Retro Racing: Working with the GOAT
Racing Retro: During the Coronavirus shutdown of motorcycle Racing Lowdown will bring you some retro pieces from our archive. In this post, first published in 2015, we spoke to Valentino Rossi’s crew to find out what’s changed since the Italian’s premier class debut in 2000. Over the course of 20 years a lot has changed within the MotoGP world!
What’s it like to work with the greatest motorcycle racer of all time? Alex Briggs, Brent Stephens and Garry Coleman have been part of Valentino Rossi’s crew for years, and sat down to talk about their time with the Italian. We discuss how he has changed over the years, as he adjusted from being a highly touted premier class rookie to a full blown global phenonomen who has transcended his sport.
The paddock stalwarts have worked with a veritable who’s who of MotoGP over the last 25 years, but working with Rossi has been something special for each of them.
Alex Briggs is arguably the most famous bus mechanic working in the MotoGP paddock. The Canbera native worked his way from Australian Motocross to start working with Darryl Beatie at Honda. Briggs than became a spannerman for Mick Doohan until switching to Rossi in 2000 when the Italian made his premier class debut.
Brent Stephens In 2004 Kiwi Brent Stephens was the only member of Rossi’s crew that Yamaha placed with the team. Having worked with Carlos Checa for five seasons, he offered continuity to the manufacturer. Stephens cut his teeth with Simon Crafar in Superbikes.
Garry Coleman has has been working in the Grand Prix paddock for over 20 years, with the Aussie having started with the Team Roberts test team in the early ninties. He switched to the race squad in 1995 to work with Norick Abe and then worked with a succession of riders with the team, including Kenny Jr before joining Rossi’s crew at Honda.
How have you seen Valentino change over the last 15 years?
AB: He’s older now!
GC: He doesn’t do the weird hairdos anymore like he used to!
AB: He really stopped that mid 2000. Even now when we ask him, what about doing any of your antics after the race? And he’ll say ‘No, I just feel a bit too old for that now.’ I guess that Jorge tried to do it and it failed miserably for him. I don’t think his desire has changed any. I think he wants to win now as bad as he’s always done. I don’t think that’s changed at all. It’s almost like he appreciates winning more now in a strange way. He seems happy, super happy when we win one.
BS: He’s admitted that. The wins now seem way more important than it did when you were getting 10 or 11 of them in a year.
GC: Maybe when you’re 26 in your career you go, 7 seven years ago, when you’re 36 you know that you don’t have as much time.
AB: Yeah, he definitely knows that he’s closer to the end than the beginning of his career.
Working in the box has he changed since coming to 500s in 2000?
GC: Many people class 2000 as the start of his career but it was just a continuation of his career from 125 to 250 for him and he always reminds people of that. He’ll always correct people when they say that he has only won seven titles by saying that he has won nine.
AB: A lot of his working habits and practices were set already by this. I think JB also guided him a little bit for the first year or two on a few things. Once he’s set on his way he doesn’t really change. He does the same type of things. Does about five laps, comes in, talks about it. Goes out, does another five laps. It’s not vastly different at all.
GC: He doesn’t have as many superstitions as he used to. Dragging the leathers.
AB: You know how different riders do that and they’ll go around in their leathers and drag them a little bit and scuff them up. He started to do that and scrape it a little bit, gets on, goes out, had just a monumental get-off, comes back and goes, that doesn’t work. He never did it again.
GC: He’s still aware of his superstitions but it’s not in the forefront of his mind as it was before. He’s gone from superstitious to just a little “stitious” now!
BS: The stuff that he does in the garage is just identical. He hasn’t altered at all in ten years.
AB: His process has always worked and if you watch any other great sportsman they will have the routine . You watch a golfer, they will have the same routine for teeing off, same routine for putting. All the good guys have a routine. It might alter a little bit but it’s always the same. And he has it with racing, same sort of routine. He’s changed a couple little things. He warms up physically a bit more before he goes to ride. He didn’t used to do that as much. He has a stationary bicycle that he warms up with and cools down. He’s got all of these, asks for people’s opinions and he’s still got a couple of people around him that help him with that sort of stuff.
GC: He’s still got his core friends.
AB: One of the big changes he made was when he changed his manager, he went back to Italy, that type of thing. For me that seems maybe more mature now. He’s got his mates up in Italy. I think when he came back to Italy [after the tax case] finally it was a relief for him. I think this is what he liked, it was when he went away from here (the track). This is why he came. All that shit was going on, he liked being here because it didn’t feel like he was dealing with that issue when he was at the track.
BS: When it all got sorted out in the end I think it was a little late for him, because he felt like he could live again. I think it was a burden on him. He thought he was doing the right thing but clearly in the tax man’s eyes it wasn’t, and he was having to sacrifice too much of his life what he wanted to do for it. The way he talked, back in Italy being in public not living in England half the time he felt relieved.
GC: I think he even told us that it affected him and when he eventually made the deal with the Italian’s his riding picked up.
The two years with Ducati were the biggest struggle we’ve seen from Rossi. In terms of what you saw at Ducati how difficult was it working in that environment?
AB: The one thing about the time with Ducati was that we were fully expected that we would make that bike work and we’d transform it like we did in 2004. We went in there thinking that would happen. It didn’t happen. We didn’t come close. So then the questions start coming, because the two more years of his life disappeared down the plughole. It took him probably a little while. The thing with Ducati was that the people in the garage were great, as good as anyone in the pitlane. But the engineers and stuff, they just didn’t get it.
BS: I think it was filtered too much. The information from Valentino before it got to the right people to make the right decisions got filtered too much and manipulated.
GC: At that stage there was only one guy in charge.
BS: It was rewarding in some ways, but it was frustrating in others because we managed to make some changes to the bike, as far as how we worked on the bike, to make our job easier. But we needed to really manage the progress for the bike to make it better for Valentino. Things that we were able to do to make things better with the Yamaha or Honda or Ducati, as a race bike. Never actually quite equated a better race bike for him.
The switch from Burgees to Galbusera was a huge talking point and obviously a difficult decision, but have you noticed anything different with Rossi since he made the change?
BS: It was hard…and not hard because you’ve got to get straight back on the horse. We were conscious of what had happened and I’d say we probably weren’t too happy with how it happened but at the end of the day you have to respect Valentino’s decisions. The motivation that he has now he got now came from it. So, you can’t knock him for it.
GC: It was a bit different that first year back here after the Ducati years. He had to regain his confidence again and it took a while.
AB: For me, personally it was a big loss because he was a big mate but from a working point of view…Silvano had a very difficult time of it in my eyes, because he started into a team that you’d take one guy out and put you him in under a lot of pressure. When you think about the pressure that Silvano was under – and is still under – because of working for the greatest rider on the planet, it’s a lot of pressure. We’ve probably done our best to try and help him. I don’t know what else you can do. It’s just racing. All you want to do is do the best. He wants to do the best, we want to do the best. But from a personal point of view, JB was a friend. But Silvano is doing a good job and we’re doing well.
How does Rossi compare to Doohan?
AB: Well, they both want to win like crazy. You can tell that. But Valentino does it through the joy of winning and it’s fun for him. Whereas Mick did it through almost anger of winning. He was angry and wanted to win. It’s hard to explain but Mick would get himself geed up almost like to go into a fight. Valentino’s more like, I’m going to go on stage and perform an act. Valentino is happy good and Mick was sort of an aggressive good. Mick didn’t want to lose anything, even going to the airport. He wanted to be the first one there. Everything was like that. And also I’ve seen Mick come second and just want to kill everyone. I’ve seen Valentino come 2nd and be happy. That would never happen with Mick. No, even in the years that he won lots of races he’s been like that. There was one race in Barcelona I think he came second or third, I think Casey won, and he was excited about it. It was changed all the time. He was excited about it because it was a good race. You’d never get that from Mick.
BS: Vale’s always happy if he’s had a good race. To him racing is racing. Sure he wants to lead by ten seconds and win the race and dominate it, but if he can’t do that he wants to be in a raw, hard battle. He loves it, thrives on it. That’s why he’ll put his hand up with a big smile on even if he’s second, third if he’s just rode his guts out.
GC: He can accept on the day that another rider might in fact be faster than him on that day. Not the rest of the year, but he’ll take 2nd place when it’s those days.
BS: He’s probably one of the most gracious losers you’ll see in the GP. You see how happy he looks when he finishes second or something and generally you see him on the stage, we could have done that better or I could have done that better, but how he’s presented is how he really is.
As for your own plans, do do you see yourselves staying on after Rossi retires?
GC: I don’t think he’ll ever retire!
BS: It’s hard to take yourself out of this environment with this rider. The environment here is perfect. I could work here all the day. You just don’t know how you’re going to feel once you start working for somebody else after working for that guy. And it’s not because of the victories and stuff like that, it’s just he puts in so much effort. You put it in and he puts it in. It’s equal match. He never leaves anything on the table. I don’t know what it’d be like working for a rider that is emotionally impaired and can’t do that.
AB: My wife asked me the same question after my first year. 23 years later, year to year contract. I don’t know. I didn’t know my first year, I don’t know in my 23rd. I’m probably not going to know in my 25th.
GC: You’ve been doing one more year for the last 15 years. I never say, I’m going to work for another three years when you only have a one year contract.
AB: If I knew I was going to be here 23 years I would have bought a house over here by now.
Do you have a friendship with Rossi having worked with him for so long, or is it strictly a professional relationship?
AB: It’s great that he invites us to sorts of things like the ranch. He always invites us to stuff like that. Mostly we turn him down because we want to go home.
GC: But he has his own circle of friends. We’re just sort of his work mates. We’re not his personal friends, never have been.
AB: I don’t think it’s good to try to be too friends, too matey with your rider.
BS: I reckon it’s hard to be their best friend and have the professionalism doing their job. You can still get on, respect each other, spend time together and eat with him every week like we do quite often.
GC: He’s got his own mates. That’s what he enjoys, when they all come to the race. He gets in his motorhome and they all drink coffee and watch videos of his races 20 years ago.
AB: He’s probably sick of seeing us as well. He sees us for a fair chunk of his life.
GC: It is good every now and then, it maybe happens two or three times a year where we end up somewhere stuck, somewhere drinking a few beers and we start talking about those 15 years that we’ve been together. That can be quite fun, telling the old stories.
BS: They’re few and far between, because there’s always such an entourage of even our guys. We’ve got so many PR guys, marketing guys…so you’ve lost that personal part and it becomes like a corporate thing. So the intimate interaction’s not quite there.
AB: When you say what’s changed, that’s changed a lot. When I first worked with Valentino he’d come in the garage at night and sit down and we’d just talk about things. We’d put the stickers on the bike. Now so many people want his time, so many. Rarely does anything like that ever happen. In fact the garage used to be the sanctuary, now it’s the place where people get tours. There’s always someone there wanting to have another piece of him.
GC: It was his home away from home, wasn’t it?
AB: It used to be. Everybody would come in the garage. Now it’s like a tourist show. It’s probably just a sign of the way things have changed. So the garage isn’t a sanctuary for us either anymore now because it’s so busy. Instead we end up in the trailers.
GC: It’s good for me too because I’m older than these guys and he treats me with a lot of respect, from an older man’s point of view. When you’re bending over, he gives you a tap on the ass as you walk past. To me that’s enough and I don’t need a big cuddle or a kiss or anything. I just like that he’s glad for who you and your work.