On Saturday 15th December, Barcelona-based daily newspaper La Vanguardia published a lengthy interview with Alberto Puig. That is in itself mildly surprising: despite being team manager of the Repsol Honda squad, Puig has little time for the media, and little interest in speaking to them. What is even more surprising is that it is a truly insightful and fascinating interview, revealing a lot about how Puig views running a MotoGP team, and what makes Marc Márquez tick.
So it is a shame that the discussion the interview has generated has centered around two of the briefest subjects Puig mentioned: his views of Dani Pedrosa, whom Puig thought had not been fully committed in recent years, and his thoughts on Valentino Rossi, whom he believed had seen his moment pass.
The old dog
Which of those generated the most controversy depended on where in the world you were. Puig's comments on Rossi were biggest in Italy, unsurprisingly. Perhaps rightly so, given the comparison Puig made between Rossi and Marc Márquez. Rossi has been a great rider who he fully respected, Puig said. He was impressed by Rossi's refusal to accept that he shouldn't be able to compete at his age, and by his undimmed desire to win. But, Puig said, "he is having a hard time accepting his moment has passed."
That refusal underlies the animosity Rossi has for Márquez, according to Puig. That animosity was not reciprocated, according to the Repsol Honda team manager. The clashes between Rossi and Márquez had been 'racing incidents', he said. "At no point in time have I seen Márquez doing anything against Rossi with malice."
The animosity was a sign of weakness, Puig said. "Like it or not, Marc is number one." Márquez was unaffected by the people around Rossi trying to stir up negative public opinion against him, Puig told La Vanguardia. "On the contrary: we have sensed his weakness in his actions."
Learning new tricks
Is such criticism justified? It is hard to see that Valentino Rossi's powers have declined. Speak to the people around him, the members of his team, and the rivals he races against, and they will tell you that Rossi is riding better than ever. His ambition drives him to keep adapting his riding style to match and beat his rivals. He finished third in the championship in 2018, and second between 2014 and 2016. Saying his moment has passed seems harsh. It's just that the level of his rivals has never been higher.
Puig's remarks about sensing weakness in Rossi's attack on Márquez may have some truth to them, but it is hard to separate out the animosity which Rossi still harbors for Márquez after the 2015 season from any anger at seeing Márquez taking over the position of undisputed best rider in the world (five titles in six seasons would seem to justify such a claim for Márquez).
Has Márquez shown any animosity on track towards Rossi? In his worst moments, Márquez has displayed a recklessness and lack of respect to his rivals, with Argentina this year being a prime example. But in that, Márquez has treated Valentino Rossi no different to anyone else on track. When the red mist descends, Márquez doesn't care who is in front of him, he just wants to get past whatever the cost. To his credit, such moments have been few and far between since Argentina.
The comments which generated the most controversy outside of Italy were Puig's remarks on Dani Pedrosa. He has worked with Pedrosa in his prime, Puig said, but he didn't understand what Pedrosa had been doing in recent years. "This year, when I worked with him, I saw a different Dani than the one I remembered." He refused to go into too much detail, but Puig did feel there was some effort lacking. "To be a champion in MotoGP, you have to some things which he didn't do." There were other riders who wanted it more, Puig said.
Pedrosa was still immensely talented, though. Pushing a bit and with only one good hand, he had shown he was capable of being inside the top five, according to Puig. But that hadn't been sufficient for the Repsol boss to want to keep him.
It was not just Puig's remarks which caused the controversy, but the response which Pedrosa posted on Facebook. In a post dripping with Pedrosa's typically dry sarcasm, the Spaniard said that he found it "curious that he [Puig] changed his opinion of me so abruptly." He would have appreciated it if Puig had told him of this resentment while he was actually in the team, rather than waiting until he had left, Pedrosa added cuttingly. Presenting such criticism now he was gone was hardly going to change his motivation, Pedrosa said.
Long time coming
The spat between Puig and Pedrosa is hardly a surprise. Puig's criticism of Pedrosa is certainly harsh, but on the other hand, Pedrosa finished just 11th in the championship this year, behind the Hondas of Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow.
On the other hand, there has been an unspoken friction between Pedrosa and Puig ever since Puig took over the role of Repsol Honda team manager. I first started hearing rumors from sources with knowledge of the situation that Puig wanted rid of Pedrosa as early as the beginning of this year. Puig wanting to keep Marc Márquez was a no-brainer. But it seems that Puig was determined to get rid of Pedrosa from the start, Pedrosa's only chance of retaining his seat coming if he had been able to beat Márquez. That has not proved possible for anyone in MotoGP, with the exception of the Movistar Yamahas in 2015.
All this drama overshadows the best part of the interview with Alberto Puig, however. La Vanguardia's reporter, Toni López Jordà, drew some real insight from the Repsol Honda team manager. When asked about Honda's winning of the triple crown, of rider, team, and manufacturer titles, Puig was blunt. "If you don't have a rider like Marc Márquez, things are complicated."
Puig was impressed by Márquez' maturity, but also by his humility. "Márquez is an antistar, he doesn't pretend to be something he isn't. He has the humility and curiosity to listen: to learn, and out of respect." He was "a genuine killer" on the bike, Puig said, "a machine programmed to go right to the limit." And capable of saving himself when he tipped a little too far over the limit. Puig didn't believe it was luck. Márquez was always trying to learn on track, that was what makes him the best.
Was Márquez the perfect rider? "Perfection doesn't exist, but he is close," Puig said. Márquez still had margin to improve with age. One of his strongest points was admitting when he had made a mistake, and working to correct it in the future. "The majority of riders never admit it was their fault," Puig said. "He is the opposite." That meant he was able to learn from his mistakes.
Puig also had interesting insights into how he would manage the team with Jorge Lorenzo joining. Having two riders at the highest level – and he had no doubt Lorenzo would soon be at the highest level, Puig said - was not something he was particularly worried about. Honda had never had number 1 and number 2 riders, and that was not about to change. Nor would Puig be playing the role of peacemaker, he said. "Many team managers try to create a situation of no conflict between their riders. To me, that's a mistake: they will never win anything."
The entire interview is worth reading, as it contained so much more than a few off-the-cuff remarks about Pedrosa and Rossi. Though it has only been published in Spanish, using an automatic translation service such as Google or Bing Translate should provide a good enough translation to get a very good insight into the thinking of a man who tends to avoid publicity as a rule.
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