The race to fill Valentino Rossi's seat is now running at full pace, not least in the press. Since Saturday afternoon at Mugello, the phones of everyone even tangentially involved with Yamaha's MotoGP effort have been ringing off the hook, with everyone from journalists calling for information to riders at every level offering their services.
Herve Poncharal is one such victim. As boss of the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, and as someone with very strong ties to Yamaha Racing, he has had everyone with access to his phone number calling him to either ask him questions or offer advice. So it was a very tired Tech 3 boss who took MotoMatters.com's call to answer the questions he has been facing for the past 9 days.
He still has no answers to those questions, though. Yamaha is still hard at work, running through all of the possible options, but each of those options faces almost insurmountable problems. "We have tried many things, but there are problems with any choices," Poncharal told MotoMatters.com, explaining that there were many hurdles to be cleared in finding a replacement rider.
One of those hurdles in undoubtedly the meshing of the World Superbike and MotoGP calendars, leaving a possible replacement from World Superbikes facing a punishing schedule of six races in six weekends. When we suggested a replacement from the WSBK series, Poncharal's response made it clear what he thought of that possibility: "Are you trying to kill him?" the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha boss joked. "Six races in six weekends is too much, even a top rider cannot be at this level for so many weekends in a row."
But the calendar was the least of the problems a replacement would face, according to Poncharal. The biggest problem is the machines themselves. "It is not easy to ride a MotoGP bike," the Tech 3 boss avers. "These are very special bikes, and not easy to get used to." Anyone coming in to replace Rossi - or replace either of the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's riders, if they are bumped up into the Fiat Yamaha team - will face a multitude of new challenges. "We are the only championship to use Bridgestone tires, we are the only championship to use carbon brakes," Poncharal explained. "You cannot come in to this championship and be fast."
To highlight his point, Poncharal pointed to the crop of Rookies coming in from the 250cc class. Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista and reigning 250cc world champion Hiroshi Aoyama came into the class expecting to be competitive. "They were the best of the best in the 250cc class," Poncharal said, "they have had two days of testing at Valencia, three winter tests, even extra testing, and still they are only just starting to get used to the class. They have had a lot of time on the bike, and only now, Simoncelli and Aoyama are starting to do something." If it was this hard for riders with experience on the bike, how hard would it be for someone with no time on the bike to come in to replace Rossi, Poncharal asked. "How can someone with no experience come into the class and expect to compete?"
The Frenchman pointed to stories in the press and among the fans that the advanced electronics have made modern MotoGP bikes easy to ride fast, and explained that the experience of the 250 rookies would seem to prove otherwise. "A lot of people say that these bikes are easy to ride, that the electronics do all the work," Poncharal said. "That is so wrong. The electronics did not save Valentino at Mugello, they did not save Jorge at Laguna last year." It is not simply a matter of opening the throttle and letting the electronics do the work, as is commonly believed.
The biggest risk for any rider coming into the series to replace Rossi is that the risks of failure are so much greater than the chances of success, according to Poncharal. "This class is the best of the best," Poncharal told us. "For any rider, it will be very difficult not to look bad on the bike, no matter how talented they are." That is leaving Yamaha with a huge problem, according to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha boss. "Replacing Valentino is almost impossible."
And yet under the terms of the participation contract signed by all teams with Dorna, the Fiat Yamaha team have an obligation to fill the grid. This, Poncharal points out, merely highlights MotoGP's weakness, the fact that there are not enough bikes on the grid. "17 bikes are not enough," the Tech 3 boss told us. "If we have 22, 23 bikes, then having one rider out is not so much of a problem." And this problem could easily get worse, Poncharal said. "If we are unlucky and more riders crash, we could be racing with 13, 14 riders."
The Frenchman believed that the rule changes scheduled for 2012 for MotoGP are desperately needed. Under those rules, privateer teams will be allowed to enter 1000cc machines based on heavily modified production engines using prototype chassis, a measure that it is hoped will put many more bikes on the grid. "People complain a lot about the rule changes, and say that the Claiming Rule teams will not be proper prototypes, but we need to do something."