Valeria Wilkes runs WMS Motorsport, a swiss team competing in MES Trophy (Trofei Motoestate) as well as providing technical services in CIV in Italy. We met her when she was searching for a Chinese rider to join her team in MES Trophy. While it was a difficult quest, we found her story in the paddock inspiring. Here we give you her stories of over 20 years in the motorcycling world.
© Photos provided by Valeria Wilkes
Back in the late 1990s, when the existence of women was so scarce in the paddock, Valeria Wilkes embarked on her journey in motorcycling in Germany. Hailing from Switzerland, she started looking for work in the paddock during her summer break between high school and college. In the two-stroke era, when electronics are not as commonly used on bikes like today, Valeria became one of the pioneers to explore data engineering, the subject that is now essential in the set-up of a bike. “In 1996, I started to work with 125cc bikes. I sent my CV to the teams and I landed an opportunity. It was still relatively easy to find work back then. I started straight away as a data engineer. At the time, the bikes were really different from what we see now. Not that many electronics on the bike, and the data analysis was very, very limited. I started with the German championships. It was good exposure to riders who were fighting their way into the World Championship. It was a good stepping stone for young riders.”
At the same time of working in the paddock, Valeria was also pursuing a degree that is extremely useful in motorsport – aerospace engineering. However, Valeria prefers to work track-side rather than in the factory as an engineer. So she leveraged what she learned through her study and crafted her skills as a data engineer. “I was also working on aircrafts while working in the paddock. In my study, I also studied electronics that were applied to aircrafts. In motorsport, the electrical system is actually much simpler than on an aircraft, and I prefer to go track-side. So I stayed track-side rather than finding a desk job as an engineer with the manufacturers. As a data engineer with the team, I work on the analysis of the tires, chassis, and engines. The ECU is like the brain of the bike. There are many layers of analysis in my work to fine-tune the performance of the bike. Depending on the championship we are involved in, I need to study what is allowed in the technical rules in terms of electronics, and apply accordingly.”
Data engineers not only work with the data, they also work with people – riders and crew chiefs. The art of working with people is just as important as analyzing the data for the common goal of making the bike go faster. “My role is to analyze the data and show the rider where they lost time, where they made mistakes, and to help them understand their comments about the bike with the data. Sometimes what they say might contradict what the data shows, my approach at these times is not to argue, but just let the data tell the story when the rider calms down. In my earlier years, I was slightly more aggressive with the riders. Now I’m smarter in the communications. It depends on the personality of the rider. If they are straightforward, I can be straightforward as well. But with other riders, I’ll find a way to say things in the middle point without blaming too much on the rider.”
With her team in the German championship, Valeria found opportunities to go into the World Champion. In 2012, she was part of the Yamaha factory team working on Ben Spies’ side of the box. “My team in the German championship had some wild card entries in the World Championship in the 125cc class. When the two-stroke era gradually transitioned into the four-stroke era, I also transitioned to Moto3 and Moto2. In recent years, I’ve also started working in the Italian championship in Moto3 as well as re-Moto3 categories.”
When I started, it’s an environment made by male engineers only. As the only woman for a few years in the environment I worked, I was respected for my work and achievements. Although I have to work 2-3 times more to earn the respect, I’m still proud of what I’ve been able to achieve. I reached MotoGP, something I thought would be nice to achieve before I got started in the industry.
In the Italian championship, Valeria didn’t stop at just being a data engineer. She founded her own team and led the team as the only female crew chief in the paddock. Besides winning championships, she also aims at helping riders from regions where motorcycling industry isn’t as mature as in Spain and Italy. “I founded my own small team to compete in the Italian championship. Last year, we fielded a rider from Ukraine who hadn’t done much racing previously. You don’t really see that many East European riders expect Czech ones, do you? He competed in the MES Trophy last year with us, this year he will continue in another championship. In the future, we would also like to see riders from China to join us. China is now leading in most things in the world, how you face the COVID-19 is setting an example for the rest of the world. Motorcycling shouldn’t just be an Italian or Spanish tradition. We want to see more different characters in the paddock.”
Being a crew chief or a manager of a team, you need to be very organized before, during, and after the event. You need to deal with the pressure from the riders and other aspects. You also need to have a big picture of what’s happening in and outside your team. Managing the budget is also a tricky thing!
Having worked in various levels of championships from national championships to the premier class in the World Championship, the biggest difference Valeria experienced is the professionalism of the people involved, which is also a point where she would like to help young riders with her experience from the World Championship. “Teams who are involved in the World Championship have high standards and are well organized. They also obviously have more budget. The riders in the GP paddock are also way more professional, even though some of them might be very young. In the national championships, some of the older riders can be more professional, but some of the really young ones still have their parents around all the time or be very attached to their parents, and the parents might get carried away. I want to bring my experience from many years in the World Championship to help riders at a lower level, help them to be more professional. It would be much easier for them to achieve good results.”
Now with over 20 years in the two-wheels world under her belt, Valeria is also looking for a new challenge – stepping into the karting scene. “I prefer always to assess the project itself. If the project is interesting, then I might do it. I worked many years ago in single-seaters for one season. It was way more complicated. But karting is complicated yet achievable.”
Valeria’s team will be in the Italian Go-kart Championship in 2023, we wish the team the best of luck in this new adventure!