The Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha squad, MotoGP World Champions in 2004, is a cosmopolitan mix of characters. It has seen many changes since multiple World Champion Valentino Rossi joined it last winter, not least the make-up of the squad itself.
It’s normal in the Grand Prix world for a new rider to bring at least one of his favoured mechanics, team helpers and personal assistants into the fold of his new team. For Rossi, so successful since he joined the top flight of the sport in 2000 as a proven champion in both 125 and 250cc World Championships, things were a little different, and the Yamaha Factory Team was heavily revamped when he joined.
Realising that it made sense not to break up a winning team, Yamaha brought no less than four of Rossi’s pit crew over from their mutual previous employer, Honda. Rossi was also followed to Yamaha by some key back room staff, including the head of Yamaha’s impressively proportioned hospitality efforts, so that the environment Rossi operates in when off the bike and outside the garage is still a familiar, almost familial one.
Jeremy Burgess (universally known as ‘JB’), undoubtedly the most successful crew chief of his generation, has been Rossi’s crew chief since he moved into the premier class in 2000, and, before that, was behind premier class successes for Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan. Showing his confidence in his latest charge and his new employers at Yamaha, ‘JB’ followed Rossi in his move.
Quick witted and acerbic if necessary, Burgess is as Aussie as they come, and has a crew to match, most of whom are fellow Antipodeans. Burgess’ own reasons for moving were entirely human. “I came because I wanted the challenge,” he remarked. “To a degree I felt that if anybody had the potential to be successful, then working with Valentino would help them to maximise that potential. If Yamaha were going to listen to Valentino and myself then we would move forward. If they weren’t going to listen then there was no point in hiring Valentino Rossi. Mr Furusawa did listen to him and we have finished our first season together as World Champions – an A+ report card!”
Many of the men in the garage spend a large amount of their lives on the opposite side of the globe from their homes; MotoGP for them is like a tough boarding school, with never-ending coursework and highly public exams every other weekend. As Burgess explains, that’s part of the reason why they are successful. “You have to think about winning,” says Burgess, “so we don’t come 12,000 miles from Australia just to pick up the pay check. We’re not going home on Monday morning after the race. We’re here for the duration. So we’re keen to hit the whole show pretty hard.
The largely Aussie ‘Frat Pack’ who work with Burgess have a unique style and approach to the job of racing. Their job, as Burgess states, is not racing, it’s winning.
“We don’t go to the racetrack each weekend hoping to win, we expect to win. If we finish second, third or fourth then we have to know the reasons why. I don’t mind finishing second or third as long as I know the reasons why. If we finish second and have no problems then we are in big trouble. If we’re second and we have problems then over time we will be able to fix those problems.”
The core of the Rossi crew was new for 2004, with the link to the 2003 Yamaha team, Kiwi mechanic Brent Stephens, having moved from Carlos Checa’s side. Stephens’ fellow mechanics, Belgian Bernard Ansiau, and Aussie Alex Briggs as well as mechanics assistant Gary Coleman (also Australian), have been with Burgess for various lengths of time, and all three moved from Honda to follow him and Valentino. The second existing Yamaha team member in their new squad is Italian Data Recording Engineer Matteo Flamigni, who worked with Marco Melandri in 2003.
As Briggs explains, working with a new set of people and a new machine has been a pleasing challenge to take on. Of course a natural air of in-house competition is all part of the set-up!. “The guys who were already in the Yamaha team are a really good bunch. I get on great with them. We work with them, help each other build the garage, eat with them, and travel together. But there is a difference between racing and doing all those sorts of things. When it comes to racing, whether it comes to the guy in the garage next door or another company, it doesn’t make any difference to us, we’re just trying to beat them.”
Rossi’s crew have done a lot of learning this year, as well as teaching by example, but the most satisfying aspect for most of them is outlined once more by Briggs. “The best thing has been showing them that we have the ability to do what we always talked about. Before, in the previous team, it was just a small improvement from year to year. Coming here we didn’t know what we would encounter and to see it all happen gives me a good feeling. It’s good to see people excited and wanting to continue. There was nothing bad about coming here at all.”
Other than Team Director Davide Brivio and Flamigni, the ‘link man’ Brent Stephens is the common bond to the 2003 team. Working with Carlos Checa for five years, he moved sideways in 2004, and thus has a unique viewpoint.
The Australia-based Kiwi acknowledges that the new mix of personnel is a positive factor for all involved. “They wanted someone who was familiar with the bike, experienced with the motors and I wanted a change as well. I had worked with Carlos for five years, but change is always good. There used to be a lot more Italians in the team but now they are almost outnumbered by the Aussies!” said Brent. “There are also a few Spaniards and Belgians. It’s really healthy to have all those different cultures working together. The Italians in the team didn’t want to have any more Italians because they themselves admit that they have quite a high temper, and you need a balance. The more relaxed Aussies balance that out. The overall situation works really well.”
Although intensely focused on winning, the Burgess boys have a relaxed attitude to the pressures inherent in their field, a factor of their approach that breaks the stress before it starts. “We have a good old laugh at races,” grins Brent, “sometimes I think it’s not right to have so much fun doing a job! But we have a good old laugh. There is so much seriousness in it that you have to inject a bit of humour as well. People expect there to be much more pressure involved in working with Valentino. Although you want to say there isn’t, there really is; there’s a lot on the line and there is a lot of responsibility resting on you – but it’s all good.”
Compared to the new virtual antipodean homogeny on Rossi’s side of the garage, the crew who worked for Checa in 2004 included Spaniards, Italians, Brits and the ever-present tight-knit group of home factory Japanese. Their crew chief in 2004 was the multi-lingual Antonio Jimenez, who has since, like Checa, moved on to pastures new. Speaking this season, he said, “We communicate in English so it doesn’t matter where we all come from. I can also speak to the mechanics in Spanish, or Italian and French with the Michelin people. But our unifying language is English.”
Like all other people with a racing spirit, Jimenez admitted that this unity does not extend across the garage when racing starts. “There is no wall in the middle of the garage but when everyone is doing their job they are concentrating on that, so we are not worrying about what is going on in the other side. Everybody is doing his job as well as he can. Of course, after qualifying or practice, it is good to look at what the other guys are doing, and they look at what you are doing. This year especially, with Valentino over the other side, we learned a lot of things.”
So even though Valentino was not under his wing, his mere presence made a difference. Over to Antonio again. “I think the difference was that the presence of Valentino has given a lot of motivation to the other Yamaha riders. This also improved their performance.”
Throughout the race weekend, the team’s centre of operations is the Hospitality unit, run this year by another Yamaha new recruit, Italian Massimiliano Montanari– known as Max to all. His role this year was much more than that, however, as he explains.
“I am in charge of the hospitality operations for Yamaha, I followed Valentino. I have followed him for six years, from Aprilia to Honda and now to Yamaha this year. I stay behind him for everything, supporting him over the weekend.”
With so many different countries palates to sate, given the multinational nature of the team, Max’s new culinary experience could have been a nightmare but, although it is undoubtedly a long slog on race weekends, the job is somewhat simplified by the universal popularity of Italian food – and some free beer. “We have a lot of different nationalities in the team now but they all largely eat the same things, so that side of things is not so complicated,” says Max. “I think the Italian food is the best and all the others seem to like it. Also we have the Aussie guys in the team and the most important thing for them is the Nastro Azzurro beer! I think they must have it in their contract to have beer on tap after the sessions and races or else they don’t come to the race!”
Arguably the most popular – and unexpected – integral part of this whole hospitality chain of human sustenance in 2004 was Angelo, the ice-cream man. Come rain or shine, at all times of day during European races, there was a manned ice cream dispensing machine in the Yamaha hospitality, with the uniformed Angelo standing by to dish out his superior home-made ice cream.
After practice sessions on particularly hot days this year he could even be found in the pit garage, a tray full of freshly made ice creams being handed out to the team members during their post session debriefs. A dedicated MotoGP ice cream operative is a peculiar enough sight in the paddock, but watching animated discussions on the nuances of critical chassis setup between key team members, each with a dripping spoon of vanilla and mocha in one hand and top secret computer read-outs in the other, verges on the bizarre.
As well as the on-track performance of the team, there is also the business of promoting all the team’s successes via column inches and TV exposure, and another long-term Yamaha Factory Team collaborator, Alison Forth, heads that effort. Ali has arguably the best vantage point to describe how the GFYT members mesh together, having to deal with all of them at some point over each weekend.
This year, the PR role in the team has changed significantly. “The workload has greatly increased; the interest in the team, not just Rossi but the team as a whole, is massive,” affirms Ali. “We are in the media spotlight and this has to be dealt with. Access time to Rossi however, who everyone wants to get their hands on, is limited, so it’s impossible for us to fulfil all media requests. Last year we only needed one person full-time for the PR area, but this year there were two of us. We deal not just with the PR for Rossi but last year for Checa also, as well as other key team members in the media spotlight. We answer media requests during and away from race weekends, plan the schedules for the riders and the team during the race weekends for press conferences, photography, filming and interviews, and also liaise with the team sponsors over their involvement with the team. We liaise with Yamaha markets worldwide, we run the team’s media website, organise hospitality and guest programmes during race weekends, organise signing sessions, etc. It’s a lot!”
It is a lot, and, after the wholly successful first season for Valentino Rossi and Yamaha, and the arrival of Colin Edwards to the team in 2005, the job can only get more intense.
Behind bike left to right: Gary Coleman / Alex Briggs / Jeremy Burgess / Matteo Flamigni
In front of bike left to right: Brent Stephens / Bernard Ansiau
Photos by, Paul Barshon