Words :Adam Wheeler / @ontrackoffroad Photos : David Piolé & Alex Chailan

Adam talks with former world champion Julian Simon, who is helping Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales as a rider coach. Here Julian talks about what he does, the stress of being a MotoGP rider, the link with Maverick, and more.
Maverick Viñales has something in common with every one of the other twenty-four fastest motorcycle racers in the world on the MotoGP grid. Of course there is bravery, there is perception, technique and co-ordination, and then traits of determination and persistence and the knowledge of sacrifice. But they all want to improve. To be faster.

When the competition involves the enormous threat of multiple champions and grand prix winners then the search for some sort of betterment can become an obsession. MotoGP riders all train, watch their diet and spend countless hours talking strategy, tactics and set-up and even embrace sports psychology. 

The phenomenon of the rider ‘coach’ is old but now much more widespread in Grand Prix. Almost every team or racer has their own ‘spotter’ or consort, and it is this extra stream of information or insight that they hope will deliver a crucial minor difference that could have a drastic effect on the results. 

In 2019 Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maverick Viñales has sought changes both in the Yamaha garage (new crew chief Esteban Garcia) but also outside the pit lane by bringing friend and former world champion Julian Simon into his professional inner circle. A veteran of fifteen years of Grand Prix, 8 wins and more than 25 podiums in two categories, the Spaniard is a well-known face in the paddock and elite racing. His friendliness and calm manner and astute knowledge of his craft is something that 24 year old Viñales believes could assist his push to put Yamaha back on top of the podium.

“We have a really good feeling,” the Catalan said at the beginning of the season. “The atmosphere inside the team is completely different to last year, I can be much more calm, relaxed. When everything is good, it’s easy to be like this, but when things go wrong, I think Esteban and ‘Julito’ will help me much more.”

Still only 32, Simon ‘has been there and done it’ and also has a friendship with Viñales that the MotoGP star hopes will evolve into a useful ‘edge’. The chemistry of elite level sporting performance is complex and (usually) unstable: much depends on how Viñales can feel and use the tools around him and how his character can react to the environment in place. It is also a sensitive job for Simon. To understand a bit more about the dynamic we quizzed the Spaniard on a role that is rarely seen and perhaps unappreciated but ultimately contributes to lap-times measured in hundreds and thousandths of a second.
I know my role is a little unusual but there is definitely a place for it…
I never really had a coach when I was a rider and looking back now there were moments in my career when I really could have used people with experience to point me in the right way when it came to what I was doing on the track. This was just as much about understanding the bike and what was going on as with my own personal performance: this is what I try to transmit to the rider now. I think what I see from the track can be of assistance to the rider – as well as the team – to develop the bike and how the athlete is riding. It’s another tool that people can use. It is not something that is always calculable and will always bring a result but it is something extra, another piece of support. A rider will need a physio, doctor and a masseuse and every year is looking for some way to upgrade his ‘programme’ and this type of coach is another form of help.

How to speak is as important as what you speak…
It’s important to convey a sense of confidence and positivity. Even if you see some negative things from the outside then you have to take care how you put them across. You might see that the bike is not working well in some aspects but you have to be transparent and also careful with what you say because you are not the one that then has to put on the helmet and go at 300kmph. The rider doesn’t want to hear things like ‘the bike is moving a lot’ or ‘it seems dangerous there’ and watch out for certain words that can cause doubt.

Pick your moments…
You have to talk conservatively and thoughtfully but also identify if there is a problem in, say, a particular corner. Above all you have to reassure the rider as much as you can. It’s easier to talk in quiet moments in the motorhome or the hospitality and that’s when you can explain more details about what you see going on with the bike and his riding. In the pitbox it is complicated because it can be tense and he’ll be very focussed on the moment he goes on the track. It’s a delicate time because you cannot imagine the focus he will have. He’s thinking about his sensations, feelings and his emotions – this is what riding is all about and the sessions are very short to be able to get a grip on all of that. For those 40 minutes the body and mind are fully tuned in. So you have to give support, and choose your words well.
There are many more differences between riders than you think…
It looks like they all go for the same place on the track compared to something like motocross, which is very open and can change all the time. People can see – especially those that have raced – the different styles of the riders, the braking points and their positions on the bike to enter the corner in the best way. Riders do use different lines, although the difference between each one is pretty small. You have to really look for that – and the styles as well – but it’s possible to see. If you take the first corner at the end of the straight in Losail [Qatar] for example then there are riders who keep more towards the inside and others that stay wide and sweep across. I think it’s easier for former racers to interpret what is going on and how effective those approaches are than for those watching through the TV. There are riders that follow and imitate others and there are some that really try different things, different lines. From the 25 riders on the MotoGP grid every one has their own approach!

We don’t make changes every weekend…
The goal with Maverick – and something I really hope we achieve – is to be as consistent as possible and for him to be as competitive as he can be on the bike. This hasn’t always happened – last year for example – but it would be a progression. He has so much potential as a rider and the main objective is for him to find a feeling on the Yamaha so he can be as strong as possible all year long. That’s the priority.

It wasn’t easy to wear another cap…
It was very hard to change roles. I stopped racing but I was still in good shape and good form. The only way to continue was to find a large sponsor and bring some money and that wasn’t going to work for me. Thankfully I feel I have a good relationship with many in the paddock, with people at Dorna, and the first person I helped was Tito Rabat and I’m grateful to him because it opened a new road for me. When I started though I still felt like a racer and that means you think a lot about yourself and not much about anybody else! So it was tricky to change the mentality and think only about Tito and now Maverick. It means dedication and still training hard to show the rider that I’m motivated and still thinking and relating as it is a rider. It was difficult to change though and it took me a while. Now I’m at a point where I am happy and keen to help and use my experience in another way. 

Do I have the goods? Believe it!
You have to show you are motivated, confident and sure in your work and that it’s helping, maybe towards results or, above all, in creating a good atmosphere or way to work. That’s my objective. As well as results we have to make sure Maverick feels at home and can really bond with his team and the people around him in a common goal. As a coach you don’t have those ‘TV moments’ where you are taking a prize or walking on the podium but you have that inner satisfaction which is really good. Speaking honestly I was working a few years helping develop junior racers in the Spanish series and when one of them wins then it was a great feeling, really rewarding and I know those moments will come with Maverick as well.
The line between friend and ‘employer’ can be tricky…
I’ve known Maverick a long time and we were teammates in 2012 so above all we’re friends and for me he has such high value as a person as much as a rider and we’ve shared a lot, including some difficult moments for me. But! When good times come I am able to say congratulations and if things are going badly then I also need to be open and with the best disposition towards making things better. With good words and enthusiasm between both then there shouldn’t be a problem. Tension would obviously be counterproductive and that’s why we have to communicate in the best way and ensure we stay strong through the good and the bad. I think that Maverick is finally creating his ‘own’ team around him; people that he can trust and that transmit confidence. If you look at Marc Marquez then he has had the same crew for many years, since he was in Moto2 and Valentino as well. I have great relationship with him. He’s a friend, has been a teammate and I saw him racing as a kid. He has enormous talent for what he does and is affectionate. We ride motocross together and there’s friendly ‘needle’ there! He’s made me crash a lot of times this pre-season while finding limits to go with him! So there is a bit of competitiveness and comradeship and I think this will help when things don’t go so well.

There is real pressure being a MotoGP rider: you have to believe you can help…
This comes down to the skill of what to say and when. I know in the pitbox this is a time when he might not listen to me or choose not to follow any suggestions. You have to understand – me also – that it’s a big mental stress but at the same time he knows that I am here for one reason and that’s to help him to get better. We might make a mistake now and again but the priority is analysis, with calm and understanding, and identification of good things and bad and to be able to talk about them. We have a strong link and one of the things I wanted when I came to this team and had this opportunity was to train and have a close connection with Maverick at his home in Andorra. I didn’t just want to turn up at the races and tests. This creates even more confidence between us because we’re working in the gym, riding motocross, riding bicycles and keeping a bit of competition there. I believe it adds more credence to what I say because it becomes part of our day-to-day work. I think it helps and there are many athletes working together now to find the same high level or benefit in what they are doing away from the track. If Maverick is feeling better and it is translating to what he is doing on a MotoGP bike then it helps you to keep working and pushing.

Making the best better?
At Maverick’s level it is complicated to break it down. With kids, far easier, because you can work on elements of their technique and they can see an improvement but the MotoGP grid is already so good! What we try to look at is his cornering, his line and how it compares with what he did in the past and what the other top level riders are doing. Also how the bike is moving. It might be through one corner or three. I use videos as well to try and find any weak points…but it’s difficult!