Tech 3 MotoGP Team The Family
From 2002 to 2007, the team went through many riders and sponsors. Here Carlos Checa rides the Dunlop-sponsored Yamaha M1 in 2006. Tech 3 was the sole Dunlop team in 2006 and 2007.
“We were always fighting with the title with Olivier, with Honda, but always missing something,” says Poncharal. “Mainly too many crashes with the famous ‘Jacque Attack.’”
Shinya Nakano was Rookie of the Year and earned the team’s first 500cc podium at the Sachsenring in 2001, the team’s first year in the premier class.
Both Andrea Dovizioso (4) and Cal Crutchlow (35) had podium finishes for the team in 2012. There was the usual inter-team rivalry, but also respect. “Cal was desperate to beat him all the time, which was really good for the whole performance of the team. They were talking a lot, they were exchanging everything,” Poncharal said.
Colin Edwards joined the team in 2008 and quickly made his mark. He qualified on the front row in the first two races, scored the team’s first fourstroke MotoGP podium in France, and followed it up with another in the Dutch TT.
Moto2 has been a great motivator for the team, which invested in software and machinery and tooling to keep the team fresh and learning. Here Guy Coulon takes a break from fabricating gas tanks for the new Moto2 chassis. Danny Kent and Louis Rossi are riding the Tech 3 Moto2 bikes this year.
Poncharal wanted to team Shinya Nakano with Olivier Jacque in 1999 when the team began with Yamaha’s 250cc effort “Anyway, they were very open and quite quickly we managed to have an agreement and we decided to start working from ‘99, which is this picture,” of Poncharal with Jacque, Nakano, and the Chesterfield Yamaha.
Herve Poncharal briskly guides his Citroen DS5 through the narrow streets of Bormes-Les Mimosas, a French man driving a French car in Provence, a very French and very beautiful part of the world. Poncharal is the co-owner of Tech 3 Racing, which competes in MotoGP as Monster Yamaha Tech 3 and also fields a Moto2 team. Poncharal moved away from this area to seek his fortune but the draw to return was powerful and he came back as soon as he could. The village is halfway between Nice and Marseille, not far from the coast, which guarantees a warm Mediterranean climate.
When he decided to base his team here he knew it wasn’t a motorsports-rich area like Northamptonshire in the British East Midlands, where most Formula One teams are located. If a part needs to be designed and fabricated, it often has to be done in-house, which is the point. The Tech 3 Moto2 team is the only one to design and build their own chassis — they farm out some fabrication — and the team is the only one to build their own hospitality unit. But mostly what Poncharal enjoys is building strong, family-style relationships with team members, sponsors, and suppliers. And it’s those relationships that have made him the most successful satellite team owner in the history of MotoGP.
Turn left at the end of the Chemin du Niel and you’ll find a weathered, unimpressive warehouse-sized building; the home of Tech 3 Racing. More impressive are the team offices, a glass-fronted two-story building behind the race shop. Poncharal bounds up the stairs to his light-filled corner office, which is filled with the requisite trophy cases stuffed with helmets, miniatures of his race bikes, knick-knacks, and photographs. Poncharal has a restless energy that can’t be harnessed within the normal constraints of a 24-hour day. He speaks fluent, idiomatic English, and quickly. Most every answer begins with context, a background story to illuminate his point. Which means they’re thorough and they’re lengthy. It took 1697 words for him to explain the genesis of Tech 3, of which he’s the majority owner; Guy Coulon, his motorcycle- obsessed chief technical wizard with the wild frizzled hair, holds a minority stake.
The two met in the ‘80s at Honda France on the outskirts of Paris where Coulon was “the big guru,” Poncharal said. The main program was the World Endurance Championship at a time when the factories were heavily involved. And in the winter they were in charge of the Paris-Dakar team. They’d built such a strong reputation that when BMW came to dominate the desert races with their twins, Coulon and Poncharal were summoned to Japan to develop a motorcycle capable of winning Paris-Dakar. That motorcycle would become the Honda NXR750V that won Paris-Dakar from 1986 through 1989, by which time it was an 800.
Endurance and desert racing gave Coulon and Poncharal invaluable experience in crisis management. When a rider crashes in a 24-hour race, he has to understand his bike won’t be returned to showroom condition, “So you have to do something just to go out and continue to run.” Well before the end of Honda’s run Poncharal and Coulon had transitioned to road racing. Rothmans had joined forces with Honda in 1985, subcontracting the national distributors to field GP teams. Freddie Spencer won the 250cc World Championship as the lone Rothmans Honda works rider in 1985. For Spencer it was one and done, giving Honda France and Poncharal an opening for 1986, when the NS R250 program would expand.
Carlos Lavado won the 250cc World Championship on a Yamaha, but Honda won the Constructor’s title with help from, among others, Poncharal’s rider Dominique Sarron on the Honda France bike. Poncharal and Coulon left Honda France at the end of 1988 to work with Sarron at Elf, and in late 1989, Tech 3 was born in Provence. The first season was 1990, and the team raced in Rothmans Honda colors through 1992. Then Poncharal was asked to run Suzuki’s 250 effort. To that point it hadn’t done much, but they’d gone all-in to sign John Kocinski, the mercurial rider with obsessive compulsive disorder. It had started well but quickly went downhill. In 1994 the team was reunited with Honda France but with a completely private bike, which was a struggle. The next year Poncharal found fellow countryman Olivier Jacque and that marked the beginning of a long-lasting relationship. Jacque’s maiden GP win came in Rio in 1996; he’d finish the season third overall.
Yamaha took notice and in 1998 approached Poncharal to run Yamaha’s 250 effort, which had mostly been abandoned at the end of 1996. That was “the very first Yamaha season and that was incredibly successful from the very beginning.” In 2001 Tech 3 moved up to the 500cc class, again with Nakano and Jacque. For the rest of the decade they went through a number of sponsors, including Dunlop, which injected millions of dollars into the team in 2006 and 2007 before the team switched back to Michelin for 2008. The profile of the team was further raised that year when Colin Edwards joined and they picked up Monster Energy sponsorship. Even with the Monster money, Tech 3, like all non-factory teams, is financially supported by Dorna. And Poncharal makes sure every dollar is well spent.
Though he’s careful with his sponsor’s dollars, Poncharal spends money when it’s necessary, which is why Monster Yamaha Tech 3 is the most successful of the satellite teams. Dovizioso finished fourth in 2012 behind only Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, and Casey Stoner. Despite that, Poncharal has a workman’s like view of the team. Ego isn’t allowed inside the Tech 3 operation; the team isn’t impressed with themselves. They fly coach, share rental cars and sleep two to a room. They integrated a pair of semi-trailers to build their own hospitality unit. Though they have little to do between races, they’re kept busy with the Moto2 project.; Tech3 is the only team to use its own chassis. Poncharal fosters a family atmosphere with the crew as full-time employees rather than fly-in temps. His brother Jerome is a mechanic under Guy Coulon. Most importantly, Tech 3 is part of the Yamaha family, which has supported him for over a decade to the mutual benefit of both.
“We use the same new M1 as them and clearly the bike is very good,” he said of a slightly lesser version of the bike that Lorenzo rode to the title. “We know that the strength of Yamaha is always to be good everywhere and to be quite easy to set up. So we had a really good bike and Yamaha played the game, and we’ve been always very close in terms of performance to the factory team. So we had, point 1, a very good bike.
“Point 2 is riders and maybe this is the most important and at least as important as a bike, for sure. This year (in 2012) we worked with Andrea Dovizioso. to be honest, I was a bit skeptical and not scared but not very comfortable, because Andrea was coming from HRC, which is basically one of the two best teams, them and factory Yamaha. so always when you are degraded from factory rider to independent satellite rider, it’s sometimes difficult to cope and accept.
The trepidation over Dovi’s integration into the team was unwarranted, “in fact it was a big success. because from the very beginning, andrea is a normal guy, although he’s been, in between brackets, spoiled and had everything with the best team in the world, he completely understood that he couldn’t have what he was getting there with us.
The one thing Poncharal is unabashedly proud of is his team, though even that praise is tempered. “I don’t like to be pretentious and say we are the best, because if you think you are the best or you are good enough, you’re not going to progress…and I know there is room for improvement in every department and we can do better. I don’t like pretentious people, I will never behave like that, but clearly I’ve got all my guys here for quite a few years.”
Tech 3 has been with yamaha since 1999. They grew up in motoGP together. They know how Öhlins works, how Bridgestone works. Daniele Romagnoli is an old hand who ran Crutchlow’s side of the garage, Coulon was in charge of Dovi. Unlike some teams, which allow riders to bring their crews with them, Poncharal is reluctant to do that. Ben Spies brought crew chief Tom Houseworth and mechanic Gregg Wood, though spies was responsible for paying them. “You can see with Rossi this year” at Ducati, “Rossi brought all his crew, so that means you get rid of all of the guys you have,” he said. “I don’t want to do that and I would never do that, because what is the strength of the company? The manpower, the staff. And in racing is the same as any other company. Tech 3 without my guys is a shell. What do I have? I have an office, I have a workshop, I have trucks. But the essence and the power and the skill is the man. Some of the guys are here from year one.”
Poncharal is passionate about all sports — he’s an avid skier, cyclist, kayaker and runner — but especially motorsports. He’s equally passionate about people. “For me the best moment of the day is in the evening on the circuit in the hospitality…and you’re there with your riders, with your team and you share and you’re just happy to share and to spend time together. If there’s a secret in tech 3 it’s maybe this. Every saturday morning we’re here that we don’t have a race, 50 or 60 percent of the team we’re going cycling together. We’re going swimming together in the summer so we share many things. It is not compulsory but not only for work. so this creates a strong relationship and I always like long-term partners. as long as I can, I like to keep a long relationship and I think success is not coming of continuity but continuity sometimes can explain success.”
The independent thinking of the team has not only kept them near the top but strengthened their individual skills. With the FIM sealing the engines, the days of mechanics changing internal parts are gone. Mechanics have become parts-changers, with specialists for things like data and suspension and tires. “at some stage you cannot say I’m happy to do only, even not the maintenance, but only the setup without being involved in anything else than that and refuse to do something different when you can,” Poncharal said. “So moto2 was a window that I opened and blew fresh air and helped my guys to be more excited and to be more involved and to improve their skill and their work.”
As much as Poncharal would like to design and build his own MotoGP machine, he knows it’s not feasible. The cautionary tale is Team Roberts. In 2005, Kenny Roberts designed and built a motorcycle powered by the in-house Proton KR V-5 that was ultimately a hugely expensive failure. “To develop an engine at that level, first you need the right people, you need the material, and you need big, big, big budget,” Poncharal said. “Look how much Ducati is struggling at the moment and why BMW is not here, because they know the level. So if you think small workshop with a small budget with almost nothing you’re going to beat the factory Honda or factory Yamaha, you’re dreaming. And if you do that anyway, you will not be competitive. You will have very low level riders, zero sponsors and then this is the end of it. So I’m not frustrated.”
Certainly you won’t be able to sign the best riders. Until this season, satellite teams were the training ground for rookies. Then came Marc Marquez. Honda and Repsol so desperately wanted the Moto2 World Champion in the premier class that the rule mandating rookies spend a year on a satellite team was scuttled. So team owners like Poncharal take riders Yamaha has a long term interest in, like Ben Spies, who was the golden boy before his disastrous 2012 season. Dovi, on the other hand, was a special case. Like Colin Edwards, he was a rider who’d been on factory equipment. Unlike Edwards, he was still considered ascendant.
What impressed Poncharal about Dovizioso was his hospitality. Dovi and his parents hosted the Tech 3 team at his home in Forli, just north of Mugello and “I was touched because he organized everything himself. What he did with having attention for everybody, he was with his mom and dad, he was serving us, he was taking care of all of us and this is the type of relationship I like and it is more and more difficult to find with top riders.”
Edwards was equally hospitable. He invited the team not only to the Texas Tornado Boot Camp, but also to his home in Conroe. Edwards picked them up at the airport, took them to the ranch, arranged the accommodations. In the evening he hosted a barbecue. “He was happy to cut the chicken, to cook the beef, to cook the vegetables and we were by the pool and he said, ‘Are you okay? Are you having fun?’ And that was a really good moment where we shared something with somebody which is a real person.”
Cal Crutchlow vastly improved from 2011 to 2012 and more is expected of him in 2013. Crutchlow extends the family relationship Poncharal promotes. His father attends most every race, as does his girlfriend. But that doesn’t guarantee constant harmony. Rider relationships and management are two areas that are sometimes difficult. “Last year when Cal was having problems, you know, we have some hard words in Laguna, I remember, because the rider never likes to hear (some things) and I am not somebody who thinks to support somebody you have always to say what he wants to hear,” Poncharal said. “I believe if you want to support well you need to tell sometimes with your experience, although we don’t know everything, and on some points I cannot tell a rider how to ride, because he’s riding much better than I do. But you have to tell him ‘We cannot carry on like that. You need to change this, we need to change our philosophy, our mentality, argue, our way of working,’ things like that.
Poncharal had earlier segued into a discussion about Ben Spies, but later asked that his comments be removed. Just as I arrived back at the Marseilles airport, Poncharal called to ask that I not use it. There was nothing particularly damning, and nothing that most people in racing don’t know. Mostly he was disappointed that Spies didn’t buy into the family atmosphere of the team.
What some riders don’t understand, Poncharal said, is that “Life is not only made about results and money. You have to share with people and you have to have fun and even for you is good. Then you discover other people, you listen to their lives, their culture, and, you know, this is what makes us human beings better.”