In the case of Mike Webb, who has held the role since 2012, the story starts as a motorcycle racer in New Zealand and includes being a grand prix wild-card, crew chief in the 500cc World Championship for WCM and Wayne Rainey's Yamaha team, a season in WorldSBK and ten years as Technical Director!
How did you start in motorsport and get to where you are now?
"30 years ago I was doing national level club racing in New Zealand - roaring around, having a great time! - and I also owned three motorcycle shops at one point.
"I won the New Zealand national championship a couple of times. One year I won the GP 250 class, winning every race except one, when the bike broke down. So I thought 'whoa, I'm good at this!' and I got a wild-card entry for the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, the first at Phillip Island, on my standard 250…. And was dead last! In fact, the bike broke two laps before the end of the race!
"That was almost the end of my racing career because I was getting old by then, but still having loads of fun and I thought, 'I can do this. I'm pretty good at it'. But then to realise the difference in level between national racing in New Zealand and world class Grand Prix. It's night and day.
"The wild-card was a great experience, but together with my age - I didn't jump on a motorbike until I was 25, so I was close to 35 by then - and with no career beckoning it was the end of it.
"It just kind of reinforced what I already knew; that I was having a really good time racing, loved it, but I wasn't destined to be world champion at that age. So it was pretty easy to decide to wind down the racing.
|Main pic: Mike Webb during the 1989 NZ championship on a Yamaha TZ250. Smaller pics, left to right: 1987 Production race, Yamaha FZR1000. 1988 street circuit, Yamaha TZ250. 1989 Australian Grand Prix Phillip Island, Yamaha TZ250. (Pics: Mike Webb).|
"Then Peter Clifford started a race team in 1992, when Dorna took over the championship. With Dorna taking over suddenly it was commercially viable to actually run a race team, whereas previously it wasn't.
"So specifically because Dorna took it over, Peter Clifford and Bob MacLean started WCM and it happened that during the off-season in New Zealand I'd decided I wasn't going to race anymore.
"On my way home from the last race I dropped in to see Peter Clifford, just to say 'hi' and have a cup of tea, and he said 'we're starting a race team! Come to Europe and help us'. And I said 'alright!'
"That was that and I was a crew chief for 500cc Yamaha teams for the next ten years."
You went straight in as a crew chief?
"Yeah, well there were only two mechanics, we shared all the work, but someone had to hold the clipboard! We used to have fun as a private team.
"Then after a few years with Peter and Bob at WCM, I spent one year in Superbikes because a good friend of mine - Simon Crafar - had got a factory Kawasaki ride. 'Please Mike come and help out', so I did that for one year and very quickly went back to GPs and was lucky enough to sign up with Wayne Rainey's team.
"Wayne had just come back from his injury and was running the Yamaha team. So I joined Team Rainey and from then on, up until the last year of the 500s, I worked with the factory Yamaha team as a crew chief."
Which riders did you work with at Yamaha?
"Norick Abe, when I first started with Wayne. Then when Wayne basically sold the team to Yamaha and went back home, it became Marlboro Yamaha run by Yamaha Japan and I was working with Carlos Checa. So those two riders in the factory team."
|Norick Abe at Rainey Marlboro Yamaha, 1997-1998. (Pics: Gold&Goose).|
What are your main memories of working with Abe, Checa and Rainey?
“Well first Wayne, what a privilege to work with that man and his team. Not just the legendary stuff, three times world champion and all of that knowledge and skill, but the fact that he is a genuine good guy with a great sense of humour.
"To have him in the garage was a huge help to the riders and really lifted every one of us in the team. The team spirit was amazing. I still keep in touch now that he's involved in running the MotoAmerica national series in the US, and he's as passionate as ever about the racing and making sure everything is done right.
"Norick was probably the nicest motorcycle racer I have ever met. I mean a genuine real nice guy. His talent was incredible, in the true sense of the word, meaning sometimes it was hard to believe. However it was also frustrating at times, especially for him, because he had this amazing talent but he wasn't always able to feel right on the bike.
"It was like he was an artist; some days were incredibly good and the talent just flowed, but there were also bad days when nothing seemed to work. When everything felt right to him, it was amazing to watch.
"Carlos was another super nice guy but there was also the hint of the fighter, the matador, in him. He trained hard, raced hard and a little crashing was never going to slow him down. Amazing feel on the motorcycle, he was always the fastest guy on track when conditions were difficult, like half-wet or a strange surface, he just used his ability and confidence to the maximum.
"We struggled at times to give him a bike he felt comfortable on, but he never stopped putting in 100%, and when everything came together he was brilliant."
|Carlos Checa, Marlboro Yamaha Team, 1999-2001. (Pics: Gold&Goose).|
Where did you go after Yamaha?
"When 500cc changed to MotoGP in 2002 there was a huge staff change inside of Yamaha, with the new bikes and new everything. I left Yamaha at that stage and it just so happened that Jack Findlay had retired as Technical Director, so I moved in and filled that role.
"I did ten years as Technical Director and then when Paul Butler retired as Race Director, it was 'Mike, you're Race Director'."
Do you think the range of roles you've had, and also having been a competitor yourself, helps in doing your job now?
"It's a huge thing. It helps so much that I've got a bit of an idea of what they are feeling on track. But because my racing experience is so long ago now, I rely on Loris Capirossi a lot in Race Control for up-to-the-minute MotoGP riding: 'A rider just did that, then that' - was it intentional or a natural reaction? I've got an idea, but sometimes for example Loris will say, 'no, in that position you have to roll off the throttle'.
"So for the real, clear detail Loris is great. But for the general feeling of what happens on a racetrack and what racers are trying to do, I've got enough experience for that. Also, because of those roles over the years with various teams - not always working on the organisation side - you end up knowing most people in the paddock.
"People know who I am and I know who they are. There's respect both ways. That helps a lot."
|Mike Webb, Race Director, Qatar 2016.|
You also know the kind of information teams need and when they need it…
"Exactly. I've been that crew chief thinking, 'what are those idiots in race control doing!' We always try to be clear and consistent about what's going to happen, for example if a race is stopped and restarted."
Do you get chance to ride a motorcycle now, between all of the travel for MotoGP?
"Well, my riding is pretty limited these days and certainly no racing, but in some ways I've gone back to my roots of dirt bikes. I have a trials bike at home in Andorra which is the perfect place for a bit of rock climbing in the mountains, and there are great tracks just outside my back door. I also have a KTM Adventure bike so I can do a bit of back roads touring and see the countryside around Europe.
"When I visit family and friends in New Zealand, my friends there always have a gravel road adventure lined-up for me in the summer, which is the perfect way to clear out the head ready for another season. I'm not really a road rider, but I have a handful of old '70s Japanese bikes in various stages of restoration, so I occasionally get out on one of those - and then remember just how bad they really were back in those days!"