Peter Clifford Interview: On Red Bull Rookies In Moto3, The European Junior Cup, And Female Riders

That the Red Bull Rookies Cup has been a huge success goes without saying. Former rookies now fill the front of the Moto3 grid, and are starting to make an impact in Moto2. The goal of the Red Bull Rookies Cup, of bringing young riders from around the world into Grand Prix racing has clearly been met.

So successful has it been that two years ago, the World Superbike series set up a similar project. After a modest first year, the European Junior Cup is thriving in its second year, and providing some fantastic racing for talented young riders. At Jerez earlier this year, we had the opportunity to talk to Red Bull Rookies Cup supervisor Peter Clifford about the series he is involved in, as well has the European Junior Cup. He gave us his view of the rival series, but also on a range of other subjects.

The interview covered the difference between four strokes and two strokes, the range of nationalities participating in the Rookies Cup, the complementary role of the European Junior Cup, and the approach the Rookies Cup is taking towards female riders in the series. As always, Clifford provides plenty of food for thought.

MotoMatters: There has been a major change to the Red Bull Rookies Cup this year, with the switch from the 125cc KTM two strokes to the four stroke KTM RC250R. How has the series changed this year?

Peter Clifford: The new bikes that's the huge difference. We've had the usual influx of riders, we keep roughly half from the previous year, and add about half new guys. And of course, this year it makes it an even more level playing field for everybody, because they've all got new motorcycles. They've done four days of preseason testing, everybody got the same treatment, obviously, and then went to Austin for the first races on the new bikes. It's been really good.

MM: How are they adapting to the new bikes? I remember talking to Livio Loi and he was saying that he grew up racing four strokes, and it seems that most young riders grow up riding four strokes nowadays?

PC: More and more so, but I think there's also still quite a lot of the Spaniards and Italians who come from the PreGP series which are on two strokes, so some people had never ridden a four stroke before they came here for the test. And as you say, others have grown up with them. And I think that even if you've grown up racing a four stroke, these four strokes are GP four strokes, so there's still a good deal to learn.

MM: There's a big difference some of the cheaper four strokes and these...

PC: … Which may have been developed from road bikes and are fairly soft motorcycles, relatively speaking. This is a true GP bike, it's the very close brother to the bike that Luis Salom won the first GP of the year on, so it doesn't get any closer than that. And that was done by KTM as much as anything because it was harder to make something different than it was just to use more of the same. And of course we're very happy because we want the thing to be a GP bike.

MM: This is true training for the next level?

PC: Indeed. I think that the guys who came off last year's two strokes almost to a man have said that this is easier to ride in that it's got more torque, so if you make a little bit of a mistake getting into the corner, it will pull you out. Whereas if you made a mistake on last year's bike, it kind of died on you like a typical GP two stroke. But then these ones have got more torque.

MM: It's good to see young riders you are starting to see from of the former rookies really move through the ranks ….

PC: Again, Luis Salom is a perfect example, he came out of the Rookies Cup. And now in Moto2, you've got Danny Kent and Johann Zarco, and there must be eight or ten Rookies in the Moto3 class here, and now Livio's the latest guy to join in. Of course, you know people like Brad Binder doing very very well in qualifying here [Jerez], and then the more obvious ones like Arthur Sissis in the factory team, so yes, a whole load of them.

MM: Has it been important to have non-Spanish riders, because there's always this talk about Spanish domination of MotoGP and this is a huge threat to the series?

PC: It has been, but we absolutely don't exclude Spanish or Italian riders from the Rookies Cup. We've got a good sprinkling of Spaniards and Italians, but it is great for the sport to see a wide range of guys. We have them as you know from all over the world, from South Africa, from Japan, Australia, America, and all over Europe.

MM: World Superbikes is now running the European Junior Cup, aimed at young riders, and racing Honda's CBR500R race replica. Do you see that as competition or do you see it as complementary?

PC: Well, I guess there's an element of competition, we'd like to think there's an element of competition, as we love competition in racing. But in general, I think it's complementary, and it's great to see them using bigger bikes than we do, and having a much more open age range than we do. Because I feel genuinely very sorry for chaps who want to be in the rookies cup, or whatever, and for whatever reason, their physical size or age means they can't do it, and it's fantastic that there's an alternative, a very good alternative and a wonderful series.

A prime example is a good friend of mine Jake Lewis, a Kiwi. He applied to the Red Bull Rookies Cup, but being a good sort of Kiwi lad, he's a bit big and he struggled when he could test on the Metrakit, just because of the physical size of the motorcycle, and he would have struggled on a GP bike, a GP 125 or a Moto3 bike. And yet he's gone into the EJC and he rides a 600 at home in New Zealand and it's exactly the series that he needs. A fantastic rider, wonderful rider, just not suited to the Rookies Cup, and there are other guys like him, you know. You just feel so sorry when there wasn't an alternative, and now there is, it's really great.

MM: It's helping to actually grow the sport rather than just focus it on one series?

PC: Yes, absolutely. And that's what we need, we need the sport to grow, and we need the opportunities for riders of all sizes and all ages to go as far as they can, so it's fantastic to see it, and it's a great series.

MM: Do you think now that Dorna has taken over WSBK there might be a little bit more coordination between the two series, or has there been no talk of that so far?

PC: There's been no talk whatsoever, and I think there probably won't be any, as ours is a very specific series. It has a very specific course, it is the stepping stone into Grand Prix racing, and firstly into Moto3, and Moto2 and MotoGP, and it is very specific. They have a different mandate in getting kids into World Superbike, and that's great.

MM: Do you think that it might be good to work together to be able to split riders by physical size, equally talented riders, such as Jake Lewis?

PC: I think it probably sorts itself out, it doesn't necessarily need any planning or anything, but it's great that the kids can apply to both or whatever, they've got the freedom to suit them and their budget and everything else.

MM: A quick question about female riders: you've got a Japanese girl riding, Yui Watanabe. How's she coming along?

PC: Unfortunately, she fell off at Austin, and though she didn't seriously hurt herself, she has got a broken bone in her hand which is preventing her from riding here in Jerez, but she'll be back in Assen. She's good, she improved tremendously through last year, from the beginning of the year to the end, and hopefully she'll continue to improve this year.

It would be great to see more girls. We have a very open mind, of course we'd love to see more of everybody in the class, including more girls, naturally. But there's no point in us just inviting girls who don't pass the selection criteria. It wouldn't be good for them or for anybody else, you can't hide it when they all get out on the track on equal machinery. And at last year's selection, I think we had three girls, but we didn't find one. We had 110 riders, so it's not surprising, and we only selected I think 13 out of that 110 last year. So it's only one in 10, and with three girls, not surprisingly, just numbers-wise we didn't find one that fitted the bill.

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Actually this is the third year of the SBK jr cup. They started on Kawasaki, rode the big single KTMs last year and now on the Hondas... There are some significant differences in the series, notably the jr cup riders have to buy their bikes, making it a high entr fee (roughy £25000 but I am not certain) several very good British riders (amongst others) in this - James Flitcroft and josh harland come to mind - and the racing is exciting. Too bad you need to be at an sbk event to see it :-( however just an added incentive to come to be of these exciting rounds!

I would also add that owing to the cost these kids need significant sponsorship - for a relatively small outlay you can get great exposure and be part of the sbk paddock !