Herve Poncharal Marathon Interview Part 4 - Spies, Toseland And Why The 800s Are Still Exciting

In the concluding part of our four part interview with Herve Poncharal, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha boss turns his attention to the performance of his own team this year, and discusses why it is so hard for an independent team to get on the podium. Along the way, Poncharal underlines the importance of tires, dismisses criticism of the 800cc switch, and talks about just how well the Fantastic Four of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa have been riding. Finally, we turn our gaze to the future, and discuss where Ben Spies is going to be next year, and who will be riding for the team in 2010.

Before reading this installment, you may want to go back and read the first part, where we discussed the rookie rule; part two, in which Poncharal talked about cost-cutting and possible new rule changes; and the third part, in which he covered sponsorship and how the riders are paid too much.

MGPM: How about the team? How do you think the team has done this year?

Herve Poncharal: You know, it's the glass half full, half empty. If I want to be positive, today Colin is 5th. In front of him are the four Untouchables - which are Valentino, Lorenzo, Casey, Pedrosa - and so we are the best of the rest. Team wise we are 4th. So we are behind the top three teams and in front of Suzuki which is a full factory team. So tonight, before the British Grand Prix starts, if you look at the classification we are first independent team rider, first independent team, and in front of the two Suzuki riders in the championship, Dovizioso, Nicky Hayden. So this is good. On the other hand, I would have liked to have that amount of points with some podiums - because we're here because we're regular - and Colin had been doing good, and James has so far not being doing what we could have expected after year one. So this is a disappointment, but ...

MGPM: Have James' problems been mainly tires, or setup or what?

HP: You know, I think every team, every sponsor in the championship we always support all the championship a lot. But at some stage, when you have a child, if you want to help him to grow, you have to tell him, "you don't do that properly". You have to say, "that's not the correct way to behave or to work" or sometimes you have to give him a clip round the ear. That doesn't mean you don't like him, that doesn't mean you don't love him, that you don't want to help him. But at some time you have to show him the road, show him the way...

MGPM: You show him the way, but he has to take it?

HP: You know, we have four Yamahas on the grid. Last year three were on Michelin, and the three of them, although Lorenzo had a really good season, and even Colin and James, the three of them were saying "We want to be on Bridgestones, because that's a big difference, that's why we are struggling, that's why we had the problems at Laguna, we had the problems at Brno, we had the problems almost everywhere." This year everybody is on Bridgestone, so this is one complaint or excuse that is gone.

So basically last year, at the end of the year, James talked to me and said to me "I think there is a communication problem with my crew chief, and I think Colin's strong point is that he's been working with Gary (Reynders, Tech 3's other crew chief). I understood that was a big issue for him, so I told him, OK, you'll have Gary. Colin will be pissed off, but we can get over that. Second point, James was thinking big time that most of his problems were coming from the tires. So if I want to make it short, basically, he was telling me "If I have Gary and Bridgestone, I'm going to be there." I gave him Gary, the championship gave him Bridgestones, and this year is a lot harder than last year.

Fortunately, James has been very correct, never complained about it. Only saying "I've got to work, I've got to ..." And now, he's got the right bike, because I think Yamaha is the best package at the moment, we've got the same tires that everyone has, and I think this is very good, we only have to choose hard or soft, front and rear, basta. And he's got the guy he wanted to work with for better communication, so now, you know, at the end of the day, we can give a lot, but we can't do everything. He has access to Colin's data, to Valentino's data, to Jorge's data, everybody's on Bridgestones, so it's really usable. At the end of the day, you or me on the bike, we can't do the right job. So, the ball is in his court, and it's up to him. He's a top MotoGP rider, I don't want to put too much on this, but this is true. You know, we have to accept that we're not all equal, you're much better than me at your job, I'm maybe better than you at what I do, and I don't to be doing your job, and I don't want to be doing his job, and he wants to be a top MotoGP rider, and it's difficult. And he's facing the best guys in the world.

MGPM: You said you really wanted to a podium. Colin's been really close to a podium. Is it possible for anyone except for the Untouchables to get on the podium? [Note: on the Sunday after this interview, Colin Edwards scored the team's first podium of the year in a damp race at Donington.]

HP: You know, on a regular basis, I think it's almost impossible for any independent team rider - doesn't matter whether it's Colin, James, Elias - to be on the podium. Last year, we've been twice on the podium. In France, Casey had an engine problem, in Assen, Valentino crashed and Nicky ran out of fuel last lap, so it was two good podiums. We deserved it, Colin had a good race, but still we were helped by a bit of luck, which is part of racing. If nobody is crashing, the weather is stable, it's very very very difficult, especially this year. And Colin had a good interview, I can't remember where, where he was saying he's riding better than ever, harder than ever, and he still can't be on the podium.

MGPM: It seems to me that the four ...

HP: .. Magic ...

MGPM: yes, the magic four, what I've found is that Valentino is much more interested in riding again, because every weekend he has to fight.

HP: Absolutely! Valentino loves to fight. Of course he loves winning, but for him, the victory is a hundred times sweeter if it's after a fight like Catalunya or in Germany than if he's on his own 10 seconds in front of everybody. For sure, he's that kind of guy who likes to have fun. And having fun is fighting all race long. But I think clearly, these four guys are above the rest. That doesn't mean we won't have a podium here, because Colin is very strong at Donington, and we know how the weather can be, James has an incredibly high motivation. Nobody knows, but...

MGPM: Do you think the level of riding of those four is just higher than we've ever seen.

HP: Yes. Yes. Because Valentino has already said better than ever, because he's pushed like he's never been pushed, especially by his team mate. But I think, this is showing how exciting our sport is. Because unlike Formula One for example, still Schumacher is faster than his team mate, and even in Formula One where they say the machine is doing everything, still you can see the input of the man is something. But clearly you can see that although in each team you have one leader, but still this year we've been 1-2 for Brawn since the beginning of the season, 3-4 Red Bull, etc. So still you can see there is an order.

Here, I think the man is 80%, 85% of the result. And this is what makes it really good. And these four guys are clearly above anybody else. But I think also the fact that we have these four, so dominant, so strong and so untouchable, most, the others - sheesh - they are almost giving up, they're fighting to be 5th to be honest. They're fighting to be 6th. They're fighting to be first independent or something like that. Because what they are doing is amazing. And, this is debatable up to a point, but I'm quite sure you take anybody out of these four, and you put them on what is called low-level machinery, they won't be far from what they are doing now. I think here, the man is the most important factor.

MGPM: Do you think the 800s have become such precise bikes, where riders are now braking not within meters, but within centimeters every lap, there's no room for error, you can't correct coming out of corners any more, do you think the 800s have forced riders to become so much more perfect?

HP: I see what you mean. First I think, I don't know, because nobody knows, nobody's got The Truth. So you know for example, before it was Honda and Michelin that was the unbeatable package. When Casey won the championship in 2007, they say, if you don't have a Ducati on Bridgestones, you can't do anything, if you have a Ducati on Bridgestones, anyone can win. Then we saw, year after year, there is only one guy who can tame this package. And some people say the Ducati on Bridgestones is a bad package. Yes, but how can the other guy do this? It's not easy, absolutely not. He's a man like you and me, he has more talent, but he's a man made of flesh and blood, he's no different.

So every time you have someone telling you "this is the truth" you have to be suspicious. There was a statistic (I can't remember, there are specialists who know this) Oh, 800s are killing the racing, there are so many tens of races without a pass on the last lap, then at Barcelona, we see three or four, I can't remember how many, passes for the lead on the last lap. So, suddenly, on 800s it was possible to pass, in three or four places in one lap. So all the theory that was saying it is impossible to pass on 800cc is broken. I think we saw since Barcelona, the racing is incredibly open, and there is a lot of overtaking, a lot of passing.

So yes, the bikes are much closer to each other, and yes, the braking point on 800cc is further and further and it's more and more difficult to pass on the brakes, but still, how many times, in Germany (because it's the last one) Jorge, and Casey, and Dani and Vale, pass each other? A lot of times! On the brakes! So it's not impossible. And they could keep the good line, you know, they didn't do crazy braking and run out of space.

So, here, this is the ultimate technology, this is the top of the top for high technology, in the brake department, in the engine, in the electronics , and I think we see a very exciting season this year, for sure. I was really happy to read in the Bridgestone preview from Donington that Valentino is now backing up and saying that the one tire rule is incredibly good for the show, and that it has been helping him to have more fun because everybody is closer than before, although he was very much against it before.

You know it is quite suspect when someone is telling you, this is the truth, this is exactly why, if we change that point, everything will come back. So, I don't like to be too extreme, it's in the middle, I think, you know, maybe it would have been better to have stayed with the 990, but everybody decided, let's go to 800cc. A lot of people think it's bad, but still we have exciting racing this year. The manufacturers are the experts, and we gave them the possibility, and they said it's better to go to 800, we're already at 350 km/h, 349.7 or whatever it was at Mugello, just imagine what they would have been doing if they hadn't reduced the capacity. Acceleration was almost impossible with the 990, so with the extra grip we could have found, maybe the bike would have been unridable for a normal human being. I don't know. I think you always can improve, and nobody's perfect, but we're not as bad as I'm often hearing and reading.

MGPM: Do you think that it is also because they are catching up after the rule change? After the rules change, there is always one team that gets it right. In 2007, it was Ducati which understood what it would take to win, they had by far the most power ...

HP: And they had the tires. Because today, and we could see that in 2007, 2008, the tire factor is the most important of all. Even more than the riders. Last year, we arrived and I remember that, at Brno in the Czech Republic, and there were 11 on Bridgestones, 7 on Michelin, and you had top 11 on Bridgestones. So it means, nothing against him, but Anthony West on a Kawasaki, not the best rider and not the best bike, in front of Jorge Lorenzo, in front of Dani Pedrosa. This is not normal. And clearly I think in 2007, Bridgestone made a big step, because it was also the new tire rule, less quantity, to be checked, you know, not possible to bring some tires Saturday night. That was a big difference. So clearly in 2007, the Ducati - Bridgestone package was the best. But I believe, if everybody had been on the one tire rule, maybe it would have been closer.

MGPM: Ben Spies.

HP: (laughs) So at the moment, on the riders scenario, in MotoGP, Lorenzo as you know has an offer from Yamaha, and he has an offer from Honda. He hasn't taken his decision yet. And he is basically blocking the paddock negotiation and freezing everything. Once he will take his decision, to stay with Yamaha, or go, a lot of things will happen quickly. But at the moment, anyway, inside the Yamaha family the decision has been wait, don't do anything.

Basically, Yamaha has four bikes, but the four bikes, even though two are under my responsibility as a private company, still I want and I need my contract to have their support, and they need to back up my choice. We are working very closely together. So, Valentino is signed, he's the only one. One of the two spots is at the moment owned by Yamaha inside my team, Yamaha Japan, because Colin is a Yamaha Japan rider, and it could go to another of Yamaha's riders. But Ben Spies is now negotiating with Yamaha, I think the negotiations are progressing quite well, and I think Yamaha are quite optimistic to have him for the next two years. Then it's going to be up to Yamaha and Ben, to study and decide where is best for Yamaha corporation and Ben Spies as a rider to go in 2010 or 2011.

MGPM: So, either in World Superbikes, or in MotoGP?

HP: Yes. I think, to have him in 2011 in MotoGP is almost 100% sure. 2010 at the moment it's more likely he will remain another year in Superbikes, but if he wins the championship, and Lorenzo is leaving, maybe the factory will have an interest to bring him here earlier, to prepare himself in an independent team, to be a possible leader in 2011 in the factory team. So anything is open and it's in the hands of Yamaha and Ben at the moment.

The second spot is up to me to see, and I'm working on it. I have a long list of riders: JT is still there, Bautista, Barbera, Randy de Puniet, Elias, De Angelis, Vermeulen, a lot of guys are talking with me but I'm in no hurry.

MGPM: You're waiting for Yamaha to decide as well?

HP: Yes. Yes. And I think - I maybe look a bit bad, but - the more we wait, the better deal that we make. I think everybody is suffering, everybody is struggling, and so far I think most, not to say all the riders, thought this economic crisis was just an argument to reduce their fee but they didn't really believe it was happening. They all live in their bubble, they have no contact with reality, they live in their crazy incredibly high-level motorhome, they still fly business class from one country to another, they have fun with their toys. OK, sometimes they switch on the news and they look at the economic crisis, but is it real, you know? So we have to tell them there is a problem, it is not just a tool for me to put some pressure on you. Now I think they understand a bit, and their management, anyway, is a little bit more open to discuss, but they need still to wake up more. They just woke up a little bit, but they need to wake up more.

MGPM: Seeing not many bikes on the grid must help, seeing Takahashi go, seeing Gibernau go, that must make a difference?

HP: For sure, for sure, this is helping them to understand there is a problem, there is a problem. I think the other championship is also struggling a lot, and I don't think that anybody who thinks "OK, I can't get what I want here, I'm going to get it next door," no way.

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That was the best interview I've ever read. Herve strikes me as a smart leader. I like the way he challenges popular punditry. Among his most amusing comments was how he handled the crew chief swap!

Great interview David, from beginning to end. I know it isn't easy to get this kind of material, but keep it coming!

http://Fans.Moto.GP - The Social Network for MotoGP Fans

Thanks for a great interview.

Agree or disagree is irrelevant. It's the knowledge that is important.
Many thanks

David, in the past you've openly criticized the rookie and single tire rules, but Mr. Poncharal certainly brought some interesting insight and new perspective into these decisions. I'm wondering, have your feelings about these rules been affected in any way?


FYI, Excellent interview... I'd be surprised if other sites don't inquire about reproducing this.

Firstly, thanks for the compliments, but they must all go to Herve Poncharal, who was fascinating to talk to.

To answer your question: Have I changed my mind about the rookie rule? Not entirely. I now fully understand the position of the independent teams, and can see how it benefits them. I have much more sympathy for their position now. But I still fear that the rookie rule could become a paper tiger. Right now, the factories don't want to spend the money on running their own pseudo-satellite teams, but that doesn't mean they won't in the future. The Rossi / Nastro Azzurro team from 2000 is the prime example of that. But I'm certainly prepared to give the rookie rule the benefit of the doubt, for now at least. 

I pretty much echo your sediments. When Poncharal mentioned the fact that there aren't "private" teams anymore, this was quite a surprise to me. The way he describes it, the factories are already giving support to the satellites as their own. I didn't know this. That explains why the factories may not need to create their own separate squads. If Yamaha is supporting Tech 3 already, and can decide the level of support, AND one of the riders--they have all they need in the existing satellite team structure. There's really no need to create a new team. Fascinating.

You didn't address the single tire rule. I was curious to hear your thoughts on this rule now. I know this caused much debate, but I still believe it was a good decision when it was annouced and a good decision today. The racing we've seen the season speaks for itself and the ideal of prototype racing really hasn't been affected. The factories are still competing... and that's what really matters to MotoGP. It was never about the tires.

I just had another thought about this whole notion of private teams. A fact that I initially overlooked. When we found out Casey was missing the next three rounds, Ducati annouced that Kallio would take his seat on the factory bike and Fabrizio would fill in at Pramac. Sounds like a solid plan, but what I never even considered until I read Mr. Poncharal's comments was that if these teams we're trully "private", Marlboro Ducati would have no right to simply take Pramac's "A" rider away from them. This has to be proof at just how much power the factories wield inside the independent teams--again, eliminating the need to create their own psuedo-sattelite teams. In many ways, the rookie does seem more and more like a win-win scenario.

Poncheral's comments about Toseland are rare and remarkable. Not something you usually see (must be spending extra time with Edwards).

Possibly the best interview of a MotoGP insider that I've read. You certainly brought up the right subjects and asked great questions, but, as you acknowledged, without Poncharal's (highly unexpected and unusual) willingness to be so frank and expansive in his answers, it would've been nowhere as informative as it is. Don't know whether he sounds like a chap that I would particularly like a great deal or not, but, without question, he comes off from the interview as a very astute, very thoughtful, very open-minded person (at least with regard to MotoGP matters -- sorry, no pun intended).

As you have pointed out numerous times, Lorenzo is the logjam at the moment, but, at least with regard to Spies, this interview - and today's posting of the second part of Spies' interview in Superbike Planet - goes a long way toward shining a light in terms of his future plans. From what I can gather at this point, Poncharal's comments regarding Spies' camp's negotiations with Yamaha Japan, together with Spies' comment in the SP interview reinforcing his long-known goal of competing in MotoGP, if nothing else cements the view that his stay in WSBK will indeed be a short one, stretching at most only into 2010, if that (assuming that he doesn't unexpectedly implode in 2010 should he decide to stay an extra season).

Whether it's '10 or '11 for his start in MotoGP seems to be the tricky bit. It's every MotoGP rider's goal, I would assume, to be with a factory team. So, Spies, accordingly, would want to end up at Fiat at some near future point (if he were to choose Yamaha, and if Fiat were to still sponsor factory Yamaha). If Lorenzo decides to stay, presumably for 2 more years, and if Rossi stays for 3 more years as he has hinted at wanting to do, where does that leave Spies regardless of whether or not he enters in '10 or '11?

Even if Lorenzo goes to Repsol, if I were Yamaha Japan, as potentially promising a MotoGP rider as Spies is, I think I would be foolish to bypass Pedrosa for Spies (meaning, Edwards to Fiat as seat-filler, and Spies to Tech 3 until move to Fiat in '11), assuming that Pedrosa were interested. So, in this scenario, if Pedrosa were to sign for 2 years with Fiat, Spies' dilemma is still intact.

This is rather the main sticking point for Yamaha at the moment, it seems. While it seems to be taken for granted that the M1 is the best package currently, the situation with the stalwarts at the factory level has already resulted in, at least from what I've been able to glean, the loss of Simoncelli to Honda, because he had assessed the road to factory being clearer to Repsol than to Fiat.

Same with, say, Bautista. If I were Bautista, I would want to be on the best bike. That seems, according to popular opinion, to be the M1. Moreover, Tech 3 seems to get far better support from Yamaha than satellite Honda teams do from Honda (at least in terms of up-to-date technology), possibly on par with what seems to be good support from Ducati to Pramac. Why wouldn't Bautista choose Tech 3 over Rizla? (He seems to have ruled out Aspar for now, as the Duc's perception of being unmanageable for anyone other than Stoner is clearly taking its toll.) Well, yes, Rizla is factory, but that pretty much is canceled out by the fact that their bikes are seemingly simply, utterly uncompetitive. I would think it's for the same reason that any rider seriously looking to move up to factory with Yamaha would have to have second thoughts as long as you have, certainly, Rossi, and either Lorenzo or Pedrosa at the top.

If Bautista does go Suzuki, I hope that Suzuki can build a competitive bike for him. He seems to have a level of talent that does not deserve to be wasted on inferior machinery.

One guy who is rather getting lost in the shuffle here, who isn't getting anywhere near the attention that he deserves, is Aoyama. He is beating, straight up, the factory Aprilias in the "Aprilia Cup" with an outdated bike, and he may not even get a ride with the lowly Scot because Talmaci has "better" friends.

Anyway, getting back to Poncharal, his take on Bridgestone's superiority in '07, absolutely spot-on. His assessment of Toseland's current situation, very reasonable. On Edwards (assuming, as is not the case, that Yamaha Japan didn't make the call, that all Bautista, Spies, and Aoyama were more than willing to ride for Tech 3 in '10, and that marketing in the U.S. market were not a factor), as up in the points as he is at the moment, I would think that any one of the 3 mentioned would have greater potential as championship contenders for Tech 3 (yes, for Tech 3 [!] -- why not, Melandri contended with Gresini) than Edwards. At the very least, they have not yet solidly proven themselves incapable of contending for the championship, as has, clearly, Edwards. If you were shooting for 5th through 8th, then Edwards may do, but if you were shooting for the title, then any of the 3 would seem to hold more potential, at least at this point.

On the rookie rule, it would depend on the perspective. As a highly-touted rookie wanting the best seat "now," I would not like the rule. As ownership/management for a satellite team, I would love the rule. For the future longevity of the sport, one would think that the rule, assuming that it brings more parity between factories and satellites, would be a good thing. But, this also assumes that better satellite performance would bring more sponsor interest, which in turn will result in more bikes on the grid - the shrinking grid being arguably the biggest scourge for MotoGP at the moment - but even this is no guarantee as, even if there were more sponsor money, this wouldn't necessarily lead to more bikes being provided by the factories.

Anyhow, running too long. Will cut off.

Thanks for the best MotoGP analysis site (possibly among all, but then I don't speak either Spanish or Italian, and Babelfish does absolutely no justice to sites in those languages). And thanks for not being just another site that simply kowtows to the "powers-that-be."

i think you need to read kropotkin's comment in a reply above. it's very important to understand that every rule is reviewed and if a loophole exists every factory will take it. i think david is spot on that the rookie rule is ripe for abuse ala rossi in 2000. even if the factories were tight on cash, a truly gifted rookie might create a situation where a factory team fields just one rider just so that a so called satellite team can host a talented rookie...

and melandri finished 2nd in 2005, definitely, but hardly contended the championship itself. it was a runaway.


Great interview... really enjoyed it. Herve is very open, but he still needed to be asked the right questions. Keep them coming....

all 4 parts of this interview were absolutely fantastic, but this was by far the best. incredible stuff here. a bookmark i'll be checking for years to come i'm sure.

Like everyone else has mentioned, this is a great interview...congratulations on a piece well done! With so much info, I'm going to have to read all the parts again to soak everything in.

I'm curious...since Poncharal mentioned his appreciation of your website, did he happen to give you his opinion on your How To Save MotoGP series??! I'd love to hear what he'd have to say about it... :-)

I could not avoid doing some math and developing a couple questions (and Mr. Poncharal, if you're reading this, thank you for sharing your time and insights with us; I for one am encouraged by your continued presence in the sport, so the following questions are meant with all due respect...):

If "Here, I think the man is 80%, 85% of the result. And this is what makes it really good," then would logic suggest that said man should be 80-85% of budget, or even payroll, correct?  That being the case, one could expect a rider (and his team) who elevates the performance of the bike  to be compensated beyond the cost of the bike.  If another rider is under-performing the bike (however that would be measured), then it would follow that the bike would be worth more than the rider in salary.  Naturally, team owners don't want to keep riders who are not "better" than their equipment, so the best riders' prices go up accordingly.  Personally, I am more of a team-player mentality, so I would expect the entire team to be compensated in line with their performance, with the rider deserving the biggest share.

The real issue there is, as was astutely pointed out in the interview, the gap to Formula One expenditures.  While F1 drivers are also risking their lives, there is less risk to their overall long-term fitness.  In America, there is a fairly well-known problem with older NFL (American football) players whose bodies are not aging gracefully, at all, thanks to the physical toll the sport placed on them.  The older players were not well compensated for their gladiatorial exploits in the sport, so many of them are in dire straits now.  As the players' union sought higher salaries as a hedge against this problem, the owners complained (of course, they own the franchise, they want to profit).  Every time I see or hear of Garry McCoy hobbling around as if already an old man, I do not think these men are overpaid.  I don't have access to their contracts, of course, but I don't think it appropriate to insist they live as paupers while they race in order to save enough to maintain a pauper's life once their bodies can no longer recover and deliver for the sport.  This is another problem with the gap to F1, in that there are not many retired F1 drivers who have endured what guys like McCoy and Hopkins have, yet who questions the propriety of how much more they are paid? 

There is not a good reason for MotoGP to suffer compared to F1.  Considering the cost differential (which is largely tied up in equipment R&D, which means:  payroll), sponsors should be lining up to the point that Yamaha and Honda would actually be able to make money by making more satellite bikes (once again, their engineering and service technicians' payroll making up a big chunk of the cost).  All good on the man or woman who figures out how to break that ice, or shatter that ceiling, or chose your favorite analogy... by bringing more sponsors to MotoGP.

Lastly, I try to take advantage of every opportunity to beat the fuel-limt drum.  The change to 800cc came with a reduction in the fuel tanks.  If not for that, the bikes would be working in the higher parts of the power band for speed, and wouldn't be relying on the electronics to manage every milliliter so tightly - which subsequently places the premium on corner speed.  An 800cc package with more fuel would still require a lot of engine management to try to keep the power delivery predictable at the higher revs.  The 990cc formula did that with torque, which is easier to manage and is actually better on fuel because there is so much less time spent at full-throttle.

I remember when Abe passed away and Poncheral did a really moving interview on Motogp.com. He's always up front, never seems to shy away and of all the team managers is the one who seems most happy to talk.