2 April 2014
Nataliya Lyubimova, Yakhnich WSBK manager - Q&A
Yakhnich Motorsport's Nataliya Lyubimova chats with Crash.net about her fascinating journey from plucky rider to world title winning team manager.
So who is Mr Yakhnich?
Basically he's the owner of Yakhnich Motorsport and more importantly, he's my boss. You could say that it's a slightly romantic project in that it was started with his wife Nadia in mind. Nadia has always liked motorsports and has driven in Formula 3 but then moved to motorcycles. We actually met because we were both riding and the team was only started after we became friends.
At the time it wasn't the large project it is now and we didn't have any plans to be in the world championships, it was just supposed to be the first women's road racing team in Russia.
The first idea may have been romantic but Alexander is a professional and a businessman. So right from the start the team was run in a professional manner with regard to operations and its relationship with the media.
It was quite a steep learning curve because we don't have a lot of tracks in Russia and there isn't really a motorcycling culture so everything was new to us but 7 years later I think we've done a good job. It's a shame because even now due to that lack of motorcycling culture there aren't so many fast Russian riders.
Alexander's most important role in the team is getting sponsorship, financial management and staffing and he always keeps an eye on the team's day-to-day activities. We've grown so much each year and of course the budget has grown too and the team's workshop is now in Imola, Italy.
There are 2 team managers, yourself and Claudio Corsetti, what are your roles?
The team is based in 2 countries, Russia and Italy and Claudio looks after the operational side of things looks for and hires technical staff and looks after the bikes in Italy. He has huge experience of the technical side of things and looks after the technical direction of the team.
He's someone who really understands the motorcycle world and for a Russian team such as ours that's very important. In the beginning Claudio was actually mine and Nadia's trainer but he was also a rider so he knows the bikes, the rider but he's also a good psychologist and knows how to bring the best out in a rider.
My role is more organizational and administrative in that I organize all the travel, logistics and media. I also look after contracts and keeping our 2 bases working together. It's a lot of work and I work closely with Claudio and we are always in contact with each other.
Who would decide on which rider to employ?
We're both on the lookout for riders throughout the season and when we have a list of candidates we bring those to Alexander along with the reason that we think they would be good and Alexander then has the final decision. It's important that we make a complete case for any rider we're interested in along with their strengths and weaknesses because Alexander knows the racing world but it's impossible to be familiar with all riders.
This year it's been slightly different though because we've got a factory contract with MV so we also have to discuss the decisions with them. They also have a big voice in which riders we employ
Tell us a little about your bike racing career?
In my life I've ridden a bike for more than 20 years on and off the track. I started in 1993 with a Ural (Russian BMW based flat twin) and had that bike for 6 years. At the time I was a bike photographer and did some huge journeys on it to get to shoots. Unfortunately I crashed that bike so it's no longer with us.
That photography started an interest in bikes in me and I started helping to organize a Russian road racing championship. One of the team mangers in that championship asked me to try one of their bikes and I became one of the first woman in a Russian championship.
It was at this time that I first met Nadia and we started participating together. I was both organizing and taking part in the championship at the same time. Unfortunately age catches up with all of us all so at one point you have to make the decision whether to continue or not. I wanted to continue working in the world of motorcycles so I made the move into team management
I tried a lot of bikes in my career but always came back to the Yamaha R6. I always felt as if it was my bike and we simply continued using that bike as the team progressed. It's a great racing bike and we had a lot of experience with it and put our own engines together for it.
Now though I would certainly like to try the F3 because it's so delicate and beautiful and the kind of bike a woman might like. I haven't tried any of our race bikes yet but as a manager I'm hoping that I can give it a go some time. If there is a possibility I'll certainly try it, when you see the MV you just want to ride it.
What did you find more natural, riding or managing?
For me it's comes easier to do my work in management rather than participating as a rider. When I think of riding I immediately think of the nerves I got 30 minutes before the start of a race. I just got so nervous and waiting for those last 30 minutes was so difficult and I really don't miss that and the nerves only went when the lights went green. I also remember the wonderful feeling of riding the last lap of a race though. It's not that I necessarily enjoy management more, it's just that I find it easier.
There's a part of me that would like to give it one last go but I don't think it would be as much fun as before. In the past we put everything into our riding, it was the only thing we thought of but now I wouldn't be able to give it that commitment.
The problem is that racing is almost like a drug, I've never known anybody who once they'd tried it didn't come back for more. They always come back.
Also when you work at world level with such amazing riders as Sam (Lowes), Vladimir (Leonov) and Claudio (Corti) it actually gives you some of the energy I used to experience in those days. I'm very proud to be in such a high level and competitive championship. I don't know if I enjoy winning more as a manager or as a rider but for me the main focus is always doing my job well.
There's the female symbol for a woman in the team's logo, is the feminine team identity important to you?
Sure, the team started as the first woman's road racing team so that will always be a part of it. When we invited the first male rider to join our team they wanted to change the symbol for a male one but we kept it as it is because that identity is important to us. Now that we're successful at world level though nobody mentions it and the logo is just the one for Yakhnich Motorsport.
I think that being a woman in the male dominated racing world can be an advantage in that a woman's touch can be useful for trying to resolve conflicts. At time's I have to be soft but unfortunately sometimes I've also got to be the bitch! I haven't been one many times but I have once or twice. Ultimately I'm a boss though so it's the role that comes first. I've never come across a disadvantage of being a woman in racing.
I think having one male and one female manager is probably the perfect combination. I enjoy working with so many talented and strong male characters and when I'm doing that I don't necessarily feel like a woman just a manager. It's really great to work with such talented people and for your hobby to be your job is about as good as it gets.
Do you enjoy the huge amount of travel involved in your job?
I really enjoy it. When I was 15 years old I just wanted to fill my passport with different stamps but didn't know how I was going to achieve that. Racing has allowed me to get to that dream and one of my 2 passports is already full and I'm starting on the second one. I absolutely love the traveling even to distant countries like Australia. For me it's a dream come true.
Why do you think there are no top female riders?
I would very much like to see more girls coming through and you do see one or two like Ana Carrasco but not enough. I think that female riders have to come from countries where there's a motorcycling culture like Spain or Italy and I'm hoping that with a more modern view there will be more of them starting on minimotos when they're young. I think a dedicated racing formula might also be useful.
I think that it would be very interesting to get more female riders in the championship because in general if there is a female rider in front of the male one then it's like a red rag to a bull. There would be some extra competitiveness.
When myself and Nadia were riding in the Italian championship they would do anything to get ahead of us and it was absolutely impossible to overtake them. I think we were good motivation for them to go faster. There is hope though because at one time in the Russian championships there were actually 5 women taking part.
I also have to say that the sight of beautiful girls riding in leathers wouldn't do the championship any harm!
I think there's something evolutionary in a woman which means that she's naturally a mother and carer and I think that to make a career in racing you have to almost switch off this instinct. It's possible that we'll have a top rider in the future but it's less likely because of these kind of emotions and priorities. Maybe a woman has more instincts of self-preservation.
I have to shoot myself in the foot a little here though because when I was riding competitively I actually enjoyed riding more against men than women. When you're fighting with men you know that you're just fighting to win and there are no politics.
You've won the championship and also the first race of the season, were you surprised at this great success?
I have to say that so much of that came from Sam Lowes and I feel very grateful to him. As a rider, I know my level and could only dream of making the podium in WSS but Sam has allowed me to feel as if I'm on it through his talent. I felt as if I was there.
It's all to do with our riders, Sam, Jules (Cluzel), Vladimir (Leonov) and Claudio (Corti) all make us look good. When you've got riders like that success can never be a surprise.
When Sam arrived at our team he immediately said 'I think I'm going to win' and as a Russian I almost felt that that might jinx us. Russians never like to predict success before the event in case it gives us bad luck so when Sam arrived so positively it was new to us but he backed it up and gave us so many wins. He played a big part of how the team as moved forward.
With Sam I discovered a rider who was absolutely championship material and I'm not sure how many riders of his talent exist. He thinks, lives and talks like a champion and his brother Alex is the same. I'm so happy that he sent us the email asking us if we were open for a new rider, he turned us into a winning team. Sam was like the last piece in the jigsaw and when he was there we had the bike, team, mechanics and rider to get the job done.
The fact that we now have a winning team was shown at PI because Jules had such a hard weekend, he had technical problems, he crashed but inside I still felt like he was going to win. We couldn't predict that Kenan and Michael would crash but even without that we felt like winners. You have to believe in your rider.
What do you think the true potential of the MV is?
The thing I like about WSBK and WSS is that it's the rider who can make the difference. The rider is the most important part of the package.
That was shown to us many times last year when Sam managed to win even though the bike wasn't the best or when we were having technical problems. If the rider knows they will win then they often will and that applies to Jules as well as Sam.
We're only at the beginning of our journey with MV and there's so much more to come. Our contract with MV is for 3 years.
With the WSS we can fight for a top 3 finish but for the superbike this is really a development year and fighting for the podium would be a bonus. Luckily we've got an unbelievable rider there in the form of Claudio whose development skills are excellent.
I like the way Claudio works. He's got great experience and he's very clear in his feedback. If he says that there's a problem with an aspect of the bike then you can be sure that there is. Not so many riders are good at development. Some can be fast in a race but aren't able to be clear in their feedback but Claudio can do both. It's his development skills are a great part of why we went with him.
To develop the bike it's enough to have just one rider but next year we're planning to have two on the grid and Claudio has a two year contract.
In the space of 2 years Yakhnich has gone from being relatively unknown to being a front running WSS team and a factory WSBK contender, do you feel a sense of achievement?
It's true that now as a factory team we are contacted by many more riders, but even at the end of last year because of the excellent results we were getting we were also getting a lot more support from Yamaha Europe. It has to be said though that even with the many contacts we got, the riders were easy to choose and I think we have the perfect combination in Vladimir, Jules and Claudio.
Jules in particular can be a top 3 contender. Claudio of course wants to win now but our strategy at the moment with him is to develop the bike and as for next year we'll see.
I do feel a sense of pride in what we've achieved but with all the work necessary I've never really been able to sit back and feel that. Even at the end of last year we didn't know which bike we were going to run this year so I think you can say that everything is changing and we have to go with that. As a team I think we have a strong future.
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