How to translate rider comments into data: Exclusive Interview with Bridgestone’s Steve Jenkner
Before the 2013 season starts in earnest we have another exlusive interview to share with you. We met up with former 125cc and 250cc rider Steve Jenkner at the German Grand Prix at Sachsenring last year to talk about his new role as Bridgestone field engineer.
The 36-year-old was an active racer himself until 2005, his most successful years being 2002 and 2003 when he stood several times on the podium in the 125cc class, including his first and only victory at the Dutch TT in Assen 2003.
In 2008 he was back in the paddock, but this time working for Bridgestone, looking after the teams of LCR Honda, Scot Honda and Pramac Ducati. His new role now was a translator of sorts, turning the riders’ comments into useful data for the tyre manufacturer and vice versa.
“Motorcycle racing has always been my hobby, then it became my profession and I am still here. Making your hobby into a profession is just very pleasant work”, he admits.
We talked to the German about his weekend preparations, working with different riders and teams, majority decisions and the danger of making things worse with good advice.
Hi Steve, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us. Firstly, can you explain in short what exactly your position is with Bridgestone and what you do on a race weekend?
Field Engineer MotoGP is the official term. It’s basically a tyre technician. Not a fitter, there’s a difference between technician and fitter. We don’t mount the tyres, we guide the teams in the usage of the tyres. For the selection process, how they should be used, when they should be used, how much pressue etc. We then take in the comments from the riders, note them down and in return translate that into technical information that our engineers in Japan can use for the further development of the tyres.
Which riders are you responsible for at the moment?
For a few years now I’m responsible for Ducati. The riders change, but bike has stayed the same over the last few years. At the moment it’s Rossi, Hayden, Abraham and Barbera.
How can I imagine your regular race weekend, how do you plan your time between the different riders and teams?
Well, in between the practice sessions it’s always rather hectic with the pre-mounting of the tyres that I have to put out, that’s part of our job. The tyres are scanned; you are only allowed to use a certain amount of them, so you have to plan a bit where and when they are used. And then during the sessions I have to jump a bit between the boxes. With the main focus of course on the factory team and then I have a few minutes left for the satellite riders.
With only one manufacturer to work with it’s probably a bit more straightforward to work with than having to switch between manufacturers as well. But how much difference is there between the riders, how much do you notice as a field engineer the differences of setting etc?
You notice it quite a bit, especially because the factory bikes can not be compared with the satellite bikes of the private teams. It’s completely different situations and it’s a completely different bike. It might say Ducati on the fairing, but especially this year they developed so that the bikes have different weight distributions and of course you see that on the tyres.
And the recommendations you give the teams, are they always based on last year’s data? Do you analyze the bike beforehand or how is your process to determine what tyre, pressure etc you can recommend to the riders?
Well, working with the data from last year is pretty difficult now, because the bikes are all completely new with 1000cc. And because we shrewdly also designed new tyres, a completely new construction. So these are not the tyres from last year anymore. You have to take over the old data a little bit, but basically from Friday on a race weekend you have to start building a new data set and from this then decide what’s used to race. So what we had two years ago or even last year is partly not applicable anymore.
I imagine it must be very difficult when you get to new tracks and have to decide in advance what kind of tyres you bring to the circuit. When you don’t have any data from the previous year with the bikes now being new, are you then working with estimates or how does the decision process work?
That happens in principle together with the riders, the safety commission, us [the technicians] and the engineers in Japan. They already have a relatively big database – to see how demanding the tracks are, on which side they are most demanding and with this it’s already sorting itself out to a manageable degree. Then you look at the weather conditions from the last five or six years to include the temperature and then you’ve already sizeably limited that huge variety that’s available.
There are a lot of different opinions about the new front tyre this year. How do you make the selection of which version will be used in the season, simply by majority?
Exactly, it’s like in politics, the majority decides.
Last weekend at Assen a problem occurred for some riders where their rear tyre dissolved in huge chunks. Although this was not an issue for the majority, I assume extreme cases like this would still be investigated like it was an issue for the majority?
Yes, of course. You always analyze why this happened. Assen was such a case where in the last years the average assumed track temperature was around 20°C and this year we had 40°C, so it fell out of that window a bit.
Of course you always have to manage that balancing act. On the one hand the riders want to get the perfect performance out of their tyres and always want to go faster and are never satisfied when they have to close the throttle somewhere because its starts spinning and sliding. That’s why we have to bring a tyre with a very high performance. On the other hand this high performance is very close to the limit. And when you fall out of that little [performance] bracket, it can happen that something goes wrong.
Andrea Dovizioso said something similar in his press debrief, that after the complaints last year about the warm up performance the tyres went into the right direction now, but that the current Bridgestones are so close to the limit and specific that the moment you step over that line you get into trouble.
Exactly, he analyzed that well. We are following the comments from the riders. Last year they had a few crashes due to cold tyres, or rather tyres which weren’t up to the right temperature yet. We changed that and it works from the technology to the tracks, but this high performance also comes with a negative side somewhere else.
Before you start into a race weekend you already have a certain expectation about how things are supposed to go. But if a rider has big issues with the tyre on Friday, while everyone else is doing fine, and then demands certain changes from you, how much say do you actually have in telling the team which they direction they should go with the tyre?
Well, in the end they have to decide themselves what they do. We can only give suggestions and tell them that their tyre wear on the front or rear is too high on this or that side and that it’s because of this or that reason, temperature, abrasion, whatever, and that from our experience we would recommend them to go in this or that direction. In most cases they listen, because they also come to us and ask. Of course there are also moments when they say that No, they’ve just gone wrong with their setup – which is something we don’t know much detail about, what they are building on the bike – and they have to go in another direction etc. And then you sit together and search for a solution together.
I imagine this to be a difficult process when you effectively have two different units – the team just working on the bike setup and then the tyre department separately. So if the team is struggling with the setup, it might be that you give recommendations to go in one direction which then makes things even worse, because you didn’t know where they went wrong.
Exactly. That’s why from my perspective it’s important to complement each other and I’m happy that I by now I am in a position with Ducati that I can see almost everything what I want and can talk about almost everything I want. And there’s a good data exchange. I’m relatively open about our things and in return they are very forthcoming to me and with that we can work pretty well.
This is also something I’m interested in, how the communication with the teams work. When you’re in it for a while it probably goes quite smoothly, but if you come in as a new engineer or to a new team, how does a normal weekend go for you?
That’s different between teams and riders. Hayden for example does this very disciplined with meetings ahead of the race. On Thursday we sit down and talk through what steps we want to take when the weather stays normal. With other riders we briefly explain what tyres we brought, why we brought them, what they could be good or bad for. And then you basically draft a rough plan which you try to follow through on the weekend. But then of course things like rain interfere or something on the bike might not work quite right, electronics, chassis, it all plays into it, but in principle you still try to follow the plan a bit and then from session and session you check what parts have to be adjusted.
You’ve been a rider yourself, how much of a help is this in your current position?
This is one of the reasons why Bridgestone chose former riders, which work as “translators”. Because when someone’s never raced a bike, they could be five times the better technician than we are, but when you don’t understand what the rider means when he says the bike feels greasy, then you can’t process that. So we basically have to think further, that we have felt more or less the same in the past – it might be caused by this, has this effect, should technically go in this direction etc – and then tell the engineers how this can be solved.
When you develop the tyre, what’s the balance of input between the data and the rider comments? Which is the more important to work with?
Well, in the best case scenario the comments from the rider fit the data we analyze. At Ducati that is not working so well at the moment, because it doesn’t harmonize. Even a Valentino Rossi is not immune from feeling something that’s technically completely different with the bike.
So there’s a discrepancy between rider comments and data?
Yes, it basically shows that it’s very difficult at the moment to work especially with this bike and to set it up correctly, because those data sets don’t complement each other.
What do you go by then, rider or data?
You try to a certain extend to advice the rider to follow the data until the race or the qualifying. But if he doesn’t get any faster with that at all then it’s done, then things are turned around and the rider has to decide. Because in the end he has to ride, he has to feel comfortable and if then we see something we might not approve of, that’s secondary.
You’d already been with Bridgestone before it became the single tyre supplier. Is the work with the riders different now? Are you dealing differently with rider comments and suggestions?
It’s completely different. A completely different way of working. In the past the teams and riders had their bikes and if anything didn’t work, the first thing they did was ask for another tyre. And it’s really like that, you can mask a lot of chassis issues with a different tyre.
Since the single tyre rule there’s only this one. Harder and softer variations for different tracks, yes, but effectively it’s always the same. It has the same dimensions for everyone and everything is limited. Therefore now the riders and teams have to adapt to the tyres and it’s no longer that we develop something for them. That was in the past more interesting for us in terms of our job description, because we were able to decide in which direction we’re going with the rider and it was more development work. That was a bit more fun, but well, it is the way it is.
But this is an interesting point. As you say a good tyre can mask a lot of problems with the bike. Is that in your view one of the problems Ducati has now, that their previously “invisible” problems come to the surface, because they are no longer able to adjust the tyres to their needs?
Partly, yes. Then you also had another rider on it who – just like a good tyre – masked even more chassis issues, because he simply rode the bike in a different way. But there was only one of him on Ducati. But he also won when he got tyres which he wanted and which were specifically built for that bike.
At the moment Bridgestone is seemingly getting a lot of criticism from the riders. Is that noticeable in your position, that maybe riders are more opposed to your suggestions or is it not that big of an issue within the teams?
No, you do notice it a little bit. Though in my opinion the riders are mainly disappointed by the single tyre rule itself, because they haven’t yet internalized and don’t understand that this is all closely linked with the budget, because it just has to be done and that for a company like Bridgestone or Dunlop in Moto2 it simply has a [financial] limit somewhere and we can no longer just develop things to our heart’s content.
But for you personally it doesn’t really affect your working relationship with the riders themselves?
Yeah, they can be a little miffed sometimes, but at the end of the day they also know perfectly well that we in our position can’t change anything either and especially the riders who’ve been around for a while, they know what’s it been like in the past, so they know that we could if we were allowed to.
Thanks a lot for the interview.
Interview: Simona Vogel for Vroom Media
Photos: Bridgestone Motorsport