Sepang CEO Razlan Razali Interview: On MotoGP, Future Moto2 Plans, And Sepang's Place In A 22-Race Calendar

Few people are involved in as many different aspects of MotoGP as Razlan Razali.

The Malaysian is not only Principal of the Petronas-backed MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 teams, but CEO of the Sepang Circuit and helps with management duties for the likes of local star Hafizh Syahrin.

The following interview, conducted at Catalunya, was equally wide-ranging - Razali giving his views on the success of the newly-formed satellite Yamaha MotoGP team, the race-winning Moto3 project, rider replacements and future plans for Moto2, Syahrin's 2020 options, Sepang's future on the MotoGP calendar and more…

Q: What are your personal highlights of the season so far?

Razlan Razali: My personal highlight would be the 1-2 in qualifying at Jerez [This interview was done before Fabio Quartararo's poles and podiums at Barcelona and Assen - DE]. That was something quite unbelievable. So in some ways we are now starting to get used to the fact that we are there for qualifying, but now the next step is to capitalize on the qualifying position for good race results. That is something also we discussed internally and with Yamaha as well.

But, we want to give our riders time because racing is all about experience and improving every race. Of course, the Yamaha is a bit weak when it comes to racing. But I’m confident in the plans, about what Yamaha is going to do for the rest of the year. It will give time for our riders to gain that experience and hopefully then we can do better when it comes to racing.

Q: In general, what is it that is missing in the race that is there in qualifying?

RR: I’m not too technical. Of course, with the Yamaha it’s all about tire wear, grip. It depends on temperature, climate. If it’s too hot then it’s difficult. If it’s gloomy then it’s better. So I don’t want to go too much into that, but to me at the end of the day these two riders are fighting with the top guys, and that comes only with experience.

What do we expect from Fabio for example? What he has done so far is something beyond everybody’s imagination, especially the team.

Frankie, yeah, we expect him to be up there but again this is only his second year and he’s fighting with the top guys like Marquez, Valentino, Dovi and so on. So we have to give them some time.

We know we have this feeling that sooner or later will come. It will be easier to say, 'let’s have it now'. But this is MotoGP. It’s not so easy. If not, everybody else would do it! This is MotoGP so it will take a little bit more time, but we know it will come.

Q: Fabio has fewer revs, as we know. The expectation was 'he’s a rookie, it will be his learning year', but he’s been the top Yamaha in qualifying. Is there any possibility that Yamaha could move his revs up equal to the other riders this year, or will that have to wait for next year, do you think?

RR: I do not want to change what Fabio is enjoying at the moment. So I think the good, solid thing about our team is that everything is simple. We don’t overcomplicate things. We don’t oversimplify things.

One thing I know from Diego [Gubellini], his crew chief, is that Fabio adapts to the bike. He’s given this bike. He just has to adapt his style to the bike, with minimal changes. That is also something why I also question how come the factory riders can't do it? His bike spec is less than Frankie and the factory.

I think it’s a combination of him having fun, no pressure, and we always maintain the fact that let’s target Rookie of the Year. That’s it. Anything more than that is a bonus. So there’s no added pressure. So he’s just having fun, really.

Frankie is a little bit more different. He has Ramon [Forcada] who always likes to do special things, but he’s stepping up. He’s overshadowed by his rookie team-mate, but at the end of the day it’s the racing that matters. He [often] feels better in terms of racing than Fabio.

Q: For next year, do you think Fabio and Frankie will be on the same spec bikes? Is that the plan for the second year?

RR: I think Fabio deserves to be on a factory bike next year, and I just can’t imagine what he will be like if he’s on a factory bike!

Q: As you say, Fabio doesn’t have any pressure, and that makes a big difference to a rider. Next year, he won’t be a rookie. Even later in this season when the expectations start to rise on him, can you see anything in him how he handles pressure?

RR: This is what I was informed by the team, that every rider is a special rider, but we make an exception with Fabio from his background and history. So we try to protect him as much as possible together with his manager, Eric [Mahé], with us. So we already know what he’s like, where he could get a bit nervous.

But I think he’s coping it very well with all the attention that he’s getting this year. I think he should absorb it. He should get used to it. Yeah, people still say that he’s a rookie, but towards the end of the year the expectation will be higher. But I think all the attention, the media attention, the spotlight from the fans, I think he’s already receiving all that kind of pressure but he’s still having fun.

I think what’s important is so as long as the team don’t pressure him too much. Yes, the expectation still comes from the team, but we refrain ourselves and say, “Look. Yes, it will be nice for you to achieve better results, but that’s a bonus.” I keep reminding the team every Thursday the targets remain the same. Anything more will be a bonus. But it will be nice that if we could capitalize on this at the same time!

Q: Does it also create expectations? Obviously with Petronas behind you, it’s a big name. It’s a big sponsor. They’re putting a lot of money into this. Presumably when you presented it, it was a long-term project to achieve results, but you’re achieving results really quickly. Does that place more pressure on you? Do you get more pressure from Petronas? Or is it also for Petronas it being a bonus that they’re getting extra exposure?

RR: Of course, Petronas is very used to winning world championships in Formula 1. We set the expectations straight from the very beginning. Even on Petronas' side, they were under pressure as to why set up a totally new [MotoGP] team and not just go and buy a team, buy success.

Number one, we remind them about their road to success with Formula 1. They didn’t buy success in the beginning. How long it took them to win the first world championship. You had Michael Schumacher coming in and all that. Only until Lewis [Hamilton] comes in that you start winning. So that takes time. So that applied the same for us.

The thing is, Petronas with so much money in the world, and that shows. When you have so much money you can buy success in MotoGP. But there’s no real story line. There’s nothing to shout about if you just go out there and buy the best team. So they realized that, and the good thing is we as a team plan everything really well.

This is our philosophy when we came in 2015 in the small Moto3 outfit, is to make sure presentation is there. To make sure we look good. We are professional. We not only look professional, but are professional. So presentation is so important that to me performance was secondary.

At the end of the day, we are a development team and it’s for Malaysians. But when we attract a big sponsor like Petronas they say, “Yes. We want this, this, this…” performance is important. That’s why with them being the title sponsor, the team is not exclusively for Malaysians. It is an important agenda, but the performance plays a huge role in it. So that’s why MotoGP is different. We got these two riders. Then for Moto2 and Moto3, that’s where they had John McPhee for that performance.

It’s just that we did not predict the two riders doing so well. It’s a bonus for them [Petronas] as well. I still had to rein in their expectations as well. Then after every report I went to them to say, “Look. Our target is still the same. Anything more is just a bonus.”

They were paying a bit more attention with Frankie in the very beginning. Frankie is something - being Italian, being VR46. It’s something that they were hoping for. With Fabio, when we presented Fabio, we presented a few other riders and Fabio being French, and for them, they are looking at commercial sense as well. What can they do with Petronas brand in France? Nothing much!

So we saw the idea of, okay we have Frankie that should give us that performance, but we want to be a young, new, exciting team. If not, there’s no real story. You bring Bautista in and there’s nothing much to write about. So at least having a rookie - and Fabio surprised everybody. We were criticized. 'Why do you take Fabio? This and that. You should take Bautista or Alex Marquez'. At one point we presented five riders. So when we announce Fabio they said, “You guys made a big mistake.” Now everybody is claiming, “We told you so!”

Yeah, sure. Everybody is taking credit!

Q: Speaking of success, how significant was John McPhee’s Moto3 victory?

RR: Very. In fact, Moto3 had the toughest KPI targets for the team. We’ve been deprived of even a podium since 2016. ’17 and ’18 was probably one of the worst years for us, because again we were a development team. Having rookies or young riders is very difficult, especially when they’re young and they do stupid mistakes and all that.

We were always at the back and we were like, “Man, when are we going to stop this?” So that’s why we sacrificed Adam [Norrodin] for better performance with the two riders. We expected a lot more with John. In the beginning he was okay, and then after that we were like, “John, what’s going on?” So we had a good chat with him. So he woke up and gave our first win and it was unbelievable. That only fueled the desire for more, of course.

Q: Does it give the team more confidence now? Can you almost see they believe, “We can do this?”

RR: Yeah, I think it was important for the Moto3 crew. Also it raised the motivation with Moto2 and MotoGP. First win for us, and as three teams under one umbrella, which is good.

Moto2 is a bit difficult. When Pawi was improving then he went in Jerez and he had a massive accident. Not even a massive accident - it was an unlucky accident and screwed up his hand.

So then we had Mattia. Didn’t work out so well. Then Jonas…But again, we created nice stories. Pasini: The Italians love it. Then he broke his collarbone. Then suddenly out of the blue we got Jonas.

Q: Can you tell us how it came about with Jonas? We know that Jonas was a Yamaha test rider. Did you approach him? Did he approach you? Was there a link through Yamaha?

RR: Not really. I think at one stage we did contemplate with Jonas, so we had a chat but it was no real commitment then. Even when Pawi was injured we were looking at Jonas as well.

But then we’d been talking to Pasini for a long time. If we were to have a second bike, Pasini would be one of the guys to come in. Then of course in Mugello, a day after [Pasini was injured], we reached out to Jonas. And of course we had to get Yamaha’s blessing and I think that’s not a real problem. So that’s it. He was ready. He was craving to come back. He was missing it.

Q: It’s always difficult to go away. I think the impression I got was when he was racing he was surprised at the pressure of being in MotoGP because it’s a huge step up from Moto2. He needed to step away, but it’s still that competition, that addiction.

RR:

Exactly. Talking about pressure, he’s coming back and making a lot of noise so that’s more pressure. But then we anticipated all this. We know his history, so we are also protecting him, in that sense, so just to minimize the media attention a little bit.

Q: Is the second Moto2 bike possible for next year?

RR: I’m pushing for it really, really strong. I’ll be surprised if next year I won’t get it, because our plans for next year include the second bike. Dorna knows that.

Q: Will you go for, not necessarily Mattia Pasini, but someone of Pasini’s stature? So a strong first rider, not necessarily Malaysian, and then a Malaysian rider or Indonesian rider alongside him?

RR: The ideal scenario is across the three categories, the long-term objective is even including MotoGP, that we have one Malaysian in each category. That is the ideal scenario for us.

Q: But that needs to be a long-term because you need to develop talent...

RR: Correct. So for Moto2, we also need to look at MotoGP riders beyond 2020 and 2021. Things can change. So, the good thing about us is that we have not shut off interest in the team.

Moto3 is different. We are looking for one rider from next year onwards that we could develop, even for European riders, from Moto3 to Moto2 to MotoGP. I think that’s the best scenario.

But for next year we are looking for that particular rider with a commitment subject to their performance that they will go to MotoGP on a Yamaha bike in 2021. So that’s attractive.

So we are spoiled for choice. But even by being spoiled for choice, who else is out there? So we are approaching a number of riders with the commitment of MotoGP in 2021 if they perform. Everybody is excited.

Q: I guess John McPhee is probably hoping that he might be able to move up also…?

RR: Of course.

Q: But you’re also talking to riders in other Moto2 teams, other Moto2 riders?

RR: Yes. Again, to find the next rookie MotoGP rider in 2021.

Q: Because you expect to lose one of your current riders in 2021…

RR: Come one! I mean After Mugello, a lot of stories were flying around everywhere so we must anticipate there will be changes. At the end of the day, we love for all the riders to stay.

But if they stay, then we just have to extend that particular rider in Moto2 one extra year, as long as it’s within the system, within the infrastructure.

Q: The problem is you could never compete with a factory salary and what a factory can offer.

RR: Exactly. True, in terms of salary, but in terms of bikes. Look, just as an example, Jerez 1-2 on the grid. Racing is another story, but you look at the value, just like a football team. Leicester won the [English Premier League soccer] championship and how much money did they spend?

So we have two riders. One rookie and one second year. How much money do we pay compared to the factory? So, if you look at it from that perspective… And one of them is on a factory bike and still second.

Q: Just wondering about Hafizh. Obviously, he’s another one of the riders you look after. What do you make of his situation? [Interview conducted before official announcement that Syahrin had lost his Tech3 MotoGP seat for 2020 - PM].

RR: That’s a tricky one. I’m sentimentally attached to Hafizh, not only because we were part of the decision to put him to MotoGP, but he’s Malaysian. For MotoGP seats, it’s difficult for him because there’s no opportunity for him to come next year. So there’s talk about him moving down to Moto2.

I will still help him indirectly, whether to put him in other teams or not. So it depends. It’s a tricky, tricky situation. It’s difficult. But I cannot just ignore it. The Malaysian fans would kill me!

So I have the responsibility to help our Malaysian riders, just like I’m helping Pawi to take him out of the Asian talent team and give him more attention in our team.

Q: Is there any chance of Hafizh being in your Petronas Moto2 team?

RR: We are looking at all possibilities. Right now, we can only look at scenarios. We are ready for every different scenario, actually.

Q: When do you expect to make decisions about Moto2 riders for next year? Normally the market, it’s a little bit easier in Moto2 because it tends to be very much towards the end of the year, not like in MotoGP.

RR: We received an email from IRTA that we have to submit our application in Silverstone.

Q: So by then you have to know, have a plan?

RR: So we've had a team meeting where the majority of the length of the meeting the topic was mainly about riders. So that was heavy. We had 'what happens, if this happens, if that happens?' We have notes with endless scenarios. The question is how do we submit that to IRTA! So it’s interesting. It’s fun at the same time.

Q: The Sepang 8 Hours, there are rumors that maybe Frankie, Fabio, both might attend. Is there any chance of them being a part of that or Moto2 guys?

RR: The ideal scenario from Sepang circuit is to put our existing riders in the eight hours. So we are talking to their respective managers. So far, it’s clear that both riders are free in December. It’s off-season. I think it’s good to maintain their fitness. They’re on a Yamaha…

Q: And there’s not much risk, even if they do unfortunately fall and suffer an accident, there’s still long enough for them to recover?

RR: Touch wood, yes! Like any riders off-season, eight hours, they are there to win at the same time. It’s the end of the year. I already made my expectation clear that this is our first EWC and you guys are [our] MotoGP riders. We have not decided who is the third rider yet, but if we’re in it, we’re in it to win.

Q: You need three riders?

RR: Yes, so that will be interesting.

Q: You could have quite a dream team, potentially.

RR: Yeah, exactly! We’ll see.

Q: There’s talk of MotoGP going to 22 races in the future, and there would be a cutting down on tests. The idea I get is that there will still be one test, the Sepang test, at the start of the season. Do you really want to keep that test at the circuit, or is it not so important for you?

RR: I think the first test is important. I don’t think there will be no tests. There will be a test, especially for rookies and I am confident that Sepang will remain still the best circuit for testing. That’s the feeling I got from the manufacturers. They said it’s important for the official test to be in Sepang, so I’m pleased about that.

Of course, now we also have the Shakedown Test. Again, I don’t know why they call it the Shakedown. Now the Shakedown is going to be an Official test. It was actually the Yamaha factory that initiated all this. They wanted to come earlier. Then suddenly everybody is, “We want to come in [as well].” So it was an unofficial thing.

Then it became a logistical problem with IRTA, with testing and all that. So finally I think IRTA said, 'this is such a headache. We’ll take over'. So I think it’s great.

Q: How about the Sepang race on the future calendar, would you want it in the same sort of place?

RR: The good thing about Carmelo [Ezpeleta] and Dorna is that they tell me in advance which are the races coming on board for Asia. So I told him, that’s fine. If you want Indonesia to come in, or we had Thailand. He’s talking about, I think, Vietnam. It’s great for the sport. What’s important is that we need to support whatever effort is being done to make sure that MotoGP remains relevant, remains great.

Q: But would you like to see the Asian races split up?

RR: To me, it doesn’t matter for as long as we are the penultimate race. We want to be the penultimate race, because I am protecting my Malaysian fans. They can go to Thailand. They can go to Indonesia. They can go to Vietnam or anywhere else in the world, but don’t tell me when it comes to Malaysia you don’t go! They will come…


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Thanks for that. He seems very outspoken and easy to talk to. Very candid. Love it!

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