Rob McElnea is the likeable, but outspoken, team manager of the Virgin Media race team, a set up that has played a major part in the way UK racing is currently run and looks. His passion for the game is without question, and he must surely rank as one of the UK’s all time greats, one of the top of TT riders even though he has only competed at the TT and Manx GP on four occasions between 1979 and 1984. By 1985 Rob was a full time GP rider, highly rated and respected, rubbing shoulders with the elite and consistently finishing in the top ten by the end of the season for the next 4 years. He returned to the domestic scene in 1991 winning the TTF1 and 750cc titles before turning his hand to team management, taking James Whitham to the top in 1993 before winning three back-to-back BSB crowns with Niall Mackenzie. On or off the track Rob is a formidable man who commands great respect; Chris Pearson went to find out a little more about him, meeting up with him and the team at their Scunthorpe HQ.
CP – How far off the “works” guys were you in BSB?
RM – Its like chalk and cheese really, we looked good, we had to keep the sponsors happy, but our budget was a fraction of that the Honda, Suzuki and Ducati boys enjoy. We got a standard R1 in a crate at the start of the year and from that we made a superbike right here in Scunthorpe. We had our own engine guys working away in the dyno room, we specify our own camshaft and engine management systems, all autonomous of the Yamaha factory, we got some help handed down from the WSB teams but this was nothing like the way the top three teams go about the job. A good example of this was the week before the a round, we had no spare frames due to a heavy crash in the first round and had to order a road going one from Yamaha Europe. Our lads set off with the bike in bits in the transporter, collected the new frame on the way down and then built the bike up before Tommy Hill then put the bike on pole. This is in total contrast to the way others work with specially built chassis that look similar to the road bikes, but are in effect one offs made to order. Of course the satisfaction level when we do pull one over on the big guys is immense, I wouldn’t change that aspect for the world.
CP – You have a history of aiding young riders why is this when surely the safer bet is stay to the well known names?
RM – I inherited the job of team manager towards the end of my riding career. To begin with it was all top riders with a great deal of knowledge, funded and controlled by the factory and UK importers. We were the best during this time however winning the UK title with Niall Mackenzie but the funding was pulled very quickly leaving me high and dry, when bike sales drop the first thing to go at Yamaha was the race budget and I realised that I needed to regain control of the way any team I managed was put together and funded. This gave me a short sharp shock in how to attract sponsors and I soon realised that the youth was more attractive to people outside of the bike industry.
CP – How hard was it to bring major players with no biking history, like Virgin into the bike racing game?
RM – It all came about around the time of the peak of Touring car racing. That racing made great TV with its clever camera angles and on board stuff, but in real life never rose to the spectacle it was on the box. I knew that if I could get people excited about bikes on the screen then once they had made it to a race weekend they would be hooked and this proved to be true. The Virgin team love the sport and are totally committed to its future.
CP – As team developing your own machines, does the lack of rider experience hamper your development process?
RM – In some ways yes but it doesn’t effect us as a team as much a it might others, in reality we don’t expect a rider to come in and tell us to adjust this by two clicks or lengthen that by an inch. Our tech guys can interpret typical rider speak like “its shaking its head here” or “I cant pick up the apex there”, so all any rider needs to do is talk us through his lap and we, along with the telemetry information, can come up with the solution most of the time.
CP – Do you still ride?
RM – Once a year! I get a ride out on the Superbikes on odd occasions and usually at Cadwell Park, my local circuit. It is a total culture shock and these days there aren’t as many straights as I recall from my days racing. Recently I rode a 600 instead of the 1000cc machine and it started to make a bit more sense, looking and feeling a bit more like the Cadwell I used to know.
CP – In what way as the game changed since your heyday?
RM – At BSB level it has certainly become more professional, arguably the best championship in the world, with serious factory support from Ducati, Suzuki and Honda. Since the BBC came on board in 1996 we have played a big, big part in the new face of the sport. Also the support acts have raised the game so it’s not just the main feature race that is worth watching, the whole show is great viewing and every class in the program is full of great talent which, in turn produces great racing.
CP – Could the governing bodies do any more to get UK riders at the highest of levels?
RM – Its tough, the way the UK race scene is set up we get riders way too late to do anything with them other than keep them on the domestic scene. We are road based race culture from the start to the finish so then getting riders on to a pukka race bike with a multitude of settings and tyre compounds like they would be faced with in GP’s is a hard thing to. Once a Brit gets to GP level he has a mountain to climb, learning the way the bikes work, tracks people, everything all in the public gaze with much expected of them.
CP – You shot up through the ranks quickly on the UK scene then appeared at GP level, how hard was that transformation?
RM – I always pushed myself hard, certainly as hard as I knew how. Once got to GP’s I was always up at the sharp end and I learned the tracks relatively quickly and easily. The domestic scene back in the early 80’s was a good place to learn the game, as tough, maybe even more so, than now, with future world champions like Wayne Gardener racing in the UK. When I made it to GP’s there was not so much of a learning curve. The other factor was the bikes, for example, the Suzuki RG500 I was racing in the UK, was a GP bike so I didn’t have to take all that in like a rider making the switch now would have to.
CP – Who is the best rider you have ever worked/ridden with and why?
RM – I partnered Eddie Lawson in 1986 and also Kevin Schwantz with Suzuki in 1988 so I would have to say that those two guys certainly made an impression, albeit for different reasons. Eddie being totally focussed and not at all interested in anything outside of racing while he was working and Kevin for being so naturally talented on the bike. Eddie earned himself a bad reputation for the way he behaved back then which wasn’t fair, he is a real nice guy when away from the track but hard as nails and totally committed when trackside. However I was fully aware that the period I rode in was a very special time and unlikely to be repeated. The bikes being so hard to ride, no social niceties like engine management or traction control, just a mutha of a fire breathing two stroke that was just as happy spitting you over the high side as it would be going in a straight line. Every one out there was a special kind of man so really they all have to be in my list. As for the best rider I have worked with as a manager the Steve Hislop has to be the most naturally talented rider I have ever met, on his day there was no one like Steve but when his head was against him then he was his own worst enemy, so as such was never consistent because of his lack of confidence.
CP – If money was no object what’s your dream team or ambition?
RM – I would love some involvement in Moto GP as, given our experience of building bikes from scratch, with little or no outside assistant, we could develop and build a machine and be up there with the other similar teams. For me though I would be happy on the domestic scene, I have personally played a major part in the success of BSB in the last ten years and I would like to continue with this, all of the teams pull together to make it work and we are proud of that achievement.
CP – Any regrets?
RM – I wish I were the same weight as Niall Mackenzie. My size and weight has always been a problem, if I had been 10 stone instead of 13 that would have made a big difference to my GP aspirations. I can’t ever recall passing anyone in a straight line I only ever did anyone on the brakes, which isn’t good when you are fighting with the best of the very best. I had to ride out of my skin on every lap of every race so crashes were frequent as the bikes were so unforgiving back then.
Rob McElnea Gallery
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