Racer turned GP engineer Warren Willing passed away in September 2015 after a battle with cancer.
Willing was a racer long before he was a GP engineer, having raced many of the major events in the mid-1970s including Daytona, Ontario, Laguna Seca and others.
He broke his leg while practicing for the NorthWest 200 in 1979. Willing was never a huge fan of street races but did the North West 200 street event as a favor to his then sponsor Sid Griffiths. Willing crashed at high speed and broke both his tibia and fibula.
What followed were 18 surgeries to first save the leg then reconstruct it. Willing was in and out of hospitals for the next two years.
While trying to get his leg to stay attached to his body, Willing began preparing motorcycle for friends and customers in his home shop. That led to a tire development deal with Dunlop USA, then Willing running the Toshiba Yamaha Superbike team in Australia.
Kenny Roberts was the catalyst for Willing for much of his career. Willing decided to stop racing even well before the crash at the NW200 after some interaction with Roberts.
Willing remembered, “What I found racing at world level, was that you couldn’t do (both). You had to be a rider or an engineer. I could run in around fifth place, and basically Kenny basically made up my mind at Imola in ’79. I was fifth fastest, a second and a half behind Kenny, and I had a chat to him about a couple of bits through the circuit where I was having, just felt I was slow, and he told me what to do there in the top chicane. I did that the next session, and I thought, “Great!” I was a second and a half faster. I came in and I was still fifth. He’d gone a second and a half faster again. And that’s when I started to realize, he had all the backing he needed with Kel Carruthers, and while I was working on the bike, he was thinking about how to go faster. So I had to make a decision.”
As an engineer, Willing ran his own Superbike team in Australia, primarily for Australian riders and made huge sacrifices and endured many struggles to help Aussie riders reach the world championship.
In 1989 he joined Team Roberts full time as an engineer. Roberts was ruthless in his pursuit of victory, and he spent money freely on engineering and development. For an intelligent and curious man like Willing, it was a bountiful time to be in racing.
Willing said about Team Roberts, “Collectively, we had a good group of people, and because of the circumstances with Kenny and with Yamaha at the time, we were privy to a lot of development. We had the opportunity to test and modify things and make things, and learn about chassis and engine tuning. All that time, with Wayne’s success with Team Roberts, all those races, it was basically on Team Roberts’ tuning. The cylinders, exhaust pipes, everything. So that was a real bonus time. And when we were going through that learning process, with understanding the stiffness of chassis, and things like that, the people that were working with us from Japan are now the head of Yamaha Racing.”
Many identified Willing as Wayne Rainey’s crewchief during Rainey’s 500 years, but that was never the case, although the two had a close relationship. Willing worked with a variety of Team Roberts riders from Rainey, John Kocinski, Eddie Lawson, Jean-Michel Bayle, Luca Cadalora and others.
Kenny Roberts Junior and Willing left Team Roberts at the end of 1998. Their new home: Team Suzuki.
The backing for the team came from American Honda after no other sponsors could be found. Pressed for time, Willing and Team Roberts built a chassis for the Honda V5 in less than six weeks, and would hand carry the frame with them as luggage so it could return back to Roberts HQ after races to modify it.
Willing: “At that point, Junior was, riding-wise, was ready to progress, and at that stage, Team Roberts wasn’t in a position to support him the way he needed. They still continued development of the bikes. So Junior and I both went to Suzuki to start the ’99 season. In the off-season, we did a lot of development work with Suzuki. As it turned out, we won the first two events in ’99, and finished second in the championship that year. Then we won the championship in 2000.”
After being at Team Roberts and seeing what was possible if a team had unbridled support from a manufacturer and a top level sponsor who only wanted to win, it must have been an eye-opener when Willing later went to Suzuki GP as it was a deeply hardscrabble life at times. The truth of the matter is that Roberts Junior raced Suzuki motorcycles that had epoxy holding vital engine pieces together or in place. Willing could not have been happy seeing his rider’s motorcycles band-aided together instead of actually being developed.
Roberts Junior won the 500cc world championship on a motorcycle with the cylinder partially held together with epoxy as Suzuki had no spare cylinders. This wasn’t an isolated incident: at one point that season Suzuki had brought a crankshaft for Roberts to try–he was leading the championship–that they had pulled out of an ex-Schwantz RgV500 of unknown vintage. The crankshaft was at least six year old, and well used.
Willing left Suzuki, freelanced for a short time, then joined KTM. He stayed with the Austrians until KTM pulled the plug on the project early.
Then in 2006 he returned to Team Roberts. There he had a strong hand in developing the Team Roberts RC211V V-5, and was again working with Kenny Roberts Junior as rider. The backing for the team came from American Honda after no other sponsors could be found. Pressed for time, Willing and Team Roberts built a chassis for the Honda V5 in less than six weeks, and would hand carry the frame with them on commercial air flights as luggage so it could return to Roberts HQ for updates and modifications .
Willing stayed involved in racing even after his cancer diagnosis. In 2011, his cancer believed to be in remission, he signed on as a consultant to the MZ Moto2 team. There he helped develop a racing motorcycle basically in the middle of a former East German circus. At one point team members had to “borrow” Ant West’s Moto2 bikes in dark of night in order to regain possession of them. Willing was not party to that skullduggery at all, and was always able to remain a professional standard.
After MZ Willing worked under contract for Ducati Corse on the GP14.2.
Quiet and unassuming, Willing always made sure his colleagues were credited when success came their way.
One of his final projects in racing was collaborating with Kenny Roberts and Dave Zanotti on a Kawasaki 650-based dirt track machine.