EXCLUSIVE Philip Neill (Tyco Suzuki) - Q&A
26 August 2013
By Neil Morrison
Philip Neill has seen his family-run Temple Auto Salvage (TAS) team grow in many respects since its inception in 2000.
Now he oversees Tyco Suzuki's three-pronged British Superbike and Supersport Championship assault, along with a heavy presence in the Road Racing paddock.
Neill spoke exclusively to Crash.net on the Thursday before the Ulster Grand Prix about the team's fortunes during 2013 and why he still has a burning desire to go racing...
Given your father Hector's involvement in road racing was it always a given that you'd get into bikes at a young age?
Like most of us I can't remember how things started. Of course it was through my father and I guess that's a big factor for all of us. My son now thinks about nothing and talks about nothing but bloody motorbikes! We're influencing our children without even noticing it.
But with my father it's not something I was forced to do - it was always there from an early age. I often wonder what I would have done if I hadn't been involved in motorbikes. For me the big thing was the step over from motocross where I started and if I'm honest that's probably where the majority of the passion is.
The change from the road racing side to motocross was the difficult one for me. Road racing always scared me as a kid, I remember coming here with my father in the late '80s, early '90s with the Formula 1 bikes of that time and it used to scare the hell out of me.
I've grown to love all aspects of road racing, with short circuits and to a greater extent with road racing. It's where both the family and commercial side of things have led me and we're lucky that if you like road racing you couldn't be from a better place than Northern Ireland.
It's a massive operation to run a competitive team on the short circuits and the roads. Where do you feel your focus lies?
My personal focus is slightly towards the BSB side of things although only slightly because I run the show behind the scenes at the road meetings. My Dad joins me from an event running side of things but it's still put together by me over the winter as an overall project. It's not like BSB and the roads are separate.
Do you feel Guy Martin has approached the Ulster Grand Prix differently this year than he does to normal events?
Well Guy has done preparation on the bike. It is very unusual for Guy to do any kind of practice at all. Usually he just rides the bike from one race to another. He's been on the bike three times in the last week and a half and usually that leaves him ready to go come race day and it's done him a world of good.
Looking back at Tyco Suzuki's 2013 roads campaign how would you assess it?
The TT wasn't ideal. We haven't had an ideal TT for a few years now but it's down to a lot of things. The year as a whole has been pretty good. Guy had a win at the Cookstown 100, he had a good position at the North West and Josh had a good debut there. We had a win at the Southern 100 with Guy and a great win at Scarborough at the start of the year.
Really the year as a whole hasn't been that bad but the TT is still the pinnacle of sport and we just suffered from a few different things there maybe collectively as a team and perhaps more so from Guy's point of view. He'll probably admit that he's better prepared sometimes towards the end of the season than he is at the beginning. Because of the nature of Guy's schedule the TT is the start of the year for him really.
If we continue together that's something we aim to change, to make sure he's more prepared come the TT. Clearly we as a team weren't as well prepared either by virtue of the fact we have got the 600 going better than what it was in June.
It's difficult as we do BSB as well and there just isn't enough time to be 100 percent prepared for the TT. That's just exactly where we are and I can't be any more honest than that.
You mentioned the bikes have been getting better. Has he team been doing a lot of in-house development?
It's through developing parts ourselves. Stewart Johnstone, our technical coordinator who has his own engineer/tuning business, is in our team as well and we've run everything under one roof now. That includes the 600 and the development project gradually builds and takes time.
He's been working on the 600 now for six or seven months and he's got it to a point now and taken feedback from Guy and Josh and helped with all of the bikes.
I wish 2014 was starting tomorrow because we're now really ready to go. Honestly neither Guy nor us were at 100 percent at the start of this year so it's just one of those things.
TAS has enjoyed a healthy relationship with Suzuki dating several decades. What level of support are you currently receiving from them?
There isn't a lot of support out there at this level in comparison to what there was ten years ago. There's a very obvious reason for that and it's the same as any other industry.
We've been with Suzuki on and off for a lifetime. It's where my father started and where I started in my motocross days. The particular venture as TAS racing has been running with Suzuki since 2001. It's probably fair to say that we don't look anywhere else. None of these contracts are life contracts and who knows what's around the corner but at the moment we receive the support that's available.
That's important to me, that Suzuki aren't splitting their support all over the place and the lion's share of their support in BSB and road racing goes to us as Tyco Suzuki or TAS racing.
Rather than looking at it on the negative side and saying we don't get as much support as we did in the past, I feel that we're lucky to have any support because the natural thought process might be 'If bike sales are down do we stop racing?' Thankfully for all of us we're still going racing.
Guy is finishing off his third season with the team. How do you find working with him?
We love him to bits. We always have for different reasons. Initially it was great listening to his comments and I always enjoyed that when he wasn't riding for us. We got him at a difficult time at the start of his newly found fame I suppose through his TV work.
He'll admit himself he did find it difficult for the first year to deal with everything that was going on in his life and that spilt over into the racing side of things. Guy always said he wanted racing to remain separate and I think he's realised now that that's not going to happen. He's accepted that and he's a much, much more calm, collected and organised person now.
You hear all these stories about Guy but aside from not wanting to do the odd press conference here and there - just because they aren't his thing - and aside from getting into a bit of controversy the odd time for standing up for himself for something that he believes in, I don't mind anyone doing it as long as you're not making trouble for the sake of making trouble. That's not what Guy does.
We love him to bits and he's part of this team and part of the structure here at the moment.
Looking across at Tyco Suzuki's effort in BSB Josh Brookes has ridden some incredible races recently, notably at Oulton Park. Then you have the promising talents of PJ Jacobsen who has impressed everyone. Do you feel you have a good balance in the team?
For many reasons Josh is the team leader, the guy we're pinning our hopes on to win the title for us, which is obviously why we're there. Again it's a continued development package for Josh as a rider and for us with the GSX-R1000. I think week in week out the package is good and we're really getting there.
The two young guns in the team, PJ is brand new to the British Championship, brand new to Superbikes, and is riding at lots of tracks he's never ridden on. Most importantly he had never raced or ridden a Superbike before. So it's a huge task that he's taken on this year. When you do consider everything it's quite amazing what he's done.
He's just turned twenty and is still the youngest rider in British Superbikes. I'm sure that would apply to World Superbikes as well so he's probably the youngest rider in a global Superbike championship as it were. He's doing a phenomenal job as far as we are concerned. He has been frustrated this year when we were having technical issues but that's just part of development unfortunately.
He was frustrated because things weren't going for him but that's good to see in a rider. It shows he's got ambition and belief in himself. But it was never going to happen any faster than this and I think he's accepted that and understands that now. He's progressing as we were hoping. I was worried a few rounds back, wondering if he was going to move to the next step. Well he did that at Oulton and he only really has one more step and that means being there as a front-runner.
In the competitive British Supersport class Taylor Mackenzie still has room to improve but are you confident he will eventually get there?
He's got less pressure in the 600 Championship but he's an accomplished back round. He has a great 125 record and the four-stroke bike is a big, big difference. I think he's progressing quite well, we still have a few more steps to go with him but he's going to get there.
It's a huge learning curve and he probably has a bit of expectation around him being Niall Mackenzie's son. He was very much involved in the race scene since he was a young lad. He deals with pressure well and doesn't seem to let it get to him. He is already a professional rider by virtue of the way that he deals with things. He has a little bit more to go in terms of results but that will come and he's already proved he can ride the bike.
How does the team work towards the showdown at the final three rounds?
You have to be careful not to fill everybody with extra pressure. You have to deal with the Showdown rounds the same as any other round. You should be there giving 100 percent at every round you're at anyway. It's difficult to do that now as some teams and particularly riders can come away a little disheartened. You can think that you're not racing for a championship each week but you are. I think it's very important to keep that mindset.
Josh lost a little bit of interest at times with the championship because he felt we were riding for very little but when you really look at the Showdown one point can be the difference. The good thing that they've achieved is what they said they wanted to achieve, and that's excitement. They wanted to keep the championship battle until the end and it will achieve that. Shakey has an eleven point gap at the moment and we want to reduce that but we're sure the battle will go right to the last day if not the last race.
You have the experience of last year when Josh took it to the final race…
Of course we were a little disappointed we didn't win the championship. We just seemed to have one weekend at Silverstone where it didn't work for us. A number of things happened in and around the team, which made it difficult. Morale was a little bit low with some stuff that happened outside the team.
All in all it wasn't our best round. We had a great opening at Assen and everything was there for us to have a great finish. Shakey rode out of his skin at the last round and I think if we'd had more pressure on him at the Silverstone round, where Josh won the year before, you never know what would have happened. That's certainly what we intend to do this year.
Do you still get the same enjoyment out of racing? The TAS operation has grown a great deal since you ran Ian Lougher in a single man team in 2000.
I've been racing all my life, since I was five year old in different categories and classes. At the end of the day you're here because you're passionate about it. That's the key thing, it's obviously a business now but it's not a business I would choose to do if I didn't love the sport. It's too difficult to explain as it can't be run like a normal business.
I still get the same kick out of it. The buzz is still there as is the desire to win and that's what fuels the passion and keeps me coming back. We haven't won the British Superbike Championship and I can assure you I ain't going anywhere until we do!
And finally Philip, the Ulster Grand Prix race week was once again hindered by bad weather. As a team manager are you behind a legislation change than would allow greater flexibility with the racing days?
100 percent. There is quite a bit of time allocated to the Ulster Grand Prix already. It's not my event to run but maybe it is time to concentrate on the Ulster Grand Prix, there's obviously the Dundrod 150 as well that's fitted around the schedule. I understand there's a lot of history with the Dundrod 150 and it has its merits but I'm wondering whether we should just concentrate – because we keep having the weather problems - should we be concentrating on the Ulster. I don't know.
Certainly with this flexible road closing order that they're talking about is an absolute must. You only have to look at the weather and you know the sun will shine tomorrow and we're sitting around now like eejits with nothing to do. A lot of work goes into the organising and infrastructure of the event and scheduling the week around coming to watch the racing.
The organisers at the moment can't cancel the event, there's no point. They've not got any flexibility with the day. It wasn't rocket science to see that it was going to rain today. But I think Noel [Johnston – clerk of the course] did the right thing cancelling the racing today [the Thursday before the UGP racing] but ordinarily he should be able to postpone racing to tomorrow [Friday of practice week].
I think if they don't get the ability to do this with the North West and the UGP eventually we'll lose them. It's inevitable. Sponsors aren't going to tolerate this type of thing.