AKI AJO: THE MAKER | INTERVIEW
‘Sometimes my riders laugh at my phrases, like, racing is simple when you keep it simple!’
Aki Ajo is the most successful team boss in the MotoGP paddock – over the past decade or so he’s guided Marc Marquez, Johann Zarco, Brad Binder, Pedro Acosta and others to world championship glory. So what’s his secret?
“That was the time I called my university!” grins Aki Ajo, recalling how it all started. “Because I learned technical things, I learned riding and I also learned business.”
Sandro Cortese, Aki Ajo and Danny Kent at the Red Bull US Moto Grand Prix 2012
The 58-year-old Finn is remembering his self-styled university education, when he was 11-years-old.
“I started making business with mopeds, as a way to buy a motocross bike. My parents were afraid of me getting a motorcycle because I was a bit wild, but they allowed me to buy shit mopeds, service them, fit parts and advertise them in the local paper. Then parents would come with their kids to buy my mopeds.
“When I was 14 I had enough money to buy my first motocross bike, a 1977 Honda CR125 Elsinore. That’s how it started, riding my motocross bike around the forests where we lived. Now I have an Elsinore in my team’s museum!”
Finnish stereotypes suggest Finns are dour and emotion-free but Ajo burns with enthusiasm while talking about his life in motorcycles at 200 miles an hour. He’s hopelessly in love with the things, just like the rest of us, and has been ever since a cousin gave him a ride on the fuel tank of a Honda CB500 when he was a wee lad.
Brad Binder, Moto3 race, Valencia MotoGP 2016
His father was also into engines and wheels – rallying and ice-racing a Mini Cooper and a Sunbeam Imp – but after that CB500 ride Ajo’s desire burned only for two wheels
“When I was 13 I was a roadrace mechanic, working on a family friend’s Yamaha TZ250, taking off the cylinders, the pistons, everything. I was so enthusiastic! I was a complete addict, especially at that time. When I was 16 I did my first races in motocross and ice racing, then I was really hot for a roadrace bike.”
Ajo raced a Honda RS125 for his own team – Team Santa Claus – in the Scandinavian and European championships for several years and had a wild card ride in the 1993 Austrian 125cc Grand Prix. Then, as so often happens in this cruellest of sports, his life changed.
“I broke my left hip and still have a lot of metal in that leg. When I was in hospital I decided I wouldn’t race again, so in 1997 I started my own team with the target to be in Grand Prix racing.
“One of my best friends, who also did ice racing and roadracing, was the father of Mika Kallio [who went on to become Finland’s most successful GP rider of all time]. Mika went everywhere with us from the age of three or four, then when I stopped racing I started coaching him and in 2001 we did our first GPs together.”
Salom and Aki Ajo, Moto3 race, Spanish MotoGP 2013
Ajo has been in the MotoGP paddock ever since. Ajo Motorsport won its first GP in 2003, with Italian Andrea Ballerini, and its first world championship in 2008, with Frenchman Mike Di Meglio.
Two years later Ajo won backing from Red Bull and signed a 17-year-old Spaniard, by the name of Marc Marquez. The youngster dominated the 2010 125cc world championship, establishing Ajo Motorsport as a real force for developing young talent.
Another two years later he hooked up with KTM for the new Moto3 world championship, taking the title with German Sandro Cortese. In 2015 he expanded his team to contest two classes, taking the Moto2 crown at his first attempt, with Frenchman Johann Zarco.
Zarco and Ajo, German 125GP Race 2011
Ajo was becoming an unstoppable force. In 2016 his team won the Moto2/Moto3 double, with Zarco and Brad Binder, a feat he repeated last year with 17-year-old Pedro Acosta and Remy Gardner, son of 1987 500cc world champion Wayne. And at the same time he is personal manager to several riders, including factory Ducati MotoGP rider Jack Miller and Aprilia’s Maverick Vinales. No one in the paddock than Ajo.
Ajo has enjoyed such huge success with so many youngsters that people assume he must have some magic formula.
He laughs at the suggestion.
“This is what I say to all my riders, ‘Hey, every morning, wake yourself up like this…”
Ajo slaps himself in the face – quite violently! – and continues.
“And say to yourself, ‘We are lucky bastards to be here!’. That is what I say to Pedro, to Remy, to Jack, to everyone, every day.
“I think my riders respect me but sometimes they are laughing at my phrases, like, ‘Racing is simple when you keep it simple’.
Miller and Aki Ajo, Catalunya MotoGP 2015
“My job now is mainly business, with many connections with sponsors and partners, but for sure the most enjoyable part is working with my riders.”
I ask if this is the work of a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst.
“I cannot say this, but if you say so!” he replies. “The rider needs someone he trusts and can be a bit like his psychiatrist. It could be his crew chief, his manager, his rider coach or his team manager.”
If this talk of racetrack psychoanalysis sounds over the top, remember that five-times 500cc world champion Mick Doohan once said, “Motorcycle racing is 90% in the mind”.
It takes a very special mindset to ride on the very edge, week in, week out, pushing yourself to the limit, risking everything, whatever the track, whatever the weather, because there are very few sports that are more dangerous than motorcycle racing.
“Mentally this is one of the hardest sports, maybe the toughest, because there are so many different areas the rider has to handle.
Pedro Acosta, Moto3 race, Valencia MotoGP 2021
“Controlling emotions whatever is happening around you, is one of the biggest things. I’m always a bit worried when someone brings in a sports psychologist from outside. I think that’s really risky. Maybe they know about football or gymnastics, but I don’t want someone from outside talking to my riders. Maybe they know many things but maybe they don’t have any idea what we do here.
“I try to teach my riders, even though I’m not sure I could ever do the mental side of racing myself. I try to teach them things I’ve done wrong, also learning from them to understand weak points, then trying to teach that to others.
“People say to me, ‘Ah, Aki, you have an incredible team!’, but I don’t say this. We just try to use our experience and try to keep everything as simple as possible for the riders. The main point is always to focus on the right things at the right moment.
“You cannot always find the way to focus on the right points, but when you keep it simple the rider’s mind and the minds of your staff are more free, so they have a better chance to focus.
“Year by year as I get older I try to understand more and more how the human mind works. People always ask me what I teach my riders. And I say, ‘Why don’t you ask me what I learn from them?’. If I learn from them I’m able to give them more.”
Marquez and Aki Ajo, Italian MotoGP 2012
After 2010 Marquez became arguably the greatest rider of all time, so did Ajo realise this kid was something super-special?
“Marc was very young when we started working together, he didn’t even have all his grown-up teeth! With him I saw everything really quickly. The first thing I saw when I sat down with him was that he was so calm that you felt like you were working with a 35 or a 40-year-old. He was so smart, experienced and humble. He opened my eyes a lot and I learned many things from him.
“If he learned anything from me it was maybe to show his emotions, to get free, let’s say. For example, crying. I taught him that. When you feel like crying, then you need to cry, because then you are free and you are ready to focus again.”
MotoGP is now so close, so demanding, so stressful, so pitiless, across all three classes, that riders cry more than you might imagine.
Remy Gardner, Moto2 Valencia 2021
“When I signed Remy for the 2021 Moto2 season I told him, ‘You are always talking about your weight [Gardner is heavier than most] and making excuses about how you can’t win. You can’t trust yourself when you talk like this!’
“I said, ‘I trust that you can win but I’ll only sign a contract with you when you show me that you trust yourself and stop talking all this fucking bullshit!’. He was crying, here in my office in the team truck. This was a very important moment. He was shocked and he said to his father, ‘This guy is a fucking bastard!’. But I think at this moment we created something special between us.”
Vinales and Ako Ajo, Aragon MotoGP 2015
So do you have to break riders to make them?
“Sometimes I feel I have done it too much, that I’ve come close to breaking someone to get started, but sometimes I feel this was the key. I’m not saying that it works all the time but sometimes I feel that I needed to do this to start a good co-operation: stop all the bullshit! If a rider wants us to work together and if he shows us what he is prepared to do then I’m ready to give him everything.”
Ajo enjoys his success but doesn’t necessarily rate his team’s eight world titles and 100-plus GP victories as his greatest memories.
“The best memories aren’t only the championships, maybe not at all. Many times we have had challenges with riders and maybe the greatest memories are what we’ve achieved after those challenging times, like last year with Remy, for example.
“Or with Jack. Jack isn’t a world champion yet but it was very challenging with him when he was young. He was the wild guy coming from Australia. All the stories! Maybe I can tell you them in 20 years! Finally Jack made a real change in his lifestyle to become a real sportsman, really focused on his work. This is something that makes me happy.”
Millier, Ajo, team, San Marino Moto3 2014
Ajo’s two 2021 world champions, Gardner and Acosta, both moved up a class this year, Gardner to MotoGP, with the Tech 3 KTM team, and Acosta to Moto2, still with Ajo Motorsport.
Both had bruising starts to 2022. Many people had branded Acosta the new Marquez after he won last year’s Moto3 crown, then wondered if he’s really any good after struggling in his first few races on a bigger, faster Moto2 bike. At May’s French GP he scored his first Moto2 pole and two weeks later at Mugello his first win.
“When people said Pedro isn’t having an easy time I wondered what they were thinking if they expect more! What 17-year-old boy should show more than what he’s showing?!
“I always say to young riders, ‘Give yourself time!’. When you have difficult moments you learn how to handle difficult moments and to get through them, then you are ready to reach the top one day. So I feel that someone like Pedro needs these difficult moments, because they are necessary and important. If everything happens too easily for a rider then I’m very, very worried.”
He thumps the table to make the point.
“I always get emotional and enthusiastic when I talk about these things, because this is the part of racing I really enjoy. I enjoy many things and I’m so thankful for what I have but this is the one part I really, really enjoy, working with the minds of the riders.”
Ajo is almost certainly the hardest-working man in MotoGP, with dozens of team staff and riders to look after, plus the riders he personally manages, like Miller and Vinales.
“When things are busy I may be in my office talking to one of my riders who has a problem and maybe there are two or three of my other riders knocking at the door!”
Cortese and Aki Ajo, Moto3, German MotoGP 2012
Finally, the obvious question: Ajo has had so much success in the smaller classes why isn’t he in MotoGP, the class of kings, not princes?
“Of course I’m interested. I’ve had some opportunities to be in MotoGP, as a team manager of a factory team, but I’m used to running my own team. I enjoy so much working with my people and I’m so thankful that KTM and Red Bull give me the freedom to run my team like I want.
“I’m also lucky that KTM somehow allow me to work with Jack and Maverick, even though they don’t ride for KTM. I think they can see that this is something extra – I’m learning a bit everywhere and understanding things a little bit more and that helps me here with my team.
“In many ways I’m still doing what I was doing when I was 11 – working in a technical sport, working with riders, doing some business – so my mother still asks me, ‘When will you get a real job?’!
Augusto Fernandez and Aki Ajo to Fernandez and Aki Ajo Portimao 2022
Aki Ajo’s world titles
2008 Mike Di Meglio, Derbi, 125cc
Di Meglio had won a single victory in his previous four seasons and had never even finished in a championship top ten. Everything changed with Ajo behind him and a factory Derbi beneath him. The 20-year-old Frenchman won four GPs and comfortably took the title.
2010 Marc Marquez, Derbi, 125cc
When Marquez joined Ajo in the spring of 2010 he had already done two seasons of GPs, during which he’d scored podium finishes. The 17-year-old won his first GP at Mugello 2010 and won nine of the last 12 races to clinch Ajo’s second world championship.
2012 Sandro Cortese, KTM, Moto3
This was the first year of Moto3 and Ajo’s first year with the KTM factory, who showed their face by putting him in charge of their official team. The Austrian brand definitely had an advantage over Honda, who didn’t run a factory team, and Cortese won the title.
2015/2016 Johann Zarco, Kalex, Moto2
Zarco first rode for Ajo in 2011, when he scored his first GP victory in 125. He moved to Moto2 in 2012 but didn’t win a race until he returned to Ajo in 2015, when he won eight races and the title. He retained the crown in 2016, with seven wins, then moved to MotoGP.
2016 Brad Binder, KTM, Moto3
Binder joined Ajo in 2015. In 2016 he won his first GP at Jerez, starting from the back of the grid, and dominated the championship. He then rode Moto2 for Ajo and probably would’ve won the 2018 title if he’d had a Kalex chassis and not a KTM.
2021 Remy Gardner, Kalex, Moto2
Gardner won a single victory in his first five seasons in the Moto2 world championship. He won his first Moto2 race at the end of 2020, then won five races with Ajo in 2021, to take the title, after an in-house battle with impressive rookie team-mate Raul Fernandez.
2021 Pedro Acosta, KTM, Moto3
16-year-old Acosta joined Ajo as Red Bull Rookies champion for 2021 and was the sensation of the Moto3 championship. He won second time out, despite starting from pit lane and took a further five wins. This year he scored his first Moto2 pole at Le Mans.