As MotoGP digests how a classic season unravelled so spectacularly, Crash.net
spoke to Monster Yamaha Tech 3 boss and IRTA president Herve Poncharal about some of the factors and possible reaction to an 'unprecedented' situation.
MotoGP had arrived for the penultimate round at Sepang still glowing from a thrilling four-way victory battle in Australia.
The contest for world championship glory between Valentino Rossi and team-mate Jorge Lorenzo was also tightening. The Spaniard was within eleven points of Rossi, MotoGP's biggest ever icon, whose championship assault at the age of 36 had helped pack grandstands around the world.
Then, on Thursday at Sepang, Rossi accused outgoing champion Marc Marquez of trying to assist Lorenzo at Phillip Island, expanding his attack with some withering comments about the Honda rider to the Italian media.
That spark set off a chain reaction that would envelope the final two rounds and, one MotoGP month after the end of the season, shows little sign of dissipating.
First Marquez and Rossi fought furiously in the Malaysian race - culminating in a clash that left Marquez on the floor and Rossi with a post-race punishment that in turn meant a disastrous back of the grid start for the Valencia finale.
Rossi sought to avoid such a setback by appealing the three penalty points to the FIM Stewards, which was rejected, and then to the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The final CAS decision is yet to be made but the most crucial aspect of Rossi's appeal, that his penalty points be suspended until after Valencia therefore allowing him to start as normal, was rejected on the eve of the race weekend.
As the saga unfolded - Rossi said Marquez's actions proved his claims about Phillip Island, Lorenzo called for a bigger Rossi punishment, Repsol Honda claimed data showed Rossi kicked Marquez but cancelled a presentation of the evidence - and with so much at stake, the opposing fans were whipped into an increasing frenzy.
Against that backdrop, and with concerns for safety among the sold-out 110,000 spectators, the FIM and Dorna cancelled the Valencia pre-event press conference and asked riders not to comment further on Sepang.
It worked, for a few days. But when Lorenzo won the race and title, while Marquez remained just behind him, Rossi and his fans were certain of a further conspiracy. With positions entrenched, the acrimony continues. About the only thing Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo supporters would agree on is that it wasn't the end of the season the sport deserved.
Without raking over the actions of each rider, this is what Herve Poncharal, whose Tech 3 team has been racing in grand prix since 1990, had to say...
Following all the Sepang controversy, the MotoGP Permanent Bureau met the riders on Thursday before Valencia and said 'changes will be made to prevent this from happening again'. Do you know what that meant?
We are always looking at how to improve things in every department. So is everything working well? Yes. Can we make it better? Yes. There was some controversy. I think this was the first time that Race Direction, FIM and Dorna were faced with such a difficult and important case to judge. Therefore they've decided they should look and see if they can make things better in future.
What do you think could be improved with hindsight?
For me personally the 'penalty' was, I would say, fair. It was not too much, but it was something. Rossi wouldn't have needed to start at the back of the grid if he didn't also have a penalty point from Misano. The rules, about accumulating penalty points, apply to everyone.
The only thing I believe - and I don't know what might happen because I'm not directly involved - is that if in future we can check evidence and make decisions during the race it would be much better.
For me, this is the only thing we can say we would like to see possibly better, although it will not always be possible.
But for example in football - or rugby or tennis - sometimes there is a goal that is accepted because the referee says so. Or a red card, a yellow card, a penalty. But then later when you re-watch everything, maybe you think it was not a goal, or a red card, yellow card, penalty.
But the referee made his decision and the result of the match, 1-0 or whatever, is not changed afterwards.
My point is that what helped all of the polemic to grow was that no final decision was made at Sepang. I mean there was a decision after the race, subject to appeal, which was rejected, and then this CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] story began. So we didn't even know if Rossi was going to start last or not until the Thursday at Valencia.
All of that uncertainty fuelled the polemic and made things too hot, too heavy, too violent. I've seen the pictures being sent and things on the internet and honestly it's too much.
I don't want to take one side or the other, but when you see the things being said about Marc and Jorge having a 'pact', or photoshopping them together like a love story - this is a lack of respect.
For sure, everybody will try to see if we can handle this kind of situation better in future, but it will always be very delicate. You know, when it is a 'normal' rider it is easy, but when it is 46… He is so big. He is so famous. He is so powerful.
Was it correct to cancel the Thursday press conference at Valencia, or an overreaction?
The general opinion of the media that I've spoken to has been, 'We were not angry, but we didn't understand why the pre-event press conference was cancelled. But finally it was a good decision'. And I believe it was a good decision. I completely support the decision, although when I first heard I was also surprised.
At the end of the day if you would have put - especially if you remember the atmosphere at that time - Valentino next to Marc, next to Jorge, next to Dani… And the journalists' job - I'm not blaming them - would have been to ask 'Vale, what do you think about what Marc just said? Marc, what do you have to say in reply? Jorge, what about you?'
We know all of this started with the pre-event press conference in Malaysia [when Rossi accused Marquez of assisting Lorenzo at Phillip Island]. So I think it was a good decision because still the media had access to all the riders, each speaking in their own press conferences on Thursday, but not side-by-side. And I think it worked quite well because we had a great atmosphere in the paddock all weekend.
With 110,000 people for the race, if something happens - that's a lot of people to control. It could have been really bad. You remember what happened in some football matches in the past? People were worried and this is why I think it was the right decision.
So the safety of the fans was the main motivation for cancelling the press conference?
Yes, the safety of the fans above everything and also the image of the sport. You know, in some countries you see people punching each other in parliament! You never know what might have happened during the press conference - Spanish and Italian journalists, the riders even if the atmosphere got too hot. It's not the image we want to put across.
But you've been involved in racing a long time Herve, you've seen big riders falling out with each other many times. Was this really any different to things in the past? Was it really unique?
Our championship is growing by the way it is followed by the media and the fans. For sure social media is something we didn't have in the past. So people are much more connected. People can react a lot quicker and answer each other.
This year the championship was amazing, with the title going to the last race, which helped everything to be bigger. And of course one of the guys involved in this story [Rossi] is the icon. He is our emperor.
So I don't remember something like this before, because we didn't have the number of people following us, social media wasn't that important and we didn't have a championship this exciting for many years. The last time was probably between Nicky and Vale [in 2006] and that was a different time.
I'm sad about what happened, and it's not good to experience something like this, but on the other hand it shows that MotoGP has so many people following now. That is positive. Because there are not many events - sports, concerts, or anything - which have 110,000 people at the same place at the same time, as happened for the race at Valencia.
I don't think the Rolling Stones have 110,000 people at one concert, and I'm a big fan of the Rolling Stones!
But when you have fame, glory, money - always one way or another you have clashes and polemic. It is part of the game. And this is also what a lot of people want.
Many people had been saying there is not enough rivalry in MotoGP any more…
Absolutely. And Formula One was never as big as when Prost and Senna were fighting each other. It was incredible. You remember the whole Suzuka story? It was so big between Senna and Prost at that time. Even if you look at rock and roll; if everything was dull there would be no rockstars.
Some people say part of the problem in this situation is the riders involved have too much power. It must be difficult to manage riders that are as big as Rossi, Marquez or Lorenzo…
I haven't had the luck, because I don't have the budget, to face this problem! I don't think in the near future I can have a Marquez, a Lorenzo or a Rossi in my team.
Having said that - it was different - but for example we had Dovi and Cal together. They were rivals, they were fast, they were world champions and both quite famous. I don't say we are better than the others, but we managed to keep everything as a sport and there was a healthy atmosphere.
How did you do that? What sort of things do you have to be careful about?
I don't want to sound like a teacher, so if you ask me this question I'm going to say something and maybe Lin [Jarvis, Yamaha], or Livio [Suppo, Honda] will think 'who is Herve to say that? What does he know?'
Okay, let me rephrase the question, everyone has their own different ways of managing riders, so what has been your personal approach within Tech 3?
Let me start by saying I have so much respect for the riders. I'm still amazed by what they are doing. Throughout the race on Sunday the hairs on my arms were standing up because what they do is extraordinary. They are heroes. They are supermen. This is clear and very important.
But to do what they are doing, and to have the life they are having, they also need the federation, promoter, teams, sponsors and factories. They can't do it by themselves. This is an individual sport but there are a lot of people working very hard to enable them to show their talent.
I think, from my point of view, they are sometimes too spoilt. I think at some stage we should - in a nice way, not necessarily in an authoritative way - just explain to them: 'You are here because you are the best. You are here because you are amazing. You are a superman. But still, to have the possibility to show your super talent, there are a lot of things and people that you need behind you.'
So my way of seeing things - and it's difficult to explain without hurting some people's pride - is to respect the riders, but also to ask them to respect my team. It's easier for me because my riders are not megastars like Valentino Rossi or Marc Marquez. But I'm trying to have my team like a family. A team-family.
I think my characteristic - I don't say if it is better or not - is 'talk always, to everyone'. A team is a group and I'm happy in the evening when my riders are eating here in the hospitality together. Talking together. Not one rider with his entourage at one table and the other with his entourage at the opposite end of the room. Then there is no link.
I tell my riders, 'Do what you have to do, get the best results you can and of course your team-mate is the first rider you want to beat, but please think as a team'. I was really proud because our guys finished fifth [Espargaro] and sixth [Smith] in the Valencia race - they've been fighting all year long and it was always clean.
For sure, Pol wanted to beat Bradley big time. Bradley beat Pol many times this year and Pol was not happy. I'm not saying either of them is happy to be behind the other, and I wouldn't want them to be.
Anyway, I think if we sometimes show authority and say 'hey, we cannot do that' - it's like parents with their children. If you don't show some limit, there is no limit.
It's good to have superstars because they are like the locomotive 'pulling' the championship - Vale, Marc, Jorge and all these guys. And some friction between them, as we talked about earlier, is part of making the championship big. But sometimes it's good to say 'Okay, don't go too far'.
That's all I think. That's just how I do things.