Since the end of 2008, Herve Poncharal has found himself a very busy man indeed. As head of both the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team and the IRTA representative in the Grand Prix Commission, Poncharal has had his hands full both on and off the track. With the global financial crisis impacting MotoGP so heavily, Poncharal has been especially busy finding ways to cut costs and secure the future of the championship, working in tandem with the other members of the Grand Prix Commission.
So when we had a chance to speak to Poncharal on Thursday night at Donington Park, prior to the final British Grand Prix to be run at the track, we jumped at it. We had hoped to get maybe half an hour of his time, but we got so much more than we bargained for. Like all good cub reporters, we had brought a list of questions, and had prepared ourselves mentally to go through them in the hope of getting some interesting answers. As it turned out, Poncharal had been preparing for us, too, and we ended up covering subjects as diverse as the role of an independent MotoGP team, cost-cutting in MotoGP, the Moto2 class, the proposals from the MSMA to supply cheaper engines, how tobacco sponsorship nearly destroyed MotoGP, the benefits of sponsoring MotoGP, James Toseland and Ben Spies. So wide-ranging was the interview that we have been forced to cut it up into several parts.
We started off the interview talking about the rookie rule. Or rather, the Tech 3 Yamaha boss took us to task for not understanding the importance of the rule to the satellite teams. Here's what Herve Poncharal had to say:
Herve Poncharal: I know MotoGPMatters. Maybe 5 times a day, I'm going to Crash.net, GPOne, MotoGPMatters, MCN, a French site called Caradisiac, everybody's reading each other when there is something. This is a good website; sometimes there is a little bit too much polemic - which is good, because we need to create some polemic.
But one thing I read which I thought was not too accurate was that the rookie clause was no use and no meaning, and because Simoncelli signed with Gresini and signed with Honda, it was proof that it would be useless. Not at all! Because without that rule, Simoncelli would have been with HRC. I was also talking to them, so I know very well, and if Simoncelli went to Honda it's because Japan on Honda's side got involved and Yamaha Japan didn't think they had to get involved. Anyway, because of that rule, Gresini managed to catch a top rider, even though Gresini could not afford him, because HRC wanted him. Signing Simoncelli has helped him to sign San Carlo [the Italian snack manufacturer which sponsors the Gresini team], because San Carlo was saying "I'm out of here with the result we have and the riders we have." So it helped him to sign instantly and it helped him to have the factory paying for him. So the rookie rule has been helping the independent teams.
And the reason why we had this rule, when we went to Bologna, you know, we were all like this "What can we do to save money? What can we do especially to support the independent teams?" Because clearly, everybody is suffering, but the factories are suffering less than us. So I proposed the rule - and I don't want to say this to brag about it - but anyway I think it was the only good idea that came out of all of it, because for sure when you know how important is the rider for the result in this world, when you know how important the rider is to try to secure sponsors, when you have a profile like Simoncelli, this is a big bonus.
And clearly, before that rookie clause was voted Simoncelli wanted to follow what Pedrosa, Lorenzo did, straight to a factory team! And I remember I talked to him earlier this year at Assen and he was quite happy, and then later, his manager, Carlo Pernat, told the press "Why should he go to a B team?" So for everybody, we're B! And instead of making the gap bigger and bigger, you have to make it closer and closer.
I know an independent team is not going to win the championship, because we don't have the same spec. What we want to do is at least to be competitive, to find a sponsor, to be competitive on track, and to still be alive! And not to be, say we have 20 bikes on the grid, 10 A championship and 10 B championship, and basically the second 10 are only here to fill up the grid. Anytime you talk to a rider, if he's a good rider, he says "Pfft, I'm not talking to you, you're B, I want to go to an A team."
This is what I wanted to try to change, is the mentality, because, Dovizioso followed the independent team route and it didn't prevent him from having a factory ride in year two, Casey did that too, and I think if Lorenzo had been with us last year, I don't think he would have done a lot less. Because at the end of the day, we are independent, because it's an independent company which is running this, but there are no private bikes here. It's not like in 250 or in Superbikes or in other championships; ALL the bikes here are factory supported, supported by Honda, Ducati or Yamaha even though they are in an independent team. But if Yamaha wants to give me the same treatment for Lorenzo as Lorenzo is going to have with them, they can do that, because I have a Japanese engineer in my side of the garage, so what's the difference? Only the color of the bike, the transporter which is moving a bike from one track to another.
MGPM: The danger I see in the rookie rule is that right now, in the short term, it's good for the independent teams because the independent teams say they get the publicity, they get the sponsors, but in three or four years time, maybe if a rider goes to an independent team, has some bad results and a couple of a couple of mechanical DNFs, the factories might say, "right, we won't work with with that team any more."
HP: Not at all...
MGPM: Why not just set up their own satellite teams?
HP: Because, as I told you, there are no private teams, so you have a lot of Japanese staff in the team and they can judge what is happening. I have a lot of Japanese in my team, and if for example Simoncelli would signed for me, had disappointing results, and then blamed the team, it's not a team problem.
Because at the moment, let's face reality, what does a MotoGP team or MotoGP mechanic do? He's changing the wheels, and doing the maintenance. That's all. The level of support, if the machine breaks down, it's not us, we never touch the engine, we never open the engine, you know? We are told, change the engine, we are told, do this, do that, this is the new part, this is what you have to do. Basically, a bolt which is not tight, this is the only mistake that a team can do. I don't think at the moment, any rider could say I did not have good results because the team was bad, not any more. Because there is almost no input from the team into the bike. Now, the tires, you don't have to decide, just soft and hard and that's it. Basically Bridgestone is telling you don't go for soft or don't go for hard and everybody is almost always having the same. Some with with a bad grid position, sometimes they want to gamble. What else? We have an Ohlins guy, we have a Yamaha engine management guy...
MGPM: So basically, Yamaha is telling you what settings to run on your engine, Ohlins is telling you what suspension settings ...
HP: Yeah, we work together, but we have a Yamaha engineer, from Japan, and every time the bike is out on track we have a minimum of one Japanese guy per rider, we have an Ohlins guy for the team, we have a Bridgestone guy, we have Brembo guys.
DE: So there's less and less for you to do ... Is it still interesting for you as engineers?
HP: This is complementary. This year, Moto2 is also very exciting for a lot of people, but we have to understand that with 18 races - and possibly more in the future, if you want to have more money - you can't spend all your time on developing and working on a bike and follow all the races.
So clearly now, R&D is done by Japan, by Honda, Yamaha, or in Italy by Ducati, and we are what we call in Formula One a "team d'exploitation". So OK, our field of activity has been narrowed, because of the one tire brand, because of this, because of that . But still this is exciting, because guys like Colin, James, to work on that very very high level bike, and to share with the engineers, it is still exciting.
And it is still interesting, but we have to face reality, you know. When we used to race with Olivier Jacque with a standard 250, between each race, we were on a dyno trying to modify or build an airbox, modify this piece here, this here, change the pipe, work on the carburettor. This is not possible any more, the technical level is too high.
MGPM: Is that because four strokes are inherently more complicated than two strokes?
HP: Yes, but also because now, as I said, we have 18 races, 3 or 4 test sessions, so it means our mission is to take care of the set up on a specific track with a specific rider, taking into account specific weather conditions, etc etc. This is our mission. And I think this is quite a lot of work already. And we can be feeling the past was better, but this was different. But I'm quite happy to work on such a high-tech bike, and I think any technician is. But for sure, also now to be involved in the building process of a Moto2 bike is very exciting for Guy and the rest of the team. And I think the two of them are going to make us for sure happier.
But to get back to the rookie rule, I wanted to say that I personally think that the rookie thing is going to help us, and it's not going to hurt anybody's career, and it's not going to hurt the sport or the show.
MGPM: Like I said, my fear is that the factories decide to cut out the middle man, and build their own satellite teams...
HP: The factories are richer than us, but at the moment they are (simulates someone choking). But even if they were very rich, one day they could say like Kawasaki did, "Our job is to sell bikes and racing is worth the investment or not" and they might say "No more". It depends on who is at the top of the company, if he likes racing or not, there are so many things that can happen. I don't think factories are looking to expand their financial involvement.
Read more of our interview with Herve Poncharal tomorrow.