Interview: Voltcom Suzuki's Paul Denning On The Cost Of New Rules, Expanding Audiences, And The End Of The One Bike Rule
At the Assen round of World Superbikes two weeks' ago, MotoMatters.com caught up with Voltcom Crescent Suzuki boss Paul Denning, to get his vision on how the new technical regulations proposed for World Superbike from 2015 onwards would affect Suzuki's WSBK effort. Denning gave us a fascinating alternative view of the regulations, emphasizing that revenue generation was at least as important as cost cutting, and warning against false economies which could end up destroying the close racing World Superbikes has traditionall enjoyed. Denning also covered just where he saw the biggest costs in World Superbike racing, and how the new TV schedule has impacted the series, and could spell the end of the one-bike rule in WSBK.
MotoMatters.com: Has everyone reached agreement on a set of rules for next year?
Paul Denning: No, but there have been constructive meetings between Dorna, the FIM and the manufacturers and teams identifying in really quite great detail manufacturer opinion on various aspects of the technical rules. Regulations have been drafted in an attempt to control cost, which is always welcome, but whilst it's not necessarily the case for all teams, for our team, there won't really be any significant saving. And in fact, as is always the case in motorsport, when you have a big change in regulations, all you do is add costs. Even if the total component cost of the machine is less, for us to develop a competitive bike within that regulation is going to cost an awful lot more money than it would to keep it the same.
The other danger is that the closer you try to go to standard, the more the performance differentials are highlighted between the different design concepts of bike. And when you have a bike like the Suzuki which is €10,000 and a bike like the Ducati which is €33,000, with wildly different cost and quality of internal components, the more you become limited with what you can do with a more affordable motorcycle, the bigger the potential is for a lack of equalization in the performance of the race bike. At the moment, as we saw last year, we've already seen this year and are likely to see over the course of the rest of the season, on any given day, I couldn't tell you which of six or even eight riders is going to win a race. That's really a very important thing for defining the series, the sporting aspect, and there's a danger that that could be compromised by the regulations as well. The effort is to try to reduce costs but retain that competitive spirit. But it's going to be a tough thing to do with such huge disparities between the standard bikes.
MM: Is the trouble with the EVO regulations that if you can't do anything to the engine, you can't compete?
PD: Obviously Yamaha aren't in the series this year, but let's say they were, as it sits for Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda, the EVO regulation is just impossible to build a competitive bike. There isn't any intent from Dorna to implement EVO engine regulations, the intent is to do something more like BSB, where there is a little bit more allowance to try and equalize performance.
But as I say, as a team, we'd be happy for things to remain exactly where they are, and try to focus on the commercial aspects of the championship, live attendance, the commercial outlook for the championship, and look at revenue streams that can really aid the big picture, not play about too much with €10,000, €15,000 euro here. I've sat in meetings, and the representatives of all the big manufacturers there, and there's been discussion about should it be €8,000 for the electronics or €15,000... What the ****? We're all paying our riders huge amounts of money, paying the staff cumulatively the same amount as a small to medium company would be, who gives a ****? It's just not making sense. I don't want to be disparaging about the concept behind it, the intent, but in reality, it's not the area where you'd focus on saving money if you wanted to save real money.
MM: Where would you save money?
PD: Look in the paddock, BMW are here as a subsidiary just with BMW Italy, with an EVO spec motorcycle, I think the hospitality budget must be more than the race budget. We could run our team on the BMW hospitality budget, I'd imagine, looking at that set up. That's being a little bit over the top, but …
And if Dorna want to seek revenue for the championship, which they must do to grow it, they do need to go further afield, into territories like Qatar etc, and Sepang, and that's really welcomed, but we've also got to be careful that the costs associated with that and the logistical costs don't become overwhelming in terms of, again, compared to worrying about two or three thousand on parts. The logistical concerns, we have a race in Portimao, we go to Laguna Seca the next weekend, then back for a two-day official test in Portimao.
MM: There's room for improvement?
PD: It's difficult, Dorna have to make the championship commercially viable, and they have to go to the events that are sustainable, and can pay a sanction fee and want to promote. And as a team, we're very happy, we're working very closely with Donington this year, as the only UK event, as the only UK-based Superbike team, to try and really ramp up the interest and get a big crowd. Circuits are investing, and that's Dorna's job, to grow the championship. But the whole focus on, for me, small technical stuff which still won't make any difference, and in fact runs the risk of spreading the championship somewhat, in terms of the disparity between the different brands.
MM: The biggest problem to me in motorcycle racing is not on the spending side, it's on the income side...
PD: Well, the two things clearly have to stick together. We're very fortunate in that we have a fabulous roster of partners that allows us to deploy good people, to put two highly professional riders on the bikes, and try and do the job properly to the absolute best of our ability. As I say, I think a better target universally would be to try and grow that side. And Dorna have tried again, with the rescheduling of the TV. I gather from Paolo Gozzi's report [in Italian sports daily Gazzetta Dello Sport - MM] there was very good TV data in Italy and Spain, so that's a positive, and it'll be nice to see how that reflects in the UK as well.
There's been some positive feedback that people enjoyed it because they can get up on a Sunday morning after a few beers Saturday night, watch the motorbike racing, and by the time the second race is done, they're ready to do an afternoon, they're not restricted by the wife saying we want to go to the zoo with the kids, they can still do that in the afternoon. That might impact negatively on the live audience, because to go from London to Donington and be there for 9:30 is tough. But that's why Donington in their negotiations with Dorna refused it, and they've gone for the more traditional race schedule.
So overall, there are efforts by [WSBK Director] Dani [Daniel Carrera], by Greg [Gregorio Lavilla], by Javier [Alonso] to move things forward and that's appreciated. But I'd like to see more focus on those aspects, and less on the technical rules, which in the end, aren't going to make any difference to us.
MM: You're saving a thousand here and a thousand there, but in the big picture, it's all peanuts...
PD: If I can't raise a good enough budget, then I can't employ riders like Eugene Laverty and Alex Lowes, and that's the bit that's going to make the difference.
MM: It's been a decent season so far, Alex has made a good impact, and Eugene's done well.
PD: Yes, the Phillip Island result was certainly not expected, and certainly not by the rider, but the bike worked very well there, and indeed for Alex, he got a lot of top riders fell down that weekend and he was unlucky to get caught out, as he was circulating quicker than anybody on Friday afternoon, Saturday morning before he got caught out. Aragon was a tough one for Alex, not been there, tricky track, got a bit frustrated but learnt an awful lot. I think Assen, Imola, Donington are tracks that he knows very well, and has not only tested at but raced at, which makes a difference. And also Aragon we struggled with a couple of technical aspects on the bike. So I think fingers crossed we'll be stronger at these three events with both riders, leading up into Malaysia. But as I say, and it's not trying to pass the buck and excuse a fifth place if that's where you finish, but you get it a little bit wrong, and you are going to get your arse kicked and finish in seventh, it's as simple as that. That's what makes the championship super interesting at the moment from a sporting point of view.
MM: Because you never know who's going to be on the podium?
PD: No, the racing is just fantastic, and hopefully they'll continue to draw bike race fans, not away from MotoGP or any other bike racing, but just draw motorsports fans and fans generically to the sport.
MM: Do you think that moving the racing to Sunday morning has helped? It gives fans a whole day's entertainment by complementing F1 or MotoGP, not competing against it?
PD: Without question. The idea is sound and the initial figures back it up. I have to say it's tough for the teams, with the gap between the races so short, and the one bike situation. If you have a big one in race one, you're going to be really struggling. The crash that Alex had in race one at Phillip Island, it's not a question of being dramatic about it, if it had been that European race schedule, we would simply not have been on the grid for race two. It would have been tough. Hopefully that year that will change to two bikes, but the second one not being able to be scrutineered until you've got a write off.
MM: So you could have a bike ready, but it would have to be scrutineered before you can use it?
PD: That's the proposal from the teams, and what will hopefully become a rule. Because there's just too much pressure on the teams and mechanics technically now.