(Jeremy was a local road racer and Phoenix member in the 1970’s. The following story was written by Hamish Cooper and printed in The Advertiser on 31 March 2012)
AT heart, he’s a country boy from the Adelaide Hills, but in the high-tech world of motorcycle racing Jeremy Burgess is king.
THERE’S a valley in the Adelaide Hills where stringybark trees frame an open paddock in which a large steer is grazing in waist-high grass. Through it flows a meandering creek which feeds a dam. Farther down the valley, a man with tousled hair and dressed in jeans and RM Williams boots is tinkering with a recalcitrant bore pump.
It’s a scene typical of many small acreages in the Hills, but what makes this one remarkable is that the man fixing the pump is one of the world’s most respected motorcycle engineers. Jeremy Burgess grew up in this valley and still calls it home, but has spent the past 32 years helping steer three men to the motorcycle Grand Prix world championship. While last week he was breathing life back into a broken pump in between retoring a classic 1964 Mark II Jaguar in his Adelaide Hills garage, next week he’ll be sitting in front of a bank of computers in Qatar milking more performance out of one of the fastest two-wheeled machines on the planet.
Burgess, or JB as he is used to being called, is described by motorsport commentators as a “god maker”, “kingmaker”, “master tuner”, “master mechanic” and “trusted wingman”. All the accolades are true: he’s delivered 14 world titles, including 13 as crew chief with Australians Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan and flamboyant Italian Valentino Rossi. But in a sport fuelled by millions of corporate dollars and where technology is god, JB continues to apply the principles he brought with him from his secluded Hills valley – the ability to solve a problem on the spot using the sharpest tool at his disposal: his ability to think laterally.
STAND behind Ducati’s Desmosedici MotoGP bike as it starts up and your chest is hit with cannon-shot blasts from the open exhausts. Clustered around it are technicians wearing ear protection to dull the relentless violence of the unmuffled engine. It sounds like a wounded monster and this raw machine lives in the equivalent of an intensive care ward. Every function is monitored with a variety of computer wizardry.
Presiding over this controlled mayhem is that tousle-haired bush plumber, but today he’s wearing the immaculate fire-engine-red Ducati corporate uniform. He is the crew chief. His mission is to turn this motorcycle into a race winner. JB and his team have only a few hours to achieve this in a series of qualifying sessions before the big event on any given Sunday.
“In simple terms, the rider talks to me about his experience on the track and I direct changes and correct the issues to enable him to go faster,” says Burgess. “While we are doing this the designers at the factory are carrying out an evolution of the bike based on our feedback.”
But the job is much more complicated than he makes it sound. The crew chief is a direct link between the racers and the factory that makes that racing bike. There is a small army of technicians involved, including suspension, brake and engine management specialists. They are all tweaking specifications that Burgess brings together. This is prototype racing in its purest form.
It takes special riders to push the boundaries of these machines. JB has worked with the best of the recent era of motorcycle Grand Prix racing but none has formed a more lasting partnership with him than Valentino Rossi. The lanky Italian has won 105 GP races, second in history only to fellow Italian folk hero Giacomo Agostini with 122. He has been world champion nine times – and seven of those were with Burgess in the garage. The only other partnership in motorsport that rivals Rossi and Burgess is Formula One Grand Prix great Michael Schumacher and his technical director Ross Brawn. They achieved five consecutive titles (and seven overall).
Rossi, 33, and Burgess, 59 next month, began their partnership at Honda in 2000, then moved to Yamaha in 2004. Last year they started the final chapter in both their careers at Ducati.
It’s easy to see their partnership in action. After Rossi has blasted a few laps of the track he returns to the garage, climbs off the bike and heads straight for JB. They huddle down in a corner and JB jots down information on a clipboard that will later be cross-referenced with computer readouts from the bike’s onboard computer.
It’s far more high-tech than when Burgess first started this job in the 1980s. A lower level of technology in the two-stroke era meant he was in charge of weekend-long engine rebuilds and wholesale changes to the motorcycle. Now the factory sends out sealed four-stroke engines that can’t be worked on. Modern technology means computer keyboards have largely replaced spanners.
But the key to success has stayed the same. It is the ability to understand exactly what the rider requires and relay that back to the factory in a concise manner. In just one season at Ducati, changes have ranged from a simple alteration of the riding position to suit Rossi’s frame to a complete redesign of the Desmosedici for this year to address major steering problems. “Last season the front tyre didn’t bite and pull the bike around the corner,” JB says, describing in 14 words what the world’s best MotoGP commentators spent thousands saying. When any motorcycle rider attacks a corner, trust and confidence resides in a state of feeling safe, while on the edge. Like a wave surfer or skateboarder, many motorcyclists spend a lifetime finding that perfect corner.
Those 14 words from JB sum up the essence of motorcycle riding. They also explain why Ducati is prepared to abandon its design traditions. This year it will give Rossi and Burgess only the second all-new version of the Desmosedici since it entered MotoGP racing in 2003.
MUCH of the success Burgess has achieved as crew chief is due to his ability to solve issues as they arise. Growing up on a rural property in the Hills helped him hone these skills. “Our family moved up here in 1955 and you could say Dad, who worked at the ABC, was the first hobby farmer,” says Burgess. It was a simple country life but they were a high-achieving family. “Out of this family came a doctor, a lawyer and 14 world championships … with no private education,” JB says proudly. His mother juggled housework while developing a career in teaching.
In the 1960s even middleclass parents didn’t add house extensions for the kids. So teenager Burgess slept in a built-in veranda. “There was a Che Guevara poster on one wall, an Easy Rider poster on the other and I had all these clippings from motorcycle magazines pasted up,” he says. Burgess undertook menial work, such as sinking water bores and driving forklifts, to finance his own racing career in the 1970s. At the peak of his career he was racing a pure Grand Prix bike he owned, a Suzuki RG500. “I was never going to be an international Grand Prix racer, though,” he says.
In a spur-of-the-moment decision he went to Europe in 1980 “to see the world”. In London he found work as a race mechanic. Then he was an understudy to legendary tuner and crew chief Erv Kanemoto in American Freddie Spencer’s amazing 250cc-500cc world double in 1985. JB guided Gardner to his title in 1987 before combining with Mick Doohan for five consecutive championships. Then along came Rossi, a 20-year-old superstar.
A decade later the pair is facing the biggest challenge of their careers. They moved from dominant Honda to underperforming Yamaha, transforming that bike into a world beater in its first season. So far the move to Ducati has been an exercise in frustration. Once Rossi expected to win races, last season he had to settle for a place in the top six. Early tests have the team talking more positively about this season, which begins in Qatar next Sunday.
Last season was tough for Burgess personally as well as professionally. He spends 600 hours a year sitting in planes flying between Grand Prix races and the Hills. This means his wife, Claudine, and two teenage daughters have developed a self-reliant existence in his absence.
That all came crashing down in June with a phone call at the Assen race in the Netherlands. “Claudine said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was having some more tests done,” he says. “A day or so later I was at Mugello (Rossi’s biggest race meeting of the year at his home track in Italy) when another call came through saying she was about to have a mastectomy. In typical male fashion I had initially thought, ‘yeah, a small growth requiring a small operation,’ but it turned out it was a particularly aggressive form of the cancer.” Burgess immediately flew home. “As a result of the quick medical action the prognosis is excellent but there is still a way to go,” he says.
A tough couple of years are also ahead for JB on the work front. Although Rossi was tipped to retire at the end of this season, there are reports that he may continue for another two years if the season with Ducati shows promise. JB doesn’t smother these rumours. “Rossi loves the whole racing experience,” he says. “Don’t forget that Mick Doohan was still winning world championships in his early 30s.” There in no dispute that when Rossi retires, so will Burgess. “I’m too old to take on a younger rider,” he says.
JB looks back up the valley as he tucks his pump-fixing tools under his arm. The tool kit comprises a junkyard-era hacksaw, an old King Dick adjustable spanner, a dribbling tub of plumber’s pipe adhesive and a rag to mop up the mess. JB’s MotoGP crew members often joke that you never want to give the great man a spanner because it can be ugly to watch and you never know what the end result will be.
But today that ancient bore pump is fixed, so that’s another job ticked off the list before JB heads back to the high-tech, high-octane world of MotoGP.
Wikipedia site for Jeremy Burgess
Footnote: After many attempts, Jeremy was finally made a Life Member in 2014