Archive - 2009 - Interview
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.
Ever since Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta started talking about using production engines in MotoGP bikes, one name has come up again and again in any discussion of this subject. That name is WCM, and the team manager of the time, Peter Clifford. MotoMatters.com had already spoken to Clifford at the IRTA test in Jerez, where he gave us a potted history of the WCM project, but after the Grand Prix Commission announced that MotoGP would be returning to 1000cc, with no restrictions on engine provenance and a bore limit of 81mm, we went back to Clifford to get his opinion of the changes. After all, if there's anyone who knows the real cost of turning a production bike into a MotoGP bike, it's Peter Clifford and his team. The discussion was long and very interesting, and so we have split the interview into two parts. Part one is below, while the second part will be published tomorrow.
MM: When Carmelo Ezpeleta first came up with the idea of using production engines, your name and the WCM project was raised by just about everybody, because basically what they're talking about is allowing you to do what you could have done back in 2003. How do you feel about that?
PC: Well, it's just very humorous isn't it? It was so obvious that that is what needed to happen, but at the time, there was enough machinery at the sharp end and the factories were all keen to have a go at it, so the few people that were left out of that loop, no one cared very much about them. That's just the way it goes, though isn't it.
In the first part of our interview with Peter Clifford, he talked about the thinking behind the WCM project, as well as the goals for keeping racing affordable. In this second part, we discuss how - and why - the project ended, as well as the general question of costs in racing. Is it still possible to go racing without spending huge amounts of money? Clifford gives MotoMatters.com his views.
MotoMatters: To get back to the prototype, who did the inspection, was it the FIM who did tech inspection? I think it was in South Africa that it failed inspection...
Peter Clifford: I think the first place we went to was Japan that year, I think.
MM: But you turned up at the race with a rolling chassis and an engine, submitted to scrutineering...
PC: That's right and they said :no thank you.: I think Chris did the first practice or whatever in the wet and was quite quick on it. And then we were told we couldn't carry on with it. I'm pretty sure we did the first practice and then you know behind the scenes shenanigans.
MM: There's lots of reason to suspect that FG Sport were behind it...
PC: If I was Mr Flammini, I would probably have done it.
I think that I was foolish enough to believe what we did here in this MotoGP paddock, that Dorna, that we as a group, because we all felt that when we went MotoGP, went four stroke, that we were going ahead together. And we very much felt that as a team, OK, we're part of this, there were no motorcycles available, it's up to us to be part of this and we'll make our own. And we knew we'd have no objections from anybody else in the pit lane, everybody felt the same, we were all going together, and I think we thought we were masters of our own destiny in this. But we weren't.
After the recent announcement that the MotoGP class is to allow the use of production-based engines from 2012, the name on everybody's lips was WCM. After all, the team, run by Peter Clifford and Bob MacLean, had built exactly that bike back in 2003, to compete in the MotoGP class. That project ended badly, after a series of disqualifications on technical grounds saw the bike pulled from the grid due precisely to the fact that it was based on production parts. The legal battles over those disqualifications were taken all the way to the International Court of Arbitration in Sport, where WCM lost the case on the matter of how the castings were made.
Here at MotoMatters.com, we have been fascinated by this project for several years now, as it seemed to point the way to a radically different approach to a MotoGP project. With the imminent return of production-based engines - at least for privateer teams - the WCM project seems positively visionary. We tracked down Peter Clifford at the IRTA tests earlier this year, to ask him about the history of the WCM project, and to get his thoughts on racing. In the first of this two-part interview, Clifford talks about the genesis of the project, and the design concepts used to create it. Part two will be online tomorrow.
MotoMatters: The WCM project, when did it start, how did it start?
Peter Clifford: Well in 2002, end of 2002, Yamaha said that they weren't going to make enough M1s for everybody and we were going to be unlucky. At the same time, Red Bull decided that they were no longer going to continue either, so we were left with no sponsor and no machinery. It was a question of either basically stay home or go racing and my business partner Bob McLean and I decided that we wanted to go racing. Carmelo Ezpeleta said, "Look, Peter, you have to turn up with something, anything, because it's all going to get better, I'm going to get the Japanese to produce more motorcycles for everybody, so you've just got to survive through 2003 with whatever you can muster".
The biggest surprise in the 250cc championship this year has been Hiroshi Aoyama. The Japanese rider has always been strong in the class, winning regularly, but never able to fight for a title. Heading into the 2009 season, the title race looked like being a straight fight between Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista, yet it is Aoyama who leads the championship. A feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Scot Honda team is fielding an outdated bike on a shoestring budget, and pitting themselves against the well-stocked war chests of two full factory challengers in Bautista and Simoncelli.
Intrigued by Aoyama's success so far, we caught up with the amiable Japanese rider on the Saturday before the Indianapolis Grand Prix, to ask about the season so far and his plans for the future. Here's what he had to say.
MotoMatters: Tell me about how how you arrived in this team.
Hiroshi Aoyama: OK, last year I used to ride a KTM and at the end of the season they decided to stop with this project. It's a pity, but the decision was already made at the last race or one or two races before.
So when we finished the season, normally you know what you are going to do next season, but I didn't know anything, because there was nothing available. It was too late, other teams had already decided, so it was quite difficult to find another team. But at the beginning of this year, we find this team, I was lucky, I had a lot of cooperation to find this team, Team Scot.
Since the announcement of the new engine limits, which permit each rider to use 5 engines for the last 7 races of the season, to be cut to 6 engines for the entire 18-race season next year, we at MotoGPMatters.com have been wondering just how this is going to work out. After quizzing Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Guy Coulon on Thursday, who told us it shouldn't be a problem for them, we put the same questions to Andrea Dovizioso's Repsol Honda crew chief Pete Benson. Here's what he had to say on the subject:
MGPM: I wanted to ask about the engine limits. How's it going so far, it's only been one race, but have you run into any problems?
Pete Benson: No, this year it's absolutely no problem, because you've got 5 engines to the end of the season. We've still got five new engines in our allocation. It's very, very easy at the moment. Next year, basically the engine mileage itself is not a problem, but you crash a bike and damage the engine, that's when it becomes a problem. Because then there's a very good chance we'll get to the end of the year and you'll, say, get to the last race and only have one engine left without taking a penalty. It's not something I'm really in favor of, but they say they [the MSMA] need to do it so they're going to do it.
MGPM: What happens when you crash the Honda engine? Is it susceptible to damage? Does it let gravel in through the airbox?
PB: Well,you know, generally no, but if you fire things into a gravel trap hard enough things are going to break. They've got good filter systems and everything on them, but if you tear all the fairings and everything off them, then there's always that chance, you know? And it's not just that, if you crash a bike hard enough, you can break the crankcase or punch a hole in the end of the cases. It doesn't happen very often, but it can happen.
In addition to the in-depth explanation which Lucio Cecchinello gave us about his single-event sponsorship model, which we published yesterday, the former 125cc race winner and now boss of the LCR Honda team also spoke to us about a few other topics. We discussed the role that the Bridgestone tires had played in limiting the number of crashes Randy de Puniet has had this season, and how LCR is trying to keep the Frenchman at the team for next season, but we started out talking about how the engine limits affected the team, with just 5 engines to last 7 races, and next year, 6 engines for all 18 races.
MGPM: We have the engine limits coming up, where you only have 5 engines for the last 7 races. Does that worry you at all, or are you getting enough life out of your engines already.
LC: Yes, at first Honda technology is already in a condition to guarantee us to have 2000 km per engine.
MGPM: Which is 2-3 races per engine.
LC: Yes. With 6 engine you will have quite have a good chance.
MGPM: And for this year, you're not even worried, it won't even be a problem at all
LC: No. This year, we can finish the season with 3 engines, we have 5, so ...
MGPM: I'd like to talk about the changes which Randy has seen. Last year, Randy crashed, this year he hasn't crashed...
LC: Except for the last race! [At the Sachsenring]
The LCR Honda team has been the talk of the paddock this year, with the Playboy logos adorning the bike at several rounds this year. But Playboy aren't on the bike at every round, to the confusion of some of the casual fans, instead, you are as likely to see Italian equipment manufacturer Givi on the bike as you are Playboy, or oil giant ELF, as it is all part of team boss Lucio Cecchinello's ingenious scheme for attracting more sponsors into the sport, by lowering the price of entry.
LCR's sponsorship program works with a series of single-event deals, rather than a single title sponsor, as most of the other teams do. This unconventional and highly innovative approach to raising funds had long interested us, so at Donington, we tracked Lucio Cecchinello down to explain the concept behind it.
MGPM: I wanted to talk to you about sponsorship, because I think you have one of the most interesting approaches to sponsorship, it's totally different to the rest of the teams. Instead of a title sponsor, you have single event sponsors, you are selling a single event package to a sponsor. First of all, how did you come up with the idea.
Lucio Cecchinello: When we arrived in MotoGP, in 2006, we had to face let's say the starting of a new era of sponsorship deals, because the fact of the new European rules forbidding advertising tobacco companies made a lot of trouble for everybody. And when we arrived in 2006, the European community started to say within one year, all the tobacco companies have to disappear in the motorsport field. So we arrived in a very tough period, because we proposed to some tobacco companies - because in 2006 there was still the possibility to do that - but unfortunately already all the tobacco companies said, "Sorry, we have no plan to continue in MotoGP, because anyway in 12 months, we are already finished, very sorry."
So there was a huge quantity of money that went way from the MotoGP class, it disappeared. So, MotoGP is not like Formula One, MotoGP teams did not have the skill, capacity, background, or commercial department able to sell their product, to sell our product. And from our side, where we came from the small and medium category, we always had contact with small and medium companies.
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 ...
After talking about the rookie rule in part 1 of our interview with Herve Poncharal, and the necessity of cost-cutting in part 2, in today's episode, the Tech 3 team boss turns his attention to the question of sponsorship. Along the way, we cover the question of how tobacco sponsorship nearly put MotoGP out of business, how many riders are paid too much, and how MotoGP can benefit potential sponsors. The series will conclude tomorrow, when Poncharal will talk about James Toseland, the 800s, and Ben Spies.
MGPM: One of the other things I've written about is the fact that MotoGP's expensive, but there's two ways you deal with that expense: you either cut costs or you raise more money.
HP: Absolutely, this is what I wanted to tell you. Clearly now we are too expensive, but as you say, what does it mean, too expensive? We are too expensive in the economic environment we are in, I think. I lived through the time that we saw the tobacco industry investing in motorsport. And because of their investment and because there were more tobacco brands than teams, you know, they created a really big inflation in all departments. The factories understood they could make some money and lease the bike at a more expensive price, and it went up. But it was not too expensive, because we could afford it! So I understood that if this (lifts up cellphone) costs 1 euro and you can't afford it, it's too expensive; if it costs 100 euro and you think it's cheap, then it's cheap. So, the riders took advantage of course, because there was a battle to get the big advantage. So everything went up, the mechanics, the travel, some of the teams were flying business, you know, it was very expensive, but nobody complained, because at the end of the day, you know...
MGPM: Tobacco paid...
HP: Exactly. And when the tobacco industry left, whaa! We found ourselves with the tobacco costs, let's call it like this, but without the tobacco support. And we understood, and we understand still, it's impossible to match that cost. So even before the credit crunch, for me, we are too expensive! You know, we were already too expensive, it's not only because of the crisis we are going through now, that we are too expensive. OK, this is even more obvious now. But even before you could see, what's the point being that expensive?
More from our monster interview with Tech 3 Yamaha boss Herve Poncharal. After yesterday's episode, in which Poncharal discussed the rookie rule, and how it has helped the satellite teams survive financially, today the point in the interview where Poncharal spoke in his role as the head of IRTA, and discussed the proposals which have been submitted to reduce costs in MotoGP, after the current agreement to run 800cc engines runs out in 2011.
Over to the interview:
MGPM: I wanted to speak to you about your role in IRTA. How can we make MotoGP cheaper? There is the suggestion of using the 1000cc production engines in MotoGP, what people are calling Moto1.
HP: So, for a long time, you know, we in the independent teams, but maybe me the most, we have been pushing for ways to cut costs, talking about it any time we had a meeting, a committee meeting within IRTA where you had factory team representative and independent team representative. And every time, everyone was looking at me like, pfft, OK, OK, here he goes again. And I always told everyone "If we can have a good show, if we can do this, but be a bit cheaper, we will be stronger, we will grow here".
Anyway, especially the manufacturers, they didn't want to move too much, they were very rigid, and there were almost no decisions ever taken. And I remember at the end of October in Valencia, when we switched to the one tire brand, we changed the winter test schedule because we didn't need to have so many tests. Basically I was pushing for less tests, less tests, but the manufacturers, not even the biggest one were still very conservative, saying we need to test, we need more laps. And I said, "hey, if it's the same rule for everybody, less tests, less this, it's the same, you don't need to test." Because at the end of the day, you can test 365 days a year if you want, but can you afford it? What does it bring to the championship, to the show, because at the end of the day what we want to have is exciting racing, with people who can afford to be there, and teams that can be healthy. But they said "No, no, no, we need more tests, more tests."
One of the most remarkable transformations this year has been Randy de Puniet's change from crash test dummy to fast, consistent finisher. MotoGPMatters was fascinated by this change, so we caught up with de Puniet in LCR Honda's rather splendid hospitality unit.
MotoGPMatters: Last year, you got 61 points, and after just 9 races you're already up to 58 points this season (this was before RDP's podium at Donington). How do you explain that?
Randy de Puniet: Last year I had many crashes during the race and the practice, and I decided to change many things at the end of the season, and we also changed the tire. I think for me this was a good step. I feel more confident with the Bridgestone front tire. That's why I have better results and less crashes this year. Also, I know the bike and the team better, because it's my second year in this team. I think I've had a good season so far at this moment.
MGPM: Does your style suit the Bridgestone front more than the Michelin front? Is this from a 250 riding style?
RdP: The problem was not that Michelin was worse than Bridgestone, the problem was that with Michelin it was impossible to find the limit. Many times when I was in the gravel, I say "why did I crash?" Many times, many times. With the Bridgestone you have a better contact feeling and you know where you are. That's why I think this is better for me.
MGPM: So you know when you're almost at the limit?
MGPM: Do you think this is a little like Casey Stoner in his first year on the LCR with the Michelins, when he had lots of front end crashes. As soon as he gets on the Bridgestones, he stops crashing.
RdP: Maybe, maybe.
MGPM: You also changed your trainer at the end of the season as well. Why, and how did that affect you?
MotoGPMatters.com's Scott Jones had spoken to Guy Coulon at the MotoGP season opener at Qatar, and the conversation had left us with some questions unanswered. Colin Edwards' crew chief had told us that he wanted to reserve judgment on issues such as tires and the practice restrictions until a few races into the season. At the halfway mark of the season, we felt it was a good time to catch up with Coulon again and get his opinion, as well as ask about the Tech 3 team's plans for the fledgling Moto2 series due to launch next year. Scott Jones spoke to Guy Coulon
MGPM: When we spoke in Qatar, you said we would need to go to several races where there had been no winter testing to know how the shortened practice schedule and new tire rules would affect race preparation. What can you tell us seven races into the season?
Coulon: But already we have another change [in the practice schedule] from Le Mans. We started the beginning of the season with only three sessions of 45 minutes each. From Le Mans, we still have three sessions but each is one hour now. So the main thing we have learned this year is that the Yamaha is not difficult to set up, and I think we have an advantage with fewer [practice] sessions.
But of course we have to use the time we have differently from before when we had more practice sessions. Before we had four hours and now we have three, so we must be very focused on what changes we want to make. We must decide after each change if we will keep those settings or not. When we had more time we could compare settings, and if the rider was unsure which was better, we could compare the two settings again before moving forward. But now when we compare different settings, we must decide right away if we keep those settings or not; we follow this way or we follow that way. So that is different from before. But also this year we have only one tire manufacturer, and that means we have many fewer types of tires to combine with our tests of different chassis settings.
After a dismal year in 2008, where he struggled woefully with the Ducati Desmosedici, Marco Melandri has taken last year's Kawasaki and turned in some remarkable results. MotoGPMatters.com caught up with Melandri at Laguna Seca, to ask about the year so far, and what he expects for the future.
MGPM: After your difficult year in 2007, you've exceeded everyone's expectations this season with Hayate. Do you feel you're once again showing people what Marco Melandri is capable of?
Melandri: Yes, it has been a very tough 2008, and for sure I signed up for a difficult challenge with Kawasaki. After the winter we knew we would have a very tough season, but then we had some very good races, which no one expected, including me. I expected to have some good races, actually, but not to do as well as we've done. After that we had some difficult races, and I had a small injury in Barcelona, but now that's getting better. I'm quite happy with the season so far.
As regular readers of MotoGPMatters.com may well be aware, we are fascinated by the impact of rule changes on motorcycle racing, and how the engineers try to work around them. So we were fortunate enough to spend 10 minutes with Andrea Dovizioso's crew chief Pete Benson, to ask him a few questions about how the new tire rule is working. But we got a bit sidetracked, and ended up talking about the impact of all sorts of rule changes.
MGPM: You've gone from a Kentuckian to an Italian, how's the communication with Andrea Dovizioso, do you speak Italian?
PB: No, I don't speak Italian, Andrea speaks English. His English is very good, so the communication is easy.
MGPM: Is he easy to work with?
Yeah, basically. Like all riders, he knows what he wants and expects to get it, which is normal. Once we sort of worked out what we both expected of each other and how to go about it, it's all sort of fallen into place very nicely. It's pretty good.
MGPM: About the single tire rule, and how it's affected your way of working, are you spending more time on setup now because you can't just throw tires at the bike?
Yeah, that's a lot of it. Obviously you've only got two tires to choose from and everyone's got the same tires, so you just try to get more out of the bike. You've got a basic setup from previous years, and so you kind of know what you want to do once you get to each track, and you just fine tune it. So now, you go out and test your two tires, and see which one you think is going to be the race tire, and then just work on fine tuning the thing from there. Instead of going "well, maybe we've got another tire that might work better", you just go "these are the two tires we've got, this one's the race tire, and this one we might be able to get a better lap on". So we're just trying to make the bike a little bit better.