(Originally published in 2010)
Look back through the annals of Motorcycle Grand Prix and MotoGP roadracing, and one name will keep coming up. Not a rider, mind you, but a rider’s most-important ally. From Mamola, to Gardner, to Doohan, to Rossi, the name “Burgess” has been closely associated with some of the sport’s best riders. And whether it’s “Jerry” or “Jeremy,” we’re talking about the same “Burgess.” A man who is the undisputed best crew chief in MotoGP today. And that’s because he’s been one of the best paddock people for many years, many teams, and many riders. Jeremy Burgess has been a fixture in GP and MotoGP for decades, and his longevity and long-term success gives him a unique perspective.
We recently had a rare opportunity to ask Burgess (more than) a few questions, and here’s what he had to say.
Interview starts: Burgess is talking to a friend and we overhear just the last snip of the conversation.
Burgess: … I’m actually reading three books at the same time. The book on Williams Engineering, I finished that, and I’m reading one on a German raider and that one at the same time. I don’t find it that difficult to read a couple of books at once.
Q I’m not completely clear on where Jeremy Burgess started in racing. You started as a mechanic with Randy Mamola. But did you ride, race?
A I rode the Australian circuit from ’72 through to ’79. Bought my first motorcycle two days after I left school, my first road-going motorcycle, a T500 Suzuki Cobra, ’69 model. I had a couple of paddock bikes before that. I grew up on a farm, so there was machinery around. I had my first driving when I was eight, and had my first car when I was 12. You could flog around the farm. But when it came time to go to work, I needed something cheap to run, and you didn’t need special licenses then, so I bought a motorcycle. Probably something that was probably a little too large for a first- time street rider. I mean, it was classified as a Superbike at the time. And a Superbike then could go 100 mph and cruise at 80. So it was up there with the Bonnevilles, and the H1 Kawasaki had come out, of course, and the Honda Four. That was about, pretty much, it. The Rocket Threes were around, I guess, at the time, I guess, and Tridents, but yeah. So I started there, and once you’ve got a bike, you tend to find a group of like-minded people. And then there’s usually one of those like-minded people who has some involvement with a racetrack somewhere. So you go out and find you’re not as slow as some of the other guys who are already racing, so you enter your first race. And that went from there.
Q Who were your contemporaries in Australia?
A When I was riding it was people like Hansford and Warren Willing, Kenny Blake, the Hintons who, of course, were at the end of their career. But these are guys who’d raced in Europe. Who else was there? Just anybody in the ’70s, really.
I didn’t race anywhere else. Towards the end of it, the family had made sure we all had good educations, a good opportunity, and were pretty keen that we all should travel. So I packed my bags and went to Europe to look at the motorcycle racing there. And promptly worked out that I wasn’t 19 years old with $250,000, so I wasn’t ever going to continue as a motorcycle racer. Stayed with a friend of mine, who was working at the time in Surbiton, in London. He worked for Suzuki Great Britain with Graeme Crosby. And he said they were looking for a mechanic at Suzuki. And I said, “Well, put my name down, we have the 500.” And anyway, I got called in for an interview.
And I had met Randy in New Zealand in ’76 when I’d been there helping a mate out on the bike. I knew Graeme Crosby because I’d raced against him in Australia for a fair period. I knew Mick Smith. I knew George Vukmanovich, who was Randy’s mechanic, because he had been Warren’s mechanic and done a year in Australia in ’78. So I knew a lot of people, and they also knew that my RG ran pretty well in Australia. So I got the job, but I was certainly a bit like the swan, sort of calm on the surface and paddling like hell to sort of get into this Grand Prix lark at that level. The rest is… that’s the pre-Mamola era. As simple as that.
Q That Mamola era with mechanic Little George Vukmanovich. Can you talk about that?
A That was pretty good. That was exciting times to go to racetracks in Europe that you’d only read about. Working with George… He had good experience, and Randy was young, and we finished second in the championship in the first year. Won some races. If I knew then what I know now, I’m sure we would have been a lot closer to killing Kenny.
And the second year, there were some mistakes made with the tire dimension from Dunlop that was not … we used it at Daytona and continued to use it from that point on, and it just … by half season when we went to Donington and we changed back to the tire of the previous year, we were half a second a lap quicker. So when you look back, we didn’t know it, because I guess we didn’t have the experience to understand what we should’ve had, and perhaps Randy didn’t push it hard enough.
But there were good times. I mean, we won Grands Prix in 1980. To be with a rider when he wins his first Grand Prix is something pretty special. And Randy went on to have a successful career, I would say. We didn’t quite get him over the line in those years when he was probably at his best, and the Suzuki Italy team with Roberto Gallina and Franco [Uncini] and previous to that, Marco [Lucchinelli], they were on the Michelin tires, which seemed to offer, certainly, some advantages in some places.
It was an English team, too, which is not necessarily a good thing. [Laughing] In hindsight.
Q What did you learn from that Little George?
A I learnt that smoke goes uphill. [Laughing] George would obviously work on the bottom (of the bike), and by the end of the night, there was a lot of cigarette butts around the workbench. And he was pretty loose with the contact cleaner. Of course, he had glasses and I didn’t, and I was always walking around saying, “Get me a guide dog, will you? Get me a guide dog!” with an eyeful of contact cleaner.
I don’t see much of George any more, but we had a great friendship for all those years, and then to work again with George on the 500s for Freddie Spencer. So we got back together then. And then he locked himself in pretty hard with Erv Kanemoto, because they were good mates, and Erv wanted to always run his own operation, and I stayed closer to the factory in Aalst when they went with the two-pronged attack with Gardner. I learned a lot from Erv in ’85 and ’84, and then sort of used it all against him for the rest of his career. [Laughing]
Q A lot of people have given their perspective on that ’85 season with Spencer and feel that’s where he spent the last of his talent. What was it like from your perspective?
A It was great. It was fantastic. We had Rothmans sponsorship, which was something very new. The team was high-profile. The bikes were competitive. Freddie was fit all the time. Erv …Erv, you know, once we got the 250 (title) out of the way, we didn’t ride it again. We just rode the 500. It was a big thing to chew off, but I’d worked with Freddie a couple of years before in testing in Australia at Surfers’ Paradise, and done the Daytonas with him, and done the Champion 200 at Laguna with him., and all that sort of thing. So when they wanted somebody to assist in that group, I’d been working with Ron Haslam prior to that, they just asked me to go in there, and I did one bike, George did the other. We … like, you don’t have “your bike” and “his bike,” they’re the tools to do the job. There’s never any issues with me and George about any of that sort of thing. It was great. The way it had to be, to get the job done. And Erv had to run, overall, two bikes, for Freddie to get off the 250 on a very hot day after a hell of a ding-dong with Carlos Lavado, who lifted his level amazingly, and then have to get on a 500, within sort of 30 minutes, in those days, and back into it again. Freddie was fantastic.
Q I think because of the way his career ended, a lot of people have lost sight of the phenom that Freddie was in his early career.
A Yeah, absolutely. I feel that too much is made of the end of people’s careers, but unfortunately, that’s always the way, because they’re the fresher memories. But clearly, what Freddie did in ’83, that year against Kenny, with the experience Kenny had in Europe, was great. I watched Freddie come over and do the match races in 1980, and he won one at Brands Hatch, the first race. I think Cros might have won the second one.
Croz’ rode the 650 to his probably last result, the Suzuki. But you could see that Freddie was something, that brought him over with the 500 to Zolder for the Belgian Grand Prix. But there were a few issues with those bikes anyway. And when he came in ’82 proper, and that bike wasn’t really up to it. A lot of silly little problems, things going wrong, and then ’83 was just awesome. Eighty-four, well, things can go wrong, they out-engineered themselves a little bit. And then in ’85, they got it all right. I think Eddie knocked us over in the first race in South Africa, but we went and took 20 mil out of the steering head and we were away.
Q Kanemoto once said that the thing that gets MotoGP mechanics is the loneliness and the travel.
A Eh… I suppose if you think about that too much, it clearly is an issue. But people say that to me about plane rides, and I say, “Well, look. It’s like getting on the school bus. You have to do it.” You didn’t worry that you had to be actually on the way to school half an hour before you were at school. You did it. And I leave home on Tuesday afternoon and I’m here on Wednesday morning.
I will say, it’s the only place, on an aeroplane, when you can sit in a very comfortable seat, push a button and have drinks brought to you and food brought to you. You can read a book. You can go to sleep. I don’t even get that treatment at home. So I look at the positives rather than the negatives. And fortunately, air travel has improved, other than the anti-terrorist stuff prior to getting on the plane. The rest of it is a lot better than it was 30 years ago. But I love the history of Europe. I love traveling. I love seeing things. I never get lonely on my own. I can go and entertain myself in any city in the world for four or five days. And I do that fairly frequently. I reckon it’s great.
Q You went from Freddie Spencer to Wayne Gardner as your rider next. Two riders that probably didn’t like each other, and were very, very different. Freddie was very precise. Wayne was complete determination and aggression.
A Absolutely. That’s a very clear observation of Wayne.
What Honda realized, and particularly Rothmans wanted, was a team. They wanted to have a team. They wanted more than one rider out there. They wanted to have a team. I think they convinced Honda that with a team, that it’s better for them, too. Erv was always one, if you’ve got one guy who can do the job, throw your entire effort behind him, and that does work to a degree, too. But if it goes wrong, you don’t have another string in your bag. I was very happy working with Erv, and I could get through the work and get the bike done, and George and I could sit there and he could have a smoke and I could have a can of Coke, and we could have a bet on something with Erv, because Erv was a frightful gambler on basketball or anything else. So you’d have a case of Coke on just about anything that was going, or a cheeseburger. And it worked fantastically well. But there’s no Australian-Australian relationship at that time between me and Wayne at that time. I didn’t even know him.
And I got a phone call from Erv saying that this job was coming up, and it would be good for me to take it up. And I said, “Jesus, Erv,” I said, “I’m more than happy working with you guys. I know what I’m doing. I can be finished. We can do it. We can get done, and I can go and talk to all these lovely Rothmans girls that were there at the time, half a dozen of them, and it’s working really good.” And he said, “No, no, no. It’ll be good for you.” Anyway, at some stage, then, (then head of HRC) Oguma rang me and we had a discussion and I went to Japan, and it was very clear then that….(Burgess mulls for a moment, then continues.)
Honda, as a company, if they saw that you could offer more to them, or you had the potential to do more, if you didn’t do that, you weren’t doing the best for Honda. So it basically came down, when he explained it to me, “you don’t have a choice. You’re either going to be the chief mechanic for Wayne Gardner, or you’re shirking your issues.” So it was a very … we learned together. I mean, I’d never done the job before. I missed lunch. I kept working. There was always something to do. And I had great help. Wilf Needham and Stuart Shenton. Stuart’s now with Capirossi. Couple of young Japanese mechanics, and a good helper, Mick Roberts, who’s no longer with us, unfortunately. And away we went.
We won the first race in Jarama. We won in Assen, and we won in Silverstone in the first year. And your comment before about Wayne being “all aggression” clearly showed the Japanese that this was a guy who could win them the championship, but we’ve got to keep his feet on the footpegs. So in ’87 they built the bike where they put the carburetors in the right spot, and the cylinders in the right spot, and basically Eddie gave up at the first race. I mean, they didn’t challenge us until Randy challenged us in Salzburgring. Up until that point, it was basically, “can’t get anywhere near them.” And we went on to win the championship.
So we had a second in ’86, a win in ’87, and I think then Wayne got a little bit too much of an engineering brain on him, and decided he was going to re-invent the motorcycle, and he asked for 1,000 rpm more on the top, and a bit of changing in the suspension, so the Japanese moved the swingarm pivot 20 mm. The engine became more fragile with that sort of rpm. And it all went backwards. We had three or four races away, back to back, at the start of the season, and we needed to make a modification to get the pivot back in the right spot. But in those days, all we could do was push the rear wheel down. But at that time, it’s just steepening the steering head angle. So we then had to cut the steering head and bend it out. But we couldn’t do that, because we were on the road. And then Wayne came back and he won three on the trot, and was leading at Paul Ricard when it broke the water pump bolt. That … he limped around, and wherever he came, and it was quoted as being one of the greatest 500 races of all time, because there was four of them going at it.
And at the end of that year, essentially, Wayne was a bit … a bit miffed. I don’t think he was particularly happy with me. It hadn’t gone the way either of us had expected. And he wanted to go another way, and Honda came to me and said, “We want you to do with a new rider the same you did with Wayne Gardner.” Which was the Mick Doohan era. In hindsight, Wayne’s best results were ’86, ’87, ’88. So all said and done, it was probably not that bad.
Q What surprised me about Gardner is that at the tail end of his career, he collaborated on a book with an Australian writer, and Gardner’s contributions seemed to indicate that he’d had huge confidence problems throughout his Grand Prix career. I was just shocked at that.A Yeah. It’s very true. To draw the parallel of him and Mick (Doohan), Wayne you would have to go and tell him that “you can beat those guys. You beat them last week. You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.”
If you said anything like that to Mick Doohan, he’d look at you, and he’d look down at you, and he’d say, “What, don’t you think I can do it?” [Laughing] But that was it. Wayne needed to be pumped up. You mention that to Mick, it was like a negative. It wasn’t a positive. Polar opposites in that respect.
Mick Doohan had confidence, and he crushed his opposition before he even got on the bike. I mean, he didn’t talk to them in the paddock. He was awesome in that respect. And he had to qualify pole position. Didn’t matter that he went into the first corner in sixth place. He had to be in pole position. We used to tell him, “Mick, if you’re on the front row, it’ll be okay.” That wasn’t anywhere near good enough.
Like we’ve said to Mick since, I said to him in 2000, he said, “What’s Valentino like?” And I said, “Mick, after working with you, anybody’s going to be easy.” [Laughing] And he goes, “I wasn’t that bad, was I?” But it was a great period. I enjoyed every minute with Mick. Other than the injuries, of course. And if we could reverse time, we’d all like to take the injuries out of any sport, I suppose.
Q Australian riders. Gardner walked away. Doohan walked away. Gardner probably could’ve won more races. Last year we saw Bayliss walk away and just leave. American riders, European riders, it’s always kind of some sad progression, predominantly, of really bad results and worse teams. Australians, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Why?
A We-e-e-ell, it’s probably not like that. The winning Americans, the real winning Americans, probably left pretty quick, I think. I don’t know. It’s … maybe it takes the Australians longer to win, so their … But no, Wayne was told in Donington in ’92 that he wouldn’t have works machinery in ’93, and he went out and won the race. He announced his retirement and won the race. I know Wayne knew Mick was going to win many more races. Wayne said that to me. He said, “I’ve won some races, but he’s going to win more.” He knew. He knew what he was up against, on the same bike. So he had had a good career, and he went on to have a great touring car career, too. And he was very astute with his money. He came from the steel mills at Wollongong, and as he finished his apprenticeship, he was sacked, as so often happens. He honestly believes he could lose all his money in a heartbeat, so he was very, very careful with his money.
Q Retired, was divorced and still had money.
A Yeah. That’s lucky, isn’t it?
Q For you, it really all culminated with Doohan. Everything you’d learned up to then…
A Eh….yeah. I mean, Wayne was interesting. Mick … Wayne could ride. He’d been in Europe. Mick was another thing. Never ridden a Grand Prix bike in his life. So the whole learning procedure was different. The whole working thing was different.
Mick always wanted to be two seconds faster than his ability allowed, and that caused a few crashes. But a person like myself cannot teach any rider how to ride a motorcycle. They have to learn that from their fellow competitors. And when they learn that, and they say, “Well, I’ve got the same bike as Eddie Lawson. I’ve got the same bike as Wayne Gardner. But I can’t go that fast. What am I doing wrong? I have to set my bike and learn to ride my bike,” and from that point on – once that clicks – they’re away. And it took Mick a year. He got injured in the Eight-Hour race with his finger, and went home, started running triathlons, and came back a shadow of his former self in terms of his physical appearance, but so much fitter. Finished fourth in Brazil, and the comments I remember after that race was, “How good is he?” Because he had the bike sliding, spinning, from the beginning of the race to the end of the race. And the following year, we won three or four races, I think, and we were on Michelin, but consumer Michelins rather than… And ’92 it got better. Ninety-three was bad. Ninety-four was where it started.
Q Did you expect to win at that point?
A Oh, you never expect to win. I was very, very happy for Mick to win in ’94, because to have gone through the injury period, which really went from Assen at ’92 right through to the end of ’93, because we sent him away one race short from the end, to have the treatment done here in America to get him ready for ’94. And the Mick Doohan mindset was clearly that he had won seven or eight Grands Prix, and okay, he didn’t have a good leg any more, but he knew what it would take to win races. So we modified the thumb brake, and we got all this sort of stuff going for them, and you know, we were flattered by the fact that people copied us. And as Mick said, “Geez, if I had a good foot, I wouldn’t be putting this on the bike,” but everybody was saying how wonderful it was, and that’s why Mick’s winning races. But you don’t see the thumb brake any more.
Q No, you don’t.
A It was built out of necessity, and it achieved exactly what we wanted. But once Mick won the first one, he knew what it took. And he had a great relationship with the high-up people in Honda, and they backed him. From the engineering group, it wasn’t really that exciting, because Mick wasn’t a great one for change. So the chassis department went from probably 20 to about three. So from their point, he wouldn’t allow them to fiddle unless there was some reason to. And the suspension company, as well.
Q The Honda Big Bang 500 engine, from an engineering standpoint, went completely counter, probably, to what you’d been experiencing through your entire career. Can you talk about it?
A Well, the Big Bang wasn’t only the Big Bang. It was a changing of the porting of the bike, and some other issues that had been brought in at the same time. Because in ’96, we went back away from the Big Bang. The Big Bang was a bike that gave you, towards the end, almost a limit to ride that bike before it would do strange things. But it was easy to push to that limit. The 180 engine was harder to ride, but gave you more. You didn’t get something for nothing. You had to ride it harder. And it wasn’t ’til ’98 that the other blokes came onto that bike. Criville and Okada couldn’t ride it. Mick loved it. But the cylinders were the same, everything was the same. And the head made some improvement in the porting, when we went to the Big Bang. But it certainly forced other manufacturers to go to the Big Bang.
Q On the personal front, you married in that period as well.
A I didn’t marry ’til end of ’93. No, I used to come to Europe because we used to do the engines ourselves, and I’d spend six months, but I’d bring the wife and the child over, and that worked fine, for sort of four or five months of the year. Then we’d go home. But when schooling started, we had to make a decision, so from basically ’99, 2000 onwards, I did more and more commuting. That’s all right. I don’t mind.
Q How has it worked out? Has it worked out on the personal front?
A Ah, well, it always works out on my personal side, because I’m right and everybody else is wrong. [Laughing] This is what I want to do, and this is why I’m doing it, and if you don’t like it… Like we say, pay yourself first, and see what happens after that. But clearly, I was very fortunate. My wife worked in this industry, for Rothmans International, and Nick Harris, another one she worked for. She knew the industry. She knew what goes on. She worked for a number of years.
Q She knew what she was getting herself into.
A Yeah. I mean, it’s probably not the ideal thing, but I go home at the end of the season and I’m home every day. There’s a lot of time there. I’m just working out the days now, that I’m away, and it’s not … I’m home six months. Pretty good.
Q Mamola, Freddie, Gardner, Doohan. Then, you get Rossi. Was it a revelation, when you started working with him?
A Oh, it was certainly a different working environment. A much calmer working environment. Quieter. But the Rossi story…. Fundamentally, in ’99, Honda basically said to me, “Okay, we’re going to let you go. We want you to work with Mick Doohan’s team, which he’s going to set up, and he’s going to run Rossi. And that’s going to be sponsored by Shell.” Well, that was great, and I thought, “Oh, okay. After 16 years, ciao, thanks very much. Thank you.”
But anyway, it looked like it was going to be good. And then it didn’t eventuate. And one of the other chaps who had also been asked to swing over with Mick started to panic a bit, and I said, “Hang on a minute. Don’t panic.” I said, “They’ve got Rossi. They ain’t going to let him go. And they’ve got nobody to run him. And they can’t put him in the factory team, because of the Repsol contract.”
So it wasn’t long before the phone rang and they said, “Oh, we want you to work with Valentino.” And I’d spoken with Valentino in ’99. I showed him over the bikes at Phillip Island after dark one night, and he sat on the bikes and had a look. And I thought that he was a very quiet young man, and I didn’t know at the time that it was conditional on me coming, that – me being there – otherwise I would’ve ramped my money up a bit more. [Laughing] But anyway, we ended up creating a fantastic little team. We were ostracized out there. We were doing it on our own. They knew they had to give him a good bike because of who he was, and there was a group of five of us and one Japanese engineer, and we just set ourselves up next door and went about our business. It was chaos in the Repsol team. We just used to look over and go, “Oh, Jesus.” And we worked with Valentino, and we had a couple of incidents in the first couple of races, which weren’t necessarily his fault. But we were number four in the pecking order, because everybody else got stuff first. We went through the year, won a couple of races, and finished second in the championship.
There was a couple of things we pointed out to Valentino. He didn’t know how hard to go on the warm-up lap or whatever. He said, in the 250, it was like … it would all start, and then would look around to make sure everyone had got going, and then we’d settle down and race. And he said, “But on the 500s, they’re racing on the warm-up lap. They’re trying to knock you off!” That was all a bit more intimidation, to try and get one over on, in the big class. And I suppose Valentino’s very good at it now. I don’t know.
But the one thing about Valentino is, he’s not scared to ask. He wants to know. He has a great capacity to absorb information and to process information. And anything that Mick could have given him at that stage would have been great.
But the potential of Valentino was very, very obvious from the first tests. And that’s when we had an engine with good middle-range power. When we went to the Criville engine, which we got last, which was just before the Grand Prix, we’d never run that engine. And the reason Valentino fell was always in the middle of the corner. Because suddenly there was nothing. And then you’d twist it a little bit more and there was too much. Once we got the engine back – and again, then when we had to go backwards in Suzuka – we were the last people to get the engine again. So they got all the ’99-spec engines, or bits and pieces, and then we didn’t get them ’til the end. If we’d had our .. if they’d left us on the ’99-spec engine from Day One, we would’ve been World Champion. I’m convinced of that. And I took that line of thinking when I came to Yamaha. I said, “Look, we’re not going to just go out there and feel our way. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to try and win in ’04. And if we get beaten, we’ll know where we stand.” And Valentino said that I had more confidence in that sort of approach than he did. He thought that the plan would be to look and then go. And I said, “No, we’re going for it. This is it.” And we won the first race, we won – finished fourth in the next one, and we were able to amass enough wins and points for the year to take the championship in ’04.
Q Was that first win on Yamaha the win you’re most proud of, or is there another one?
A Mmmm, I don’t have any that I’m the most proud of. Like I said before, I was very, very happy to win a championship with Freddie. I was super happy to help Wayne win the first Australian championship. I was super happy that Mick was able to, after the injuries of ’92, to come back and win in ’94; and then to go on, and actually win more, just made it better. But to win the last 500 with Valentino was pretty good.
To win that race in South Africa was fantastic, on just a race. Just looking at it as a race. And it did change the – or should have changed – the view of many people, that the rider is the important part of the package. Honda’s philosophy of “we have many people on the Honda, and we’ll win even if we don’t have you,” wasn’t the case. And since we left, I think they’ve probably won nine or ten Grands Prix. Which is not enough for a factory team.
Q People say that Rossi is the best rider ever. What is your opinion?
A I didn’t see all the others. [Laughing]
Q Is he the best that you’ve ever seen?
A Ah… Well, he’s got to be up there. [Laughing] Yeah, he’d have to be up there.
Q. Julian Ryder to Burgess: I always say that it’s Freddie, just from sheer natural speed.
A.Watching Freddie in Mallory Park in 1980, there was something very special there. And it was special enough for Mamola to say to Kenny Roberts, Sr. … who was just Kenny Roberts at that time … “Have you seen Freddie? There’s daylight under both wheels!” And Randy’s saying it as if, “Ah, Freddie’s mad.”
Kenny looks at him and said, “We’d better watch out if he ever perfects that.” [Laughing]
And I remember that because a number of riders who have gone on to be World Champion who I’ve heard people say about them previously are dangerous … they’re dangerous to the people who are complaining about them, because they’re doing things that that person can’t do.
Casey Stoner used to say that Jorge Lorenzo was dangerous. And when I heard that, my ears pricked up immediately. And he was only riding 125s at the time. And he would put that 125 in any gap, anywhere. And you went, “Wow. That looks dangerous.” But it wasn’t. He never crashed. He never did anything… I thought, “This kid’s got a future.” And look where he is today.
So those words, “dangerous,” are like, “Get the checkbook out. Sign that kid now.”