As a troublesome season moves toward its halfway stage, rays of optimism are finally shining on John McPhee's Peugeot MC Saxoprint squad, that not only finds itself in the hands of a new owner, but has received the promise of mechanical upgrades ahead of the Sachsenring.
Running Peugeot machinery that is essentially a rebranded Mahindra in 2016, the outfit has been beset by gearbox issues from the first winter tests. Furthermore funding problems were a particular concern, leaving riders McPhee and Alexis Masbou unsure over their immediate futures.
Although the ability of both riders is not in question – McPhee is a recent pole sitter in the class while Masbou triumphed in the 2015 season opener –, a machine that is down on top speed and whose transmission had a frustrating, unpredictable habit of jumping out gear has left them fighting for confidence and outside the top ten for the most part.
A level of uncertainty surrounded the direction of the team for several months leading up to June too. As German website Speedweek.com reported, IRTA had requested that former boss Dirk Heidolf's involvement cease in 2016 due to past financial issues.
Yet the extent of the former racer's participation in affairs was still clouded in muddy waters. It took a press release issued by the team at the close of the French Grand Prix to state that he no longer played any part in its running.
Still at that point both riders were unsure whether sufficient funding was in place to complete another round, never mind the remainder of the season.
By the Grand Prix of Barcelona in June, and the news that sponsor Ingo Prüstel, a German freight magnate, had acquired ownership of the team, steadied a rocky ship, and gave an indication of stability going forward.
On the back of this news, the team competed in the FIM Junior World Championship round at Montmeló, prior to the Dutch TT, to test a much-needed gearbox upgrade, giving all involved a boost heading to Assen.
“After the things we found out in Barcelona with the gearbox and the complete bike and after getting the new security that we have from the new owner, it's a completely new spirit in the team,” team boss Terrell Thien told Crash.net at Assen.
“You know, we are all professionals. It is not the first time in the last 19 years that we have had problems like this. We tried to do our job. We do everything that we have to do. For sure, it helps but we cannot just say, 'We don't know what is going on.'
"We work different. This is our job. Sometimes you do it in a better mood. Other times it is not so nice. The job is the job. But to be honest when you sit together at dinner you can see many more smiling faces than before.”
For McPhee, a podium contender in the closing races of 2014, the early reality of scrapping outside the points was difficult to take. “This is the level at the minute,” said a disappointed Scot after finishing 23rd at Mugello. “Our problems are a mixture of everything: engine, gearbox, and we're not quite there with the chassis.”
Opting to keep his mind out of the behind-the-scenes affairs, McPhee was boosted by the testing of an upgraded gearbox in the Junior World Championship.
“It was absolutely perfect,” he told Crash.net at Assen. “We raced all weekend with it and we didn't have one issue. It worked well.”
While the new component was unavailable for the Dutch TT, McPhee will have the new transmission available at the team's home race in Germany, which he hopes can boost his consistency over a race weekend.
“A new gearbox is coming at the Sachsenring. It worked well. I'm quite confident we can make a step toward the front with it. It's not really anything for the lap time but definitely for reliability and consistency.”
Although the race in Assen failed to yield points for the Oban rider, McPhee felt he could have run with the leading group of twelve riders had he qualified better. Still, 18 seconds back of the race winner was a considerable improvement on the deficit he faced two races before in Mugello.
“All weekend we were almost half the gap to the front [than previous races], not only laps time-wise but also in the race. We were much closer to the front. Everything is moving in the right direction. I'm really looking forward to the Sachsenring.
“I felt that if I was in the front group today I could have run with them quite easily, and maybe have even fought toward the front,” he told Crash.net.
“The position I was in on the track I wasn't able to do that. That was more or less down to me due to the bad qualifying. It's something, I need to try and position myself a little bit better I think. A lot of qualifying is to do with luck in this class. It's something I need to focus mainly on for the next race.
Francesco Bagnaia's staggering win at Assen was a historic first triumph for Mahindra in grand prix racing, and signalled the potential of the bike. Asked whether he felt the result was positive for his team, Thien replied, “It actually kicks our arse!
“That is positive from my side because it saves me some time from kicking the riders' arses. I think it's positive. It's just something you guys have to do, with your chief technicians. Start working on Friday properly and make sure the bike is what you need for Sunday.”
On McPhee's approach through the season, he added, “I am really OK with how he is, with how he behaves. What I miss a little bit at the moment is the fighting spirit with him. This is something you can learn when you fight a little bit more. He is a great rider in certain weather conditions.
“He's a really good guy and is very sensitive setting up the bike. But as usual you need to fight in this class, every year more and more. If you have 18 riders in one group within one second it's difficult. I think he has to get used to this a little bit more. But overall he does a really good job. He's professional. He's training. He looks after his food and looks after his health. I'm happy with him.”
McPhee is currently the second best placed Mahindra/Peugeot rider in the world championship with ten points to his name.