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Red Bull KTM Tech 3 Team Manager and IRTA President Herve Poncharal sat down with motogp.com to go into great detail about how the Covid-19 outbreak has affected his work as team boss and president, as well as his thoughts on the return of MotoGP™ racing.
How have you experienced this exceptional situation so far?
“It’s an exceptional situation. No one was prepared for this kind of thing. Especially since it fell on us completely unexpectedly. In Qatar, we were in the company of Carmelo Ezpeleta (Dorna Sports CEO) and Jorge Viegas (FIM President), we were watching what was going on. Everyone thought it would last a few weeks... And when we returned from Qatar, everything accelerated. What we saw in China happened to us in a matter of weeks. It was hard for everyone, because the essence of our activity is to move: we come back from a race, we unpack our bag, we do a few things and then we start on another test. Even winter is busy, between sponsors, negotiations, riders and even the preparation for the coming season. We never stop!
“So being like that, between four walls, without any starting point, yes it’s difficult. We know that it will not be easy to find a "normal" life, because of our very specific activity based on travel - especially by plane, with which is all the nationalities identified within the paddock and the multitude of borders to cross. Whatever you can imagine to find solutions, today we do not have all the cards in hand. Our engine is well adjusted, I would even say that it works perfectly, but the chain is broken and you are not advancing, there are no more movements. Whatever we do, we are dependent on the evolution of the epidemic and the decisions made by the authorities.”
It seems that a climate of optimism reigns for a few days about the resumption of the World Championship?
“About 10 days ago, if you had asked me if we could run in July, I would have replied that you were a sweet dreamer. Today, it is something that is no longer impossible. We studied different scenarios, even one of a blank season, which we had always seen as something unimaginable. At the peak of the epidemic, we certainly thought about it, without ever naming it... And then, as often, when you hit the bottom a little, you bounce back. Far be it from me to exaggerate triumphalism, but today we see that containment has paid off, although the situation is still far from clear.
“We see that people are more constructive, more serene, and pay much more attention. We had already implemented barrier gestures from Qatar, with hydroalcoholic gel in the Moto3 box. Now people will observe the safety distances and the mask, even if it is not compulsory, will be worn more and more spontaneously. If all the countries manage to break out of this confinement gradually and in a fairly intelligent way, we think we will be able to compete in races very soon.”
What is the scenario envisaged to date concerning the calendar?
“The objective of July or August seems more and more conceivable, even if to date, nothing has been signed and acquired. Dorna Sports, the FIM, the MSMA and IRTA, of which I am the President, form a united group, that is precisely the strength of our sport. We are constantly exchanging. Carmelo Ezpeleta makes the decisions, but he always consults us and listens to us. If there are ideas that can get things done, he takes them into account. Faced with this sanitary situation, we quickly realized that it would very likely be complicated to have races with spectators in 2020. Behind closed door races quickly became like a necessary condition in order to talk with countries and organizers, and it makes sense.
“Of course, we don’t like that. The fans, the public, the supporters are the basis of our sport. But between no races at all and races without spectators… Even if you choose, you might as well take the second option. It’s our job, our passion. Everything must be done so that there are races, for fans, teams, riders and TV. If it is possible with reduced staff, then we will make sure to respect this condition. Also, when possible, we will try to compete in two Grands Prix on the same circuit. We could very well stay at a circuit for two weekends.”
"Our idea right now is to start racing at the end of July"
So will the paddock be different from the one we used to know?
“I believe that a paddock in Europe includes between 2,500 and 3,000 people normally. For the closed door tests, it would be around 1,100-1,300 people. We are all working together: Dorna will reduce its staff present at the circuits, as will the teams and the technical partners (helmets, leather, tires, fuel, etc.). Likewise, if there are no hospitalities, everyone must be fed while respecting the distancing measures. So we thought of a protocol that is almost complete and agreed to by all parties.”
Concretely, how to prevent the spread of the virus?
“The idea will be to test everyone before leaving and set up some kind of confinement at the circuit. Since the paddock will be less loaded, we will give riders, not just MotoGP, the opportunity to sleep on site with motorhomes. We will also try to find solutions so that the nearest hotels can be reserved for paddock staff. This will be to avoid contact with the local population and any contamination. We will try to channel the entries and exits as much as possible and limit the radius of movement within the paddock as much as possible. In all cases, Dorna, like all other sports promoters, wishes to strictly follow all health measures to prevent the spread of this virus.”
Does a reduced workforce in the paddock mean that there is no media?
“You have to keep in mind that our sport only exists because of certain, very simple rules. We need a motorcycle with a technical team and the fastest rider possible. To get it all, we need partners. If the sponsors are investing, it’s because they know there will be media coverage behind. We are all linked: we need the media, just as the media needs us. It's obvious. But today we are in an exceptional situation, and if we want there to be races, one of the aspects that makes us say "yes" or "no" is the number of people present. You almost have to divide by three. We have already asked the teams to reduce their staff to the maximum. Unfortunately, you have to make choices and you arrive very quickly at more than 1000 people.
“Likewise, if we allow a few journalists, who will decide? There may be people unhappy not to have been chosen... However, I hope that the teams can keep their press officer available to the media. It is not up to me to make this decision, but if journalists cannot come, our job will be to provide them with as much content as possible. Likewise, between two races at the same track, we could imagine offering them few contents about engineers, riders or other personality from the paddock. This is a situation that would upset me a lot, but it must be said that it is temporary.”
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What is the role of IRTA during this crisis?
“The role of IRTA is to work together with Dorna and manage the paddock. We are very close. IRTA’s budget, however, resides in team subscriptions. Since its creation in 1986, IRTA has maintained a working capital which we have divided by the number of teams to redistribute this money, because once again, an exceptional situation requires exceptional measures. Unfortunately, we can only do this once... Carmelo Ezpeleta does everything to help the teams and does not hesitate to go to the front. All together, we are trying to make sure that everyone can leave when the season resumes.
“It will be necessary to work well this year and the following season to prepare the new sporting and economic deal. We have frozen development in each category. We must think carefully about what to do next, see what the manufacturers are ready to invest. But today, we have to work to keep this show, our proximity to the public and remain available, while managing costs well.”
How do you see the future of MotoGP™?
“Since mankind has existed, it has gone through many trials. And we have often heard in the past ‘after a crisis like this, nothing will be the same’. Today, supply and demand govern the economy. MotoGP™ is part of society and I think, without going into philosophical considerations, that at the end of this crisis, mobility will always be as topical. For me, the two-wheeler sector will come out strengthened. I hope many people will rediscover this vehicle and if we can be the ambassadors of this industry, then we will be happy to do so. I also discussed this with Pit Beirer recently.
“He told me that they had been amazed by the sales made following the deconfinement. There are many people who see the motorcycle as a solution that would allow them to respect the barrier measures while having the opportunity to move. Besides, it's always a great pleasure to get around on two wheels!”
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