Pere Riba is chairman of an exclusive club. The World Supersport race winner is one of only a handful of ex-racers to switch from riding on the global stage to orchestrating race wins and championships for others. Andrew Pitt, Peter Goddard, Steve Jenkner and Simon Crafar who both worked with Ohlins and current FIM technical Tefal Scott Smart are also members, but Riba is the don as he has guided Jonathan Rea to a brace of World Superbike titles.
The Spaniard is coy about his contribution to Rea’s success, preferring to hand off the accolades to his rider and the mechanics that surround him. Riba believes he is the conductor and the guys with the spanners his band, the ones who do the work, which makes Rea first violin or the man from the gocompare.com advert, depending on your cultural reference points.
To Rea, Riba is a strategist and tactician, a confidant and a friend. The close relationship is easy to see in the garage and the #team65 so often used on social media is just that; they pull together every weekend with Riba at the helm. He stresses that although the job of crew chief has changed hugely with the introduction of electronics and the reams of data that go with it, the most important part has not – the relationship with the man twisting the throttle and the trust that goes with it.
“The most important is that the rider must be 100% concentrate to ride the bike. To think in the point of riding, open the throttle, the speed, the sense of each corner and look where is the bump in the track, this is the job of the rider. He doesn’t need to be thinking, ‘Ok I’m going to tell how is the spring or soft the spring in the level we are’. Ok maybe we go to a lower level and the rider is sometimes better than the guys who are next to them but in our level I believe this is what you have to create between crew chief and rider, to understand each other in every different situation,” Riba told Bikesportnews.com.
“Sometimes just when I see he is angry or not happy or whatever I know it’s because he is not riding well and he knows it, or the bike is not working well. This is very, very important, the relationship and understanding each other and not only with the crew chief but also with the mechanics because if you go to the bike and one time you have a problem with the brake and the bike has a problem all of the time they make a decision and I believe Johnny have one of the best mechanics, have long experience and attendance and you have to be really precise with everything because even really small is important and even the way to work as a person. With Johnny he’s really nice, I am so happy, this is also important for me because I can forget 100 per cent what the crew is doing, I’m here with you and they are doing everything we need, I don’t need to think about, they are much better than me and what I can say to them is also very important. “
Riba was a rider with an eye for the technical, moving quickly from inside the helmet to getting his hands dirty, especially with Nick Morgan’s MSS mob in British Supersport.
“When I was a rider I already was very curious and really liked suspension, chassis and I always like. Now for riders it’s important to give feeling to us, you know, feedback, what the feeling is, but they don’t need to say chassis is rigid or soft or the spring is soft or hard or the bike is whatever because we have more tools like data to improve the bike, even sometimes without comment from the rider but years ago it was different. We had no data, laptops so I was coming from that. At the end of my career there already was some data, some electronics, not much, but I really like to understand when I was changing the bike what is happening and what it is doing. Then because I was very interested and like to understand why the reason I seemed to begin to involve myself with the crew chief or the person who was helping me. Then I just learn a lot because it’s something a like, if it’s something you like in life then it’s more easy. Then I was just trying to learn and learn and learn.
“When I was in British Supersport and also my last years and with Nick you could talk with him but I was telling them we need to do this and that with the chassis and Supersport you had no electronics so it’s nearly all in the chassis. When I start to race in Supersport with Kawasaki in 2003, I went to Japan to make a test with them and all the engineers were there and straight away when I test the bike my information I gave to them was very clear and they really, really appreciated my comments. Even when I say the bike is like this or like that but I believe if we go this way the bike will improve because it’s already in my racing line.
“This was all engineers so this is good and from that point I was riding but at the same time I was doing testing for them, especially the 600 and 1000 and I create a close and tight relationship with all the engineers and just step by step working with them. From that point I start to understand and to learn, not only about chassis but many, many more things, more deeply technical and I start to understand more about the engine parts, which effect is making the inertia, many, many things. Then I work with them until 2007, that was my last year in World Supersport but from 2003-2007 I was doing testing for them, racing and testing. Then 2008 only testing, 2009 only testing and same time work in racing not as a rider but as advisor.
“In 2010 one of the Japanese we meet each other and spend hours and hours talking because he’s a real engineer - 13 times World Champion working with Biaggi, with Rossi, with Nakano, with everybody, he’s an engine engineer with 40 years in racing and when we meet we talk the same language and really gel together. For me it was fantastic because I can ask and ask and ask and I can learn and learn and learn, he was my teacher. Then I spent hours and hours and start to learn about the engine then he proposed to me to do a project but I said with my character, with my knowledge, with my experience in racing I believe I could do it but I need the right tools. I need a good guy from suspension, good electronics guy, good mechanics because as a crew chief finally the main job is to manage the rider, the brain of the rider and then to take decisions and organise, this is the most important, of course I have to understand a little bit about everything but I don’t need to be the best about everything, you need the best people to use them. I said, ‘Ok if you give me good tools I’m sure I can do it’. “
Riba’s first job was with Joan Lascorz in World Supersport and then to World Superbikes. His tragic crash at Imola brought at end to a promising career and Riba was given French youngster Loris Baz to steer.
“Loris was very good because he was young, 18 years old when he started to race with us and it was quite good because with Loris I used my experience as a rider to teach him how to ride these kind of bikes. I was more focussed to teach him the technical things, was very good, I really learnt a lot and really enjoy a lot.
“Then Johnny comes and I work with him. With Johnny he is different, he’s another rider but he’s very good because Johnny’s giving comments and concentrate to ride the bike and everyday trying to learn something new, trying to go forward. I have many, many, many years in racing so this helps in many situations and to manage different situations. I guess my best point because I was on the bike, I was a rider and when the rider is talking I’m with him in the bike and for me it’s very, very easy to understand what is happening in the bike. Every time is more easy because I’m learning. The most important is to understand the rider, you need plenty of time, it’s no good just doing one test or one day or one weekend, you need a little bit of time because each rider is demanding different things, riding style, approach to the test, Friday morning is improving, how quick they go to the limit, every rider is different and this is most important to understand. When we speak, I’m riding with him on the bike and when he’s saying, ‘I’m right in the corner braking like this I have this or that or the bike is not turning’ it’s more easy for me to understand and then when I know what the rider’s style is requesting with the data it is more easy.”
Rea isn’t a rider prone to tantrums but even with the crew he has around him, the Castletown man is still an information sponge, says Riba.
“The relationship between crew chief and rider is one of the key points I believe. I remember very well when we did the first test in Jerez with Johnny, he jumped on the bike and we start with a base bike position. I say go make some laps, we have to start to understand each other. I knew Johnny from British, etc, then he comes in, make the comments, I check the data and then I start to make some change. First of all you have to look for the position of the rider on the bike because it’s most important. Then I say, ‘Ok go’. He said, ‘What did you do, Pere? I said, ‘You want to know? Well, II did this and this but don’t worry, you just go.’ ‘No Pere, because I like to know what you making the bike because for me it’s important to know and understand.’ ‘Ok, no worries.’
“I used to work with Loris and with Loris he never knows nothing about the bike. Every time he was on the bike he was going forward, but no problem, 100% no problem I tell him. We spend one day and at the end of the day, finish, no more questions, because every time he was going on the bike, the bike was better and better and better and this is the most important. He must trust what I am doing, mechanics, electronics, team, it’s very important and he said, ‘Why do I need to know if I’m just talking and I tell my feeling and then the next time I go out the bike is better and better and better’. Johnny will say he’s looking for this or that, blah blah blah, but his confidence in me is most important. “
And then there is the other side of the garage, Tom Sykes and Marcel Duinker. Riba wouldn’t be drawn on the relationship between himself and Sykes’ main man but he believes Sykes today is at his peak because he is being pushed by Rea.
“The best Tom ever is now. You can take the papers, you can take the results, you can see lap times consistently everything better, much better than 2013 when he won the championship. There is only one reason: Mr Jonathan Rea is here, and now he make people really crazy because can you imagine you are in Kawasaki for five years and you win one championship, everyone working for you, you are god and then comes someone from another place and from first ride to the last one it is just kill, kill, kill, kill!
“I’m impressed because Tom is doing very well but because he give the power to us more and more and now he’s riding fantastic, he’s going quicker. Kawasaki make a good job on positions to take them both for two more years because as you know the first enemy is your teammate. When I was a rider I’d go in and the first thing I was doing when I looked at the timing screen - you didn’t look to the top or the bottom - you just look where is him. If he is third and you are second then it’s ok, or six and five, it’s ok, no problem. Team-ate is always the first enemy, 100 per cent and this counts for both, and now I believe Tom is in his best moment.”
Rea and Sykes have pulled in different directions with the 2016 ZX-10R. It was designed with less engine inertia, which suits the point-and-squirt style of the Huddersfield rider. Rea and Riba had to do a lot of head-scratching to make it function as Rea wanted, more inertia to suit his high corner speed style. In the end, a generator was added to the crank and now Sykes will also have to have one to meet new rules brought in next year. However, it might be the world’s smallest… Changes to the throttle butterflies and other mandatory alterations have brought Kawasaki to the ZX-10RR special, which Rea and Sykes will champion. Is the new, new bike going to be a help?
“For us they make some changes in the engine, a little bit more easy looking for power and things like that. I think chassis is the same. I think for Superstock would be good and Superbike OK but not massive, I think we’ll have to do our normal job you know. We have next year the biggest thing is that now we are using double throttle butterflies but next year just single.
“I believe for Johnny this will be good because our actual system if you can divide two and two you have much more ways to work with to control the power, to control the anti-wheelie, to control many, many things. If it’s one then you have to look for different strategies. This means if you have double the electronics helps to control more, the power, the delivery, engine brake, traction control, everything because you have more things to adjust. When it’s one, it’s less, this means the correction from the throttle. With one, the rider must be more sensitive and Johnny is unbelievable with the control and understanding about how the power is coming. If you see how Johnny brakes, how he controls the brake is very impressive. Also finding the limit. After two laps on Friday morning he’s already running the pace. Look always, he’s riding within the limit, for him it’s very easy and quick.
“Every rider have different request you know, inertia is affecting in many different places in entry corner but also exit corner, if you go with light inertia the engine becomes more aggressive but the power comes quicker because it’s feeling quicker. But this makes the bike more aggressive, it’s changing a little bit of grip, many, many things. Depending rider request and riding style you can play a little bit with that and Tom is requesting a much lighter inertia because he is braking late, stopping the bike and turning in, always ‘stop and go’. Johnny is different, his braking is strong, still good but keeps more corner speed, it’s different, not better not worse, just different.”