rider needs words and what rider needs to be left alone …
“I think because the riders are usually very young it means they are ready to listen and to work together and be ‘open’. So I have never really found this problem [of someone not listening]. Even now I see ex-teammates in the paddock who say to me “I saw you around the track … what do you think?” so I think most riders want to listen and always want to know something that might be good for them. The way we work is usually any details or thoughts I see on the track I say to the crew chief because they can then compare also with the data and have more tools to work with the rider, so it is not only about me having direct contact with the rider. It is also possible to create confusion if you don’t go through the process. The crew chief might be thinking in one way and what I see is something different and then we find a direction. It is always good to do it together.”
Do you see some riders having problems that you had in your career? Even things like dealing with set-up or fighting in the pack? Do you see things and think ‘oh, I can remember back in 2002 … ’
“Yes! Of course. If I could go back to my teens with what I know now I would be really fast! I’m sure I would win many championships! The typical problem of a rookie is to brake late and the lap-times come when you change that for opening [the gas] early. It is a typical thing and I can remember learning that when I started. I see guys with a lot of race experience now that have a riding style that is very difficult to change. You can see this many times and I went through it.”
Do you still test and ride the race bike?
“No, not any more. When I started to do a lot of office work then it was more difficult to change the mentality back to thinking about going fast on a bike. A test rider still needs to be very fast and we’re talking maybe less than two seconds away from the GP guys. You cannot be Monday-Saturday in the office, doing a little bit of gym and motocross and then go to a GP track. To look at a computer all the time means you lose a little bit of the focus!”
That focus: when you stop and you know you don’t have to do those testing laps is it a relief? Is it a weight off the shoulders?
“I think if you are only focused on the testing and the riding then it is easy to keep a good level [mentally] because you do the normal routines as rider: the training, eating, resting. When you have other responsibilities like the calls, organizing and training while thinking ‘I need to do this tomorrow’ then life changes! I’m happy with what I do and I think it is a normal evolution. Sometimes I miss riding … but I had my time. I like working with the riders and I feel we talk the same language about how they feel and what is going-on on the track. I’m happy with my job, and the fact I can do other things apart from ride a bike. You cannot be a rider forever. I’m still involved in this world that I like and I know more parts of it now.”
How is the relationship with Aki? Is he a demanding boss?
“No, I’m happy with him and I’m proud that in the last five years I could learn so much from him, things that I never really knew about in the past. I know I am learning from one of the best teams in MotoGP so I am a lucky guy. I’m looking all the time and always listening to his comments. He works very hard and I like that; I enjoy my work like him and we know each other well.”
Can you see yourself going in one direction in the future? Would you like to have a team? Or a direct link with a manufacturer? Or maybe manage riders … ?
“Oooh, at the moment I don’t know. I do not want to close the door to any opportunities. I am still young and I do not want to rush into anything. That would be a mistake. I still want to learn more and we will see what the future brings. Everyone dreams about the future but I don’t want to make a silly move. I’m happy with what I am doing and we will see. I feel if you push things then that’s when they go wrong. It is about timing again: in the correct place and the best time.”
What about the lifestyle? You have raced for so long and now still at the GPs; is it tough for the family that you are still so into the scene?
“For sure it is not easy when you are so many days away from home but for me it is the lifestyle and I’m lucky that the girlfriend I have knows me a long time and so she understands. We will see in the future of course and you can do things like making the European races shorter by leaving a bit later and coming back earlier but my family like the races and so far no complaints! I also have good friends here who do the same job.”
Lastly – I know it couldn’t happen because of the age limit in Moto3 – but if one of the riders were injured and Aki asked you to step into the leathers how difficult would it be for you?
“Whoah … impossible! I would like to … but the age limit means it is a dream. I remember one of my last races involved a wild-card because of this same injury scenario and one of the first things that happened when I went out was that I sweated a lot! I was not used to using those muscles. It was such a nice feeling to put the knee on the ground at 170. It is the best. I would like to try Zarco’s Moto2 bike for a few laps! I’m curious to see … maybe I should ask!”