ALL ACROSS THE BOARD

How Team Suzuki Ecstar’s squad read the writing on the wall

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ALL ACROSS THE BOARD

There’s a certain poetry in motion when the whole field of MotoGP riders are powering down the start/finish straight, their throttles open and their chins resting firmly on the tank, and then, in perfect synchronisation, a series of brightly coloured boards spring out from the pit wall. These seemingly simple bits of equipment can make or break a race, provide vital information, and even harbour secret messages. We delved in to how our team members and riders ensure these boards are more device than decoration.

One of Alex Rins’ mechanics, Davide Manfredi, explains the process behind the board:

“The pitboard is really important for the rider to let them know what’s happening around them. Our base board is: POSITION, GAP to rider behind, NAME of rider behind or GROUP with the number of riders in the group, and also engine mapping changes. We usually like to show Alex the current best lap time, and when he crosses the line we give him his position. Then, during the practice sessions, we do a countdown of the number of laps left before he needs to come into the pit box - so, it counts down to ‘1’ and then ‘BOX’. But during the race, once there are seven laps to go, we show him the countdown to the chequered flag. Our style is not to bombard the rider with loads of info.”

So what about the team members who are on the frontline getting these essential messages out to the riders? Fernando Mendez, who works on Mir’s side of the pit box, goes through the routine: “We grab the pitboard and the number bag a few minutes before a session or race start, and we walk over to pit wall. Once there we open the bag and check that we have all the numbers and signals. Then we put them carefully inside the see-through plastic holder, and check that the board is intact…then we’re ready to start signalling – it’s as simple as that! We know what to do 99% of the time, and we also watch the TV screens on pit wall, but occasionally we’ll receive a message via the headset to notify us of a change of plans.”

It all sounds calm and serene when described by Fernando, but the reality is that fast paced work and racing go hand in hand, and things can change very quickly. Sometimes this adrenaline rush is expected, but other times it comes in the form of a panic moment! “At some places where the tracks are very short we know it will be tough, you have to be really fast and ready to change the information quickly and precisely. Even when we’re prepared for it, we have to update it as late as possible, and it can be intense” says Manfredi. “And it can be worse than that too…” chips in team member Kevin Loussouarn “Sometimes you need a letter or number that you don’t have! You have to run as fast as you can, take some tape to create the shape with, run back to pit wall and do your best to react quickly to the situation.”

 

Surely all of this manual preparation and these last minute panics could be avoided if the paddock switched to a more modern system, so why don’t we use electronic pitboards?

“That’s a very good question!” exclaims Kevin “I don’t know why…but it would certainly be more expensive. This system has worked for many years so maybe they don’t see a need to change it, but the way the board is now it’s like flying a kite, it’s so light, and my shoulder always hurts after the race.” But his colleague, Fernando, disagrees… “I prefer the traditional way, I think with an electronic pitboard it could be very hard to see in the sunlight. This way is hard and the board is huge, especially in the wind, but I like the old-school style.”

ALL ACROSS THE BOARD

But one thing that has been updated to move with the times is the information that is electronically fed to the riders’ dashboards. Over the last few years, the MotoGP championship has introduced advanced systems which can send safety communications from race direction, such as the flags being displayed by the marshals, and warnings of penalties, as well as communications sent by the team such as ‘box’ or engine mapping instructions. But far from replacing the old ways, these improvements serve simply as a back-up or second line of comms. “Honestly, despite the dashboard improvements, our job is the same” states Davide Manfredi “because it just means we do a double communication. Our rule is: better to do it twice than miss the communication all together.” Kevin Loussouarn confirms: “I would say the addition of dashboard messages has had an impact for us, especially for things like box calls; it takes a bit of pressure off us because it means that even if we make a mistake, it’s usually fine because that same message will be communicated on the rider’s dashboard. They see a lot on the dash, but we still put what we can on the board to have it shown in two places.” Now put yourself in the rider’s shoes…or boots! Travelling at speeds of up to 363km/h on some circuits, potentially reading sudden dashboard messages AND having to read the pitboard as it flashes past in a blur along with around 25 other boards emerging from pit wall within fractions of a second. How is it done? Well, the truth is, sometimes it isn’t… “Well, it’s not easy at all!” Joan Mir says with a slightly embarrassed laugh “It’s something you have to really think about – you’ve got to almost force yourself to look! With Moto3 it was OK, but then in Moto2 and especially in MotoGP it’s a struggle, and the tracks with short straights even more so! And then sometimes you don’t even want to see it if you’re not doing so well! But, from the other side, the information they give us is really important, so we do want to see that board, you know? For example, in qualifying it’s useful to know what position you’re in and what the current fastest lap time is. The information that we have on the dashboard is usually something like an alarm or an alert, let’s say. So, even with the advanced dash, I look at the board just as much as I always used to.” Joan’s team-mate, Alex Rins, adds “This step forward with dashboards is helpful so that we don’t only rely on the pitboard, and we can get some of the most crucial information more quickly. In my case, it’s a little bit difficult to see the pitboard and I struggle sometimes – I even changed the colours on mine to make it easier to spot, we’ll try anything to see it because it’s really useful to us.”   But with so many riders ‘in the same boat’ and all desperately trying to spot their pitboard with their logo, how do the team members ensure courtesy to rival teams and a clear line of sight for their rider? Fernando Mendez explains: “It’s very difficult, we have gaps in the fencing on pit wall where we put the boards out, but these gaps are very close to each other so we could easily block another team’s board by accident. You must be careful, and really considerate.” Kevin Loussouarn is well aware that it’s not an easy task for the rider either: “When the riders have a big gap either side it’s not a problem at all, but when they’re in a big group at the start of the race, until about Lap 5, it’s almost impossible for them to see the pitboard. When the race settles down it’s easier, but the truth is we never really know if they have seen it, we just hope!”

This deception isn’t reserved just for rider-on-rider games though; the team members also have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to information sharing! Kevin admits: “It’s our job to put the lap time on the board when the rider comes across the line. We look at the 3rd sector split time and then we predict the final sector…but the truth is, sometimes we add or subtract a little bit if we want to reassure the rider or we want the rider to push more…”   “Oh for sure, when we start the race we might just subtract a little from the gap, just a little, to encourage the rider” Fernando adds with a wry smile.

ALL ACROSS THE BOARD
ALL ACROSS THE BOARD