"I am not a very happy man," Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal's problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat. (Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki's GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.)
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract. Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.
The fashion for factories
Why can't Tech 3 keep Pol Espargaro, or sign Alex Rins? "Although we have machinery very close to the factory teams, it looks like now there is a trend or a fashion. If you’re a young, fast rider there is nothing but a factory ride," Poncharal said. "I think this is quite difficult for us to swallow, to understand."
Poncharal expanded on the example of Rins. "He would be a very exciting prospect for us. He’s got the same title sponsor which is Monster. So it makes sense." The problem is that the Tech 3 seat is no longer seen as the best route to a factory ride. "When [Rins] sees who is on the factory Yamaha, it is somebody who joined Suzuki and has been offered the deal," Poncharal told us, referring to Maverick Viñales' switch from ECSTAR Suzuki to Movistar Yamaha. "So is the best route to have the Factory Yamaha to go through Tech 3? It doesn’t look like at the moment."
What was even more disturbing than Rins' insistence on a factory ride was the interview Rins' father had given recently stating that they would rather spend another year in Moto2 than go to a satellite team in MotoGP. "I was shocked," Poncharal said. "It means it's better to do a third year in Moto2 than come to LCR, Tech 3..."
There are a few reasons why talented youngsters are avoiding satellite teams, and there is little the teams can do about any of them. The biggest difference between this period and seasons past is the sheer depth of competitive machinery. After the switch to the single tire rule, there were only really the factory Hondas, the factory Yamahas, and Casey Stoner on the Ducati to defeat. "When we have only two factories, we are fighting best of the rest to be fifth," Poncharal said. "I think we were doing eight podiums a year."
A level playing field, for some
The introduction of spec electronics has been instrumental in both the improving performance of Ducati and in attracting more factories back into MotoGP. The common software has removed an expensive piece of the performance puzzle from the equation for budding factories, factory electronics gurus now spending more time understanding the data from bikes, rather than chasing algorithms to match those of Honda and Yamaha.
It has taken Suzuki eighteen months to go from being uncompetitive to being in the hunt for podiums. Now that Aprilia have a proper prototype MotoGP machine, they too are making leaps and bounds, their biggest deficit being the thirty-odd horsepower they are missing. Ducati have used their experience with last year's Open Class software to go from occasional podium candidates to chasing their first victory since 2010. KTM's development cycle has been able to concentrate on power delivery and chassis behavior, without having to also deal with the complexities of chasing a moving target as they develop their own software.
All this has left the satellite teams standing on the sidelines. "We were a B team some years ago, but I think now we are C teams," Hervé Poncharal told us at Barcelona. "Now we have a minimum of four factories ahead of us, so it means we’re fighting for ninth. But the six factories will be doing whatever they can do to be faster than us. We’ll fight for 13th. And then it will maybe look a bit weird. You have to be in the Parc Fermé after qualifying being 13th, or to be in the Parc Fermé after the race and be 13th in the race." In 2011, Tech 3 was hoping to get lucky and bag a podium. In 2017, they will be hoping to get luck and get inside the top ten.
Why are satellite teams struggling to get into the top 10? The biggest difference is in the resources available in setting up the bike. "Because the electronics are more rudimentary, then we have to work more on the electronics. We don't have the same people [as the factories], then the factory bikes are much faster than before, then satellite teams are much more f***ed than before," Pol Espargaro said at Jerez.
Where satellite teams have one data engineer per rider – and in some cases, are forced share a data engineer between two riders – the factory teams have two electronics specialists per rider. More important than that, however, is the truck full of engineers in the paddock, and the specialists back at the factory. A satellite rider will probably have one engineer to help him decipher the many gigabytes of data generated each weekend. A factory rider has a small army to figure this all out.
For Poncharal, the most important factor is neither the difference in support, nor in the equipment available, but in the riders themselves. "Very often we are focusing on the technical level," he said. "We say, he’s got the latest suspension, or the latest electronics, but in the end the main difference is the guys on the bike. This is why Ducati spent that amount of money [on Jorge Lorenzo] and why the top four or five riders are paid what they are paid. Without them it’s almost impossible to win."
The deepest depth chart
The Tech 3 boss has a point. Riders (still) matter more than anything, and since 2008,the depth of talent is greater than we have seen in many years. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez take up five of the top nine positions in the list of all-time premier class winners, and five of the top eleven slots in the list of all-time winners across all Grand Prix classes. Though Stoner has retired, Maverick Viñales is showing every sign of making it five outstanding riders any aspiring talent has to beat. Even if everyone were on identical bikes, getting on the podium would be virtually impossible. In any other era, Dani Pedrosa would have multiple championships, and riders such as Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, and Cal Crutchlow would have multiple race wins.
How to fix the problem, and make satellite teams competitive again? Hervé Poncharal was pessimistic. "Clearly the riders are a key point. Because we can’t attract these guys, the future doesn’t look too bright right now. What to do? I don’t know."
The one solution Poncharal did propose was the rule he had previous pushed for, and which had been brought in in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. "A few years ago it was my idea, which I thought was a good idea, and why I pushed for it. It was the rookie rule. I think it was quite good because at least all the exciting young prospects had to go for year one through an independent team before moving to a factory team. I don’t think that was going to be a very big handicap for their career."
Unintended consequences and the rookie rule
That rule had seen Ben Spies go to the Tech 3 team in 2010, after winning the World Superbike championship at the first attempt in 2009. But it had not been the rookie rule which kept Spies out of the factory Yamaha team. Who would Spies have replaced in 2010, after all? The reigning world champion Valentino Rossi, or Jorge Lorenzo, who finished second with four wins and eight other podiums?
The rookie rule had finally been scrapped once Marc Márquez entered the class. "Clearly Marc Marquez was asked to go to the factory team, and LCR was the only independent team at that moment," Poncharal explained. "But LCR was [sponsored by] Castrol, and Repsol was pushing Marc into the MotoGP class. That was breaking the whole situation and that was a big case."
LCR had a relationship with Castrol going back many years, while Repsol had backed Márquez since the beginning of his career. The two sponsors were incompatible, but it was clear that Márquez was ready for MotoGP. A further complication was that Márquez demanded that his whole crew came with him, which would have meant Lucio Cecchinello sacking all the mechanics in the LCR team, only to have to try to rehire them again at the end of that season, once Márquez departed for the factory Honda team.
Márquez' situation was clearly unique, and hard cases make bad law. But some kind of accommodation is necessary if satellite teams are to continue to thrive in the championship. For proof of just what role they can serve, look no further than the factory Aprilia team. Aprilia wanted to return to MotoGP as a full factory team, but did not have the resources to set up a factory MotoGP team from scratch. So they co-opted the Gresini squad, with Gresini running the team side, and Aprilia handling the bikes and technical development. Gresini mechanics still staff the pits, and crew chiefs have remained, but Aprilia's engineers are charged with bike development.
Victims of success
In reality, the satellite teams are a victim of the success of the championship. The rules introduced in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 have finally succeeded in turning MotoGP around, and producing a series which is in rude good health. Five full factory efforts are competing this year, with a sixth joining in 2017.
Those factory teams leave talented riders spoiled for choice. Once upon a time, the best hope a new rider had of ascending to a factory team was by joining a satellite team such as Tech 3 or LCR. Now, they may do better by taking a chance on Suzuki or KTM, despite the risk of the bikes not being as good as the Yamaha M1s in the Monster Tech 3 garage. Extensive support, and the chance to develop the bike in a direction you want, means young riders are opting to skip the satellite teams altogether, and heading straight to factory teams. As Hervé Poncharal says, Suzuki, KTM and Aprilia are now the B teams, and Tech 3, LCR, Pramac and Marc VDS are the C teams.
How not to do it
In a way, Pol Espargaro is the poster boy of this development. Brought to Tech 3 on a two-year Yamaha contract as Moto2 champion, Espargaro was clearly being groomed to take the place of Valentino Rossi in the factory Yamaha team once Rossi retired, and do battle with his old adversary, Marc Márquez, once again.
But it didn't work out that way. Valentino Rossi didn't retire, so there was no room in the Movistar inn. Nor were there vacancies at Repsol Honda, Dani Pedrosa remaining a loyal HRC employee, and continuing year after year. Neither Honda nor Yamaha would drop the riders who had battled for championships for them. So Espargaro was stuck at Tech 3, on a bike that was developed for Jorge Lorenzo, and which Espargaro felt did not suit his style. He had no input in the direction of development, and not enough support to try to take the fight to the factory riders. He wasted away, a lackluster year in 2015 terminally denting his image, which he is only managing to salvage with a strong season in 2016.
Arguably, Pol Espargaro's decision to sign a factory contract with Yamaha ended up hurting his career far more than he could have imagined possible. The entry of KTM into MotoGP may have saved him, giving him a chance to show that he can make the difference.
We can't all be winners
Where does that leave the problem of the satellite teams? Sadly, there are no easy fixes. The rookie rule may help a little, but the real issue is the difference in levels of support for independent and factory teams. Persuading manufacturers to cut back support for their factory teams is a lost cause – they are just as much under pressure to produce success as the satellite teams are, but the stakes are five to ten times higher than the independent teams. With 23 bikes on the grid in 2017, somebody has to finish second. And third. And tenth. And twenty third...
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