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Behind every great motorcycle racer there’s a great mentor, crew chief or team boss who knows how to get the best out of his rider. Here are bike racing’s 10 greatest winning partnerships

Words Mat Oxley Photography Takanao Tsubouchi, Gold&Goose, Archive A Herl, Mutschler Archive

When top motorcycle racers take to the track they do so alone, but they do not win alone. Their performance is inextricably linked to their machine, their team and, more often than not, to a guru that works like their second brain.

These relationships are so close they can be almost familial – rider and advisor are like brothers that know each other so well they know what each other’s thinking without even talking. It takes a special chemistry.

More often than not these mentors, coaches, team bosses and crew chiefs are former racers who’ve been there and done that, so they know what their rider is going through and they know what they can do to help.

The significance of these relationships is such that the 10 partnerships featured here have won more than 50 world championships between them.

1.  Kenny Roberts and Wayne Rainey

1990/1991/1992 500cc world championships

‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Wayne Rainey worked together for more than a decade, from the moment Rainey started roadracing Kawasaki superbikes in 1982 to the day his career ended at Misano in 1993. They were arguably the most formidable duo in racing.

“Me and Wayne just clicked,” says Roberts. “It was almost like we were related. I knew what he was going to say before he said it and he knew what I was going to say before I said it.”

Roberts started out coaching the young dirt tracker in the ways of roadracing. Each winter Rainey moved to Roberts’ ranch, so they could ride and train together. Rainey raced his first GP season with Roberts in 1984 on 250s, then returned in 1988 on 500s.

Roberts worked tirelessly in pitlane to give him the best machinery and then watched him out on track, advising him how to cut tenths and hundredths from his lap times.

He helped him psychologically too.

“When Wayne was down, I was someone to talk to and lift him back up. And when he was too high, I was somebody to say, ‘Hey asshole, just back her down a bit!’.”

2. Jeremy Burgess and Mick Doohan

1994/1995/1996/1997/1998 500cc world championships

Jeremy Burgess raced with some success in Australia before travelling to Europe to spin spanners for the factory Suzuki 500 team. He later worked as a mechanic at HRC, with Ron Haslam and Freddie Spencer. He got his first crew chief job with Wayne Gardner, whom he guided to the 1987 500cc world title. At the end of 1988 HRC assigned him to its latest hope, Mick Doohan.

The Burgess/Doohan relationship was based on mutual trust and respect, rather than great friendship. They were there to do a job, not cruise around the world playing with motorbikes.

“Mick was intense to work with but I’m intense too,” says Burgess. “I didn’t come 12,000 miles just to participate.”

The pair are typical no-nonsense Aussies, so they didn’t always agree.

“Mick was always right, even when he was wrong,” adds Burgess.

The Burgess/Doohan way of working was always pragmatic, according to Burgess’ favoured KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

“Logic is a word I use a lot – just listen to the rider and react to the problems,” says Burgess. “And Mick was a guy who was only interested in one result. He was absolutely crushing to his opposition.”

3. Jeremy Burgess and Valentino Rossi

2001 500cc world championship, 2002/2003/2004/2005/2008/2009

MotoGP world championships

Burgess concluded the greatest crew chief career of all time by adding seven world titles with Valentino Rossi to the five he had won with Doohan. The Burgess/Rossi relationship was very different, because of their age difference and because Rossi went racing in such a different way.

“We had to do a complete mind switch because we’d gone from working for the grandfather, and thinking like that, to getting on with the mentality of a 21-year-old,” said Burgess after his first year with Rossi. “For me, approaching 50, that was very enlightening and part of it was getting some enjoyment out of the way Valentino sees life.

“Valentino is incredible in every way. He’s a pleasure to work with, he’s good fun, he trusts us and he’s similar to Mick in that the dialogue about the motorcycle is good and he always tries out on the track.”

Rossi’s switch to Yamaha in 2004, when Burgess helped him turn the troubled YZR-M1 into a winner almost overnight, made JB MotoGP’s first superstar engineer.

“Like Jeremy always says, the bike is a tool,” said Rossi. “So we work to get the best out of the tool.”

4. Joe Craig and Geoff Duke

1951 500cc world championship, 1950/1951 350cc world championships

Joe Craig started racing Nortons in the 1920s and was the factory’s race department chief until its demise in the 1950s. He enjoyed his greatest successes with Geoff Duke, both at the Isle of Man and in world championship GPs.

The pair didn’t have the kind of close working relationship enjoyed by more modern partnerships because that wasn’t how it was done in those days. Not only that, riders were treated as just another member of the working group, not the star of the show.

At least Craig listened to Duke, unlike many engineers of the day, who considered the opinions of riders next to worthless.

“I was often called into Craig’s office to be included in technical discussions,” said Duke. “I found Craig to be an attentive listener whenever I suggested modifications or ideas which I’d come up with.”

Craig was a gruff character who always said what he meant – a big advantage in racing.

“Joe knew exactly what he wanted,” said Tim Hunt, another Norton factory rider. “I remember him complaining to the Lucas rep about their magnetos. He said there were three good things about Lucas magnetos: the box they came in, the paper the package was wrapped in and the string it was tied with.”

5. Arturo Magni and Giacomo Agostini

1966/1967/1968/1969/1970/1971/1972 500cc world championships, 1968/1969/1970/1971/1972/1973 350cc world championships

Arturo Magni ran the MV Agusta racing department from 1953 until the factory quit racing, so he worked with many world champions, not only Giacomo Agostini. He rated Ago for his “extraordinary sensitivity and mechanical intuition”.

Magni was MV’s guru – he organised the team, looked after the riders, developed the bikes and worked on them too. His hands-on dedication was crucial to Ago’s dominance.

Magni joined MV from Gilera with engineer Piero Remor whose first MV engine was a rehash of his Gilera 500 design, only worse. The machine featured bizarre details like two gear levers – left foot for upshifts, right foot for downshifts.

Magni used his technical expertise, his racetrack knowhow and the trust placed in him by Count Agusta to forge great racebikes out of Remor’s fantasies. His masterpiece was MV’s 500 triple, which he created for and with Agostini in 1966.

“The motorcycle is a triangle: the handlebars, the saddle and the footrests,” said Magni. “Ago was able to come up with the ideal dimensions of the triangle at first sight.”

Agostini won all seven of his MV 500 titles with the triple. “The three-cylinder fitted me like a tailor had stitched it onto me,” he said.

6. Erv Kanemoto and Freddie Spencer

1983/1985 500cc world championships, 1985 250cc world championship

Erv Kanemoto and Freddie Spencer first got together in the States, racing Yamaha TZ250s and TZ750s, but that partnership ended when Spencer joined Honda’s superbike team. They were reunited when HRC chose Spencer to lead its first two-stroke GP effort in 1982.

Kanemoto was a perfectionist who sometimes worked so hard he made himself ill. And he fettled Spencer’s bikes in his own workshops, because he didn’t want HRC to see what he was up to. Racing was 100 percent his life, just like Spencer, whose skills were otherworldly, a bit like Marc Marquez now.

“Freddie had a tremendous amount of natural ability, he rode by feel and instinct,” explains Kanemoto. “When most riders go tyre testing they make a lot of laps to get up to speed to feel and understand the tyre, then they start pushing. Freddie would push from the first lap on a tyre that no one had ever run before. You’d see these giant slides and he’d just rely on himself to get out of it.”

When they successfully attacked the 500cc and 250cc championships in 1985 they worked so hard they burned themselves out.

“We’d be at tracks for six or seven days, doing 200 laps a day, testing 300 tyres, trying to develop two brand-new bikes,” says Spencer. “And there was no datalogging – we were the telemetry, we were the feedback.”

7. Michihiko Aika and Mike Hailwood

1961/1966/1967 250cc world championships, 1966/1967 350cc world championships

Michihiko Aika was to Mike Hailwood what Arturo Magni was to Giacomo Agostini. Aika was one of the architects of Honda’s astonishing 1960s GP successes. He didn’t only run the factory team, he was also chief engineer and mechanic – one moment he was on the phone to Tokyo, the next he was rebuilding engines in pitlane.

When Honda signed Hailwood the company knew it had hired the world’s most talented motorcycle racer, who was famed for his ability to ride just about anything. But even Hailwood had his limits.

The first time the British youngster raced Honda’s fabled 250 six he complained that the bike had “loads of power” but “bloody awful” handling. The six had failed to win the 1965 250 title in the hands of Jim Redman but succeeded in 1966 and 1967 with Hailwood

“Performance-wise, Hailwood was our best rider,” said Aika. “It was a great time but also very tough. We had 30 machines – six bikes each for the 500, 350, 250, 125 and 50 classes, but only 12 mechanics!”

Aika’s biggest disappointment was Honda’s decision to quit GPs at the end of 1967 – he had wanted to fight MV for the 1968 500cc world title with Hailwood and a six-cylinder 500.

8. Kel Carruthers and Kenny Roberts

1978/1979/1980 500cc world championships

Aussie Kel Carruthers won the 1969 250cc world title on a Benelli four-stroke but he’s best known for what he did with Yamaha two-strokes. First he raced the bikes, then he worked for Yamaha US and Japan.

When wild young dirt-tracker Kenny Roberts joined Yamaha it was Carruthers’ job to teach him how to roadrace. In 1978 the pair went to Europe together and won three consecutive 500 titles – showing the Europeans how to play their own game.

“The good thing about Kenny was that he’d bitch about the bikes, but when I told him, ‘Hey, Kenny, this is the best we can do, now it’s up to you’, he’d give it 100 percent every time.”

Carruthers wasn’t only vital to Roberts as mechanic and mentor, he also helped him navigate Europe in the days before mobile phones, the internet and frictionless borders.

“In 1978 when we arrived at Hockenheim it was dark and the only thing I knew about Germany was the war,” Roberts recalls. “At seven the next morning there was this screaming noise: ‘Achtung fahrerlager! Achtung fahrerlager’. I said, ‘Oh fuck, we’re in the wrong goddam place and they’re going to shoot us’. I was beating on Kel’s motorhome door and he said, ‘That means attention paddock’, now go back to bed’.”

9. Santi Hernandez and Marc Marquez

2012 Moto2 world championship, 2013/2014/2016/2017/2018/2019 MotoGP world championships

Santi Hernandez started out as a suspension technician, working with Alex Crivillé, Valentino Rossi and others. In 2011 he became Marc Marquez’s crew chief. The pair have forged a super-strong bond that goes beyond tyre choices, suspension settings and torque maps.

Marquez is very keen on keeping the same family of technicians around him, an important part of his success.

“Santi and the team are such a big help – at lunchtime and at dinnertime they always help me forget the pressure,” he says. “If Santi sees I am nervous because the pressure is so much he tells me, ‘You are not the same Marc, you must enjoy yourself!’. So I always try to enjoy myself with Santi and my team – this is important for all of us.”

Hernandez knows that Marquez’s talent goes way beyond riding.

“One of the most amazing things about Marc is that when he comes into the pits I never know if the bike is working well or badly!” he says. “He always uses the same procedure: he sits in his chair, checks his notes and doesn’t show any positive or negative feelings while you are waiting for him to speak. This is important because it makes sure the technicians don’t get nervous or feel too much pressure.”

10. Pere Riba and Jonathan Rea

2015/2016/2017/2018/2019/2020 World Superbike championships

Former GP and World Supersport rider Pere Riba was already at Kawasaki when Jonathan Rea joined the factory in 2015. Since then each of them has refused offers to join other teams because they want to keep working together.

The successes the two have enjoyed together have made World Superbike history: six consecutive titles (in other words, never beaten) and 99 race wins.

This suggests that they have the perfect man/machine/crew chief equation, based on understanding, friendship, hard work and a shared hunger for success that never seems to leave them.

“Working with Jonathan is a dream – he’s very intelligent and he knows how to get the best out of the bike,” says Riba.

“I am his chief mechanic but in fact I see my job as more of a manager – trying to get the best out of everyone in the box, not just the rider.

Riba isn’t afraid to tell Rea that he needs to change his ways if they encounter a problem. This kind of thing is vital in racing, because there’s rarely time for sweet-talking diplomacy.

“Pere sometimes tells me I’m not riding the bike properly,” says Rea. “So he’ll change some settings, because he knows that I’ll understand that the bike requests to be ridden in a certain way and then I’ll ride that way.”