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EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Paul Denning

6 April 2005

By Peter McLaren

After guiding his Rizla Suzuki British Superbike team to title glory with John Reynolds last season, Paul Denning accepted the considerable challenge of trying to repeat his BSB success with the Suzuki MotoGP team, by accepting the role of team manager from 2005.

Crash.net caught up with Paul at the recent London MotoGP pre-season launch, where we asked the Brit about his move to MotoGP, his first impressions of the championship, what riders John Hopkins and Kenny Roberts Jr have to do to impress him this year, the new rules and race calendar, the differences between MotoGP and Superbike racing, if Suzuki's SBK stars could be given wild-card GP rides and much more.

For those with audio, the full interview can also be found in the Crash.net Radio archive...


Q:
Paul, during your discussions with Suzuki before accepting the job, how did they convince you that they are serious about their MotoGP project and are fully behind making a success of it?

Paul Denning:
They really didn't need to. When it became clear that Garry Taylor would be stopping as team manager at the end of 2004 it was not a difficult thing for me to accept Suzuki's invitation to accept the management of the team, simply because I know Suzuki is serious.

They've won the championship before, fully intend to do it again and two or three slightly difficult years don't mean that a manufacturer has lost its way with regard to what it takes. I hope that a little bit of fresh input is just going to help gel the thing a little bit more quickly.

Q:
I assuming that when you accepted the job you had a rough idea of where you'd like to be at this stage - heading into your first race - could you tell us how close you are to that ideal?

Paul Denning:
My target was, and still is now, to improve dramatically over 2004. It was a very, very difficult year last year and we have to show Suzuki riders near the front of the field and challenging for the front group.

That's what everybody is after at Suzuki; it's a realistic position (but) I think the riders, particularly Hopkins, are looking for more than that - immediately - and I think with Bridgestone tyres and the motorcycle having taken such a big step that becomes more and more of a possibility.

But we're not kidding ourselves, there's an awful lot to do and there's quality competition out there, we're just looking to keep our heads down and try and find that big improvement.

Q:
Obviously you've worked with a lot of world class riders within your Rizla Suzuki (BSB) team - do you see any similarities between, say, a John Reynolds and a John Hopkins in the way they work or the way they ride?

Paul Denning:
Well I guess professional sportsmen are all different in their approach and in the way they do things, but ultimately they are all completely committed. The best riders, their commitment is just unbelievable.

I was out watching Hopkins going through the stadium section at Jerez last week and his corner entry speed was like a Formula One car! He is just so committed to going quick. Hopkins has got a very focused and very professional approach to his racing for a 21-year-old. He is only going to need to start knocking on the door and it's going become very clear that he's a big talent.

Kenny Roberts Jr has gone through a difficult couple of years since winning the world championship, but he has the talent, the fitness and the overall ability to make it happen. We're trying to put a bike under him that gives him the confidence to get his game back up to the level where it clearly can be.

Q:
So what do Hopkins and Roberts have to do to impress you this year - obviously you've mentioned results, but is it more than that - perhaps how they motivate the team, or their consistency?

Paul Denning:
The race result comes as a result of what you put into it, what I'm looking for - and I don't think it's too much to expect - is 100% effort for every lap of every race. That's all you can ask for and I think the guys are ready to provide it. The results will come - to a significantly improved level (over last year) with the equipment we've got now - if that commitment is there (from the riders). Suzuki's commitment is at that level and to impress me that's what I'm looking for from them.

That means using the best that's under them at every race; if at a given race the GSV-R is only good enough for twelfth place - for any reason - so be it, that's where we've got to finish, and at the next race if the GSV-R's good enough to stick it on the podium, that's what I expect them to do. So it's a question of 100% effort all season and keep looking at the big picture.

Q:
Is there anything that you think MotoGP can learn from BSB?

Paul Denning:
Well you know, it'd be kinda nice to put some silencers on the bikes for a start so you can actually hear yourself think. That'd be the first thing I'd do. I think the fans like the noise on a race day but, gees, it's just too loud.

But aside from that, the MotoGP people said to me before I went there that it's very corporate and a little bit snobby or what-have-you, but I've not seen that at all. I haven't had time to go and speak to many of the guys, but the other team managers I've met have been straight forward, good guys, very helpful, very friendly people.

Everybody is out there competing and trying to win, but the pressures of that are the same at any level you're racing at. We're all trying to get a job done and there's no question that whether it's BSB or MotoGP there's a lot of dedicated people. But no, I've not really found any negatives so far - let's wait and see what happens when we start to go racing.

Q:
Obviously an important part of the technical package is the tyres. Bridgestone have signed Ducati for this year, and set up a Tyre Test Team, how did Bridgestone reassure you that Suzuki would still get 100% commitment from them and how does tyre development work?

Paul Denning:
Bridgestone will develop what we need to go fast. They're working very hard with Suzuki, Kawasaki and Ducati. The good news is that Bridgestone are just so professional and so quick to react to everything that we need. The other good news is they will give us every single bit of information from Ducati's feedback on the tyres and they will let us know exactly what is going on with the Kawasaki guys.

That's great, but the bad news is that of course those guys will get all our information. But that's how it should be, we need six riders developing these tyres not two and the results are going to come a lot more quickly. So we're very happy the other teams are on board with Bridgestone.

We're really happy with the steps they've taken. They've pretty much built a tyre around John Hopkins' riding style - the high corner speed and high edge grip requirement - and he's starting to use those tyres to the full now. I couldn't be more impressed, there are going to be one or two tracks potentially that they struggle at, but the level is just getting so high so quickly, it's pretty impressive.

Q:
A lot is made of budgets in MotoGP - how possible is it for a team to 'punch above its budget'? For example, if you lined-up the manufacturers by their budgets at the start of the year, would that match the positions in the manufacturers' championship at the end of the year?

Paul Denning:
I think it's possible for the teams to make a difference, as it was in BSB last year when we beat HRC with the Rizla Suzuki bike. I don't think the analogy is any different; whether it's Rizla Suzuki in BSB or Proton KR, or whatever, in MotoGP. Sure, budget makes a massive difference but to a certain level, the most beneficial thing about MotoGP as a sport is that the rider can still make the difference - everyone saw that by the results Valentino Rossi achieved last year.

The rider is still the fundamental thing; the bike and the package and the team has to be there, but a rider can and will make a difference and given that that's the case I'm very positive that grand prix has a healthy future as long as it continues to be a sport whereby the rider makes the difference.

Q:
There are some significant new rules for this year, regarding one qualifying session and flag-to-flag racing, what's your opinion of them?

Paul Denning:
I like the qualifying - it's going to be a very high pressure session - but I really like it. It makes great sense in qualifying being a show that everyone can get their heads round and see who is going to be on pole within that one hour; there's no mucking about with the previous day's times so I think it's going to be a great thing for the MotoGP show.

With regard to the situation with flag-to-flag. It has gone through a lot of changes and I think it's got to a point now where it's the best compromise we're going to get and (most people are) happy and they just want to stop talking about it and go racing. I think in terms of safety and the show it's not a bad balance.

Q:
We've seen a few teams testing radios, presumably for the flag-to-flag rule, is that something Suzuki has also been looking at?

Paul Denning:
We've been working on that with Autocom and Motorola to put a package together that will allow us to talk to the riders on the track. It's in its infancy at the moment, we don't see it as a major priority right now because the new flag-to-flag regulation with the spare bike makes the pit stop time slightly less critical. So it's something we're working on, but it's certainly not a priority for us.

Q:
This year MotoGP has its biggest ever calendar, with 17 races - do you think that's about right the right number or too many, too few?

Paul Denning:
It's as many as my wife would really like to see! It's definitely not too few. I think 17 races is the most that the teams can cope with, without going to a budget that just becomes crazy. So I think 16 or 17 races is about the level.

Logistically, the cost is becoming higher every year - because there are more and more flyaway races, seven in 2005 - and that's something in itself that's increased the costs to all the teams. But getting to these new markets is very important as well. The bottom line is that 16-17 races is enough for everyone, including me.

Q:
You mention the new markets; there are three new races this year and the new events seem to be split between those that are in a new geographical location, such as Qatar last year, and areas where MotoGP has a bigger following, such as the USA. Do you think MotoGP should cover all corners of the world or do you think it should race where the most fans are?

Paul Denning:
It's a good question and I don't think I've got enough experience of the series yet to really comment very fairly. There are commercial issues - in terms of sponsorship and return - that have to keep supporting the championship and I think, for example, the Qatar race is an interesting one; very, very few live spectators but good sponsorship and a real TV event.

I'm really not sure about the Qatar event - it's the only one that stands out for me as a bit of a no-no, in terms of, you know, it's nice to have some passion when you get to any event. But I think apart from Qatar, the series is very well balanced and the venues which we will go to are well supported and deserve to have a race.

Q:
The opening round of the World Superbike was at Qatar recently, Honda and Ducati MotoGP teams had been testing a week earlier at the track and lap times were around 2-3secs different. Is that enough and is a MotoGP really far enough ahead of a Superbike?

Paul Denning:
Well yeah, if you count to three and times it by 30 it's a minute and a half (over a race distance) so there's no comparison between what it means to the bikes potential. But yeah, a grand prix is about 20 kilos lighter; it has 30-40 more horsepower and as a pure prototype machine is harder to get the best out of, harder to ride over a race distance and ultimately the best riders end up in MotoGP as it's the very highest level.

But obviously I'm a big fan of Superbike, having grown up with it, and I've no doubt that - as shown by the potential of Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss etc - that the best Superbike riders can make that step.

And it's all about a timing thing in your career; look at the way John Reynolds is riding now, at 40-years-old, if he'd been riding like that - and had had the breaks at 24-years-old - he would have been in grand prix doing very, very well - there is no question of that. So I think the pure ability of the rider is very difficult to measure, in my opinion, and it's more down to taking that ability and then being in the right place at the right time.

Q:
Finally, Suzuki has got a lot of top Superbike riders on its books this year - Reynolds, Smart, Corser, Kagayama and Mladin - there are two parts to this; would you like to see them have wild-cards rides on the GSV-R at their home grand prix, and is that realistically possible?

Paul Denning:
For this year no, because of the logistical effort you need to put together a third bike to do it properly - I mean the worst thing you can do with a third machine is just turn up with the rider without supporting it properly.

That means not having enough crew, not enough logistical back-up, not enough spare parts or setting parts - that's not a situation which we would really want to get involved in. We will run two wild-cards for our test rider Nobuatsu Aoki at, I think, Brno and Sachsenring - it'll be quite interesting to see how Nobuatsu gets on in the race.

But yeah, it would be great fun to have Mat Mladin at Phillip Island or JR at Donington Park, but without extensive testing to allow them to get on the pace it wouldn't be fair on the rider or the team.


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