The Portuguese GP saw our first podium result of the year, a third place for Joan Mir, but a shock Covid-19 result meant we had to adapt fast to a new way of working - here’s the story behind our digital podium place…
Tuesday the 13th of April, the number 13 has unlucky connotations in many countries, and it seemed this date had some drama in store for us.
It would prove a day to remember for Joan Mir and for his Crew Chief, Frankie Carchedi. The results of the PCR test taken before travel arrived, and there in black and white, under Frankie’s name, was the word: POSITIVE.
"I couldn't believe it," admits Carchedi. A second test confirmed the worst suspicions and so enforced quarantine began in Andorra for the Brit. He needed to remain confined in Room 107 of the Abba Xalet Suites hotel, while the rest of the team travelled to Portugal. “The hotel staff left me lunch and dinner outside the room, but I couldn't go out for a walk or anything,” continues Frankie, who soon noticed a loss of smell and taste in the following days, although he tried to find the bright side; “I was trying to amuse myself by trying food I don’t normally like, mainly vegetables!”, he reveals.
Meanwhile, in Portimão, nerves among the team members were beginning to build, the news had come out of the blue like a lightning bolt. Team Suzuki Ecstar began to circulate the news internally, and the top management decided that an alternative route must be found quickly. Enter Tom O'Kane, the Irish engineer who leads the Test Team group and who usually works alongside Sylvain Guintoli. Tom set off on a whirlwind trip, landing Thursday afternoon just as the team shared the news to the world via a press release. It was straight down to business, there was no time to lose.
Claudio Rainato, Joan Mir’s Engine Management Engineer, took on the extra role of coordinating the weekend. Near constant communication was needed between Tom, Claudio, and Frankie, so an emergency connection system was built by the Italian engineer. Then it was time to talk with Joan and reassure him about the weekend's plans: “I had to explain to Joan that Tom is a Suzuki man through and through, that he would not make radical changes to his bike, and I think this calmed him down. He quickly became very collaborative with Tom” Rainato reveals. Despite the last minute nature of the partnership, Claudio also found things very comfortable, “I had already worked with Tom for a few years - alongside Aleix Espargaró - so I know him very well. Tom also knows the whole team, so it was all very easy and as if we had never stopped working together.”
“I had to explain to Joan that Tom is a Suzuki man through and through, that he would not make radical changes to his bike. He quickly became very collaborative with Tom” Rainato reveals.
“To be on the podium is always fantastic but to help a rider like Joan on his way to a World Championship is really satisfying. Also, to be able to help Suzuki in a time of need makes me very happy.” Described Tom.
Friday morning always means an early wake up for everyone, and the work is almost non-stop. Tom arrived into the garage, there was no time for lengthy introductions or discussions, it was time to roll up the sleeves and work. “To be honest, Joan and I had so little time to become acquainted, that after saying 'Hi, good to see you!’ we were immediately talking about the track and the tyres. But this is possibly the best way for a rider and Crew Chief to get to know one another, ”says the Irish engineer.
Claudio was in charge of facilitating the remote ‘trialogue’ work. He had to connect Frankie, from Andorra, with the group in the box and with the rider. “We had a very fast internet connection and we opened a 24-hour chat room with Frankie. In the morning we connected and we only switched it off at night. The webcam was always focused on the rider, so it was as though Frankie was sitting between the two of us”, adds Claudio. He also participated in the evening meetings.
Meanwhile, in his room in Andorra, Frankie was trying to calm his nerves as best he could. “Every time I was downloading data I was super impatient so I used the time to walk up down the corridor of my room, about 10m in length. I normally run 5km every day and I found this walking difficult because I got out of breath very easily due to Covid”, he narrates. “Most of the time I used my computer to look at the data, I had two phones and a tablet for the video footage and live timing screens like if I was in the box”. However, not all the technology was on his side, and the connection was somewhat unstable “the first day I needed many different internet codes because I used up the Wi-Fi allowance very quickly. They then kindly gave me a hotel pin code so that I could use the Wi-Fi as much as possible without it running out ”.
Every day the data download reached 10GB or more.
The difficult and strange weekend culminated in a very hard fought podium for Joan and his crew, and the taste was even sweeter considering the circumstances. With very few references from the 2020 Portuguese GP, when Joan could not finish the race, and without the physical presence of his Crew Chief, everything was twisted. But on Sunday the uncertainty and worry resulted in a great prize. For Tom it was difficult to describe; “To be on the podium is always fantastic but to help a rider like Joan on his way to a World Championship is really satisfying. Also, to be able to help Suzuki in a time of need makes me very happy.”
The digital links were useful for sharing the celebrations too, “After the race, it was quite funny when we gathered in the garage with Frankie on a video call and we placed the phone (and Frankie) alongside the trophy on Joan's bike for photos. I know it must have been very frustrating for Frankie not to be able to be there, but he was extremely gracious and good-humoured all weekend, ”says Tom.
The hard work and reassurance of everyone on site in Portimão allowed Frankie to rest and recover, and he even had time to finish a 3D model of St. Paul’s Cathedral that Joan's partner, Alejandra, left him as a surprise outside his hotel room door to keep any downtime boredom at bay.