GROOMING A NEW HORSE
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing gets a new MotoGP™ rider for 2021 and the team composition starts again. We asked Crew Chief Paul Trevathan about the challenge of molding the next Grand Prix star.
In the four years that Red Bull KTM Factory Racing have graced the MotoGP™ grid they have relied on the right hands of four different full-time riders. One of those has remained constant throughout and is responsible for the milestones of the fledgling KTM RC16 race bike so far. Pol Espargaró’s team has been headed by Paul Trevathan who has been part of the KTM framework for half a decade after having previously worked in MXGP and for a suspension firm. The combination of the aggressive and committed Catalan and the easy-going Kiwi has helped the factory in their eye-catching progress against competitors with decades of Grand Prix racing experience.
While Espargaró heads onto a fresh challenge for 2021, Trevathan and his crew also welcome a change of scene with the arrival of Portugal’s first MotoGP™ athlete and current Red Bull KTM Tech3 rep Miguel Oliveira. The task will be to help the 25-year old achieve new levels of performance (after demonstrating top-ten speed already in his rookie season in 2019) and try to emulate the evolution enjoyed with Espargaró. To do that Trevathan knows that brewing an effective chemistry with his rider inside and outside of the small MotoGP™ pitboxes of circuits around the world is essential.
“You need to control the situation around the rider, especially if it’s tense at any moment,” he reveals. “You need to know what to say at any time: does he need to be hyped-up a little bit more or does he need to be calmed-down? What are you asking him to do for you? You have to respect those moments, and you end up bonding with a guy. That makes you a great team or creates a great relationship. There are guys who are very open and others that go into a dark place where you think ‘wow, how can I help him here?!’ This is a big part of it.”
Trevathan has learned to deal with the demands and intricacies of elite sportsmen. MotoGP™ exists in a technical and often risky world dominated by fractions of a second but the riders themselves are differentiated by their attitude as much as their supreme skill to guide a motorcycle. “These guys spend so much time in that ‘world’ of trying to improve themselves and believing they can be world champion but every Sunday they have to go out alone and show everyone how good they are,” he explains. “I always respect that part so much, and I want to help them go through that motion. I don’t just want to help them with the technical side because that can be such a small part of it. For sure their job is not easy, and it is very interesting – from my side – to assist with the other factors. If you can ‘click’ on the emotional part, then this can make you a great team.”
Trevathan asserts that “it’s the rider that leads and we just try to put the best tools together for him” but, as Crew Chief, he also needs to ensure that an immediate unit of seven – eight people and then the wide resources of KTM are working in harmony. The whole structure needs to be a slick and efficient ‘tool’ itself. “If you look at what a Crew Chief does then success in the job comes through the personal side: you have to take the reins and be there for everyone. We all come from different countries and there are different personalities; getting those to gel in this game is a massive thing.”
“We are lucky that we hired very good people at the beginning of the project, and we grew as a team,” he continues. “It’s a real mix: you have mechanics with years and years of experience and others with technical degrees and qualifications that could aspire to work in NASA! To be in the middle of that and to get the best out of those people has been a big lesson for me.”
Espargaró has repeatedly credited the ‘human’ aspect of his team. It has been a component of his preparation that has allowed the former Moto2™ world champion to move from the back of the grid and two-seconds from the fastest lap-time at the first race in Qatar 2017 to the front row and mere slices of the stopwatch from Pole Position by 2019.
“Pol was right,” says Trevathan. “If, for example, someone misses a test and another person slots-in then it just works. We have the right environment and level of calm to relax the rider and get the work done. You keep your cool and make any changes in the right way: things like this help a lot. I think you either have this personality or you don’t. Of course, you can get better at handling situations, but I think managing people in the right way is a massive part of the job these days.”
Trevathan is accessible, cheery and friendly. It’s hard to imagine him stressed or angry, even if there have been difficult and frustrating moments as the whole Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team find their way against the toughest opponents and under very public scrutiny. For every podium result, such as Valencia 2018, and brilliance in qualification, there have been races when KTM have been handicapped by grip issues or rogue problems such as the one that ended Espargaró’s race early at the Red Bull Ring in 2019. Trevathan tries to keep the balance around what is a tight and crucial bond. “When it is work then it’s work, when it’s time to relax and have some fun then I like that. Pol has a similar character,” he says. “I feel like he’s my rider but also my friend and almost my son: you want to ‘protect’ him because, honestly, the guy has no limits.”
Espargaró is part of the KTM story through talent and brute force. “He always gave you the lap-time and – in the beginning – you could judge things by whether he was faster or slower,” Trevathan explains. “That stuck, and meant he never took us down a wrong path. Did his stuff suit every rider? Maybe not, but we never thought ‘we’ve made a mistake here’. He was good with engine feeling and development.”
But now Oliveira will have to assume that mantle. Currently moving through his MotoGP™ education within the confines of Red Bull KTM Tech3, Oliveira has scaled the ranks at KTM: winning Grands Prix in both Moto3™ and Moto2™. This familiarity is another valuable ‘short-cut’ which means Trevathan already knows his charge. “Miguel comes across as a very intelligent man and I know him well enough,” he says. “In 2015 I was responsible for KTM Track Support and I was in the Red Bull KTM Ajo team with him and Brad [Binder]. So that line-up will not be a big shock to us! It will be interesting to see if we can get more out of Miguel than he’s showing, which is already pretty good. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to see if we can get to the same level we are now or maybe better.”
Aside from results and recognition, improvement is the principle target for Trevathan’s side of the pitbox for 2021. With Brad Binder attempting just his second term in MotoGP™ the onus will arguably fall more on Oliveira’s shoulders to fill Espargaró’s leathers. “But I think he’s ready,” Trevathan believes. “He will have to learn to take the load that Pol took-on and there might be different pressures.”
Aligning parameters of the rider, team and factory is another vital ingredient for forward momentum. Oliveira might lack the results in the premier class of a rider like Johann Zarco but his feeling for the methods and the philosophy behind the whole Red Bull KTM operation will be a distinct advantage compared to any new racer who comes into the set-up. “I think Johann believed he would come here and thought everything would be given to him on a plate – not [realizing] that he’d have to make the choices himself,” insights Trevathan. “We can give the riders more tools, but it is about the work involved to make things better. For example, when we test with Pol at Sepang then he is riding all those days [six] and the only time he can do – or work on – something for himself is when we give him a new tire. For the rest he is always trying something different on the bike and every outing is an assessment of what is better, what works and where and what is it going to be like for the rest of the year: that workload is massive! I’m interested to see how Miguel will handle that and how he will lead us.”
A 25-lap MotoGP™ race can be a story of drama, surprises, pain and glory but sometimes the construction of everything behind that narrative can be equally as fascinating.