Last year, in his first season as Team Manager for Yamaha Factory Racing, Wilco Zeelenberg was the man behind the scenes making some major decisions for Jorge Lorenzo.
The ex-MotoGP rider of the Netherlands helped Lorenzo achieve his first-ever title in the premier class, which also came with record-breaking stats such as the Spaniard garnering the most points of any MotoGP rider in a single season.
This relationship between Zeelenberg continues in 2011, and there are still many challenges facing the Yamaha Factory Racing team, regardless if Lorenzo is the reigning champ.
Following is an interview with Zeelenberg courtesy of Yamaha Factory Racing.
Q. How does it feel to be settling into your second season with the team?
WZ: “It’s a big change compared to last year. When you start your first season everything has to be worked out a little bit, you have to get to know each other a little bit better. Finally after a season like 2010 you build up a very good relationship with the rider and with the team. You share lot of good moments together that builds up your bond. The start of 2011 wasn’t easy I have to admit, we knew each other very well as a team but we were a bit worried about the level of the competition so it wasn’t an easy start.”
Q. How different was you role when you started last year compared to previously as manager in the Yamaha World Supersport Team?
WZ: “It was very different. I’d talked with Yamaha Motor Racing’s Managing Director Lin Jarvis about what my role was; to make more of a team out of Jorge’s side of the garage.
“Valentino Rossi was on the other side and he had his crew sorted really well, the right ide of the garage was more difficult, we have different strong characters, and after the previous team manager left, that was also big struggle for the rest of the team so we needed to fit in where we were missing strength. I have to admit it wasn’t easy but I think we managed quite well last year to keep everybody in their own roles with their strong characters but fitting along with the rider and team set up in line with the structure of Yamaha.”
Q. What is the focus of your role?
WZ: “That varies; the first priority of course is to get the guys working in their positions as soon as possible at the weekend. Ramon Forcada is great, I don’t have to worry too much about this as he has lots of experience. I ask him sometimes about the status and set up but he always has a good plan.
“I like to keep my finger on the pulse from that point of view. As soon as the rider rings a bell about an issue I highlight it but when they are all talking the same thing and I can see on the track that they are right then I leave it up to the crew chief. As soon as I sense difficulties I start to interact in the communication. Normally I try to keep away from that and keep to listening as they are very professional and are usually in the right direction.”
Q. What are you looking for on the track when you watch Jorge riding?
WZ: “I’m looking to see what difficulties Jorge has in certain sections of the track compared to other riders. If he’s fast and also faster than the rest then it’s easy to see that he’s going well, when he is struggling I can easily pick that up to and come back to the pit to input my thoughts to the discussion.”
Q. How do you physically see those things on the track?
WZ: “You see everything together but it’s quite hard to explain. You listen to the RPM of the bikes as they go through corners, You look at the lean angle which they have to do to make the corner, if Jorge needs the whole track to make the corner with the speed he is doing, is he able to improve with the same set up / package? That’s what we struggled with a little bit at the beginning at the Qatar Test, the Saturday or Sunday was quite ok but he was at the limit of the package and riding well.
“But when the wind came up which didn’t help him a lot he had to turn the bike more but it wasn’t possible so then he started to struggle; I could see on the track that he needed a better turning bike. We figured that out on the last day of testing on the Monday. So, we made some changes in the first free practice on the Thursday night and Jorge was straight up there on the time sheets. He felt a lot better on the bike so from there on we looked forward.”
Q. What insight do you bring to the team as an ex-rider?
WZ: “Sometimes Jorge isn’t sure what is going on, I can hear his explanation and see what he’s doing on the track and how the bike is behaving so I can help to translate that for his Crew Chief Ramon.”
Q. Any particular track you are pretty excited about getting to this season?
WZ: “Of course Jerez because it’s the first of Jorge’s home rounds of the season and he won there last year. For myself it’s Assen, there are many spectators there from my country so that has a special thrill for me. The other would be Laguna Seca. It’s not the best track in the world but the atmosphere is really nice and it’s California!”
Q. Away from the racetrack what keeps you busy?
WZ: “I have run a race school for fourteen years now. We try to teach every level of rider, from beginners to more professional racers, especially younger ones. I believe we can really make a difference for some and we’ve helped quite a few Dutch champions. At the moment we are riding with Raymond Schouten, who was 13 or 14 when he started with us down in Cartegena.
“This year’s Dutch Superbike Champion also trained with us. The riders spend a week with the school and we try to lead them through and bring them on. It’s great fun, and our focus is spread across our whole group so it doesn’t matter if you are fast or slow, you get the same attention.”
Q. Are you developing a run of working with World Champions from Cal Crutchlow in World Supersport to Jorge Lorenzo in MotoGP?
WZ: “The worlds are very different, but when the riders jump from the bike, they say the same things whatever category you are in. When Jorge jumps off his M1 he says the same thing as my 17yr old son who rides in a local national championship at the end of a qualifying session. They have the same problems if they are slow!
Q. Is your son following in your footsteps?
WZ: “No, I wouldn’t say that. He’s very keen on finishing his school, which I think is a good thing. He wants to get his qualifications. Having said that, for the track time he gets his riding is pretty good. At the moment his focus is a lot more on school, he likes bikes but it’s not his whole focus. He does share a love of twitter with Jorge though!”
Q. You’ve been with Yamaha a long time now?
WZ: “This year will be my tenth season with Yamaha as a non-rider but I’ve ridden Yamahas for few years as well! They have always treated me very well. They’ve given me the opportunity to continue with my work in racing. When I stopped riding it was Laurens Klein Koerkamp, The Racing Manager for Yamaha Motor Europe who gave me the opportunity to become a technical coordinator.
“My focus at school was working on bikes as a mechanic so I like the mechanical and technical side of working on a motorcycle. From that point on I’ve been involved at a lot of levels from local championships up to Superbike. When I wrapped up the World Supersport Championship in 2009 I was given the opportunity to move to MotoGP and become the team manager for Jorge.”