Exclusive Interview: Mike Leitner on Pedrosa’s riding style, team work and winning in MotoGP

 In MotoGP, News

With six rounds still to go of the 2012 MotoGP season it’s already clear that this is the best year yet for Dani Pedrosa in the big class. After winning three out of the last four races he now sits only 13 points behind championship leader Jorge Lorenzo and it’s looking to become a spectacular fight for the MotoGP crown, the next round already taking place this weekend at Misano.

One of the main people behind Pedrosa and his continued success is his chief engineer Mike Leitner. The 49-year-old Austrian had raced in the 125cc world championship himself, scoring several top ten finishes in his active time from 1984 to 1990, before working as a technician and joining Pedrosa’s crew in 2004 when the Spaniard moved up to the 250cc class.

Since then the bike capacity might have changed several times, but the winning combination Leitner-Pedrosa stayed the same and evolved over the years. We caught up with Leitner at the Czech Grand Prix in Brno to talk about his relationship with Dani, his working methods and what it takes to win in the MotoGP class.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I always like to start with a short introduction, so can you just give a quick personal overview of the main points in your professional history, your educational background and how you came to racing and working for Dani Pedrosa?
Well, I’m currently the chief engineer in the team of Dani, holding that position for several years – since 2004 in the 250cc class and since 2006 in the MotoGP class. On how I got there, I did a regular apprenticeship as a mechanic and besides that got into racing, I was active in the world championship myself and had a few top ten finishes. At the end of my racing career I did the master craftsman examination and those things. Then I worked with the HB Racing Team for seven years, with Dieter Stappert and Sepp Schlögl, which was great, I learned a lot during that time. Then I went to Sweden to work at Öhlins for two years, doing the suspensions there, working for 500cc teams in MotoGP, for Yamaha. Then I got the offer for the 250cc project and did that from 2004, we took two titles in 250cc and moved up to MotoGP in 2006.

How was that time with this huge success in 250cc and Dani being a star already? How did you experience that as a mechanic coming fresh into the team?
Well, the thing is that in that phase you just have to stay cool and that’s what’s more difficult. Of course in the HB Team where I worked my way up we also fought for the title and only lost by a handful of points, so it’s not like that I hadn’t been in the situation before where you’re knocking on the door of a potential title, it just wasn’t to be. But then to be suddenly in the position with Dani, he was very strong and very fast from the beginning, and you come in as a chief technician there and have the full responsibility, I’ve got to say that I had to pull myself together sometimes to not get nervous, because you suddenly deal with the pressure from a big sponsor and a big manufacturer where there’s a lot of expectation placed on the rider as well, because he’s simply very good and those are suddenly different things to deal with than before.

How do you get to know a rider, how did you start your professional relationship with Dani?
Well, at the beginning it was purely technical, we practically didn’t know each other and this just happened to be the situation. Alberto Puig was looking to get us together. The connection between Alberto Puig and me actually came to be through Adi Stadler [a former German 125cc and 250cc racer – ed.], then we had a chat and only later I talked to Dani. But in the beginning it really was purely professional, I gotta say we barely talked about anything private, really only about the job and he [Dani] is someone who always observes very precisely anyway and of course you have to work to gain a certain trust.

During all that time since then, how did your relationship change, did it become more of a friendship?
Well, surely over these years when you work together with a rider since 2004, you develop a more private relationship as well. But that’s something you definitely have to blend out sometimes, because there are phases where you have to be tough to the rider, when you have to convince him of something with which he might not agree and where it definitely doesn’t work on a basis of friendship. But I think we have a pretty good balance between professionalism and friendship.

In 2006 the team quickly made the way to MotoGP, again with big success and a big sponsor behind. How did you experience the move up to MotoGP with the new bike, did you have to change a lot of things about your work?
You have to adapt to it. 250cc to MotoGP, that was a different bike to work with and you have to gain the experience, both the rider and the team. The first year on the 1000cc, that was, how should I say, it was a “developed” bike you can say, with which we got along relatively well. Then the class changed to 800cc and there the first bike we worked with wasn’t quite as competitive. I’d say when we saw the other riders, we did have to fight our way through and find a path to follow. Yamaha then was very strong, almost unbeatable, but we fought to close the gap again.

In your opionion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Dani? Did they change or shift in the course of the years and in the different classes?
Well, strengths and weaknesses… He’s a very talented rider, you can see that in the results. But he came into a period with two other very talented riders who really give each other an extreme competition which you might not even realize as much from the outside. When you look at what laptimes the fourth-placed guy rides – which isn’t meant devaluating towards the others – but those three move the bikes on a level and at a limit where it is really very difficult to even win a race. They take so many wins away from each other and for us in the last two years he [Dani] was very affected by injuries and before that the bike maybe wasn’t quite as competitive, so then it’s very difficult to get a title. The competition is really tough. You actually shouldn’t have any weaknesses and only strengths if you want a chance to be fighting at the top.

When Dani gets criticized or hailed in the media, when he succeeds or fails, do you feel affected by that personally?
It does affect everyone, otherwise the team wouldn’t work. Because if you feel in the team that someone doesn’t have his heart in it, then that’s not going to work. So in the end this is actually a total team sport and you have to be completely behind your rider. Of course I also work for Honda, so logically the development and everything helps two riders and you have to think about the company as well, because they put in a lot of effort to build these bikes. But in the end you’re in the core group where the main thing is to work together with the rider.

How does a race weekend look like for you? How do you feel on race day when he has to convert the weekend’s work on track, do you have less or more stress then?
On race day you have to bring in the result of course. Surely there’s pressure that nothing happens in the race and you follow everything very closely of course.

Is it a different kind of stress?
Yes, sure, because you can’t do anything about it anymore. You’re restricted to the role of a spectator.

Dani is the smallest and lightest rider of the class which can be an advantage, but carries an inherent disadvantage in the handling of the bigger MotoGP bike. How much can you adjust the bike to help him move it properly with his size?
Well, it’s something we can’t change. We can’t make him taller or heavier. It’s something you have to work with and it’s certainly a big challenge for our team that we always find the right balance for the bike, because he’s just very limited in terms of body size, that when the tyres let go or with track changes he can’t take countermeasures as much. Not because he’s got less talent than the others, but because it’s the way it is. And for that you have to work very precisely with the setting.

You’ve been a racer yourself for many years, how much of an advantage is that for your job?
It’s helps a lot, sure. Like you feel that a rider during practice is at his limit and you just have to let up a little, also how much you push and put pressure on him or take out a bit of the pressure sometimes, these kind of things. And also the understanding when he comes in and comments about the bike, then I believe it’s a big help when you’ve moved a bike around at the limit yourself.

After all these years, do you understand each other implicitly by now?
Yes, maybe not completely implicitly, but he definitely understands my words and I understand his, because everyone interprets things differently. But yeah, it’s still to this day a challenge each time.

How much technical knowledge do you think a rider has to have to do his job properly?
In this class, without technical… Well, I wouldn’t call it technical knowledge, because a rider doesn’t have to know how much the piston speed is or how fast the transmission is or whatever. That’s not interesting. But a rider in this category, they have to know one thing very well: What they need to go fast. And for that you need some technical understanding, what you need to go fast. And that is very difficult. That combination, that you have the intellect, the talent and the willingness to take risks.

How would you describe Dani as a rider? Is he more technical or more intuitive for example?
I think the way he grew up and in this class, again with his height, he just has to be good technically. Firstly in terms of riding he is very good, how he moves the bike; he understands very well what a bike needs to ride fast; but he needs a certain technical understanding, sometimes maybe even a bit more than the others, simply because he can’t compensate much with the body.

It’s a question often asked, but about Dani’s lightning starts: Is that just him or how much can you do about the setting to further support him at that point?
Well, the main part is always him in terms of short reaction time. Certainly the start is a part of the setup and you always try to optimize things there and I believe we’re pretty good in that area. And I think that this is one point where for once he has an advantage with his weight. But we did some data comparison and I have to say it is mostly him, how quick he reacts on the bike, which is very good.

As a final question I wanted to ask you about the electronics debate. There are certain people, mainly journalists and some former riders, who regularly complain about the electronic aids currently used and you’ve been quite vocal in previous interviews about how little merit these complaints have.
Well, what annoys me, I clearly have to say, is what’s now often carried outside, this image that “They can’t even crash anymore, because the bike is doing everything”. We’ve seen last weekend [at Indianapolis, where several MotoGP riders crashed heavily and suffered various injuries – ed.] how little you can crash with these machines… And then you get comments from former racers, who 10 or 15 years ago rode bikes with 150 PS instead of 250 PS, about how back then they all rode like… [waves hands] And this I always find naff, because everyone has to do their thing at their time, in their period. It’s always derogatory to make these kind of statements and this is what I don’t like. Because the guys at the top now, they perform just like the winners of the past did. I do not question the achievements of the former riders, but it rubs me the wrong way when these kind of comments come from those guys and oftentimes it’s that they didn’t even know that they’ve been riding with quite a few aids themselves. Because back then they already changed the firing order of the two-strokes on acceleration, the exhaust channel had been changed etc. Back then you used different aids and today you use these kind of aids. But to ride the current machines without any controls… I think that person is not at the race tracks. So far I haven’t met anyone in MotoGP who could do that.

Interview & Text by Simona Vogel for Vroom Media
Photos courtesy of Repsol Media Service

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