It is hard to envision a worse time to lose a rider for the season. Jonas Folger's announcement that he was withdrawing from the 2018 MotoGP season to focus on his health was a hammer blow for the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team. Just weeks before the start of testing for the new season, and long after riders good enough to race in MotoGP have signed contracts, Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal is left looking for a replacement.
It is a massive task, especially as Poncharal is refusing to break any contracts to take a rider. "You would be amazed to hear how many phone calls I have had, and who from," told MotoMatters.com. "There were some interesting names, honestly, but priority for me, the basis for me is that I will never take or enter into any kind of discussion with someone who has a contract."
That attitude is born not just from a sense of what is right, but also from self interest. "At the end of the day, everybody is working hard, everybody is trying to finalize and make a plan," Poncharal said. "Finally you end up with a contract, and when both parties sign, this needs to have a value, because if a rider signs something thinking, 'OK, worst case scenario, this is what I have, but if there is a better opportunity, I'm going to take it...' then why do we sign a contract?"
The buck stops here
"Today I'm facing a problem, a big problem, and I'm in trouble," Poncharal said. "But why should I pass this problem to somebody who has done his job properly, and did nothing wrong? Because clearly if I take somebody from another team, they will be in the same situation I am. Why would I do that? Because also he will face the situation that he has nobody good enough to replace the guy that he lost."
Being president of IRTA, the association of teams in Grand Prix racing, would make it even more difficult to break open the contract of a rider with another team, but Poncharal is insistent that his position had nothing to do with his decision. "Of course, if I do it [accept a rider who breaks an existing contract], then what example is that? But honestly, even if I wasn't IRTA president, I would do the same. Either you have values or you don't."
Poncharal has a busy schedule set for Sepang, with rider managers either already present or flying out to meet the Tech 3 boss to discuss the vacant seat. Poncharal put the chances of having a rider in Sepang at "50/50", but whoever that test rider might be, they are unlikely to be the permanent replacement for Folger "unless they are faster than Márquez, than Rossi, than Zarco..."
Making the right choice
The Frenchman wants more time to make a better decision after discussing with everyone affected by Tech 3 having a different rider. "I took the decision that we will not finalize who will replace Jonas Folger for 2018 before at the earliest Buriram test," Poncharal said. "We have to take our time in order to check that the guy is really free, that we don't have any problems, that he's qualified for Yamaha, Dorna is happy, IRTA is happy. Now we are facing a problem, and we will not find a miracle solution. So instead of doing something stupid, let's take our time, talk all together, and make a decision that is at least hurting nobody and make somebody happy, the rider who will be selected."
Yamaha have been extremely understanding and very helpful, Poncharal said, but in the end, it was his responsibility to find a replacement. The Tech 3 boss dismissed the idea out of hand that taking one of the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK riders would be an option. "Yamaha is helping, and Yamaha is sorry and they are sharing the weight on my shoulder. But for sure, Yamaha is not going to give me one of the Superbike guys, because this makes no sense. Guys like Alex Lowes, Michael van der Mark, they have a strong contract and a strong program. I'm not going to have one of the Superbike guys, no way. It would be wrong to me. It would be a good idea, but it would be wrong. You just move the problem."
The ideal candidate
Where would Poncharal's ideal candidate come from? "In an ideal world, the ideal profile would be a young Moto2 guy, this is clear," the Frenchman said. "I mean someone who has done one or two seasons in Moto2. This is why I can tell you that there is a name that I have on the tip of my tongue every single day, and that's Xavi Vierge." Poncharal was a huge fan of the young Spaniard, and had worked hard to try to keep him in the Tech 3 Moto2 team. But Vierge left at the end of 2017 for the Dynavolt Intact GP squad.
"I'm so sorry because if he had stayed with us, 100% he would be on the bike, and that would have made sense," Poncharal said. "Remy is too young, he's not ready, and Bo Bendsneyder is just 18 and just out of Moto3, so there's no question. But maybe if it had happened in two year's time, maybe Bo would be on the bike. That would have made sense. But anyway, I'm sorry for Xavi Vierge, he decided to sign somewhere else, but again, I'm not going to call him, because now he is in a team which has worked well and hard to secure him, and this makes no sense for me to destroy their organization. And I haven't done it and I will never do it."
The name most fans are bandying around is Pecco Bagnaia. The young Italian would appear to be a perfect fit for the Tech 3 team: highly rated in MotoGP, affiliated to Yamaha through Valentino Rossi's VR46 Riders Academy, and riding for the Sky VR46 team in Moto2. Other factories are already lurking, with Ducati rumored to be close to a deal with Bagnaia.
But Bagnaia is not an option for Poncharal, no matter how painful that reality is. "Oh! Oh! Don't twist the knife in the wound!" Poncharal jokes when I mention Bagnaia's name to him. "That was my number 1, that was my dream choice. Pecco Bagnaia, I have been talking to him since he started in Moto3 some years ago, but I'm not the only one. And now he's in a really good team, and everything is built around him. He has a chance to win races and why not the championship, so it makes no sense to break that. Anyway, it's only a dream, but it was never an option, for the reasons you understand. But you know, you could say the same with Oliveira, or Binder, or Alex Márquez, or any of the top Moto2 guys would have been a dream, but they are not free!"
An amazing talent
Despite the situation which Jonas Folger has put the Tech 3 team into, the Frenchman was still in awe of Folger's talent. Poncharal had been chasing Folger for several years, and was delighted when the German signed for Tech 3. Folger had exceeded even the very high expectations Poncharal had had of him. Tech 3 may have lost, but the loss to the sport was much greater.
"I am sorry for the team, for Yamaha, for the sponsors, and for myself," Poncharal said. "But we will overcome the problem. But I am even more sorry for Jonas Folger. Because believe me, if this guy for one year could have had everything right, healthy and positive, the skill, the level, the talent of Jonas Folger, nobody knows."
"I tell you one thing, this guy is a super talent," Poncharal said. "What we can see on the data, and what he did in the Sachsenring, that was not a coincidence. The winter tests he did with us were unbelievable. For me this is the biggest shame. I hope we haven't lost him forever, but at the moment we've lost one incredible talent that could have been honestly writing some incredible history for MotoGP championship. And this is showing us that, you know, we are always talking about bikes, technical details, improvement, but a rider is a human being. And human beings are so difficult to understand, and can be so easily disturbed."
"There will be a human adventure"
Despite the challenges ahead of the team, Hervé Poncharal remained optimistic. "I really want and I will have a two-rider team. Because anyway, there will be a human adventure. The guy we will take, hopefully will be a nice guy, and we will share some great moments, and maybe we could have a pleasant surprise. But the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team will have two bikes on the grid. 100%. And this is something I am very positive about."
Whoever Poncharal ends up choosing, that rider will have the full support of the team. "You know us a little bit, once we have made our choice, that guy will be our rider, and we will give 100% of what we can to him to help him perform," Poncharal concluded. "And at least I hope will never say, I had the chance but it was not a good chance. So he will have an opportunity to show what he can do, I think on a good bike because we saw last year the M1 is a really good bike to start on, I think the team is not so bad, so as I said before, at least we will make somebody happy."
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