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 ...
MGPM: Have James' problems been mainly tires, or setup or what?
HP: You know, I think every team, every sponsor in the championship we always support all the championship a lot. But at some stage, when you have a child, if you want to help him to grow, you have to tell him, "you don't do that properly". You have to say, "that's not the correct way to behave or to work" or sometimes you have to give him a clip round the ear. That doesn't mean you don't like him, that doesn't mean you don't love him, that you don't want to help him. But at some time you have to show him the road, show him the way...
MGPM: You show him the way, but he has to take it?
HP: You know, we have four Yamahas on the grid. Last year three were on Michelin, and the three of them, although Lorenzo had a really good season, and even Colin and James, the three of them were saying "We want to be on Bridgestones, because that's a big difference, that's why we are struggling, that's why we had the problems at Laguna, we had the problems at Brno, we had the problems almost everywhere." This year everybody is on Bridgestone, so this is one complaint or excuse that is gone.
So basically last year, at the end of the year, James talked to me and said to me "I think there is a communication problem with my crew chief, and I think Colin's strong point is that he's been working with Gary (Reynders, Tech 3's other crew chief). I understood that was a big issue for him, so I told him, OK, you'll have Gary. Colin will be pissed off, but we can get over that. Second point, James was thinking big time that most of his problems were coming from the tires. So if I want to make it short, basically, he was telling me "If I have Gary and Bridgestone, I'm going to be there." I gave him Gary, the championship gave him Bridgestones, and this year is a lot harder than last year.
Fortunately, James has been very correct, never complained about it. Only saying "I've got to work, I've got to ..." And now, he's got the right bike, because I think Yamaha is the best package at the moment, we've got the same tires that everyone has, and I think this is very good, we only have to choose hard or soft, front and rear, basta. And he's got the guy he wanted to work with for better communication, so now, you know, at the end of the day, we can give a lot, but we can't do everything. He has access to Colin's data, to Valentino's data, to Jorge's data, everybody's on Bridgestones, so it's really usable. At the end of the day, you or me on the bike, we can't do the right job. So, the ball is in his court, and it's up to him. He's a top MotoGP rider, I don't want to put too much on this, but this is true. You know, we have to accept that we're not all equal, you're much better than me at your job, I'm maybe better than you at what I do, and I don't to be doing your job, and I don't want to be doing his job, and he wants to be a top MotoGP rider, and it's difficult. And he's facing the best guys in the world.
MGPM: You said you really wanted to a podium. Colin's been really close to a podium. Is it possible for anyone except for the Untouchables to get on the podium? [Note: on the Sunday after this interview, Colin Edwards scored the team's first podium of the year in a damp race at Donington.]
HP: You know, on a regular basis, I think it's almost impossible for any independent team rider - doesn't matter whether it's Colin, James, Elias - to be on the podium. Last year, we've been twice on the podium. In France, Casey had an engine problem, in Assen, Valentino crashed and Nicky ran out of fuel last lap, so it was two good podiums. We deserved it, Colin had a good race, but still we were helped by a bit of luck, which is part of racing. If nobody is crashing, the weather is stable, it's very very very difficult, especially this year. And Colin had a good interview, I can't remember where, where he was saying he's riding better than ever, harder than ever, and he still can't be on the podium.
MGPM: It seems to me that the four ...
HP: .. Magic ...
MGPM: yes, the magic four, what I've found is that Valentino is much more interested in riding again, because every weekend he has to fight.
HP: Absolutely! Valentino loves to fight. Of course he loves winning, but for him, the victory is a hundred times sweeter if it's after a fight like Catalunya or in Germany than if he's on his own 10 seconds in front of everybody. For sure, he's that kind of guy who likes to have fun. And having fun is fighting all race long. But I think clearly, these four guys are above the rest. That doesn't mean we won't have a podium here, because Colin is very strong at Donington, and we know how the weather can be, James has an incredibly high motivation. Nobody knows, but...
MGPM: Do you think the level of riding of those four is just higher than we've ever seen.
HP: Yes. Yes. Because Valentino has already said better than ever, because he's pushed like he's never been pushed, especially by his team mate. But I think, this is showing how exciting our sport is. Because unlike Formula One for example, still Schumacher is faster than his team mate, and even in Formula One where they say the machine is doing everything, still you can see the input of the man is something. But clearly you can see that although in each team you have one leader, but still this year we've been 1-2 for Brawn since the beginning of the season, 3-4 Red Bull, etc. So still you can see there is an order.
Here, I think the man is 80%, 85% of the result. And this is what makes it really good. And these four guys are clearly above anybody else. But I think also the fact that we have these four, so dominant, so strong and so untouchable, most, the others - sheesh - they are almost giving up, they're fighting to be 5th to be honest. They're fighting to be 6th. They're fighting to be first independent or something like that. Because what they are doing is amazing. And, this is debatable up to a point, but I'm quite sure you take anybody out of these four, and you put them on what is called low-level machinery, they won't be far from what they are doing now. I think here, the man is the most important factor.
MGPM: Do you think the 800s have become such precise bikes, where riders are now braking not within meters, but within centimeters every lap, there's no room for error, you can't correct coming out of corners any more, do you think the 800s have forced riders to become so much more perfect?
HP: I see what you mean. First I think, I don't know, because nobody knows, nobody's got The Truth. So you know for example, before it was Honda and Michelin that was the unbeatable package. When Casey won the championship in 2007, they say, if you don't have a Ducati on Bridgestones, you can't do anything, if you have a Ducati on Bridgestones, anyone can win. Then we saw, year after year, there is only one guy who can tame this package. And some people say the Ducati on Bridgestones is a bad package. Yes, but how can the other guy do this? It's not easy, absolutely not. He's a man like you and me, he has more talent, but he's a man made of flesh and blood, he's no different.
So every time you have someone telling you "this is the truth" you have to be suspicious. There was a statistic (I can't remember, there are specialists who know this) Oh, 800s are killing the racing, there are so many tens of races without a pass on the last lap, then at Barcelona, we see three or four, I can't remember how many, passes for the lead on the last lap. So, suddenly, on 800s it was possible to pass, in three or four places in one lap. So all the theory that was saying it is impossible to pass on 800cc is broken. I think we saw since Barcelona, the racing is incredibly open, and there is a lot of overtaking, a lot of passing.
So yes, the bikes are much closer to each other, and yes, the braking point on 800cc is further and further and it's more and more difficult to pass on the brakes, but still, how many times, in Germany (because it's the last one) Jorge, and Casey, and Dani and Vale, pass each other? A lot of times! On the brakes! So it's not impossible. And they could keep the good line, you know, they didn't do crazy braking and run out of space.
So, here, this is the ultimate technology, this is the top of the top for high technology, in the brake department, in the engine, in the electronics , and I think we see a very exciting season this year, for sure. I was really happy to read in the Bridgestone preview from Donington that Valentino is now backing up and saying that the one tire rule is incredibly good for the show, and that it has been helping him to have more fun because everybody is closer than before, although he was very much against it before.
You know it is quite suspect when someone is telling you, this is the truth, this is exactly why, if we change that point, everything will come back. So, I don't like to be too extreme, it's in the middle, I think, you know, maybe it would have been better to have stayed with the 990, but everybody decided, let's go to 800cc. A lot of people think it's bad, but still we have exciting racing this year. The manufacturers are the experts, and we gave them the possibility, and they said it's better to go to 800, we're already at 350 km/h, 349.7 or whatever it was at Mugello, just imagine what they would have been doing if they hadn't reduced the capacity. Acceleration was almost impossible with the 990, so with the extra grip we could have found, maybe the bike would have been unridable for a normal human being. I don't know. I think you always can improve, and nobody's perfect, but we're not as bad as I'm often hearing and reading.
MGPM: Do you think that it is also because they are catching up after the rule change? After the rules change, there is always one team that gets it right. In 2007, it was Ducati which understood what it would take to win, they had by far the most power ...
HP: And they had the tires. Because today, and we could see that in 2007, 2008, the tire factor is the most important of all. Even more than the riders. Last year, we arrived and I remember that, at Brno in the Czech Republic, and there were 11 on Bridgestones, 7 on Michelin, and you had top 11 on Bridgestones. So it means, nothing against him, but Anthony West on a Kawasaki, not the best rider and not the best bike, in front of Jorge Lorenzo, in front of Dani Pedrosa. This is not normal. And clearly I think in 2007, Bridgestone made a big step, because it was also the new tire rule, less quantity, to be checked, you know, not possible to bring some tires Saturday night. That was a big difference. So clearly in 2007, the Ducati - Bridgestone package was the best. But I believe, if everybody had been on the one tire rule, maybe it would have been closer.
MGPM: Ben Spies.
HP: (laughs) So at the moment, on the riders scenario, in MotoGP, Lorenzo as you know has an offer from Yamaha, and he has an offer from Honda. He hasn't taken his decision yet. And he is basically blocking the paddock negotiation and freezing everything. Once he will take his decision, to stay with Yamaha, or go, a lot of things will happen quickly. But at the moment, anyway, inside the Yamaha family the decision has been wait, don't do anything.
Basically, Yamaha has four bikes, but the four bikes, even though two are under my responsibility as a private company, still I want and I need my contract to have their support, and they need to back up my choice. We are working very closely together. So, Valentino is signed, he's the only one. One of the two spots is at the moment owned by Yamaha inside my team, Yamaha Japan, because Colin is a Yamaha Japan rider, and it could go to another of Yamaha's riders. But Ben Spies is now negotiating with Yamaha, I think the negotiations are progressing quite well, and I think Yamaha are quite optimistic to have him for the next two years. Then it's going to be up to Yamaha and Ben, to study and decide where is best for Yamaha corporation and Ben Spies as a rider to go in 2010 or 2011.
MGPM: So, either in World Superbikes, or in MotoGP?
HP: Yes. I think, to have him in 2011 in MotoGP is almost 100% sure. 2010 at the moment it's more likely he will remain another year in Superbikes, but if he wins the championship, and Lorenzo is leaving, maybe the factory will have an interest to bring him here earlier, to prepare himself in an independent team, to be a possible leader in 2011 in the factory team. So anything is open and it's in the hands of Yamaha and Ben at the moment.
The second spot is up to me to see, and I'm working on it. I have a long list of riders: JT is still there, Bautista, Barbera, Randy de Puniet, Elias, De Angelis, Vermeulen, a lot of guys are talking with me but I'm in no hurry.
MGPM: You're waiting for Yamaha to decide as well?
HP: Yes. Yes. And I think - I maybe look a bit bad, but - the more we wait, the better deal that we make. I think everybody is suffering, everybody is struggling, and so far I think most, not to say all the riders, thought this economic crisis was just an argument to reduce their fee but they didn't really believe it was happening. They all live in their bubble, they have no contact with reality, they live in their crazy incredibly high-level motorhome, they still fly business class from one country to another, they have fun with their toys. OK, sometimes they switch on the news and they look at the economic crisis, but is it real, you know? So we have to tell them there is a problem, it is not just a tool for me to put some pressure on you. Now I think they understand a bit, and their management, anyway, is a little bit more open to discuss, but they need still to wake up more. They just woke up a little bit, but they need to wake up more.
MGPM: Seeing not many bikes on the grid must help, seeing Takahashi go, seeing Gibernau go, that must make a difference?
HP: For sure, for sure, this is helping them to understand there is a problem, there is a problem. I think the other championship is also struggling a lot, and I don't think that anybody who thinks "OK, I can't get what I want here, I'm going to get it next door," no way.