He’s the cajoler and confidant of maybe the world’s greatest motorcycle racer. Less gray eminence perhaps – Santi Hernandez is mop-haired and bearded – but this man is an almost permanent fixture at the side of five-time MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez.
Marquez has broken record after record in his relatively short career and redefined what is possible in the saddle of a multi-million-dollar MotoGP bike.
Throughout the 26-year-old Catalan’s time in the premier class, Hernandez has been his shadow. Watch any MotoGP weekend and the affable 44-year-old is there, clipboard in hand, whispering advice into Marquez’s ear and marshaling the intense activity in the garage around him. The two appear inseparable; friends with an unbreakable bond.
Marquez himself speaks with obvious affection for his fellow Spaniard. “I started to work with him in 2011,” the multiple champion tells CNN Sport. “Of course, in that time, there have been great moments, bad moments, but it’s like he’s not my chief mechanic, he’s my friend.”
Like a marriage
But most friends don’t have to play the role of both good and bad cop as a world champion’s chief engineer.
“The thing is that you need to separate your personal relationship,” Hernandez tells CNN Sport.
“When I start, I don’t want to be friends with the rider, because this is a job, we’re in a professional world. Whether you’re a good friend or not, when you are with a champion, or any rider, they want the result.”
Personality counts for nothing, he says: “You can be nice, a funny guy, but at the end, if you are not doing your job well…”, Hernandez smiles, whistles and makes a gesture with his thumb, “you are out.”
The crew chief is generous enough to credit Marquez for the pair’s special bond.
“You can be with a rider for 10 years and never be a friend, the relationship is just professional. With Marc it’s different,” says Hernandez.
“But it’s not to say everything is right when we’re working; many times, we fight, many times we’re looking for what is the best way to do something, and many times we are not agreeing … but this is part of the job.”
Journalist David Emmett, one of the MotoGP paddock’s pre-eminent voices and editor of the influential MotoMatters site, has watched the relationship between Hernandez and Marquez blossom.
“It really is like a successful marriage,” Emmett told CNN Sport. “Marc trusts Santi, and Santi is open to Marc’s ideas. They spend hours every day poring over data, discussing ways of improving every aspect of racing, both at the track and at home.
“They win together, and they lose together, they accept both the praise and the blame together.”
The racing bug
Hernandez was born into the world of engineering – his father worked as a mechanic – and he raced scooters as a child. His brother raced in the Spanish championship, but the young Hernandez was more interested in soccer than MotoGP. It’s noticeable how often he uses soccer as an analogy for his work.
Gradually he started to get the motorbike bug. Then as a teenager, he got a lucky break.
While studying to be a mechanic and working in a shop, an opportunity came up to work at legendary suspension manufacturer Showa.
“They needed a young guy for an apprenticeship, and to teach him about everything about suspension, and I was lucky that I knew some people working in the world championship, and they gave me the opportunity. And now, here I am.”
The MotoGP calendar is a slog. With 19 races across five continents, teams travel more than 76,000 miles (123 kilometers) over the course of a season.
It is enough to put a strain on anyone, and Hernandez admits it can be hard.
“I have a daughter, she is living in London, I am in Barcelona; but it’s not only my daughter, I have my partner, my father, my brother, my uncles, the whole family, you need that.”
Between races the Barcelona-based Hernandez tries to make it home when he can, but it isn’t always possible.
“It depends: for example, the last three races of the season, in Asia, you go forward, because you are away for three weeks in a row,” he explains.
“Right now, I prefer to go home between races, even if it’s just for one week or five days. Of course, when I was younger, I would want to stay, because everything is new, but after 22 years, not so much.”
Even in the off-season, there is little respite.
There is a post-season test in November, an analysis of how the team has done to be conducted as well as briefing Japanese engineers in preparation for the next championship.
But, Hernandez says, rest is vital.
“It’s like the riders,” he says. “They have to stop, they cannot keep going in the gym, keep in the physical condition every day, because they need to also recover.
“Me too – you need to switch off, I mean, take two or three weeks, enjoy with the family, with friends, because this job is such a sacrifice, because you don’t do anything with friends of family, so for that reason, that time is very important to recharge the batteries.”
The Marquez era has been a golden one for Honda, and the manufacturer dominates the sport. But success, Hernandez explains, only increases the pressure.
“It’s like in soccer, when you are with a team that has to win the league, the championship, the European league, everything, if you win nothing it’s a disaster.
“Here it’s the same. When you are with a rider like Marc, every year you start the season thinking about winning the world championship, not to finish in the top five. Every time you don’t get your target, it’s not a good result.”