MotoGP through the expert’s eye
We spoke to Red Bull KTM’s Joan Olivé recently here on the BLOG and were intrigued to know how exactly the former Grand Prix rider advises and helps Moto3 racers Brad Binder and Bo Bendsneyder by watching them trackside. What can the Spaniard see? What does he observe different to the rest of us – perhaps motorcyclists but also race fans – enrapt through television or at the fences?
We asked Joan if we could ‘shadow’ him for a session at the recent Grand Prix de France at Le Mans and to give us a few secrets on how he is coaching and what mere ‘mortals’ might be able to spot the next time as the red light goes out …
It is utterly spectacular to watch a Grand Prix rider in full flight. Knee (sometimes elbow) grinding away plastic on asphalt, arms braced, weight shifting, body poised and then quickly tucked into the form of the bike to minimize drag. But … they also look kinda static. It is not the action-packed expressive forms that can be found in Motocross, Supercross, Offroad and Trial. The rider has a style and position and manages and finesses the motorcycle like a limb at ridiculous speeds. Surely at this level – the Moto3 class of MotoGP – there cannot be that much more a well-trained and talented athlete can grasp? Apparently so …
“Thanks to the chief mechanic there is a lot that a rider can take onboard and can improve in many ways in his lap. The riders in MotoGP are always looking for that extra ‘bit’ and many have someone around the track that follows them and they are looking to copy any strong points. Every rider has a different style and position on the bike. There is no comparison and there is a big range from those that are very soft with the bike and those that are much more aggressive. It depends on the character of the rider and it can be difficult to change. A rider can adapt but every one has his own way.”
“In terms of positioning, both riders do well and we worked on improving this last year when they were sitting further back on the bike,” he adds specifically to his KTM charges.
“This season we’ve pushed forward on the bike. For Bo, who is taller, it is not so easy and perhaps not so comfortable but the positioning is good. They are young riders so they listen a lot and it means they are easy and fun to work with.”
Joan Olivé has an important role working closely with the riders as part of Red Bull KTM. The 31 year old has overseen and helped stars like Sandro Cortese, Jack Miller, Miguel Oliveira and is one of Aki Ajo’s trusted band in the very top sphere of Moto3. His eyes on the track mean something.
We travelled with Joan on the back of a team scooter (not too fast) and to several points around the famous Bugatti layout. As the bikes roar out for Free Practice we can barely hear ourselves think let alone Joan explain the intricacies of what is going on. First we stop at Turn 3 – La Chapelle – a tricky and long downhill right-hander. Olivé: “The exit of this corner is really important. We saw the riders getting too far into the curve and then being late onto the gas simply because they were tipped in and couldn’t do it earlier. It is better to cover less of the turn and get on the gas. The exit has a slight rise, so if you don’t time the throttle right then the bike can lose a lot of speed.”
We watch for several laps as the Moto3 riders vary slightly with their approach and mid-corner speed. “The guys are doing the lines well but Le Mans is a circuit with a lot of ‘angles’ and to stop the bike they need to brake harder; the gap between finishing the braking and entering the midpoint of the corner has to be as short as possible. It means they have to use other means like engine braking and more of the rear brake. So I have been watching for this and seeing if we can get better through the practices.”
We keep a close eye on Binder and Bendsneyder particularly. By looking at things like the asphalt and the rider’s hands and the way they set themselves from the turn it is quite clear who is getting it right and we can see some of the speed differentiation.
“Brad is using a lot of support from the rear brake and it’s helping centralize the bike more on the rear and with more stability,” Olivé points. “He is stopping the bike in a very short distance and is fixed well to get going again. Bo is braking hard on the front and loading the front, which has effects on stability and we need to improve that a bit.”
Back on the pit scooter we then head to Le Mans’ ‘Garage Vert’ turn; a tight right hairpin with a double apex (in fact the whole Bugatti layout has just four left side corners). As you’d expect from a curve that is one of the slowest in MotoGP is fairly technical. “I normally look at the important corners and those that are also the most difficult. Here if you just ‘open’ that little bit earlier then it is great for acceleration onto the main straight.”
“Those riders with experience know that it is better to get the bike stopped a bit earlier to get out faster,” Olivé reveals. “You cannot dive into the middle of the corner too hot otherwise you just delay getting on the gas for the straight. To win on the exit sometimes you have sacrifice a bit on the entry.”
It gets late into the session and some are trying for quicker laps. I wonder aloud if Olivé is usually watching a similar standard of performance. “There are a lot of riders that surprise me,” he replies. “Sometimes straightaway on a Friday morning you can see who will be fast that weekend and even the attitude that they have. If there is a rider from the leading group who is pushing hard right in the first session then he is very motivated for the weekend. There are others who need a few laps to adapt and a lot who just want to eat the track straightaway and we saw that in Jerez on Friday. It is something that is easy to chart because that rider will be passing a lot of others, not looking behind and is setting quick times immediately.”
“Obviously there are tracks that they prefer over others but you have to be a complete rider in all sorts of circumstances,” he adds. “At tricky places like Le Mans then a good rider will analyze what he did the previous year, what he set, and what errors he made and where to change.”
I put it to him that there was probably little he could to contribute to Binder’s sensational form at Jerez a fortnight earlier where he seized his maiden victory from last place on the grid. “Haha, with Brad obviously it is about refining very small bits and pieces,” he claims. “Even when a rider is doing well then he can always improve and by the same token when he is doing so well you can also assure him that he doesn’t have to push too much or can still brake a bit later or easier.”
Olivé is now imparting advice whereas for eleven years he was on the receiving end. As we head back to the paddock we talk about how a rider can ultimately morph and utilize any help he has … based on his personal experience. “In my case one of my strong points was braking and very late. But I always used the rear brake a lot and into the turn and, simply, I didn’t always withdraw my foot completely from the peg; so I’d be accelerating but still dragging. Small things that depend on riding styles can be hard to change. I’ve seen it with other riders and been able to explain and we’ve worked on it.”
In the end you cannot devalue experience, especially when the tiniest details can translate into precious tenths for the chrono. The next time MotoGP footage zooms into one of those excellent ‘close-ups’ then know that almost everything a rider is doing has been checked, analyzed and refined; the line blurring between the machines and the athletes operating them.