The US GP at Laguna Seca naturally saw the American riders in the limelight, which placed even more pressure than usual on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. With two home riders - Ben Spies and Colin Edwards - expectations were running very high of Team Texas. And so on Saturday morning, after the FP2 session but before qualifying, we sent MotoMatters.com's man on the scene, Jensen Beeler - moonlighting from his day job as editor of the outstanding website Asphalt & Rubber - to catch up with Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal. Poncharal talked to Beeler about the team's expectations for the race, about the possibility of Spies ending on the podium or even winning a race before the season is out, about Spies' future with Yamaha, about the future of Colin Edwards and about the difficulty of finding riders to replace one or both of the men currently riding for the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. Here's what Poncharal had to say.
Jensen Beeler: Obviously you had a very good day today, Ben was 5th, Colin was 7th, fastest satellite team ...
Herve Poncharal: Yesterday afternoon and this morning, I think we've done really well. For sure, there a lot of people in the paddock who are stopping me and telling me "you're going to win this race!" or "you're going to be on the podium!" I think for sure we would love to win this race, we would love to be on the podium, but we have to be realistic. Already, to be 5th and 7th like this morning is a really good achievement. Both riders are riding really strong, really well.
Of course we were expecting Ben to do really well. And he is doing well. But the big thing for me here is for the very first time this season, I've seen Colin pushing, I've seen Colin with a smile, and I've seen Colin doing really well. So this is good, because so far, Ben has been doing extremely good and Colin was struggling a bit this year.
You know, we're a team, Colin has been a team player for quite a lot of seasons, this is the third season we've been together, he's been really good with us, and, you know, you like to have your two riders together, so, I'm really pleased with what has happened so far, it's only FP2, Saturday morning, and as we could see, all year long, qualifying is very important, position on the grid is very, very important. It's difficult to pass, and if you don't start with the front runners, by the time you have passed the guys in front of you, it's too late. Clearly it is essential for us to be top 6, which is first or second row. It will be difficult, as we can see, but at least if we can have one of them on the second row and one of them on the third row, this is the mission of today. So far, we are happy, but it's only free practice.
JB: Obviously, Ben and Colin know the track very well, it's their home crowd, they seem to get along very well as teammates, does that add to a positive mental aspect?
HP: Sure, sure. You know, especially with Ben, last weekend and a lot of races this year, for him he had to learn the track. Which means Friday afternoon is almost wasted in terms of working on the bike setting, because the main thing was for him to go round and learn the track. That was difficult.
He's been doing extremely well, but clearly, to be on a track he knows is a plus. I don't think this is a big bonus for him or Colin, because now all the other competitors know the place very well too. For sure, year 1 we all remember Nicky and Colin, you know? But I don't think now this is a big advantage. If there is an advantage, it is more the good pressure from the media, from the fans, from the family, from the friends, and you know both Colin and Ben are both very patriotic, they are really supporting their flag and they have an extra motivation for sure. But I don't think the knowledge of the track now is any more a big bonus.
JB: Obviously there's been some complaints from Colin and Ben about the Yamaha not having as much power compared to the factory bikes...
HP: You know I've always said that I didn't really agree with and support that. Because, clearly, you always want more. Every rider wants more, more acceleration, more top speed, better handling; and that's the game, this is what we're doing. But, we have to remember that the past two years we were the first independent team by far. That means Yamaha supports us quite well.
On Ben's department, this is very clear, he's got a two-year deal with Yamaha Japan; he's in year one, which is his learning year, in an independent team which is Tech 3. So far, he's been doing quite well. He's 8th in the championship, 16 points from 4th position, so everything is still quite possible, especially because in the second part of the championship he will know many more tracks than in the beginning. And he will know more MotoGP, the M1, the Bridgestone tires, etc etc. We must not forget that already, he has a podium. And he started I think 7th or 8th, and he has been catching and passing factory Ducatis and factory Hondas.
So you know, you cannot say that the bike is not good. It's never good enough, but as I said before, Ben is in a learning year. And even with the best of the best, still he has to cope with understanding the Bridgestones, understanding the MotoGP bike, learning all the tracks. He was not in a position that he was going to win the championship in year one. So I think so far, everything is on schedule.
JB: You're hitting those milestones you set out at the beginning of the season.
HP: Yes, and I'm sure there is plenty more to come from Ben, because as I said, he's much more a MotoGP rider now than four or five months ago. And I have a lot of trust and faith in his capacity to do better and better at every race, to be ready next year to for sure have his first real MotoGP season then.
JB: Do you think it's unreasonable for people to expect a podium or victory here at Laguna Seca or at some point during the season?
HP: No! He's done one already [Spies scored a podium at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone], so why not here? It will be tough, when you look at the time from yesterday and this morning. We're very happy as we said before because he's 5th, but 5th is not on the podium: you've got only 3 spots on the podium. It's not impossible, and you know if you give up or you don't have big dreams, you shouldn't be doing what we do. So of course this is a possibility, but it will be difficult, because again as I said, if you look at the timesheet, there are three or four guys who are really fast. But you know, anything is possible, Ben will have extra motivation, he will push, if he's got a good qualifying position, why not?
JB: What about winning a race?
HP: Winning a race? I think on a really regular basis, which means, dry weather and no big incidents, it is never impossible, but it is going to be very, very, very difficult this year. Very difficult. But again as I said, we're here to dream, and, you know, maybe it will happen here on Sunday. I don't want to say it's impossible, because you will come to see me on Sunday and say "Hey! You said it was impossible and he's done it!"
But realistically? To beat Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner, Andrea Dovizioso, Valentino Rossi on the same day, it's not easy. But it's not impossible.
JB: Laguna Seca is the halfway point in the season. We have a six engine rule for the season. What's been the strategy this season as far as motor usage and planning for that long-term course in the championship?
HP: You know, each single Yamaha rider - I think it's the same for the other factories, but I can't speak about the others - we had a batch of three engines that went through scrutineering and were sealed in Qatar. And so far, we've been using this three-engine batch. So we are on schedule, we don't have any... I mean nobody is 100% safe, especially when you see what happened at the Sachsenring last week with Jorge, but so far, everything seems to be working like it's supposed to work. And Yamaha brought for us a small engine upgrade, which is very welcome, which here is maybe not that crucial, because the track is a short track and the speed is not very high, and everybody is trying more to calm the engine down instead of pushing it. But at some other tracks, like the next one in the Czech Republic, it will be more welcome.
JB: It's more horsepower?
HP: Yes, it's a better engine spec, so for sure, a better engine spec means more power.
JB: Is there any sort of strategy as far as when you pull in your next motor, or when you use a fresh motor? We saw the two races where Ben did very well, the motors he was operating on had very few sessions on them? Was that by strategy?
HP: Of course. You always try to play so you get the fresher engines for the race. So as I told you before, we have three engines at the moment to use, and almost every session, we change engines, to have a rotation which is helping each engine to get the same mileage, but we are always keeping the fresher engines for the race. But this is done everywhere, it's not very complicated.
JB: So you don't say, "Well, Ben is very fast at Assen, we'll give him a fresh engine there?"
HP: No, no. Because also you know, all the engines we have are still within the mileage they can do, and there is not so much difference. It's more for safety than for performance.
Now is the time that we will have new engines coming, and hopefully with a better spec. Yamaha is working hard, like everybody. On the dyno in Japan, they are trying, trying, trying. But this year, the mission is a bit more difficult, because you need to have the real ability, and the power, sometimes. But I think everybody did well, because the lap times and the speed are everywhere at least the same or a bit better than last year, and we are lasting a lot more, so...
JB: Do you think it helps the sport overall?
HP: Yes, it is helping the sport in terms of cost. Because clearly the main cost factor in the MotoGP class and in motor racing altogether is the engine. So the fact that each rider cannot use more than six engines is helping to reduce the cost.
JB: Does it add an extra element to your preparation for the races? Is it something you really take into account?
HP: No, it doesn't change anything. We're working like before. The only thing is we have three engines, but because so far we didn't have any problems, touch wood, it was not a big headache to look after.
JB: Looking at next season, there's a lot of speculation, Valentino going to Ducati opens up a spot at Fiat Yamaha. A lot of people are saying that Ben's going there.
HP: We all know, and of course I know, that Ben is contracted by Yamaha Japan for two years, 2010 and 2011. Although nothing is written, if there is a vacant spot in the factory team, Ben would be the ideal candidate to fill that spot. Because he's proved that he's fast. He will have had his rookie year with us, where he's learned a lot, tracks, how to be a proper MotoGP rider. So for me, he's ready, and I think the factory Yamaha team have got the same opinion.
For us it will be a shame. You know to lose a rider like Ben is not easy to accept, but this is the game. We are the independent team, we are the, let's call us the B team inside the Yamaha organization, and I'm happy to be doing that, and we're here to, you know, bring the young riders, the new riders into MotoGP, and hopefully when they are good enough, they will pass up to the factory team. So, you know, that could happen.
In a way, I will be sad, because for sure, I will not find anybody to replace Ben at the same level, so it's sad for us, but I will be happy for him, because it's going to be for sure a boost in his career. Because there for sure he will have everything. Slightly better spec bike...
JB: Colin's been a big help this year, getting Ben up to speed in MotoGP, they're obviously good friends. What happens when Ben leaves? Do you see Colin sticking around?
HP: It's very early to say. You know, Colin has been a really good team player for Tech 3, absolutely, so I owe him a lot, we all owe him a lot. I think also this year, he's been really good with Ben. Although he could have seen Ben as a threat, he knows Ben is beating him, and will be faster and faster. He never had anything like an attitude that he wanted to stay on his own side of the garage, to keep things for himself, to try and challenge Ben that way. For sure, on track he would like to challenge Ben, and if he has a possibility he will do it, and he will pass him. But altogether, he's been really good to us, to Yamaha and to Ben. They have a great relationship, they spend a lot of time together talking when they're not on the bike.
And this is good for us, to have a team where your two riders are getting on so well, because in the past, especially last year, it was not that easy. And for the whole team, it's better when you have a good atmosphere in the evening in the hospitality, instead of two clans who almost don't talk to each other.
JB: If Ben does leave, who do you see stepping into his shoes?
HP: That's difficult, because clearly ... I know that the three main factories which are Yamaha, Honda and Ducati, they are the main priority for all the top riders. We have some ideas, but we have to wait that there will be official announcements to see who is factory Yamaha, who is factory Ducati and Honda, and then we will start to look at the market. But until this is clear, all the really good riders are trying and hoping they can get a slot there.
JB: Would you prefer to bring in and groom a rider from outside of MotoGP?
HP: You know, it will be very difficult for us next year, because the rider is doing almost everything. I mean in motor racing and motorcycle racing especially the rider is a key element. And you can see that sometimes, in some teams with the same equipment, the results are very different. So the rider is something that we have really to pay attention to when we select our rider.
Clearly, who has the capacity and ability to ride a MotoGP bike? It's either a current MotoGP rider, maybe a few Moto2, or World Superbike. If you look around MotoGP, it's not easy to find somebody who could replace Ben and do well - somebody available, I mean. And cheap! Cheap enough for us to afford, to have.
Moto2, you have maybe three or four names, you have Elias, you have the young guy called Iannone who is doing really well, and maybe a few others, but not so many. And Superbike; I'm not rating Ben as a Superbike rider, because he's an exceptional guy, but if you take Ben off, what has been tried in the past never really worked. So clearly, I think the only three guys that could come here are Cal Crutchlow, Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam. Because the others are more retired people from MotoGP and you don't want them back here, because they are some of them almost 40.
But there is for me still a big question mark, how can they adapt? But it's the same question mark for the Moto2 guys, because, you know, it's never easy to make the casting. Every time you take you decide to take someone from another class or another championship, we saw in the past that quite often, it can work, but it can also be a big failure. And you know, in our world, you have to avoid big failure as much as you can.
JB: When you look at all the resources available to you, do you look to someone like Colin Edwards as a person who can bring up to speed the next person who comes into the team?
HP: I think, you know, Colin for sure is still somebody we are considering for next year. I think he expressed his wish to do one more year with Yamaha and Tech 3. And, you know, now we have to wait and see, as I said before, what is going to be Yamaha's position, the sponsor's position, to see if we can afford it. But then, even if we keep Colin, we have to find another rider in case Ben is moving. Which is quite likely. But I have a lot of names, but I don't know who to pick up. So, anyway, anybody who is going to be the rider, that is going to be kind of a gamble.