Breaking into the high profile but highly-occupying MotoGPTM paddock is understandably tough (it’s the peak of motorcycle sport after all) so we decided to ask John Eyre, one of our Red Bull KTM technicians, about making it as a mechanic.
One of the hallmarks of 21st century life to date has been the increased ease to self-market. Social media, networking platforms and recruitment websites mean that it is possible to make shortcuts and directly target the vocational niche of your choosing.
While there are still no substitutes for experience, contacts and knowledge, the possibilities to break into a desired field like MotoGPTM racing can seem a little clearer. There are even specific ‘race engineering academies’ that can train an aspiring mechanic in the processes and demands of preparing competition-spec equipment. In Spain ‘schools’ like the Monlau facility in Barcelona now have an element of prestige.
There are different ways in. Alex Merhand, part of Miguel Oliveira’s Tech3 crew, studied and qualified as a data engineer, served his ‘laptop apprenticeship’ for two years for a factory team in MXGP and then graduated to MotoGPTM. On the other side of the ‘entry coin’ is John Eyre, a Brit now three years in Red Bull KTM as a mechanic looking after one of Johann Zarco’s KTM RC16s. Almost two decades in MotoGPTM John submerged himself in the scene by working part-time for a local rider in the British Superbike series. “The best thing to do now is to get a good qualification if you want to be working with data or electronics but if you want to be a mechanic then you just have to get experience and see if you can find someone that will take you on for weekends,” he says. “Do your studies during the week and get to the track at weekends. A lot of people at BSB will do that.”
Eyre started his journey as an eager kid obsessed by bikes. “Everybody asks ‘how did you start?’. Well I began working at races in the British Championship for a guy in the 250 series who was from the same village as me. Instead of taking holidays I went racing on the weekends. That was between 1993 and 1998 mainly as a kid.”
“My Dad used to race grass track, road racing and vintage bikes – I have vintage bikes at home – so it was a bit of a passion thing [inherited] from him,” he says. “I did a bit of racing but you quickly realize that it’s expensive and if you crash then you still need to go to work on a Monday morning. So, I went more into mechanic-ing and the technical side.”
Once in the race paddock then the relationships John made, the work he performed and a particular character towards the job meant he was in a position to start moving: A role working for Paul Brown in Supersport led to a year with Steve Hislop in Superbike and then finally the opening to arrive to Grand Prix at the end of 2000. “Steve was really good and I really enjoyed working with him,” he recalls. “I always wanted to get into Grand Prix and a friend was working at the Shell Advance Team and a job came up. I was thinking about it because I was 21 and it meant moving to Spain. That was 2001 and it was with Leon Haslam in the 500s.”
As well as a mechanical mind, concentration and diligence seem to be two essential skills. Making a mistake in race bike prep can be perilous but Eyre is quite forthright about the mentality required. “A motorcycle is only nuts and bots: You just have to put it together properly. I always double check everything and was brought up to be extra sure. Then when you are in a team you bounce off each other in terms of the jobs: When that feels easy and second nature then you know you are in a good crew.”
At MotoGPTM level a stripped-down racing prototype looks like a complicated collection of exotic parts and tech. For Eyre and his peers it is all relative. “It is technical … but the bike still has two wheels, two handlebars, a seat! I have worked on a lot of bikes; 2-strokes and a lot of engine stripping. Nowadays you get an engine and you just place it in the chassis. Before you had to do all the maintenance yourself with the pistons, rings, cranks: That was almost a daily job. I miss working inside the engine: the gearbox, cylinders. We used to build everything but now it is just placement of the engine, there is even a specific guy just for the gearbox.”
“When new stuff comes you have to have a little look and think about it … but generally if it is made right and properly then it should go together nicely,” he adds on the evolution of parts and ideas in MotoGPTM.
Eyre could be the best spannerman in the business but a crucial part of his job (and something anyone looking to reach his position should be aware of) is blending with his co-workers – around 5-6 in the immediate vicinity – and making the best team environment. “I think you have to be easy-going with everybody,” he says of the personality needed to spend so many days and hours on the road and in pitboxes. “You have to be open-minded and then you’ll warm to them and them to you. We have a new Crew Chief this year and he has been absolutely brilliant.”
He spent more than ten years at HRC (as part of the unit around KTM’s new test rider Dani Pedrosa, “I’d worked with Mike [Leitner] for about nine years and I was looking for a different challenge”) and this was a big marker on his CV. It meant that his name and face was firmly entrenched in the MotoGPTM scene: Another boost to employment prospects. “It’s not easy,” he smiles of making contacts and the ‘networking’ element of breaking into the paddock. “I remember one guy telling me it was easier to get in the Arsenal football club first eleven than it was to get into our team in BSB!”
Knowing the job, being good with people (thus building contacts) and having the disposition to handle a race situation: If a wannabe mechanic still believes they are suitable then the next step is persistence. “What you cannot beat is race experience,” Eyre stresses. “You can have all the qualifications under the sun but that experience counts for a lot. The group really matters as well. When you have a good group of lads then you tend to know what they want before they know themselves and vice-versa. There are a lot of shortcuts and it seems to click.”
To achieve any goal takes sacrifice. Reaching MotoGPTM might be a promised land for many but, as with anything “you have to take the rough with the smooth,” Eyre says. Nineteen weekends of racing on five continents plus tests means a long haul of kilometers on the road and in the air, and many days away from home. Much of the work formerly done in workshops is also carried out in the pitboxes of the circuits.
“The travelling is massive. There has to be a compromise now because if they keep putting more and more races then there won’t be an off-season. I remember when I first started Grands Prix then we didn’t begin racing until April and we’d have a test in Malaysia and Jerez and that was it. Now we start the day after the last race of the year! Testing is hard work compared to racing. The travelling can be a burden but if you want to be in the world championship then you have to deal with it. I enjoy the job when I’m here.”
Above all – and like the riders themselves and anybody else striving for results at elite level sport – Eyre says commitment and determination is what will help you make it in the end. “If you are into it then just keep trying and don’t give up,” he insists. “You have to have a passion for it. I remember being at school and saying that I wanted to go grand prix racing. Half of the teachers said ‘you won’t do anything like that’ but if you keep your head down and carry on …”
Photos: Rob Gray