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 ...
The next piece in the MotoGP silly season jigsaw puzzle could be about to fall into place. Reports in both the Spanish press (at Motocuatro and Marca) and at the Italian site GPOne.com are suggesting that Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, has called an emergency meeting with Alvaro Bautista's management to discuss the former 125cc champion's MotoGP plans. The meeting is due to take place on Thursday, in the paddock at Brno, and it is believed that Martinez will use the occasion to try a last-ditch attempt to persuade Bautista to join the Aspar MotoGP project and ride the Ducati left vacant by Sete Gibernau for next season.
For Aspar has a problem. Alvaro Bautista has already signed a pre-contract with Suzuki last summer, according to the reports, and is not inclined to pay the penalty which breaking that commitment would involve. As a result, Bautista is increasingly leaning towards finalizing a deal with Suzuki to ride for the Rizla squad for 2010. His choice is also influenced by the fact that he will be able to go straight to a factory team, Suzuki having received a dispensation from the rookie rule which forces new entrants to sign with satellite squads.
Up against this, Aspar can offer a contract directly with Ducati, but riding in the Aspar team. Bautista would be assured of strong support from Ducati Corse, and the option of moving up to the factory squad should his results be good enough. Of course, with so many riders struggling to tame the Desmosedici, Bautista may not want to risk that option, and the Spaniard has in the past flat out refused to ride the Ducati.
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."
After the speculation and the rumors, finally the official confirmation. Below is the text of the press release put out by Ducati Corse today, on the subject of Casey Stoner missing the next three races:
STONER OUT OF ACTION FOR THREE RACES, KALLIO TO JOIN HAYDEN IN DUCATI MARLBORO TEAM
Casey Stoner will not take part in the next three Grands Prix, and will next return to action at the beginning of October for the Grand Prix of Portugal. The Australian has suffered physical problems since the Catalunya GP, which have caused him severe fatigue during the last five races. Stoner took this difficult decision after having consulted with sports doctors who have looked after him for many years back home in Australia. At this challenging time, he has the support of the team and the whole of Ducati who together with Stoner have enjoyed racing at the top of the sport for the last three seasons.
Mika Kallio will join Nicky Hayden in the Ducati Marlboro Team for the next three races, thanks to the great spirit of collaboration between Ducati and the satellite team owned by Paolo Campinoti. Kallio is in his debut season in MotoGP and has already proved to be very competitive on the GP9. For the Brno race, his place in the Pramac Team will be taken by Michel Fabrizio.
CASEY STONER, Ducati Marlboro Team (3rd in the championship on 150 points):
"After five extremely difficult races due to my health, I returned to Australia to visit the sports doctors who have looked after me for many years. We have taken the difficult decision not to contest the next three rounds of the championship, to allow my body time to recover from the recent stress. The doctors believe that during the Barcelona race I was suffering from a virus, and, that I subsequently pushed my body too hard, leading to problems that have caused my fatigue since then. The doctors are continuing with many tests to try to understand these problems and make sure it does not happen again. I have spoken with Ducati and thank them for their understanding at this time. I feel very sorry for the factory, my team, my sponsors and the fans and I am also disappointed because the bike in the last races has been very competitive. I will be doing everything possible to come back at full strength for Portugal."
News of Casey Stoner's withdrawal continues to reverberate around the internet. More and more sources are confirming that Stoner will not be present at Brno, and could be gone for several races: The usually extremely reliable GPOne.com is stating that official confirmation will be coming very shortly, while Speed TV's Dennis Noyes has apparently had confirmation from a source inside Italy that the Bologna factory is currently working on a press release.
The consensus seems to be that Stoner has been advised by doctors to take more rest, probably missing the next three races, at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano. With the Hungarian round at the Balatonring already canceled, this would give Stoner a further two months to recover, in time for the grueling run of four races in six weekends, spread over three continents, which caps the MotoGP season in October and November. Two more months would give Stoner a chance to rest and his medical advisors an opportunity to get to the bottom of his mystery illness.
That mystery has naturally led to a veritable tsunami of speculation. Current favorite is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which is linked to stress, anemia, a number of viral infections, as well as several other causes. The disease is poorly understood, but certainly the symptoms bear a striking resemblance to what we know of Stoner's condition: a sudden onset after a flu-like illness, exhaustion after physical exertion, stomach problems, and a failure to recover. So far, though, this is based solely on speculation and armchair diagnosis, and cannot be regarded as in any way accurate or reliable.
After a mystery illness left Casey Stoner drained and exhausted at the past four races, it was assumed that a return to his native Australia would provide Stoner with a welcome break. The rest, coupled with further consultations with doctors he has worked with before and whom he has much confidence in, would surely allow the 2007 World Champion to return to racing at Brno, if not completely recovered, then at least in better shape than he left the series after Donington.
But apparently, this is not to be. According to the Spanish website Motoworld.es, Ducati will be announcing tomorrow that Casey Stoner will not race at Brno. No one will be brought in to replace Stoner, according to Motoworld.es, something that Ducati would have to do if Stoner to miss the following round at Indianapolis two weeks later.
The report does not cite any definite cause for Stoner's decision to skip Brno, but Motoworld.es is alleging that the problems are mainly psychological, and a question of self-confidence. Stoner underwent a battery of tests after the US GP at Laguna Seca in early July, after which the team announced that the Australian had been diagnosed with mild gastritis and slight anemia. However, at Donington, Stoner denied that this was a problem, telling the press it was so minor as to be irrelevant, and that the problem must have another cause.
Being diagnosed certainly hasn't help solve Stoner's problems. According to Motoworld.es, sources inside Stoner's inner circle are reporting that if anything, his condition has got worse since the Barcelona race, rather than better.
Since the end of 2008, Herve Poncharal has found himself a very busy man indeed. As head of both the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team and the IRTA representative in the Grand Prix Commission, Poncharal has had his hands full both on and off the track. With the global financial crisis impacting MotoGP so heavily, Poncharal has been especially busy finding ways to cut costs and secure the future of the championship, working in tandem with the other members of the Grand Prix Commission.
So when we had a chance to speak to Poncharal on Thursday night at Donington Park, prior to the final British Grand Prix to be run at the track, we jumped at it. We had hoped to get maybe half an hour of his time, but we got so much more than we bargained for. Like all good cub reporters, we had brought a list of questions, and had prepared ourselves mentally to go through them in the hope of getting some interesting answers. As it turned out, Poncharal had been preparing for us, too, and we ended up covering subjects as diverse as the role of an independent MotoGP team, cost-cutting in MotoGP, the Moto2 class, the proposals from the MSMA to supply cheaper engines, how tobacco sponsorship nearly destroyed MotoGP, the benefits of sponsoring MotoGP, James Toseland and Ben Spies. So wide-ranging was the interview that we have been forced to cut it up into several parts.
We started off the interview talking about the rookie rule. Or rather, the Tech 3 Yamaha boss took us to task for not understanding the importance of the rule to the satellite teams. Here's what Herve Poncharal had to say:
Herve Poncharal: I know MotoGPMatters. Maybe 5 times a day, I'm going to Crash.net, GPOne, MotoGPMatters, MCN, a French site called Caradisiac, everybody's reading each other when there is something. This is a good website; sometimes there is a little bit too much polemic - which is good, because we need to create some polemic.
But one thing I read which I thought was not too accurate was that the rookie clause was no use and no meaning, and because Simoncelli signed with Gresini and signed with Honda, it was proof that it would be useless. Not at all! Because without that rule, Simoncelli would have been with HRC. I was also talking to them, so I know very well, and if Simoncelli went to Honda it's because Japan on Honda's side got involved and Yamaha Japan didn't think they had to get involved. Anyway, because of that rule, Gresini managed to catch a top rider, even though Gresini could not afford him, because HRC wanted him. Signing Simoncelli has helped him to sign San Carlo [the Italian snack manufacturer which sponsors the Gresini team], because San Carlo was saying "I'm out of here with the result we have and the riders we have." So it helped him to sign instantly and it helped him to have the factory paying for him. So the rookie rule has been helping the independent teams.
In the final chapter of our summer break round up of the MotoGP season, we turn towards the unknown. After our discussions of the things we know for sure, and the things which are extremely probable, we stray from the path of solid research, head down the trail of the likely, making a left turn into the tangled brush and undergrowth of the possible and onwards to wishful thinking and the frankly bizarre. Once past the certain and the obvious, the options become more open, more varied and more improbable. Whereas you could have safely placed a small wager on the rider movements discussed yesterday, the options presented below are a pretty good way of losing your money.
We shall start our journey with the most likely scenarios, and descend into the unknown from there. Of the riders we have not yet discussed, Randy de Puniet has the best chance of securing a decent ride for next year. Since his switch to the spec Bridgestone tires, the Frenchman has been transformed from the man most likely to crash to a podium hero at Donington, and his stock has risen enormously.
De Puniet is currently in negotiations with his current team boss Lucio Cecchinello about signing for LCR Honda again for next year, but the Frenchman's main demand is not money but equipment. De Puniet wants a more competitive bike, and though Cecchinello would dearly like to oblige, that depends both on the team's ability to raise the necessary funds and HRC's willingness to supply a better bike.
And so de Puniet is also talking to - who else? - Tech 3's Herve Poncharal. At Tech 3 the Frenchman would be assured of excellent support and his best shot at more regular podium appearances. The only point of contention would be money, and unless de Puniet can bring extra sponsorship dollars to the Tech 3 team, his salary demands would have to remain modest.
Yesterday, we covered the things we know for sure about the MotoGP riders market in 2010. So today, we turn our attention to the known unknowns, the riders and teams that we are fairly sure are going to be in MotoGP but with no certainty as to how or where or with whom. Naturally, that lack of certainty means that what follows is partly speculation, but is based on information which has so far proven to be reliable for the most part. If you're fond of a flutter, it might be worth taking a shot on some of what follows, but I certainly wouldn't bet the farm on any of it.
The biggest dependency in the MotoGP Silly Season so far was touched upon yesterday. Jorge Lorenzo is the juggernaut stopped at the crossroads, holding up the traffic behind him, deciding whether to take the fork to Honda or to continue on along the road with Yamaha. The news emerging from various sources in the media and the paddock is that Lorenzo is most likely to stay the course with Yamaha and demonstrate that he can beat Valentino Rossi on equal machinery.
If, as we expect, Lorenzo stays, then this will precipitate a host of changes through the rest of the field. The most significant of these, as we covered yesterday, will be Dani Pedrosa. With the option of a move to Yamaha effectively blocked - Yamaha could neither afford nor would they want three of the top four riders in the world, as they have their hands full already just handling two of them - Pedrosa will most likely remain at Repsol Honda, perhaps with some extra guarantees of performance from HRC extracted with some extra pressure from Repsol, who grow tired of pouring many millions of euros into the factory Honda squad without seeing the desired return (a Spanish MotoGP champion) on their investment.
Andrea Dovizioso is likely to retain his seat alongside Dani Pedrosa, his hand having been strengthened by his victory at Donington Park just a couple of weeks ago. But as HRC is quietly accumulating talent in the background, with Marco Simoncelli already signed for Gresini next year and one or two other names already popping up on the HRC radar, Dovi will most likely be given another one year contract for just the 2010 season, so that HRC can reshuffle its cards at the end of next year. HRC's hands are also tied by the limited options available. Yamaha has successfully corner a sizable chunk of the talent market, and the only rider eligible and qualified to move up to the Repsol ride would be Marco Melandri, who has proved again this year that he can still ride, just as long as what he's riding wasn't built in Bologna.
Although MotoGP's traditional silly season - the point at which teams and riders decide who will be going where next year - is currently being blocked by one man (a certain Spanish rider by the name of Jorge Lorenzo), it is still time to start taking stock of the current state of the market, and marking out who will be staying and who will be going. Over the next few days MotoGPMatters.com will be running a series of articles on the state of the silly season, to help you keep track. All the official signings will be recorded on the 2010 MotoGP rider line up page, which will be updated as and when contracts are actually confirmed.
So far, that list is pretty short. Only Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Marco Simoncelli have confirmed contracts for 2010, the rest is all up in the air. Rossi is halfway through his two-year contract with Yamaha, and is likely to extend that at the end of next season; Stoner has exercised the option he had to remain with Ducati for next year, though his disappointment with Yamaha and Honda for not offering him a factory ride at the end of 2006 has a role to play in the decision; and Simoncelli is the first victim of the rookie rule, the Italian expected to go to a factory team, but being prevented by the rule barring new entries into the class from signing directly with a factory team and forcing them to serve an apprenticeship year - and help bring some much-needed sponsorship into - a satellite team.
That Jorge Lorenzo is holding up the MotoGP riders market is universally acknowledged. Whether Lorenzo decides to stay at Yamaha or make a dramatic switch to Honda will have a huge effect on the rest of the silly season, with seats opening up and being filled differently depending on the direction Lorenzo takes. Perhaps the most important of the players to be affected by Lorenzo's decision is Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa, with just about everyone believing that Lorenzo's entry at Repsol Honda would be immediately followed by Pedrosa's departure.
Dani Pedrosa doesn't see it that way, however. In an interview with the Spanish magazine Motociclismo, the Repsol Honda star is adamant that it is he who will make the decisions on his future, and what other riders do is irrelevant. "It doesn't matter to me what Mister Lorenzo does, he should do what he likes or what he can, but my future depends on how I'm feeling and my situation. If I'm not in the right place or have better opportunities, I'll try to take them. But I won't look at what Lorenzo does," Pedrosa told Motociclismo.
That decision may depend in part on how the Honda RC212V is performing. Pedrosa acknowledged that between his injuries and a lack of testing, the bike was nowhere near as competitive as it should have been. The problem, according to Pedrosa, was one of consistency: "You could go fast [on the bike] for a few laps, but making it work all race long has been the most difficult thing."
We're not much for regurgitating press releases here at MotoGPMatters.com - you can find those all across the internet, or even get them straight from the teams themselves - but there have been one or two honorable exceptions to this rule. Today, another one landed in our inbox, an e-mail from the outstanding PR department at Indianapolis Motor Speedway containing a compilation of the best of Colin Edwards' quips from his Tornado Warning column over on the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix website. Edwards is always entertaining - whether you agree with him or not - and a highlight reel should keep you chuckling all day long, so we have reproduced it verbatim below, with just a brief word of warning that Edwards' language is occasionally, well, colorful, so those who are easily offended should probably look away now.
COLIN EDWARDS' GREATEST QUIPS: THE BEST OF 'TORNADO WARNING'
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Aug. 4, 2009 – American MotoGP superstar Colin Edwards has participated in an exclusive interview series, "Tornado Warning," with the official Web site of the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, www.redbullindianapolisgp.com, before every MotoGP event since early in the 2008 season.
The colorful, outspoken Edwards, from Houston, never shies from speaking his mind on a variety of topics in the world of motorcycle racing, usually with great insight and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor.
After the joy of his surprise podium at Donington Park, Randy de Puniet had misfortune to deal with last weekend. The Frenchman was training with his coach, former motocross champion Yves Demaria, at a track near Aix-en-Provence when he crashed his motocross bike, falling heavily on his leg. He was immediately taken to a local hospital where X-rays revealed a fractured in his left ankle. A screw was immediately inserted to fix the bones, and de Puniet was immediately discharged from hospital.
The Frenchman is due to meet with Clinica Mobile staff over the next few days to discuss his physical rehabilitation, and expects to be able to ride at the next MotoGP round at Brno in ten days time. A press release by the LCR Honda team quoted De Puniet as saying "I am very disappointed about this setback but training is very important for me in order to be in good shape in MotoGP. I will do my best to race in Brno and I am sure that the Clinica Mobile staff will support me in the best way."
The Silly Season log jam is getting close to being breached. Reports from two of the most respected sources in the MotoGP paddock - MCN's Matthew Birt and GPWeek's Michael Scott - are suggesting that Jorge Lorenzo has decided to bite the bullet and accepted Yamaha's offer. Lorenzo had been openly flirting with a switch to the Honda team - a move which would have seen Dani Pedrosa instantly departing from the Repsol squad - and had insinuated that Yamaha were not offering what he felt he was worth.
However, Lorenzo's results at the Sachsenring and Donington undermined the Spaniard's bargaining position sufficiently that he is believed to have caved in and signed back on with Yamaha again. After the race in Germany, where Rossi beat Lorenzo by just 0.099 seconds, Lorenzo was brutally frank about his prospects: "I have to beat him [Rossi]" Lorenzo replied in a tangential answer to a question about his contract negotiations. Lorenzo was in position to do just that at Donington, but his eagerness to win saw him brake on the white line and lose the front, crashing out of the race, hurting his negotiating position even further.
Just how serious Lorenzo's approaches to Honda were are open to question. There is no doubt that the Yamaha is the best bike on the grid at the moment - the Fiat Yamaha duo lead the riders championship, the team leads the team championship, Yamaha lead the constructors championship and the Tech 3 Yamaha team is the first satellite team and ahead of the factory Suzuki team in the team standings - and Honda has struggled to produce a truly competitive bike since the switch to the 800cc formula. The RC212V has clearly improved recently, but it is still lacking in both corner entry and engine response in comparison to the Yamaha M1. Lorenzo will have been all too aware of these facts, and if his ambition is to beat Valentino Rossi and become world champion - which it surely is, despite his denials earlier this year - then having the best machinery at his disposal is his best chance of success.