Peter Clifford Interview Part 2 - "The Privateers Are At The Whim Of Politics"

We continue today with the second half of our interview with Peter Clifford, the manager of the former WCM team, who we asked to get his take on the new rules for MotoGP, which are scheduled to come into force in 2012. In yesterday's episode, Clifford expressed his opinion that privateer teams running production-based engines would find it impossible to be competitive without spending equivalent amounts to the factories. Today, Clifford talks about the problems presented by ever-shifting rule changes, the political risks of the new rules in MotoGP and Moto2, and how long Moto2 is going to remain an affordable class.

PC: The other thing is, we were talking about the Flammini reaction, and it is interesting that he's not saying "I'm going to take everybody to court," and all this sort of stuff. Of course, we still don't know what his contract with the FIM says, that's still secret. He may just feel that what he was relying on in the old days was the way the contract was read, not the words in it. And he had his people at the FIM who read the contract the "right" way, and went in to bat for him and took us off the grid and carried on like that. What he may be waiting for, of course, is another election at the FIM, make sure that he gets the right people in, and they will read the contract in the way that he would like it to be read and this idea would be kicked out, and maybe even the Moto2 rules as well.

MM: Right, and of course that's a huge risk, because if we get a new FIM president who interprets the contracts a different way to Vito Ippolito, because Ippolito has a Grand Prix background, and whenever I've spoken to him, he's said again and again, "what we need are the TZs, the production racers."

PC: Well, that's how Venemoto [the team founded by Ippolito's father, brief history here] won Grand Prix and world championships, with TZs.

But you see, this is it, it's all politics. And the poor old teams, particularly the privateer teams, whether that be in Moto2 or in MotoGP are just at the whim of the politics. At the moment, things have swung in that direction [allowing production parts in Grand Prix racing], if they swing in the other direction it's all change again, and it's all out. So it's very very shaky ground on which to base the future of our sport.

MM: It's very difficult to take long-term 5 to 10 year investment decisions on the whim of an FIM election.

PC: Absolutely, it's crazy isn't it? As you've said, what we need is stability. Back in the days when it was 125, 250, 500 and those were the rules, you knew you were investing in equipment that you could sell again. Well, that's no longer the case, is it? We've gone 990cc to 800cc back to 1000cc; these regulations, those regulations; 250 to Moto2. You build something which may be obsolete in 12 months. And that is tough, because what should have been the advantage of what we did - and in a way it was because we raced it for a number of years - was that while building your own bike is expensive and is never going to be competitive, at least you own it. So you can go on racing it. Well, that's only if you've got consistency in regulations over a long period. When the winds of change waft hither and thither, you haven't got that, so why bother to race something which may be decorating your hallway in a couple of years the way our bikes decorate my hallway?

Niall MacKenzie on the WCM ROC Yamaha

MM: Because even if you hadn't been taken off the grid by the FIM, there's no way you would have survived the 800cc switch?

PC: Well that's right, it's a completely arbitrary thing which a lot of people at the time and everybody since has said was a terrible thing to do. And why was that done? Nobody has given a satisfactory answer, and the idea that it was notionally for safety, well how did that help?

MM: Yes, it briefly limited top speed and horsepower, and it just made people concentrate on getting through the corners faster.

PC: Yes that's right, and normally people fall off in the corners.

MM: Have you been following the Moto2 developments?

PC: To a degree, yes.

MM: What do you think of the concept - apart from its sensitivity to political interference?

PC: Well it's not Grand Prix racing, is it?

MM: Because it's got a spec engine?

PC: Yes, exactly. It's a cup. You know, we've got the Rookies' Cup, and now the Moto2 Cup. What it is, if you have such a thing at a national level, it's fantastic, because it does allow people to go racing, build bikes. In many, many respects it's great, but it's not a Grand Prix class.

MM: Because the whole bike should be a prototype and not a spec engine in a chassis someone has built?

PC: Well, you should be allowed to do whatever you like. That was the whole beauty of Grand Prix racing, there were so few rules that you could do whatever you liked. And now you just know that even with the Moto2 rules as restrictive as they are, you can actually see some loopholes in them, and you think, "oh well, that's what to do." But you know that as soon as you did it, they'd ban them. So what's the point?

MM: So you expect the Grand Prix Commission to be extremely busy next year banning everything they haven't thought about?

PC: Well it depends on how many people can be bothered to do the extreme things. Because the extreme things are not easy. Like everything else, to work around the rules is always very expensive. So in the beginning, I don't think people will bother, they'll race within the rules. But if the class is successful, and therefore winning actually became worthwhile, then people certainly would work around the rules, and that would be expensive, and then they'll start changing the rulebook to ban it. So, we'll see what happens. I don't think it'll happen early on.

MM: It's interesting you should say that, because I heard that Sito Pons had said he wanted the most expensive equipment available to him, because he wanted something that other teams could not afford to have.

PC: [Laughs] Great! Great! Well I've got a few ideas how he could spend his money, but as I say, they'd then ban it anyway.

MM: So you're not attracted to go back into Moto2 either?

PC: Oh, it would be fun, but I don't think there's any commercial reality there either. It remains to be seen if it is. If the class is hugely successful and attracts sponsors then it will be great. But it's questionable isn't it, whether anyone's going to spend the money to go racing like that in this current economic climate.

MM: It's certainly attracted a lot of chassis manufacturers, which has been interesting. At the last count, I think I've seen maybe 11 or 12 companies talking about building bikes.

PC: And that is great, you know, that really is fantastic. And it will be wonderful to see a whole range of different bikes on the grid. Like the beginning of MotoGP, it's tremendously exciting times technically, because you've got a load of new stuff, a load of unknowns. And that's what's missing in MotoGP if you like, is the unknowns. Because everyone kind of knows who's going to win, broadly speaking. But in Moto2, you know, that first race weekend no one's going to have any idea. Fantastic, exciting period, even if the class isn't what we wish it were.

MM: The idea behind it is to have the chassis builders competing on the basis of their chassis, do you think there's going to be people who get it dramatically right and dramatically wrong, or do you think everyone is going to be pretty close to one another?

PC: Well, because it's a 600 and basically a known quantity engine-wise, and therefore the chassis geometry should be relatively well-known, there's no reason for anyone to get it very wrong. So I don't think there'll be people getting it very wrong, I would think you're going to have a very competitive field, let's say at least three chassis guys are going to get it pretty close to the mark, and you should have three different chassis capable of running at the front, at least.

MM: Kenan Sofuoglu had a go on one at Valencia and apparently, he described it after he got off as like a badly set up Supersport bike.

PC: Well that's it, those Supersport bikes, even standard road bikes are not bad things at all, are they? So it shouldn't require a genius to go from that to a Moto2 bike. And as he said, it's badly set up because they're only just beginning with it. It won't take them long to get that sorted out.

MM: One more thing: I wanted to find out how you felt about the situation with the new rules, as they've basically brought your idea back to life. I can imagine that you feel satisfied on the one hand and really annoyed on the other.

PC: Well, not really, because it was a great ride, because we did what we wanted to do which was go racing. We built our own bike, and scored world championship points on it, well that's great isn't it? And we had a great bunch of people and we were tremendously satisfied that we achieved what was the absolute maximum we could achieve with what we had. And we only judged ourselves by our own measure, we didn't really care how anyone else judged us. Because we knew we were doing something that was quite clearly totally different to what everyone else was doing.

James Ellison and Peter Clifford in the WCM pits

And we got enormous amount of support from inside the paddock, you know up and down the pit lane, whether it was someone giving us a radiator cap because it had the right pressure on it for what we needed, to cheap second-hand brake calipers when the factory bikes moved on. We got a tremendous amount of help like that. It really was great, and in fact, there were a lot of people on the engineering side up and down the pit lane who wished they were doing what we were doing, instead of just changing parts that the factory gave them and then sending the engines back to Japan. So there was actually a degree of jealousy in that sense. So we had a great ride, we did it, and it was fantastic. We just wish we could have carried on doing it.

And that was sad, but that was where the commercial reality let us down, not the rules or the regulations. Because we made our own crankcase castings, we made our own four-valve cylinder head and all that kind of stuff, and the single hope of all this, we'd started to build up a great group of technical partners who were also interested in what we were doing. And it started to reduce the cost of what we were doing because we had got these technical partners involved. Again, a great group of people. And that is the single hope, that you can get that, but it took us three or four years to arrive at that situation.

I think that that is more difficult to arrive at now because of the electronics. When we started, the rider aids were not really working properly. And our bike being controllable and drivable and manageable meant that our guys could get the best out of the horsepower. Now, since then, the rider aids - you know, where you just get it into the middle of the corner, whack the throttle open and the electronics does it - that is completely unobtainium, and that is going to make the life of anybody else trying to do what we did, harder even than it was for us, and that would be very daunting.

MM: You can try to make all sorts of things cheaper but the only way to really cut costs would be to have a spec ECU, which the MSMA will simply never agree to?

PC: No, because that would level the playing field and that's the last thing they would ever want.

WCM engine casting logo

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This is why This new production based engine rule has merit . yes they wont win , but at least people might give them some interest looking at which production based engine is best . Some attention for the backmarkers is better than none at all.

Trying to recreate the bygone era of cheap speed from two strokes is a losing battle. The technological world has changed and the pace of that change is quickening all the time. These things can't be stopped. As long as it's not, as he puts it, a commercial reality the days are numbered. If the MSMA sit down and collectively wash their hands of expensive factory support it's possible. Then that leaves it all really hanging in the wind.

But that Valvoline Yamaha is hot (that's a yzr500 right?). Hopefully Mr. Clifford has that decorating his home.

Spot on Brook (YZR500) with Niall Mackenzie aboard. He made the bottom step of the podium at the British GP in 1993 on the WCM non factory bike.

"you know, where you just get it into the middle of the corner, whack the throttle open and the electronics does it"

If that's the case, how come Nicky Hayden is almost always a second or so off the pace of Casey Stoner?

It's why he's ONLY a second or so off the pace of Casey Stoner.

I think his explanation of diminishing returns explains why it's expensive and possibly why regardless of machines, the best riders will still manage to stay on top. Those growing chunks of money get you within their respective number of seconds from the front, but when you get within spitting distance, it's the rider that matters.