Herve Poncharal Interview: On The Open Yamaha Of Aleix Espargaro, The Future Of MotoGP, And Seamless Gearboxes

Perhaps the biggest surprise after the first day of testing at Sepang was the sheer, unadulterated speed of Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha, racing in the Open category. Seventh fastest, half a second off the fastest factory Yamaha of Valentino Rossi, and ahead of the two Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. By lunchtime on the second day, Aleix was closer still, just two tenths off the best Yamaha.

Naturally, all eyes turned to the Tech 3 garage, and the response of team boss Herve Poncharal. How would the otherwise charming Frenchman react to being beaten by a bike which Yamaha was supplying to a rival team for a third of the price he is paying to lease the Tech 3 Yamaha M1 machines, entered under the Factory Option rules in MotoGP? A long line of journalists beat a path to his door, including MotoMatters.com, to put those questions to him.

Poncharal spoke at length about the Open class, the issue of fuel consumption, and the performance of Aleix Espargaro. First of all, though, he emphasized the strength of his relationship with Yamaha.

Herve Poncharal: As I said last night at the Yamaha launch, I'm very happy to be with Yamaha, and to have signed with them for another two years. I feel good. Now, this is a time in MotoGP when quite a few things are changing, and for sure the biggest thing for the coming season is the Open class is coming. Factory bikes are reduced to 20 liters, and this is exciting. For sure it is exciting, because it is already creating debate and controversy, because at the end of the day, when you have controversy you get people talking about MotoGP, so this is perfect.

This concept of Open class is going to bring some new faces to the front, new teams in front. If you take the Forward example, I think last year they were quite far behind, and never in the position to be in the light of the media. Clearly for them, thanks to the Yamaha support they managed to get, it helped them to get a rider of Espargaro's caliber, which is a good thing. And clearly that package plus that rider, plus Colin (Edwards) is going to bring better results than last year, and it should be helping them to find sponsorship.

So the Open class is going to make the grid more competitive. This is all we want. We want more guys on the front, we want not only the same three, five always in front, because this is not what makes the sport exciting. So on that point, I think it is a good move.

Second point, inside the Yamaha family, I am very happy. It is clear that we have to consider what's happening with the rules, as a team, but also Yamaha as a factory. So factory team and Tech 3 team will be on Factory spec, and I think they've done a tremendous job over the winter. When we see what they've done with the fuel consumption, they have. When you see the lap time, and when you see how much less fuel we use compared to last year, it's unbelievable. This is also very good to show, and also to show that racing is working for production. Because what they are learning in terms of electronics, injection, friction, it is working for the future, really.

But it's also interesting for Yamaha to check, because if there wasn't that involvement with Forward, we could maybe all say what if? What would this engine do with the championship software? Is it going to be competitive? The engineers, they can check and they can compare how bad or how good the championship software is. Basically, if we want to make a short comparison: Factory spec, advantage is more advanced software, handicap is 20 instead of 24 liters, less engines and the tire. So on the other side, the handicap is only software. Now I think Yamaha can see how big or small is the handicap. And for sure, they will be in a much better position to decide in the future now they have some involvement in the Open class, than they would have if they hadn't.

So I am very happy to see them having another team like Forward. I have no problem at all. If you are a racer, if you are a competitor, you must accept the racing and the fighting. For me, this is exciting, you know, Factory against Open, Tech 3 against Forward, that's excitement. So also as Tech 3, we will have a big challenge between Bradley (Smith) and Pol (Espargaro). Because they are two young riders with a high profile, high potential, and with high hopes for the future, so they are both going to fight very hard to make the next step. But also, we will have the two brothers, one on the Factory spec, one on the Open spec. So for me I'm very happy, and maybe it won't be as easy as it was last year to be sometimes on the front row, sometimes on the podium, but maybe the front row will have more value. I think if you just want to be here and do the result without any competition, I don't think that's the right spirit.

Again, I think what Yamaha is doing is a great job. I've heard some people saying that this not an Open bike, that it's not following the rules, but sorry, it is. And I think if this comment is coming, it's because that bike is fast. For example, they are always mentioning Yamaha, but they are never mentioning Ducati who are doing exactly the same (with Yonny Hernandez at Pramac, running a GP13 in the Open category – DE.) But they don't care about Ducati because Ducati is not a threat. And why don't other factories do the same? Because clearly, that bike is an Open bike. They got an engine from a factory, they have to use the championship software, and they have to build their own chassis. For the moment because it was late, they had some support, but they will build their own chassis, the bodywork. So for me, this is a completely Open bike. And a real Open bike. And it's a bit like what is happening in F1. You've got an engine, and then you build everything around it, you do what you want. Of course, always with good connection with your engine supplier. So I see why some people – you know who I mean - are angry and say this against the spirit of the rules. They decided another route, which today is not that bad, because yesterday, Nicky [Hayden] was quite far behind, but today he's with Colin [Edwards] now, and he improved by two seconds.

I don't understand how some people with experience are already writing and having some definitive position after just one day. We all know that what people are looking at is just the one lap which makes the classification, but this is a working test. And honestly, I think inside Yamaha, and for sure in my team, what we are working on at the moment is fuel consumption, to see if we can do the race. It's always good to do a good lap time: for our sponsors, for the confidence of the rider, but you cannot focus only on this one lap.

So this is what I think about Aleix Espargaro's bike. I think Aleix has done a great season in 2013, he fully deserved the ride he's having, and also, Open class fully deserved to have some top riders, and I think now with Aleix, with Colin, with Nicky, they have a lot of exciting riders. And we know in the end, the single ECU rule is the future, like it or not. We will have it, sooner or later.

Q: It doesn't make you think about going into the Open classs earlier?

HP: We are a Yamaha team. My factory is Yamaha, and they tell me what they want to do. I trust them, it is up to them to decide. But it is clear that in 2014, there will be two teams on Factory spec, factory team and Tech 3, and one team on Open spec, Forward. 2015 is going to be up to them.

It would be outside of my role to ask, push, or decide. For sure I could tell them, hey, I lease the bike, I do what I want for my sponsor, but I think I would never do that. Because this bike is their baby, they know what they're doing. They're doing a lot of development all through the winter about racing with 20 liters. So if they think we can do it, I have to follow them. You know, I think at some stage, we should understand how everything works, and there is not one person who is Mister I-Know-Everything. So I run a team, I run a company, I have a factory supporting me, and I have to show respect for what they decide, because they know their whole thing much better than me. And for sure they are worried, and now that, as I said before, they have also the feedback on the 24 liters and Open, on the same engine, if one day they think it's better to go there, then …

Q: Do you think Yamaha might go Open?

HP: This is something you should ask [Kouichi] Tsuji [head of Yamaha's MotoGP project - DE]. In 2014, the two teams, factory and Tech 3, they decided already for Factory Spec. In the future, I don't know. You know, you need to be pragmatic, and bottom line, at the end of the day, you are here to win. So to give a stupid example, if next year Aleix is winning five races, beating factory riders and Tech 3 riders, then maybe we have to think. This is entirely up to them. I respect their decision and I will follow their decision.

As I said before, this is only one-and-a-half days that we have done. I'm not too worried. I know how good Yamaha engineering level is. You know, the 20-liter rule was brought unanimously by MSMA. It's not that it came from Carmelo or anyone else. I was at the GPC when it came, and I asked Tsuji, who decided that? And he said, MSMA. And I said, who? And he said, unanimous support. So they know what they're doing, and we mustn't doubt them. And we will see, if Open bike can fight and sometimes beat some factory spec, then fine. This is more exciting, this is what we want. And this is I'm sure something that Carmelo will be so happy with.

Q: Because Dorna's plan is still to go single ECU in 2017?

HP: I guess so, this is something you have to ask Carmelo directly, but yes.

Q: This is something which IRTA would also support?

HP: Of course. But this is working in a lot of championships, not to say almost all of them. This is working in Moto3, where some manufacturers that are involved in MotoGP are also involved in Moto3. So why not? And I think what Forward and Ducati, I mean, Yamaha through Forward and Ducati through Pramac are showing is it works. And I've been talking to their riders, and they don't think the championship software is something from prehistory. So I don't see any reason why we shouldn't go all championship software. I think it will make it cheaper in the end, because that should be supplied free of charge by Dorna, and we know a lot of research is on the electronics, and this is of course making the lease fee more and more. So this is one of the things that will make the grid more competitive, and could make the bikes cheaper, so we have to go for this. If we have more exciting battles, more potential race winners or at least top-five finishers, and cheaper material, why should we be against? This is all that we are pushing for?

Q: Do you have the seamless gearbox?

HP: No. I work with Yamaha. Last year we understood, no way to have it in 2013. We understood also through Jorge and Valentino – and even last night, Jorge said it again – it's a plus. How big of a plus we don't know, but it's a plus. We don't have it here. But I'm confident, although I have no insurance from anybody, that we'll have it quite soon. I'm confident, but again, I know Yamaha is doing the best they can, and there's no meaning for me to shout and complain, or bang the table. You don't get anything like this. As long as you know that your partner is taking care of you and is willing to help, you have to respect also a lot of things. It's easy to talk behind the garage and shout at somebody, but when you know the whole picture, it's not that easy. I know they want to support us, and of course we have a common sponsor with Monster, and one of our riders is factory contracted, so they have no reason not to help. So I think when they will be able to give us a seamless gearbox, they will. I'm quite confident.

Q: And both riders will always be on the same level of support?

HP: For me this is essential. And I will make everything I can to have that, and Yamaha is on the same line. You know, both Pol and Brad are top riders, and I don't want any different support and treatment.

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Much of interest, particularly:

"Factory bikes are reduced to 20 liters, and this is exciting. For sure it is exciting, because it is already creating debate and controversy, because at the end of the day, when you have controversy you get people talking about MotoGP, so this is perfect."

- If Messrs Poncheral and Ezpeleta are of one mind this explains much.

I enjoyed the several swipes at the big H regarding competition versus winning and the spec ecu. Futhermore, his words suggest to me Yamaha accepts the coming of the spec electronics.

He has demonstrated his contempt for sporting values and comes over as a bully.

HRC whining about 'the spirit of the rules' in MotoGP is viewed as hypocrisy by many. A seismic change is long overdue.

For me, the best thing that can happen this year is if Ducati go Open and Corse improve their bikes performance relative to the Japs.
It would illustrate that improvement of the breed is best served outside HRC's vision of the technical rulebook. A book they wrote and that has gone too far.

Dovi, Cal & Alexi giving the satellite prototypes a bloody nose.
The RCV-R taking the place of Aprilia's ART - some would say the intention - and relegated to also-rans in the pecking order..insignificant.

Like a snowball rolling downhill, The Open Class concept is building momentum.

Long live the revolution!

Couldn't agree more.

Honda thinks MotoGP is theirs. They hold the biggest seat at the MSMA and have for a long time.
I've watched them push and peddle rules the entire 4 stroke era.

It has taken CRT and now open to wrestle control of the rule book and the series.
Yamaha and Ducati will play ball, Honda will act like a tot who has tossed all of his toys out of the pram. I'm tired of their whining on this. A more competitive championship is good for the series and good for the fans, who are long overdue for some consideration. Honda sees some future rule changes where they can't buy their way any longer and they are moaning.

You have to understand Japanese business and culture to understand that MSMA table. It's not an easy thing to explain to somebody. Honda is revered and feared in Japan among the mfr's. The other mfr's know that Honda is the biggest and baddest so they all play a tightrope walk with them in business and rule agreements akin to not waking the sleeping dragon.

A lot of us would love to see Yamaha chunk the deuce at Honda but Japanese culture doesn't work like this. There is a level of loyalty between the Japanese mfr's that is difficult to explain as I said.

Open rules for all decreases the cost which is good for everybody but Honda. It's a win for sponsorship money because the cost of sponsorship is reduced. That means more competitive teams, a full grid, better racing, good all the way around. There is no loss. With 24 liters the lap times will be the same or drop. The riders will have more control of the bike with TC reduced to a safety device instead of it being so intrusive.

Best news of all is a stable series with some cost measures could net BMW into the fold, or Aprilia.
More mfr's and a more competitive series is exactly what MotoGP needs. Not 4 seats as it is now, with realistically the remaining seats past the 4 being fluff and filler.

When there is closer competition and more sliding, the series will grow in popularity bringing better racing and more dollars. The techno at all cost crowd are the very vocal minority on this issue. And they do not understand that if this sport continues to escalate in price there won't be any series at all. It's already much too expensive for all but a precious couple of MFR's.

I'm digging it. The EVO class in WSBK as well. We, the sport bike buyers, and riders, will benefit.
For MotoGp I'm all for Open rules across the board. More passing, more battles. The folks who need processional racing to be happy can find a new sport to follow.

When exactly did Honda take over Yamaha, Ducati, Suzuki and Kawasaki? Last I checked there had to be a unanimous vote from all of the factories for rule changes, such as capacity, fuel etc.

I guess it's just easier to blame HRC.

Suzuki and Kawasaki had quit GP due to the cost of trying to be competitive.

As for a unanimous vote..didn't Honda lie to the GPC over weight change proposals late 2011, altering meeting minutes from a majority vote to unanimous?..Outrageous.

It's a bit naïve to think they are all equal in terms of clout..I mean, anybody else but Nakamoto stamping feet so petulantly threatening to take the ball home assuming it's theirs to take?

Yup, Suzuki and Kawasaki quit, after both of them approving of the capacity change to 800CC, and then stated they didn't have the resources to compete. It had absolutely nothing to do with the economic disaster in 2007 and the years following it, it was all Honda's fault.

We have only 3 days till Ducati have to announce their intention of running open or not...

In the absence of racing, the above interview was intriguing. The most clear conclusion is that HP is a consummate pro. You can read it that he was 100% towing the company line and the interview was a total snooze, or if you believe there's multiple layers at work he might be saying other things. "So they know what they're doing, and we mustn't doubt them" Hmmm....

If Ducati turns it around this year and Suzuki produces a competitive bike, it will at least be a 3 horse race instead of two. And they won't all be fighting and cheating like Honda. Plus if they leave and come back they will have to come back with their tail between their legs.

Don't get me wrong. The RC213V is my favorite bike on the grid and Marquie + Pedrosa are two of the top 3 riders on the grid by a landslide. But Honda has to bend a little bit for the sport as MotoGP is still in a tenuous state. Dorna is trying to bolster the sport's position... Honda's rigid ways are a big push in the opposite direction.

If you want close racing, and multiple brands represented, go to the Superbike World Championship. It has had superior racing for years, and many more brands than GP.

If you want elitism, worship of false gods, lack of competition between multiple brands and only two or three riders with a realistic chance of winning, then it is Grand Prix for you.

So, it was not Honda's decision after all! I guess it is just easier to blame Honda for everything. Herve Poncharal said:

"You know, the 20-liter rule was brought unanimously by MSMA. It's not that it came from Carmelo or anyone else. I was at the GPC when it came, and I asked Tsuji, who decided that? And he said, MSMA. And I said, who? And he said, unanimous support."

No one is forcing any of the manufacturers to participate. If any of them don't like the rules they are more than happy to fulfill their contract and pull out. 

On one hand I can understand why Honda wants open software development. On the other hand they need to man up and let DORNA take control of all of the rules and play in their sandbox. I hate the idea of spec everything, but something needs to change to get ALL of the manufacturers back into the premier grid.

>>to get ALL of the manufacturers _back_ into the premier grid.

Back into the premier grid? When was BMW last in GP racing? Was there ever a period in GP racing when ALL of the manufacturers participated? Or is it that for the past 30 years it has been carried by mainly Japanese manufacturers who now are being treated like unwelcome guests?

Kawasaki has not mentioned GP racing for years and with their WSB success will continue to ignore it. But they are making good use of their MotoGP derived technology in WSB.

As for the factories that want to or are running in GPs:

-Suzuki do not want spec software and do not want to run as an Open entry.
-Aprilia's plan (before the loss of Gigi) was to develop a bike for a Factory entry. Forcing them to use the spec software this year put them behind where they were last year. They went from the front running CRT to barely still in the paddock.
-Honda want open software.
-Yamaha want open software.
-Ducati are so far in the shitter it doesn't matter and are only looking at an Open entry because of the fewer engine regulations, not because of the software.
-MV Agusta? Fat chance.
-KTM? Even less of a chance.

What factories will be attracted to participate with spec software? None. What factories don't want spec software? Nearly all.


Burgess on GP..

"For too long the Grand Prix senior class has been the same scenario; Honda, Yamaha and a bit of Suzuki. CRT did a wonderful job showing chassis could be made in Europe. It created mini-industries and took us back to the interesting era of the 1960's-70's."

By extension and assuming trickle down..if the factories get their way, we'll all be riding big-brother-like electronically controlled and GPS pinpointed bikes, that won't respond to direct rider input.

Our freedom to make choices and learn by mistake will be extinguished. The spirit of riding and what motorcycling epitomises to all of us, will die.

Long live the revolution.


Well, eventually this will be the setup, at least that is what it seems like. I do not think it is a bad thing. There are still enough electronics, but not so much that every damn corner and straight has a different setting. Hope Ducati switches so they can be ahead of the curve. If they do not I will scream into the air, and be done trying to root for them, (cannot help it, Ducati is my favorite manufacturer, but unfortunately it is beginning to feel the same as rooting for the Oakland Raiders).

Thanks HP for articulating support for the greater shift away from fuel limits and sky is the limit electronics. Other paddock personalities might complain about the short run loss. Read between the lines here, it is as close to an endorsement as we may see. Why don't we see more public statements in support? Lots of reasons, and one important one being that THEY DON'T HAVE TO. Yamaha will not need to go public w their preference for more fuel and motors etc as the regulation shift is underway. Same for Suzuki and others. Do you really think Brivio and Denning are going to come out and say they are not in favor of being stuck w Mitsubishi electronics? Ask every Suzuki MotoGP rider what they think of Championship ECU and they will tell you. Suzuki and Ducati just need to smile and accept their "leg up" with rule changes underway. At any rate, HP congrats on your seamless gearboxes.
For the sake of clarity, there are three big deal "sweet spot" regulation areas being improved upon. First is fuel limits: the pendulum clearly went too far in forcing anemic engine performance and a host of secondary ptoblems with reliability and a contrived "need" for another layer of electronics. Sweet spot 22+ liters...fuel is heavy and tends towards its own pendulum center.
2nd is engine limits...what is their sweet spot? Let's not leave it wide open and have such a high state of tune that they need over 20. Low of 8+? I don't have enough awareness to call this one. One per round ish?
Electronics: The sweet spot, in conjunction w undoing the fuel management crap, is right close to here: turn by turn rider aids. Too far. There are MANY considerations and factors at interplay, we can go round and round "discussing" them, but we still need to name the sweet spot as the pendulum returns so that we don't go past it. No more turn-by-turn engine management.
Let's move Forward into the next era