Over the course of his 20 seasons in the premier class of grand prix motorcycle racing, Herve Poncharal’s Tech3 team has lined up 337 times on the grid, with an eclectic mix of 26 different riders hailing from Malaysia to Brazil and everywhere in between.
Yet despite bringing top-quality machinery to the table and securing a reputation as something of a talent factory, the veteran Frenchman’s team has always been eluded by one thing – a race win.
Despite taking the independent rider and team championships multiple times, becoming a more consistent podium-finisher than any other satellite team this decade and edging ever-closer to taking the top spot with names like Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco, it seemed that when Poncharal made the switch from Yamaha to KTM at the end of the 2018 season, his team’s goal of victory was further away than ever.
But, with yet another young superstar at the wheel and with a KTM RC16 that has made almost unbelievable strides forward in only four years of MotoGP racing, that fight ended last week when Miguel Oliveira outfoxed both Jack Miller and fellow KTM rider Pol Espargaro in the last corner of the Styrian Grand Prix to win his and Tech3’s first race.
Sitting down with The Race at his headquarters on France’s beautiful Cote d’Azur only days after the incredible success, Poncharal admits that after waiting so long, the emotion of the win came as something of a tidal wave – and that it took days to really comprehend the new reality as a race winner.
“Now, it feels more real, more like we’ve done it, and we’re slowly coming back to earth,” he says.
“But since we’ve come back to France, the atmosphere inside the company is completely different.
“In the morning, when we have coffee together and we chat, you can see that everyone is light, positive, happy.
“Everyone understands that it was an incredible race and an incredible achievement for us that we’ve been waiting on for a long time.
“But when it happened, it was an explosion of joy, especially for all the guys in the box. They were so happy – it was very emotional for me to see them so happy.
“At the end of the day, you don’t think only about yourself – you think about what you’ve done to arrive at that moment and you cannot avoid thinking about all the team, especially when some of them have been here for more than 30 years.
“The explosion of joy – the shouting, the dancing, the spraying of beer, champagne, anything they could find – that makes you feel very proud as the boss. You always want to give your guys something to cheer about.
“For some time, you don’t understand what’s going on. You see the flag, you see Miguel is first and therefore you’ve won the race.
“Then all the TV comes to you, you have to go to the podium ceremony, you are taken into a TV set – you are in a kind of madness.
“All during this time, you explain what happened – but the real moment when you can savour the moment is when you go back to the garage.
“Then you are with your rider, you’re not being interviewed anymore, and that is a great moment.”
That win reflected the rollercoaster emotions of MotoGP too, with Poncharal confessing that he was joking about retirement only hours before – when the day got off to a bad start as his Moto3 rider Deniz Oncu took himself and team-mate Ayumu Sasaki out of the podium battle.
“Sunday didn’t start well, when I saw Deniz t-boning Ayumu,” says Poncharal.
“I met Carlos Ezpeleta straight after the Moto3 race and I told him to tell [his father and Dorna CEO] Carmelo ‘find someone to buy my grid spots – I’m out of this game, I’m tired, I’m fed up, and maybe it’s time to retire.’
“He laughed because he knows me, but the Sunday started in the worst way possible.
“Then all your hopes are on the MotoGP race, and the race started to build up quite well for us.
“I knew what tyres we were on and what our opposition were on, and we were in a good position. I was expecting some good moves, thinking the race was about to start to develop – then red flag.
“Until the red flag the previous week, we were on track for a good result, and my first thought was ‘Moto3, disaster. MotoGP, another crazy race.’
“When you go out for 12 laps there’s always the gamble on tyres, with [Andrea] Dovi[zioso] and Jack on the soft-soft, Brad [Binder] on a hard front thinking he should go for a medium, and Miguel, who was never so impressed with the medium, deciding to go for a hard front. We told him ‘it’s 12 laps’ and he said ‘go with the hard front!’”
The way Oliveira understood his feeling on the bike and was able to set himself up for a perfect last-corner position when Miller’s lunge on Espargaro took both of them wide, is a clear example of how the Portuguese rider is developing under Poncharal’s tutelage.
“You never know what is going to happen, but then everything went like a dream,” says Poncharal.
“We told him, he had to have a good start and you need to be aggressive in the first few laps.
“Dovi was on the same row as him on soft tyres, and if he had let him past it is almost impossible to pass him.
“They’ve got the best engine and the best acceleration and he is incredible on the brakes, so it always takes time to pass him.
“We saw he had a great start and he was really aggressive – and then we started to think ‘phew, that’s a little too aggressive on a hard front!’
“But when nothing wants to go well nothing does, but when things go good they go very well. He had a great feeling with the tyre, could brake hard from Turn 1.
“It was clear that a podium possibility was clear, but I’m always the guy with all the bad luck, so I didn’t want to get too excited.
“But Miguel was in the right place and he told me afterwards ‘I know Jack and I know Pol – from last week! – and I knew I needed to finish the race.’
“He wanted to do something in the last section of the last lap, and I’m not saying he knew what was going to happen but he was right there when it did in order to take the opportunity.
“We know the last corner, that there is always something in this crucial corner.”
Oliveira is one of the calmest and most intelligent guys on the 2020 grid despite only being in his second year, and that’s something that Poncharal admits has made him very easy to teach.
A self-confessed anglophile and former resident of London, Poncharal says that the 25-year-old’s temperament reminds him less of his fellow Latin riders and more of the Brits he’s worked with.
“Miguel is very smart. A lot of riders are very hot, not just in the way they ride but in the brain, too,” he says.
“I think you need to be very hot in the way you ride, you need to be aggressive because otherwise, you are not a racer – but you need to keep a certain part of you cool too.
“Miguel is very good at this – for me, he has a more British attitude than a Mediterranean one.
“You always think of Mediterranean guys as revving, but he has a quiet sense of humour and he reminds me of a phlegmatic British guy.
“He kept his cool when the other guys were going too hot. I don’t want to say it was planned because that would be pretentious and a lie. But he was expecting something to happen and wanted to be ready to take advantage, and when it did happen he took the advantage and he won the race.
“When you are a cool guy, when you don’t remonstrate too much, when you think before you talk, because of all this, a lot of people underrate him. They love to see the madness, the fury.
“To be a MotoGP champion people think you need to be like this. Marc [Marquez] is like this, but perhaps today he is out because he overheated [at Jerez].
“Miguel is a cool guy, always quiet, and because of this a lot of guys don’t see him as a top guy – and this hurts him.
“I love Brad too, and he is a superstar, and he was the first one to win – but Miguel’s [Brno] race was identical and he was actually quicker at times. So Miguel stays cool, but sometimes he boils inside too.
“For me, Binder and Oliveira is a fantastic line-up, in Moto3, in Moto2 and they will be together [in the works KTM team] next year.
“They were supposed to be my team this year until all the Zarco blah blah blah, but they will be incredible next year.
“They respect each other a lot – of course, they want to beat each other, but there is a lot of respect too. I think it’s very good for us and for Miguel, but it is also justice that both of them won a race this year.”
That underrating, of both the entire KTM project and Oliveira in particular, continued after Sunday’s race, though, with many of their rivals quick to postulate that KTM’s now-lost concession status means it’s taken advantage of the extra testing it’s allowed – a claim that Poncharal was vehement in his denial of.
“People started to say ‘yes, but they’ve done a lot of testing there.’ That is complete crap,” he says.
“I don’t want to say it’s a lie but it’s completely wrong information.
“I read what they said, that we had a Michelin tyre made for us. That is complete bollocks.
“We had one test at Spielberg after coronavirus with Dani [Pedrosa] and Pol. One of the days was 9ºC track temperature and the next day it was pissing down. What do you do with that? You just ride around.
“No one tested in Brno, but at the press conference they were all saying we had, which is complete bullshit.”
Instead, he says that KTM has known since the end of 2019 that good things were in store for the coming season – but that and luck and coronavirus have meant that Tech3 staff were forced to keep their mouths shut until the RC16 could do its talking on track.
“We could see from halfway through the year the input of Dani Pedrosa as well, and that he was taking the bike in the direction that Guy Coulon [Oliveira’s crew chief] and our riders were asking for.
“Then we saw the new chassis in Valencia, just during the last race weekend and the tests. When Guy saw it, he immediately said ‘woah, this is what we’ve been waiting for’.
“I have a lot of faith in him, and when Pol and Miguel tried it they said the exact same thing. We knew there was incredible potential.
“We were really happy but we couldn’t say too much because I like to keep a low profile and stay humble. We tested in 2020 and again we felt good, but again it was only a test.
“And then boom, the COVID came. We had a good feeling, but until you have a race you cannot prove anything.
“We went to Jerez and we were quite fast in the first one but we still had to properly understand things. In the second one we were fifth on the grid, we had an incredible pace and we were thinking that a good result was coming – and then Brad happened.
“We still couldn’t show our pace, so we stayed quiet, and finally one of the guys put all the pieces together and won [at Brno].
“To that moment, nothing had changed, but everyone went from thinking it was a piece of shit to saying it was the best bike! Fabio [Quartararo], Valentino [Rossi], they were all saying it, from one day to another. It went from being an ugly duckling to being a beautiful white swan.”
And Tech3 has played a vital role in that transformation. Bringing not only two new fast riders to the project but also able to throw the full weight of the team’s huge experience into developing the RC16, Tech3 is part of what has enabled the reactive Austrian manufacturer to step up its game, according to Poncharal.
The Tech3 satellite deal came only two years into KTM’s ambitious MotoGP roadmap – earlier than planned – and required double the production capability. But KTM nonetheless took the decision to respond and is now reaping the rewards from it.
“The plan for KTM was to start with a satellite team from 2020, but we signed for them in the winter of 2017 and we told them that our Yamaha contract ended in 2018,” Poncharal recalls.
“We always sign two-year deals, so it had to be 2019 or 2021 – and because they understood the importance they went for it.
“It was an incredible extra workload, at the very beginning of their project, to build parts four eight bikes instead of four.
“It’s not an easy job for a young company, especially one in Dakar, in motocross on both sides of the Atlantic, in Moto3 and Moto3 and now in MotoGP.
“Last year was a tough year but a very interesting and exciting one. When we were working for the first time on the new KTM in Valencia 2018, just out of Yamaha, we could see that there was work to do, and you never know how long it’s going to take.
“What was very exciting and what made us smile was the speed of reaction, the way they took care of every single person.
“Each time there was a really interesting comment made, you could see it being taken into consideration – and when they decided to change something you had it at the next round!
“2019 from the outside was a tough year for us but we could see how much everything was moving along.”
Fundamental to that has been Tech3 getting full-factory spec bikes since joining. It’s a key element of Poncharal’s contract with KTM and something it’s delivered on since day one. It means that not only does Tech3 get better machinery but it also doubles the data available.
That’s born in part out of MotoGP rules that Poncharal, in his other role as president of the International Race Teams Association, was fundamental in establishing.
Poncharal’s quietly optimistic that even had he remained with Yamaha and not made the move to KTM, that a maiden win would still have been possible.
“I was very happy with my 20 years with Yamaha and I would never say a bad word about them,” he says.
“But it’s not just the manufacturers that have changed – the technical rules have changed. One tyre, one ECU and everyone understands that the riders are the key element.
“Look at Honda – they lost their top rider and now they are nowhere. This is the key element, and young riders are the future.
“Technically it’s easier now to work with the same spec for everyone, whereas before the satellite squad was a B-team. They worked their own strategies, they picked their own riders.
“Sometimes as a team boss you picked the guy the sponsor liked, or who brought some budget, or who was quite cheap. You are an entrepreneur and you have to not go bankrupt!
“You get a bike that is a year or two old, that they are recycling.
“They cared, all the manufacturers, but it was more to play the game with Dorna to have a good grid and to make a bit of money recycling material.
“Now, since the rules have changed, everyone understands that having four riders on the same spec and using everyone’s data speeds up the development process.
“This is why Suzuki is now really pushing to prepare this, and I think Aprilia should be too.
“We’ve always said with Carmelo that the ideal situation is six manufacturers providing four bikes each for a 24-bike grid. This is good for the factories, but it helps the independents, too.
“The more the factories understand our importance, the stronger the cards we have to play are.”