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Hervé Poncharal: MotoGP’s nearly-man finally tops the bill

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Even though the scintillating race itself played out in front of empty stands, the eruption of joy as Oliveira crossed the line was palpable. In the Tech3 box, the team’s crew flung themselves around, wildly embracing one another.

A wide-eyed Poncharal shook his head in disbelief, admitting that — after so long as a MotoGP bridesmaid — he had given up hope of realizing his dream.

A rock ‘n’ roll love affair

The veteran’s previously unrequited love affair with racing began at the start of the 1970s. “It was the beginning of a resurgence of the motorcycle industry,” he tells CNN from his office in the south of France. “Every youngster at that time was into this idea of freedom, music, and motorcycles were part of this movement.

“You could see (British motorcycle world champion) Barry Sheene looking like Mick Jagger, and a lot of rock stars doing pictures, posing, doing interviews on a motorcycle, so all this world that was making us dream as teenagers, motorcycles were part of that dream, you know, Steve McQueen and all this.”

Poncharal and his friends in suburban Paris caught the racing bug early. “We would visit all the motorcycle shops, dreaming in front of the windows, and we would also go to see races near where I was living, at the Monthléry circuit, south of Paris. I could go there on my bicycle, and we saw our first races there.”

The lure of racing was in part down to its sense of rock ‘n’ roll, Poncharal admits. “Of course I wanted to be racing, and maybe I wanted a little bit to be a rock star too; but that was hard work, I mean you had to either sing well, which was not my case, or play an instrument, and I wasn’t too much into learning, you know? I was more into going out and having fun with my friends, so maybe riding a motorcycle was easier than playing guitar or drums or anything.”

The London lifestyle

At 18, the Frenchman’s heart was set on a career in racing, but his parents were against it, telling him that he should instead focus on gaining language skills. Poncharal crossed the English Channel and went to live in London for two years.

“I was working in a hotel in Charing Cross, living in Tooting Bec in south London,” he explains. “Every night I was going to see rock concerts, and every weekend I was going to watch motorcycle races, England was the perfect country for me.”

His parents’ attempt to wean him off racing had failed dismally. “Rather than forget about the motorcycling virus, I became more addicted,” he laughs.

Returning to France, he took his first steps as a racer. “I started to do well, I won races and got a contract with Honda France,” he says. But a surprise meeting was to change the course of his career.

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A surprise offer

“One autumn the ‘big boss’ of Honda France, in charge of racing, called me and asked me to visit him. I thought it was going to be to tell me I was getting a good ride, maybe for the official Factory Honda team or something, but actually he asked me if I wanted to come and work as his assistant,” he recalls.

Poncharal was torn. “Honestly, I was shocked, and I told him, ‘Give me a bit of time to think.’ I was struggling with money, I wasn’t sure I was going to get the right bike, the right support, the right mechanic and the right money the following year.

“I was only 26. I could see I was not bad, but I don’t know where it would have ended. You never know. But I talked a lot to my friends, and they told me, ‘Go, this is an opportunity you will never have again.’ So, basically, I extinguished the racing candle, and I lit the management candle.”

His new role in management offered a different, but equally attractive, kind of excitement. “I flew to Japan, I met the racing department at HRC (Honda Racing Corporation), and it was everything I was dreaming of,” he explains.

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Going it alone

But over the next six years, leading the racing side of Honda France, the idea of going it alone began to crystallize. Eventually, in 1989, he persuaded colleagues Guy Coulon and Bernard Martignac to take a leap of faith with him and form Tech3 Racing.

Their early days were a far cry from the glamor of modern MotoGP.

“I was only 32,” Poncharal remembers. “There were three of us, hence the name, and we just wanted the company to start and to grow. I was driving the van, I was doing the shopping, the cooking, sometimes the washing up, doing the timing, trying to find a sponsor, decide the riders, manage almost everything. Life was a bit rock ‘n’ roll, because you had to cope with everything.”

The fledgling team boss knew that he wanted Tech3 to evolve, saying: “I wanted to grow and have my company working like a proper company … to have better riders joining, and better riders mean better results, I wanted to take care of the sponsors, have a better image, and that means being properly dressed and wearing the colors of the sponsors. I was having all that in mind.”

Former MotoGP rider Colin Edwards, who years later spent four seasons with Tech3, attests to his former boss’s eye for professionalism. “You’ve got to be a pretty savvy business guy to last this long in this sport,” he tells CNN. “First and foremost, he’s figured out how to make that happen. He also thinks about everybody, he’s a very worldly, traveled fella that kinda takes in all cultures.”

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Safety and security

Poncharal’s instinct to help has extended itself to a critical aspect of racing: safety. “When I was young, when we were racing on very dangerous circuits, I lost quite a few friends that were riders,” he says.

“When you’re behind a friend of yours, that you are close to, and he’s losing his life, you think at that time, ‘Do I want to do that, as a job, you know?’ So, these things made me think, ‘what’s the point to this?'”

The Frenchman was among the founding members of IRTA (The International Road Racing Teams Association). “(We wanted) to try and make the circuit more professional, have a better calendar, get rid of the dangerous circuits, put the safety of the riders on top of everything, have a better paddock, a better media center and pressroom, which was not the case at the time,” he explains.

Right now, in common with the entire sports and entertainment industries, Poncharal’s concern is also a commercial one. MotoGP has been grappling with the realities of racing in the time of Covid-19, and he admits it almost put paid to the entire season.

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The threat of Covid-19

“The whole world is in an incredible storm with this Covid-19 situation,” he says. “Of course, MotoGP, like any sport, any entertainment, is going through a very tough time. We are running without spectators, without sponsors, without hospitality, without media.”

“We don’t know what the winter’s going to bring, we don’t know if a vaccine is going to come, and when it is going to come, and clearly this is something nobody can foresee. When you don’t have control of your future, it’s difficult to take decisions,” he adds.

Poncharal is full of praise for the role of MotoGP administrators, Dorna, in staging what has — against all the odds — been a gripping 2020 season. “We owe our existence in 2020 to Dorna, who helped us to go through this incredible storm,” he says.

Nevertheless, he is acutely aware of the challenges MotoGP teams face in an uncertain future. “I doubt we will have full spectators like in 2019 in 2021, I doubt we will have the same paddock, and clearly for our sponsors, our investors, this will be difficult to face, because they are investing in return for a lot of things we could provide them,” he continues.

“But now what is the point for them to carry on if we cannot give them what they were expecting in return for their investment? So, these are things we are trying to understand, to monitor, and to share with our investors, all of them.”

Engagement with the sport from armchair-bound fans is another plus, he believes. “The TV figures around the world are very, very good, which is fantastic,” he says.

MotoGP released its own numbers this week looking at social engagement. It says impressions across social media increased by 42.6% between August 2019 and August 2020. Video views rose from 338 million to 430 million, and minutes of content viewed almost doubled, from 210.3 million to 415 million.

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A masterstroke in retrospect

Certainly, this season has had plenty to offer those watching from afar, with close races, spectacular crashes, and a series of unexpected results.

The emergence of Austria’s KTM, a manufacturer in only its third season in MotoGP, as a serious contender for victories has added to a compelling recipe. Tech3 had enjoyed a 20-year association with Yamaha, but Poncharal decided to jump ship and join the Austrian outfit to form Red Bull KTM Tech3 in a move that raised eyebrows at the time. Edwards says that the paddock was bewildered by the move.

Three years on, it looks like a masterstroke.

The Frenchman has now had the chance to fully digest the magnitude of his maiden MotoGP victory, but points out that the day didn’t go entirely to plan. His two Moto3 riders, Deniz Oncu and Ayumu Sasaki, were involved in a spectacular crash earlier in proceedings, taking each other out in the process.

“When I saw my Moto3 guys fighting for the win, fighting to be on the podium, both of them … and with five laps to go they’re both in a position where maybe they can win that race, and I was so excited. Both of them were in that front group, and then suddenly you see the two of them ‘T-boning’ each other, and there are only two guys on the ground and they’re your guys and you think, ‘wow, I’m destroyed, I’m destroyed.'”

Poncharal says he only half-jokingly threatened to retire after the race. “I met [Dorna CEO] Carmelo Ezpeleta and I told him, ‘you know, I think it’s about time to retire for me. Find somebody who wants to buy Tech3’,” he says.

“He knew it was kind of a joke, but it was the feeling I was having. Because I’m not somebody who is filtering what is coming out of his heart. My heart is bleeding and I say I’m bleeding; my heart is happy, and I say I’m happy.”

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Recounting a moment to savor

But just a few hours later, everything had changed. Poncharal recounts the last few moments of Miguel Oliveira’s win with vivid clarity, as the Portuguese lay in third place behind the wily Pramac Ducati rider Jack Miller and the hungry Pol Espargaro on a Factory KTM.

“Already it was an incredible feeling to imagine, although it’s never finished until the flag is down, that we could be on the podium,” he says.

“If you have something in your hand you’ve bent it, and you follow on TV, but also on the monitors you have sector after sector, so you see each sector what you lose, what you gain, if the one behind is catching or not, so you are really glued to the monitors and to the track, and you have your fingers crossed.

“Then came the last lap, and in this moment you pray, you look at the sky, you think about, I mean I lost my father some years ago so I was thinking of my dad, my grandparents, you know I told them, ‘Help me, help me’ — this is no joke, this is true.

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“And then you look and the last three corners, they are all three together and you know on that part of the circuit, the last corner is very fast and … every year there is something incredible happening in that corner. I was a bit scared because they were so close to each other and touching each other, that if one of them makes a mistake then the three of them go down … when I saw them entering in the last corner, I held my breath, and I was just watching without saying anything.”

Seeing his opponents drift wide, Oliveira pounced. His team boss says he knew immediately that the win was secured. “Before he crossed the line I knew he was going to win … when it’s such a long time you’ve been waiting, and we are not blasé like some teams, like you know if you’re working with Marc Marquez a win is a win, it’s nice but I mean, it’s not as it was for us.

“I’ve been thinking of — for two seconds maybe — the team, KTM, Red Bull, Dorna, and what we’ve done, (from when) he made the move until he crossed the line, but there was no noise almost, you know, because everybody was praying.”

Then, the silence was joyfully broken. “I was watching the box and everybody was praying … and suddenly, as soon as he crossed the line, explosion, explosion, you could hear the shouting the crying, everything was flying, dancing and then you know, you can react, that has happened, and you are going to celebrate, to share, and you’re just happy to have done your job.”

Poncharal sought out fellow Tech3 founder Guy Coulon. “Maybe the best, the strongest moment is when I went to see Guy and I told him, finally we have it this one,” he recalls. “I don’t even know what he answered because it was noisy, but his eyes were crossing my eyes, and there was something very strong, you know, and this is, this was a very strong moment, you know?”

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Savoring victory in silence

He says it was only later that night, back in his hotel, that he was truly able to savor the moment. “Of course there were the interviews, the podium, more interviews, and in the evening we went for dinner, and there was the spraying of champagne, I mean everything you want …

“When the celebrations finish you go back to your room; nothing, alone, no more sound, no more noise, you sit down on your bed and then you really realize what has happened.

“I was on my own, telling myself, ‘this is true, this is real, this is not a dream, you’ve done it, and I was thinking of every second of these last five laps, I was remembering the celebration, and I was in my bed, reading everything (the media) had been writing. I tried to sleep but I was too agitated, and too happy, because you know this is true, and when you’re alone it’s special.”

Now that Poncharal’s long-held dream has been realized, what will keep him going? “Now I am 63 and a half, so one day or another I will have to stop, one day, I don’t know when, maybe in 20 years, maybe in two years, I don’t know,” he says.

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“Now I want to carry on because I’ve got 40 people working for me, most of them are quite young, and I think I owe it to them to keep my company alive, because most of them have families and you think, ‘If I stop I’m selfish, because I’m going to stop because I want to have a more relaxed life, a more easy life, but what about them?’ So, I feel I have an agreement with these guys to give them a job, and I’m fighting also for them.”

Poncharal pauses, and you can hear the smile return to his voice. “But also, let’s be honest, I’m having fun, I’m still having a lot of fun.”


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