Perhaps the biggest surprise after the first day of testing at Sepang was the sheer, unadulterated speed of Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha, racing in the Open category. Seventh fastest, half a second off the fastest factory Yamaha of Valentino Rossi, and ahead of the two Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. By lunchtime on the second day, Aleix was closer still, just two tenths off the best Yamaha.
Naturally, all eyes turned to the Tech 3 garage, and the response of team boss Herve Poncharal. How would the otherwise charming Frenchman react to being beaten by a bike which Yamaha was supplying to a rival team for a third of the price he is paying to lease the Tech 3 Yamaha M1 machines, entered under the Factory Option rules in MotoGP? A long line of journalists beat a path to his door, including MotoMatters.com, to put those questions to him.
Poncharal spoke at length about the Open class, the issue of fuel consumption, and the performance of Aleix Espargaro. First of all, though, he emphasized the strength of his relationship with Yamaha.
Herve Poncharal: As I said last night at the Yamaha launch, I'm very happy to be with Yamaha, and to have signed with them for another two years. I feel good. Now, this is a time in MotoGP when quite a few things are changing, and for sure the biggest thing for the coming season is the Open class is coming. Factory bikes are reduced to 20 liters, and this is exciting. For sure it is exciting, because it is already creating debate and controversy, because at the end of the day, when you have controversy you get people talking about MotoGP, so this is perfect.
This concept of Open class is going to bring some new faces to the front, new teams in front. If you take the Forward example, I think last year they were quite far behind, and never in the position to be in the light of the media. Clearly for them, thanks to the Yamaha support they managed to get, it helped them to get a rider of Espargaro's caliber, which is a good thing. And clearly that package plus that rider, plus Colin (Edwards) is going to bring better results than last year, and it should be helping them to find sponsorship.
So the Open class is going to make the grid more competitive. This is all we want. We want more guys on the front, we want not only the same three, five always in front, because this is not what makes the sport exciting. So on that point, I think it is a good move.
Second point, inside the Yamaha family, I am very happy. It is clear that we have to consider what's happening with the rules, as a team, but also Yamaha as a factory. So factory team and Tech 3 team will be on Factory spec, and I think they've done a tremendous job over the winter. When we see what they've done with the fuel consumption, they have. When you see the lap time, and when you see how much less fuel we use compared to last year, it's unbelievable. This is also very good to show, and also to show that racing is working for production. Because what they are learning in terms of electronics, injection, friction, it is working for the future, really.
But it's also interesting for Yamaha to check, because if there wasn't that involvement with Forward, we could maybe all say what if? What would this engine do with the championship software? Is it going to be competitive? The engineers, they can check and they can compare how bad or how good the championship software is. Basically, if we want to make a short comparison: Factory spec, advantage is more advanced software, handicap is 20 instead of 24 liters, less engines and the tire. So on the other side, the handicap is only software. Now I think Yamaha can see how big or small is the handicap. And for sure, they will be in a much better position to decide in the future now they have some involvement in the Open class, than they would have if they hadn't.
So I am very happy to see them having another team like Forward. I have no problem at all. If you are a racer, if you are a competitor, you must accept the racing and the fighting. For me, this is exciting, you know, Factory against Open, Tech 3 against Forward, that's excitement. So also as Tech 3, we will have a big challenge between Bradley (Smith) and Pol (Espargaro). Because they are two young riders with a high profile, high potential, and with high hopes for the future, so they are both going to fight very hard to make the next step. But also, we will have the two brothers, one on the Factory spec, one on the Open spec. So for me I'm very happy, and maybe it won't be as easy as it was last year to be sometimes on the front row, sometimes on the podium, but maybe the front row will have more value. I think if you just want to be here and do the result without any competition, I don't think that's the right spirit.
Again, I think what Yamaha is doing is a great job. I've heard some people saying that this not an Open bike, that it's not following the rules, but sorry, it is. And I think if this comment is coming, it's because that bike is fast. For example, they are always mentioning Yamaha, but they are never mentioning Ducati who are doing exactly the same (with Yonny Hernandez at Pramac, running a GP13 in the Open category – DE.) But they don't care about Ducati because Ducati is not a threat. And why don't other factories do the same? Because clearly, that bike is an Open bike. They got an engine from a factory, they have to use the championship software, and they have to build their own chassis. For the moment because it was late, they had some support, but they will build their own chassis, the bodywork. So for me, this is a completely Open bike. And a real Open bike. And it's a bit like what is happening in F1. You've got an engine, and then you build everything around it, you do what you want. Of course, always with good connection with your engine supplier. So I see why some people – you know who I mean - are angry and say this against the spirit of the rules. They decided another route, which today is not that bad, because yesterday, Nicky [Hayden] was quite far behind, but today he's with Colin [Edwards] now, and he improved by two seconds.
I don't understand how some people with experience are already writing and having some definitive position after just one day. We all know that what people are looking at is just the one lap which makes the classification, but this is a working test. And honestly, I think inside Yamaha, and for sure in my team, what we are working on at the moment is fuel consumption, to see if we can do the race. It's always good to do a good lap time: for our sponsors, for the confidence of the rider, but you cannot focus only on this one lap.
So this is what I think about Aleix Espargaro's bike. I think Aleix has done a great season in 2013, he fully deserved the ride he's having, and also, Open class fully deserved to have some top riders, and I think now with Aleix, with Colin, with Nicky, they have a lot of exciting riders. And we know in the end, the single ECU rule is the future, like it or not. We will have it, sooner or later.
Q: It doesn't make you think about going into the Open classs earlier?
HP: We are a Yamaha team. My factory is Yamaha, and they tell me what they want to do. I trust them, it is up to them to decide. But it is clear that in 2014, there will be two teams on Factory spec, factory team and Tech 3, and one team on Open spec, Forward. 2015 is going to be up to them.
It would be outside of my role to ask, push, or decide. For sure I could tell them, hey, I lease the bike, I do what I want for my sponsor, but I think I would never do that. Because this bike is their baby, they know what they're doing. They're doing a lot of development all through the winter about racing with 20 liters. So if they think we can do it, I have to follow them. You know, I think at some stage, we should understand how everything works, and there is not one person who is Mister I-Know-Everything. So I run a team, I run a company, I have a factory supporting me, and I have to show respect for what they decide, because they know their whole thing much better than me. And for sure they are worried, and now that, as I said before, they have also the feedback on the 24 liters and Open, on the same engine, if one day they think it's better to go there, then …
Q: Do you think Yamaha might go Open?
HP: This is something you should ask [Kouichi] Tsuji [head of Yamaha's MotoGP project - DE]. In 2014, the two teams, factory and Tech 3, they decided already for Factory Spec. In the future, I don't know. You know, you need to be pragmatic, and bottom line, at the end of the day, you are here to win. So to give a stupid example, if next year Aleix is winning five races, beating factory riders and Tech 3 riders, then maybe we have to think. This is entirely up to them. I respect their decision and I will follow their decision.
As I said before, this is only one-and-a-half days that we have done. I'm not too worried. I know how good Yamaha engineering level is. You know, the 20-liter rule was brought unanimously by MSMA. It's not that it came from Carmelo or anyone else. I was at the GPC when it came, and I asked Tsuji, who decided that? And he said, MSMA. And I said, who? And he said, unanimous support. So they know what they're doing, and we mustn't doubt them. And we will see, if Open bike can fight and sometimes beat some factory spec, then fine. This is more exciting, this is what we want. And this is I'm sure something that Carmelo will be so happy with.
Q: Because Dorna's plan is still to go single ECU in 2017?
HP: I guess so, this is something you have to ask Carmelo directly, but yes.
Q: This is something which IRTA would also support?
HP: Of course. But this is working in a lot of championships, not to say almost all of them. This is working in Moto3, where some manufacturers that are involved in MotoGP are also involved in Moto3. So why not? And I think what Forward and Ducati, I mean, Yamaha through Forward and Ducati through Pramac are showing is it works. And I've been talking to their riders, and they don't think the championship software is something from prehistory. So I don't see any reason why we shouldn't go all championship software. I think it will make it cheaper in the end, because that should be supplied free of charge by Dorna, and we know a lot of research is on the electronics, and this is of course making the lease fee more and more. So this is one of the things that will make the grid more competitive, and could make the bikes cheaper, so we have to go for this. If we have more exciting battles, more potential race winners or at least top-five finishers, and cheaper material, why should we be against? This is all that we are pushing for?
Q: Do you have the seamless gearbox?
HP: No. I work with Yamaha. Last year we understood, no way to have it in 2013. We understood also through Jorge and Valentino – and even last night, Jorge said it again – it's a plus. How big of a plus we don't know, but it's a plus. We don't have it here. But I'm confident, although I have no insurance from anybody, that we'll have it quite soon. I'm confident, but again, I know Yamaha is doing the best they can, and there's no meaning for me to shout and complain, or bang the table. You don't get anything like this. As long as you know that your partner is taking care of you and is willing to help, you have to respect also a lot of things. It's easy to talk behind the garage and shout at somebody, but when you know the whole picture, it's not that easy. I know they want to support us, and of course we have a common sponsor with Monster, and one of our riders is factory contracted, so they have no reason not to help. So I think when they will be able to give us a seamless gearbox, they will. I'm quite confident.
Q: And both riders will always be on the same level of support?
HP: For me this is essential. And I will make everything I can to have that, and Yamaha is on the same line. You know, both Pol and Brad are top riders, and I don't want any different support and treatment.