Herve Poncharal Q&A: How 'boredom' led to Tech3’s winning KTM "adventure"
Tech3 is a MotoGP stalwart, having raced in the premier class for the past 20 years under the guidance of Herve Poncharal. A regular podium visitor, Tech3 had never been a winner - that is, until Poncharal's bold switch to KTM reaped rewards in the 2020 Styrian GP
Tech3's hugely popular team boss Herve Poncharal recieved over 700 congratulations messages after Miguel Oliveira snatched his and the team's maiden MotoGP victory in dramatic fashion in the second Red Bull Ring race.
It had been a long time in coming for Poncharal. His team had enjoyed plenty of podium success with Yamaha between 2001 and 2018, with the likes of Johann Zarco, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso and Ben Spies to name but a very few top tier riders to have passed through Tech3's ranks.
Embarking on "an exciting adventure" with KTM last year, Tech3's lead rider Oliveira showed promise, but few could have predicted the Austrian marque's upturn in competitiveness in 2020 that led to Poncharal achieving his "dream" last weekend.
Autosport spoke with Poncharal two days later on a range of subjects, covering why satellite teams are now able to compete with the factories, Oliveira's rise to becoming a MotoGP winner and why he felt life had become "too easy" with Yamaha.
Autosport: First question Herve has to be, has Tech3's maiden MotoGP win sunk in yet?
Herve Poncharal: "We are the oldest team in the paddock, which is something I'm not really proud of because I would like to be 20 or 25 years younger [laughs]. But it is what it is. But I have always, always, always believed in some values, like humility. I always try to be humble, I always try to respect everybody. I don't like people who one day say 'hello', and the next day don't even answer when you say 'hello'. So, I always say 'hello' to everyone.
"Sometimes family is a bit too much a word [to describe a team], but I really believe the MotoGP paddock is a big family. Of course, everybody is fighting to be in front, but when I was young I had three brothers and we are fighting like crazy with each other, football, running, swimming, cycling, etc.
"And I think since Dorna has been the promoter, which is quite a long time because it's since '92, this has even increased that family atmosphere inside the paddock. I really care about everyone. OK, they elected me president [of IRTA] for something like not far from 20 years, which is... I don't like the word 'president', it's a little bit too much for me. But let's say representative of the teams. So of course, you follow the day-to-day life of each single team - Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP and MotoE - in the paddock.
"I don't want to blame anyone. He [Oliveira] was a little bit underrated, because the results were not as good as the ones from Brad [Binder] for example. But we knew why" Herve Poncharal
"You know the people very well, you know when they are struggling, you know when they are having a good time, where they are also struggling on track but also when they are struggling with the business. You always try to find solutions. Therefore, we are all like a family and I always believed in these values. And my team is for sure my family, because first I work with my daughter, with my brother, and also to be honest I spend most of the time in my life with my team. So they are really my family.
"And I think people can feel that, people can feel that. I don't want to say sometimes we felt 'we could have won'. I was watching a few years ago Lucio Cecchinello [from] LCR winning races with Cal and I told him 'you can't realise what you have done, because for an independent team winning races that doesn't happen so often'.
"When we started, there were the factory teams with the best riders, the best budget, the best bike, a few independent teams only in the top class. And never the same material.
"I think what we can see now with LCR winning races, with Petronas [SRT] winning races, Tech3 winning one race, Pramac very close to winning races, what we've done together with IRTA (teams' association), Dorna, MSMA (manufacturers' association), FIM in terms of rules, in terms of making the factories understand how important it is for their strategy and for development to have a satellite operation, to push for the sixth manufacturer [Aprilia] who in hopefully in an ideal world will come soon, each of them one satellite operation. So that will mean six bikes [available] for 24 [grid slots], and that would be the ideal grid.
"You can see also that each single manufacturer - Yamaha, now KTM, and Ducati with Pramac - when the manufacturer is playing the game, helping you to contract a very high-level young rider, when they give you the same spec bike, which is the case for Pramac, Petronas and Tech3 this year.
"Therefore, the satellite teams are much closer and eventually can win, which was not possible when I started.
"My first year in the top class was 2001 with the 500cc with Olivier Jacques and [Shinya] Nakano. And at that time, six, seven years ago our bike was a competitive bike, but it was a one-and-a-half, two-year-old bike.
"It was difficult, and we were contracting the rider. And now we convinced the factories to play the game, helping us to contract a rider.
"Therefore, we can get better riders. The rider understands this almost like being in the factory because [Ducati-contracted Jack] Miller stayed [at Pramac] or Oliveira stayed with us instead of going to the factory team. It's more or less the same. And it's going to be cheaper for [the manufacturers] in terms of operation, logistics, to give the same spec [of bike] to the four riders and this is going to help them tremendously to develop their bike.
"Now that they are convinced that they can see the benefit... Miguel won this one [in Styria], Fabio [Quartararo] is leading the championship with a satellite operation [SRT]. Jack is very close in the championship, so I think this has helped also all of us - including Tech3 - where we can now be in a position to sometimes dream and sometimes make our dream possible, which is to win in MotoGP class. That was difficult before, almost impossible."
AS: That's an interesting point about the factory helping satellite teams with riders, because you have two great riders highly-rated by KTM in Oliveira and Iker Lecuona. But you also said at the weekend you felt Oliveira was underrated, so how proud were you to see Miguel take that win because of this?
HP: "I don't want to blame anyone. He was a little bit underrated, because the results were not as good as the ones from [factory KTM rider] Brad [Binder] for example. But we knew why, because race two in Jerez we were fifth in Jerez and he was out of the race after a Turn 1 incident, he couldn't show anything and I believe we would have been very close to a podium finish.
"So, I don't like to say, 'ah, we could have been on the podium, we could have done top five'. When you want to convince somebody, they don't really believe you, so [I] shut my mouth. It was a zero [points] for Miguel.
"Then we arrived in Czech Republic, he did a mistake in FP3 and then a very poor grid position [qualifying 13th] and then he did a fantastic race, but only ended up sixth. Although he did the same lap time as Brad, but Brad won and that was the main thing for the weekend: first KTM win, Brad Binder a rookie, it was a fantastic story. But we couldn't say anything, and we could see Miguel was thinking 'f**k, I could have been there, but for some reason I'm not there'.
"I know deep inside how he was feeling because I was feeling the same. I wanted to beat the guys next door even though I'm really having an incredible relationship"Herve Poncharal
"Austria race one, another racing incident with Pol, and then in front of all the Red Bull guys - KTM guys - you don't know what to say. It's really demoralising. And for us, also not to show the level of what KTM can do, but also I was caring a lot for Miguel.
"I could see that people were saying, 'yeah, you had bad luck', I know the perception of the people and we knew his real potential, but until you make it it's only 'blah, blah, blah'. And I don't like 'blah, blah, blah', and this is why. I think Miguel, if you put a few points from Jerez 2 and Austria 1, for sure he is in top three in the championship.
"This is why I was really happy because this guy I'm telling you has the speed. But also, he's a cool guy, he's a polite guy, he's a clever guy, he has a good education. Some people think to be a top rider you need to be wild, you need to be sometimes not really polite, not really well educated. And then the perception of Miguel as a person, maybe some people thought 'OK, this guy's never going to be a MotoGP winner'.
"We knew deep inside by sharing the data with all the other three KTM guys and by seeing how he was riding that it was a possibility, and therefore I'm very glad to have given Miguel the possibility to show he is a MotoGP rider and to do it with him before he's moving next year to the factory team makes me really, really happy. We've done it together.
"With Brad Binder, for me this is the dream team. Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, they were supposed to be my riders this year, but the whole story of Zarco leaving, blah, blah, blah, it didn't happen. But these two guys, I followed them in Moto3, I followed them in Moto2 and I was always telling Aki [Ajo] 'you're a lucky guy Aki because you have the dream team'. And now to think that both of them will be reunited next year in the factory KTM team, I told the KTM guys 'you are so lucky because you have two incredibly fast riders, two incredibly nice people and with unbelievable potential'.
"They like each other, but of course they push each other, they want to beat each other and this will be fantastic.
"Having said that, Miguel is happy for Brad, but as you can imagine when Miguel saw Brad winning and he is in his first year and him being in his second year not having won, he was... I don't want to say jealous because they like each other and respect each other, but it's a bit of a bitter feeling because you think 'I can do it'.
"When you're a top rider, you have some ego, you have some pride. It's difficult to accept [not winning], although he did it well, he went to congratulate, he was smiling. But I know deep inside how he was feeling because I was feeling the same. I wanted to beat the guys next door even though I'm really having an incredible relationship.
"We all want to beat each other and I'm glad to have given him the possibility to also be part of the KTM history a few days after what Brad did."
Oliveira is a darling of KTM, having ascended the grand prix ranks with it. Picked to lead its factory team in 2021, the Portuguese initially turned down that offer last year when Johann Zarco's departure left a vacancy. For Poncharal, Oliveira banking on his team to continue his development is a source of great pride.
AS: You've had some amazing riders over the years like Dovizioso, Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, Spies, Zarco, etc. How does Oliveira stack up against them on the bike as well as off it in the way he works with the engineers, etc?
HP: "Miguel will have a very special place in our heart and in our history because he was the one who brought our first ever MotoGP victory. Already for that he is going to be somebody more than special for Tech3. What I like a lot... I told you I like to be humble, I like to have a family atmosphere team, and Miguel is 100% fitting in that. Some riders couldn't be really happy with us, and maybe I will not be really happy with some guys.
"But Miguel is the perfect fit for us, because he is also humble, he doesn't like to do the headlines. He is a quiet guy, he likes to share with the team, he comes in the morning saying 'hello' to each single team member, same thing in the evening when he leaves. We very often share meals, we know a lot about his life, he knows quite a lot about each single individual of Tech3 team and we are really a group together. Sometimes you have a rider, he is a very famous guy, he behaves like a Prima donna, he is coming very late to the box, does his job and leaves.
"It was in Misano that he was requested to move to the factory team and I thought he was going to say yes. I wouldn't have been angry with him, because when Brad was offered he went. When you're a top rider, you want to be in the factory team" Herve Poncharal
"Also you can see in the way Miguel behaves. He doesn't have flashy sunglasses or headphones or bodyguards all around him. We like him a lot because we share the same values and I believe he is happy with us because also this is the environment he needs and he likes to be happy.
"As I very often say, a fast rider is a happy rider. So, you need to work on the riding technique, you have to work on setting up the bike properly, but also you have to work on the mental side of your rider and you have to give him confidence. You have to make him feel liked and happy for him just to do what he knows best, which is to ride the bike with a positive feeling.
"I think this is quite important and I've always been working a lot on that to have my riders feeling we care for them. They are not just a machine to bring results, but they are a human being that can be up, can have downs, can feel strong one morning and can be a bit less strong another morning, and who needs some time to share.
"But if you are not close, we cannot share. You need to be quite close on the human side in order to be able to talk sometimes about intimate things that only [happens] if you have that kind of relationship you need.
AS: On giving Miguel that safe environment, he turned down the factory KTM ride to stay with you for 2020. How proud does that make you feel that he chose this option and now he's a MotoGP winner because of it?
HP: "It was in Misano that he was requested to move to the factory team and I thought he was going to say yes. I wouldn't have been angry with him, because when Brad was offered he went. When you're a top rider, you want to be in the factory team.
"I wouldn't have been angry, but I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised. He told me, 'I feel good, as long as I can have the same technical support, there is no reason for me to be there. I like my team, I like my guys and I think they are the best guys around me for me to carry on learning MotoGP and performing in MotoGP'.
"That was a great feeling and we have been working twice as hard because I didn't want him at any moment to regret his choice.
"Also, you can imagine when the team understood that, they were even twice more motivated to work and help Miguel because they knew he decided to stay and that was a really important thing for them."
Switching to KTM for 2019 meant Tech3 slipped away from the podium battle it was a previously a regular feature in. But Poncharal needed a new challenge after much of the same for the best part of 20 years, and the passion which KTM displayed in its efforts to reach the top in MotoGP very much matched the enthusiasm the Tech3 boss has for racing.
AS: You've got great support from KTM and they've made such a huge step forward with the bike, but was it a little bit difficult last year when you switched to KTM and then Petronas SRT started to have a lot of success with Yamaha?
HP: "[Chuckles] You like to turn the knife into the wound, huh? I remember in 1998, I was in 250cc with Honda HRC and they were the best bike out there. But for a few things I was not feeling completely happy. Yamaha left the 250cc championship, they were concentrating on the 500cc in the world stage and they were doing 250cc on their domestic championship in Japan.
"Then they approached me and I said, 'if you're ready, I'm ready'. A lot of people told me, 'you are mad, you're going there for the money' - I was not getting any money - 'and the bike is not competitive, you cannot leave Honda to go'. We went there, I didn't listen to any 'superman' with 'super' advice and the next year we were winning the championship [in 250cc].
"We spent 20 years with Yamaha, it was a great, incredible partnership. Then in late 2017, early 2018, I was thinking we were at the end of our adventure and I needed something more to wake me up, to give me some more spices at breakfast every morning. That doesn't mean I wasn't happy there and I have nothing bad to say, but I needed something different. When you are into racing and into sport you need to like the challenges.
"I went to their head office and when I saw this 'Ready To Race' - this is their slogan - and when I met the boss and I saw how mad for racing he was, I said, 'this is what I want'" Herve Poncharal
"I was a bit bored because it was easy. Every year was the same, just change the rider. Then I was watching these KTM guys, they were crazy, so full of passion. The bike was wild and you could see the enthusiasm, it was unbelievable, and they touched me in a way. We started to talk a little bit, and at some stage we discussed about [doing] a satellite operation and almost instantly when I spoke to [KTM boss] Pit Beirer, I knew I was going to be ready.
"The bike was at the very beginning of development, it was not competitive. But I had a good feeling, I wanted to go there. [I thought] 'we are going to have fun, we are going to live an adventure. We're going to start from scratch and hopefully we're going to the top. It will not be easy, maybe we will never reach the top.' But I wanted to do this.
"I went to their head office and when I saw this 'Ready To Race' - this is their slogan - and I met the boss and I saw how mad for racing he was, I said, 'this is what I want'.
"It was not easy to convince some of my staff, because they were in love with Yamaha. [They said] 'why do we go? Look at the results'. I managed to convince them and they all agreed when I explained to them why and what was the purpose. And, from the moment I shook hands with Pit Beirer, I knew it was going to be an exciting adventure.
"I cannot tell you I knew we were going to win halfway through year two. But I knew it was going to be exciting and I wanted to be with these guys and help these guys, because I like passion and you need passion.
"The first contact with the bike, Miguel coming from Moto2, Hafizh [Syahrin] coming from Yamaha MotoGP, it was a different world. It was not easy, because when you leave something - especially when you are a mechanic or technician - you are expecting to find the same thing, because you've got habits.
"A mechanic is doing the same gesture every day, the same routine every day. And each manufacturer has a different way. Their [new KTM] bike was a V4 with tubular steel frame with WP suspension. We were having an inline 4 with Ohlins suspension [at Yamaha]. So, it was different and you could see the full prototype was still to be unlocked, fine-tuned.
"But we were never panicking. We knew it was going to come. We had to convince the riders, we had to convince everybody that it's going to come. I've been with many different manufacturers, but the speed of development, the amount of new parts coming every race, I never saw that. And sometimes when you have problems, you have people who are getting a bit down, who lose motivation. Never there [at KTM].
"And at this point I have to say that Mike Leitner is an unbelievable arrow that is always kicking in your heart and it hurts! He never gives up, pushing everyone and giving the strength, even if you have a bad weekend.
"Of course, at that time we had concessions so we tested more than anybody. I think the four riders comments helped a lot because the engineers got more information from four different riders, four different riding styles and for different feelings. And on top of that, very important, [KTM] got Dani [Pedrosa] as a test rider. So there were five, and the test team together with the race riders, sharing information, sharing problems, sharing ideas was the secret. And these guys are not scared.
"This is what I like in a company. Sometimes people thought they were talking a little bit too loud but, believe me, this is what's happening inside. They are not scared to work, they are not scared of the challenge. The motivation is unbelievable."
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