Monster Yamaha Tech 3's Herve Poncharal has been a MotoGP team manager for a long time, but he's never faced this situation before.

Just over a week before the start of testing, Jonas Folger - the rider Poncharal had believed in for years, signed before fellow rookie star Johann Zarco and celebrated a second place with last season - informed the Frenchman that he was withdrawing from the 2018 season.

Folger has been absent since severe fatigue problems came to a head on the eve of last October's Japanese Grand Prix. But all the information since suggested the young German's health was back on track and he would be ready to return for pre-season testing.

Then came the shock phone call. spoke to Poncharal during the Sepang test, where Yonny Hernandez was called up to ride Folger's bikes as the difficult search for a full-time replacement continues…

Herve, it's been quite a start to the year…

Herve Poncharal:

Life is always full of surprises. Sometimes it's a good surprise, positive. Sometimes it's unpleasant. And this time was certainly a big shock.

When we came here for the private test at the end of November, the guys on the '94' side of the garage were telling the Michelin staff and Yamaha engineers, 'The last four races we had three different riders. Nozane, Parkes and van der Mark. It's been not easy. Thank god Jonas is recovering and we're going to have a very exciting 2018. Hopefully we're going to fight again for podiums'.

So everybody left here in November with a big smile on their face, receiving very positive news from Jonas.

From Jonas directly?

Herve Poncharal:

Mainly his management but also from Jonas. Not so often, but from both.

And he was telling you, 'I'm getting better, I feel strong'?

Herve Poncharal:

Yes. We even received some reports from some institute that was taking care [of him] and everything was very positive. So until a week before flying to Sepang everything was looking very promising and everyone was very excited.

You had no idea of what was about to happen?

Herve Poncharal:

No. Everything we were receiving was following the plan: It was good to give Jonas some months to fully recover, and now we thought he's fully recovered. But there are always things in life that are unexpected. When people get married they say and they mean 'until death do us part', but it doesn't always work out that way.

But in all your years as a team manager, have you ever been in this kind of situation?

Herve Poncharal:

No, it's never happened. But in a way I have to say that I really respect Jonas' decision. Because Jonas is still very young. Jonas is unbelievable gifted and talented. And he finally reached his dream, which any young rider has; to be a MotoGP rider.

And he was fast. He was on the podium for his home grand prix and we all knew that was not a coincidence. Nobody crashed in front of him.

To give up all of this. Everything you've been working for, pushing and dreaming of most of your life. Not knowing if you are ever going to come back and what are you going to do with the rest of your life at the age of 24. You have to have big balls to make the decision he made.

I've had some riders in the past and I've spoken with other team managers and crew chiefs, who told me that some riders were not really ready to return but they still came back because this was their life, their job and the results were not fantastic.

So very often it's the team, the sponsor or the factory that has to say to the rider, 'enough'.

But to have a rider that has everything; a contract signed, a good bike and salary, ready to build on last year and having seen what his team-mate did… Jonas knew, and I think he still knows, he can fight his team-mate. So you have to be strong in a way, to take this decision.

Some people told me, 'aren't you angry that he informed you so late?' For sure it would have been much better to know three months before. But I believe, although I don't really know what is happening inside his head, that he was trying to convince himself that he was going to come back and that he was ready.

I still have some text messages where he is telling me, 'I'm strong, I'm ready, I'm going to come back'. I honestly think that was how he was feeling. But my own personal feeling, and it is only a feeling, is the closer the date of his return was coming maybe the more he was feeling… I don’t know if it's stress or pressure.

One thing is quite sure - and again I also spoke with some ex-team managers that worked with him in the past in different classes - from my experience in 2017, quite often the week before the race I would talk to his cousin, who is also his assistant, and he would tell me, 'last Sunday he was sick and wasn't sure he could ride this week'.

I was thinking, 'why is he always sick?' Because I thought it was a cold or flu.

But okay, we can talk about Folger forever and we're not going to change anything. I'm not a doctor and I don't really know what he has, because we read so many things during the winter that I was sometimes a bit sceptical.

I don't know if anybody really knows what's going on. What is the reality. All I can say is that I could see sometimes Jonas was having difficulty to cope with pressure and stress.

And on the other side of our garage with Johann we had the complete opposite. Johann is like a stone! Nothing can touch him. The more pressure you give him the happier he is, and it is quite often an extra boost for him.

During the pre-season tests last year Jonas was quite often slightly faster than Johann. No pressure. As soon as we arrived in Qatar, FP1 and FP2, things changed.

On the starting grid in Qatar for their very first MotoGP race we had a few drops of rain. Johann was sitting on the bike, on the second row. I was looking at him and he was really calm. Unbelievable. And I could see Jonas, three or four times he went back to the pits, I asked where he was going and was told 'he's not feeling good'…

The bottom line is that you are now in a difficult situation…

Herve Poncharal:

Sure I am in a difficult situation now. It's not easy because I sold my programme to Yamaha and my sponsors with Zarco-Folger. Now I've got to re-discuss everything. I have to find a replacement rider, which is very difficult at the moment because nobody is available at the level of Jonas.

You can spend, as I did, days and nights going through every list. We know what you need to be a top MotoGP rider and there is nobody. So this is difficult for me and for the team.

But what I am most sorry and sad about is for Jonas.

Because I believe this guy could have been incredibly strong and I wanted to give him the opportunity to show the world this talent. And I am sad because nobody really understands the level of Jonas Folger.

Some people say, 'Sachsenring was a one-off'. No, Sachsenring is Jonas. And if he had the bike ready when he pitted in the Czech Republic he would have finished second. Or first. Michelin have all the data.

So it was not just luck what happened at the Sachsenring. Not at all. This is his potential.

I don’t know if he will ever come back. He had the balls to call me and say, 'Herve I can't race in 2018'. I told him - and it was important to tell him - 'Jonas, you understand that if you don't race in 2018 maybe you will never race again in MotoGP?'

He said, 'I know'.

This is something you have to respect.

It sounds like more of a mental thing than a physical thing?

Herve Poncharal:

For me the body is absolutely okay. Which is good news. But you always worry - when you are that young and have been riding all your life - what is he going to do now to have fun and replace the adrenaline that you have here? I don't know.

I wish him luck. That's all I can do.

Now you have to try and find someone else and, as you say there are no easy choices. Would you prefer a young person or an experienced rider?

Herve Poncharal:

Yamaha have got two guys with the mission to win the championship; Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales. Okay, Zarco can do very well, but he's not yet a title contender. In our position, we are more like a junior team.

So what's the point to take an old, established rider? And when I say established, retired basically.

I hate to say this because maybe it's what we will have to do in the end, but the worst feeling is to think you are here to fill a space on the grid and nothing more. Especially after the season we had last year. You can imagine that for us, especially for the crew, it’s a lot of work and when you know that there is not much hope… It's difficult. They will do it because they are all professionals, but it's not the same.

Also, I don't want to say, but 2018 is the last year for everything in MotoGP. Almost everybody has a contract ending this year, not only for riders but also with my Yamaha contract, with Monster, Black & Decker… all the guys that are with me, everything is ending in 2018.

So clearly it's a very important year and if you do what we did in 2017, this is the best way to help the negotiations to prepare for 2019 and 2020. I don't know what's going to happen in 2018, but 'rider two' will for sure not be fighting for the top positions. Doesn't matter who it will be.

If ever Johann is not having an easy year, compared to last year, it could hurt the company quite a lot. But there's not a lot we can do.

Of those in Moto2 not under contract at the moment, there are guys like Cortese, Aegerter…

Herve Poncharal:

Aegerter is 50-50. He is not 100% free.

If he does become available, Aegerter is perhaps the most successful candidate - seven podiums, one - almost two - race wins, plus some big bike experience at Suzuka…

Herve Poncharal:

But the MotoGP class is special. You can't compare to the Suzuka 8 Hours. This guy [points to Nakasuga on track] has won the 8 Hours three times in a row.

But ideally, yes, we would take a young Moto2 rider.

And if Xavi Vierge hadn’t made his decision to leave at the end of last year…

Herve Poncharal:

It would have been the dream scenario - and so easy. But you can talk forever about what might have been. We'll see.

Do you have a deadline to make a decision, by the Thailand test?

Herve Poncharal:

If you take somebody to the Qatar race without any testing… Okay it's a possibility, but clearly not the best way. Already Luthi compared to the others - he missed the November tests and it's difficult. It will come for him but it shows that you don't jump on a MotoGP bike and go fast, unless you are Zarco and Folger.

Would Yamaha like to put a Japanese guy on the bike?

Herve Poncharal:

No. There is no Japanese guy.

Not Nozane?

Herve Poncharal:

No, already last year when he did Motegi - before he injured his hand - we asked him, 'are you interested to also do Phillip Island?' And he said, 'no, Japan only'. He's not willing and Yamaha is not pushing.

How has Yonny got on this week, what are his chances of being on the bike at the next test?

Herve Poncharal:

I don't know. All I have to say is that Yonny did quite well for me. If you compare, he is two-seconds from Lorenzo and half-a-second from, let's say, some real MotoGP riders. So he's done an okay job. It's a long time since he was on a MotoGP bike. And he's a really nice guy. You are not here to have a friend, you are here to have a rider, but for me still it's important.

I want to thank Yonny for what he has done here. I don't know what's going to be the outcome, but I'm glad we gave him the opportunity here.

Are Monster interested in an American rider?

Herve Poncharal:

Right now, I am trying to find the best all-round solution… for sure, behind racing there is a lot of marketing and this is important. But when people say, 'this guy is here because he is Spanish, Italian, German, French', for me I'm sorry to say but most of the time this is complete bullshit.

Marquez is here not because he is Spanish, but because he is the fastest. He's Spanish and the promoter is Spanish, but so what? As I've said to you many times in the past, if there is a Polish rider tomorrow, for example, who has the talent to beat Marquez on a regular basis he would have a full factory bike.

The nationality doesn't matter as much as people think because at the end of the day what any sponsor wants is to have visibility. If you have a nationality that is representing a very important market for you sponsor but this guy is last at every race, how good is that going to be for your market?

So I think sometimes people are a bit short-sighted. The only way to give real value to your sponsors is to be doing what Zarco did last year. Zarco gave to Monster, Yamaha, Black & Decker, Motul, all our partners, a lot and they didn't really care where he was from.

I would hate to take someone just for their nationality. Of course, if you one day have the best rider who is also representing the biggest market of your sponsor, this is an ideal world! But it doesn't happen very often.

Your question was about Monster and I think Monster is quite well established in the USA, so is it more interesting for them to be strong where they are already strong or to open some new markets?

I don't know. But before talking about marketing I want to talk about sport and have a guy on the bike who is going to give us something to cheer about. But, without being pessimistic, it will be difficult.

Folger was also the only German rider in MotoGP…

Herve Poncharal:

But he was not here because he was German. He was here because he was fast. He could have been from any nationality.

I have also to say one thing and this is really official, when I read all the bullshit I read - this drives me crazy: Dorna, never ever, told me 'you have to take this rider because he is from this nationality and it will help us for Television'.

Everyone has the freedom to do what they want and, again, if the nationality matches it's a perfect scenario. But I read so often like, 'he's here because he's Spanish, Dorna must have pushed for him'. Bullshit.

Anyway, people will think I'm paid to say that. I'm not asking anyone to believe me. But I'm free to say that and I'm saying it because it's the truth.

Also, MotoGP is already very strong in Spain, already has four races in Spain, already has sponsors like Movistar and Repsol. What would be the point to support Spain even more? They are a World Championship, not a Spanish Championship.

So if you think, there is more interest to have different nationalities.

That was what I meant by Folger being the only German…

Herve Poncharal:

Dorna never pushed. I signed Folger because I thought he was the guy I wanted and the best choice I could do.

There is no chance of taking an extreme approach and rotating through several different riders this season, as happened at the end of last year.

Herve Poncharal:

First, I think it's not the best way to work and who would accept only doing three races?

It's a very competitive bike…

Herve Poncharal:

Yeah, but some of guys might still be two laps behind.

What about if van der Mark and Lowes did some races between their WorldSBK duties?

Herve Poncharal:

It's not the right way, because you are going to disturb their championship. The bike and tyres are completely different. What about if they crash and are hurt?

You have to respect the contracts. I think for Yamaha - talking about these two guys – WorldSBK is a very important programme. They have invested a lot and it looks like the bike is now more and more competitive. The WorldSBK programme is to support one of their iconic bikes, the R1.

So why would they do that? And I never asked them to do that.

I think at the end of the day just because you are facing a tough situation doesn't mean you should give your problem to somebody else. You have to respect everybody.

It seems you have also had calls from riders that do have contracts?

Herve Poncharal:

Yeah, but one of the things is I like honour and honesty in life. And when you sign a document, a contract, and you engage yourself - from the team point of view or the rider – for one or two years, you've agreed. And if ever during that time there is a better opportunity, still you have signed.

I would prefer to have a slower rider, but someone who is free of a contract and we can work without any polemics.

At least you have Johann on the other side, looking strong going into his second year…

Herve Poncharal:

We are very happy to have that, but the team is a two-rider team. I have to take care of the guys working on the other side also. As I said, I sold my programme to my sponsors as two riders. It's not easy. I will find something!

There are surely a lot of people that want to ride that bike?

Herve Poncharal:

Honestly, if you see what I receive sometimes… Some guy that is not yet finishing in the top ten in Superstock 600 telling me, 'if you don't take me, you are stupid'.

And if you say to these guys, 'this is MotoGP...' they think you are so pretentious. So it's very difficult to answer in a polite way, because they really insist.


Later, at the end of the test, Sepang staff said there might be "some interesting news" in the next few days… fuelling rumours that local star Hafizh Syahrin has joined the list of riders in contention for the Tech 3 seat.

The popular Malaysian, 23, has a contract to race for the Sepang Circuit team in Moto2 this season. But Sepang has long sought a local star in the premier-class to raise its already high race attendance to the next level and are sure to do all they can to support a MotoGP chance for Syahrin, who claimed two podiums during the last six Moto2 races.

In a video clip posted on Twitter yesterday, (Thursday), Poncharal tells a local fan: 

"We know Malaysia loves MotoGP and, believe me, one day there will be a Malaysian rider in MotoGP. And maybe there will be a Malaysian rider in MotoGP with Tech 3. Let's work on that, continue to support us and maybe good news will be coming soon..."

The Thailand test takes place from February 16-18.


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