Exclusive Paul Denning Interview
It’s not been an easy year for the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team, although they’ve repeatedly bounced back from injury and technical problems to show signs and performances filled with great promise. And now the team looks ahead to a 2011 season with just one bike, following a decision by Suzuki themselves.
The man who presides over the strategy and operations of the GP squad, Team Manager Paul Denning hasn’t had it easy either – with his year complicated by his very own leg injury to add to the mix. Nonetheless, he’s a resilient and inspiring guy – and I was lucky enough to interview him at Valencia for BatiFans, and to chat about his background, his team, his riders and his management style…
What’s your background? How did you come to be here?
I’ve been involved in the motorcycle industry since I was a kid, and been involved with Suzuki in a racing sense since I got involved with racing myself in the early nineties. I went on to ride a season in the British Superbikes in ’96 off the back of our Suzuki dealership and soon discovered that my talents, for what they were, were better placed in sort of putting together commercial relationships and team rather than riding.
So as Crescent we own and operate a British Superbike team that’s run consistently every year since ’97, and in 2004, when Suzuki Japan decided to restructure things, we’d by then been looking after Yukio Kagayama for a couple of years in the UK which I think it helped in terms of that Japanese relationship. They asked me to put a pitch together for a Grand Prix team and that’s where we are now.
In terms of managing the operation, how do you juggle things? What is the balance between managing the rider, managing the technical side of things and managing the whole team?
When I started, with it being so new, I tended to micro-manage a lot more in detail. And you know, the level of some of the attention to detail on the bike, not from the team here but from the factory, really wasn’t something that I was very proud of. Some of the team was unsponsored, there was a bit of a lack of priority perhaps in the presentation of the detailing. Those things were fairly straightforward and simple to address.
But as time’s gone on and the team’s become a more consistent structure in terms of people and them knowing exactly what their jobs are, my specific role is now more strategic, just like I guess being MD to a sort of small to medium sized company really… that’s what a racing team of this size is.
It’s problem solving, looking forward, looking backward to see what could be done better, staff issues, money issues, all the normal dramas associated with a business.
But what I really love is still the competition side and the racing side. This has been one of THE most difficult years, but when we have had glimpses of good potential, like in Malaysia and stuff like that, that makes the job worth turning up for.
In the second half of the year there’s been some definite steps forward. To the punter, to the viewer it’s looked a lot more positive in some of the last part of the season…
Yeah, you know we had performance issues with the machine. But at the same time, Alvaro crashed in his first Grand Prix in Qatar chasing down Simoncelli right at the end. In the second race he was 10th in Jerez I think, but 2 seconds off 7th and he passed some very good riders there. The momentum was already building quite early in the season, but then his motocross injury came and trying to ride in Le Mans, making that injury a fair bit worse when he crashed there. It took a long, long time to come back from that, both confidence-wise and physically.
And that meant, as Loris was hurt around the same time, the progress of the bike was slowed down a little bit. But as Alvaro’s come back to full fitness and he’s been able to push harder and help push the bike level forward… you know, anything out of the top 8 has become a disappointment, so we’ve come a big step in the right direction.
With different riders like Alvaro, Loris, riders from different nationalities, how much of a challenge is it for them, or the team, to understand what the riders feedback is, technically as well as emotionally?
It seems that all riders, irrespective of Italian, Spanish, Japanese etc, have a technical language in English which is straightforward. I think English is the de-facto language for riders whether it’s been speaking to the tyre guy or the suspension guy or whatever. English’s been the language that was used. So that’s not a problem at all to be honest.
Do you push them at all to develop their technical understanding or to make more of the technical side of things?
No. With riders of that experience and ability, you’d be kidding yourself to think you could really teach them much about their job. I think from a management point of view, the job is to hopefully get them to see the positive in difficult situations, to believe in the future, to believe in themselves, to keep working in the right way. But even in that sense they really don’t need that much encouragement.
Loris for example gets a lot more involved than Alvaro on the technical side, that’s his style. Alvaro’s style is to tell the guys what he feels, what he wants and what he wants to feel, and let them sort out how to get it. I think in a way that gives the riders a bit of freedom really, because they’re not worried too much about whether a swing arm pivot setting of 1mm forward or the other direction is important. They focus on getting the best out of the bike. He is definitely a racers’ racer, not a technicians’ racer, which is great.
In terms of this season, with the 6 engine rule, how do you feel it has worked out? Do you think it made a useful overall contribution to the cost issues?
I think in fairness to the manufacturer’s costs – despite the fact that I really don’t like it as a regulation, because it’s not an endurance race we’re involved in – I think the rule has some benefits, but perhaps it could be a bit more flexible in terms of maintenance and ability to maintain a bike. In club racing you maintain your engine and check the valve clearances and do all those normal things you know, and we’re not even able to do that. And I think that failures, and safety therefore, could be enhanced if some simple maintenance was permitted. But anyway, that’s a separate subject.
I suppose for Suzuki the saving is less than for e.g. Honda, because obviously if you quantify the number of engines saved against many more riders, the saving is quite a lot bigger.
So, I think it’s worked out ok. We had a small durability issue middle of the year, that’s been fixed. That’s meant that Loris is still on, I think, engine Number 6 and probably won’t use the 7th. The regulation was changed allowing some flexibility for us this season. That’s helped Alvaro a bit. He had a bit of bad luck anyway as two of his engines were lost through accidents and stones getting into them.
So it’s not all about durability, it’s about luck and your engines getting away with accidents.
With regards to development time and testing, are you happy with the amount of testing time you get?
No, I would like to see a lot more. For Suzuki to go and rent Sugo or Suzuka or Motegi is just a horrendous cost and the test track that they have on their own is really not suitable for bike development. It’s okay for basic checks, but not really for bike development. So for us to have more testing after the races, when the rider is already confirmed to the race track, the feeling, the lap time, it costs next to nothing. You’ve got the team here already, the logistics are all paid for, you just need a room for an extra two nights hotel and that’s the costs.
And the intelligence you get from it is more relevant…
Yes it is, because you’ve already seen the lap times the bike’s had in qualifying and the race, and if you can bolt something to it that makes it go a bit faster then it’s fairly clear on that day and the rider’s comment is fairly clear. So, more testing after the races for me would be logical, but I don’t think we’re going to see a lot more next year.
Apart from your own riders who obviously you like anyway, which other riders do you particularly rate or enjoy watching on track across any of the classes?
Well, that’s a big question. But I think in MotoGP there are, you know there’s a lot of debate about the grid size, but there really are no weak riders this year. If you look at the permanent entry of the 17, there’s very few who haven’t won a world championship or a world championship race. They’re all incredible top riders. The consistent top 4 / top 5 group, they’re riding at a level of confidence that’s difficult to emulate, difficult to get to.
In Moto2 I think Elias has been spectacular, because to go back a class as a previous MotoGP winner could have easily done his head in. But he’s gone out there all guns blazing as if it was the only thing in the world that mattered to him, and he thoroughly deserved to win.
And I think Scott Redding has shown incredible speed, reacted amazingly well to the situation after Misano. And it looks like he’s starting to learn to manage his tyres over race distance. He’s enjoying his racing and he’s a very interesting rider for the future as well.
Have you enjoyed watching Moto2 as a whole?
I think it’s been a success, yeah. You know, it’s ticked all the boxes in terms of cost reduction by a huge amount. The teams that are out there running at least own their bikes at the end of the year and therefore they can race them again and develop them a bit further. And instead of there being 6 competitive bikes, there are 30 competitive bikes. So yeah, I think it’s been a success.
I’d like to see the bikes have a bit more horsepower as it seems that all the riders with fresh grip can ride them absolutely flat out, and it’s really only towards the middle and end of the races where the riders who can ride the bike with less grip seem to shine through. But it’s still the fast guys doing the running at the front.
Do you think there’s going to be the same level of interest and excitement in Moto3?
Well, I don’t know much about the 125 class other than to say: it would appear that again, there’s currently only a small number of bikes capable of running at the front, which would change immediately.
125 class has been very exciting this year in terms of the championship struggle, but I would imagine that instead of there being a group of 3 or 4 going for the win, there will be a group of 10 or 12 again and it’s going to be interesting for everybody.
When you bring in a new rider into the team, how do you get them involved? Is it all about the bike and the technical requirements, or would you put bonding with the team first? Is there a Suzuki way of doing things?
No, not really. It would differ depending on the rider. I mean, with Chris Vermeulen for example, when we brought him over from Superbikes and he was with Suzuki for 3 years, it couldn’t have been more straightforward really. It was a meeting at Heathrow Airport, a chat about the opportunity. Right guy at the right time for us and he was very enthused. A fairly simple process.
I think it’s a timing thing. At the moment our bike’s not winning, so you need to do quite a lot to prove to a rider that there is the potential to improve and to step forward.
I think Alvaro in his case was pretty intelligent about the whole thing, because he probably looked at it in a way where by, if he could be seen beating his team mate and running at least with the front group of the rookies and doing a good job, that he would step forward as the bike stepped forward.
And so you’re trying to sell the rider the level of support they’re going to have, the level of support that’s going to come from the factory. You’re trying to not tell any lies basically, but at the same time everyone is out there trying to… You’re trying to get as much as you can for as little money as you can, that’s the game.
The easiest riders to deal with are the riders with the least amount of management and the least bullshit surrounding them really. And we’ve been lucky with all the guys we’ve had recently that that’s been the case.
Finally, back to yourself and your injury. How badly did that interfere with you operating the team? It it more a case of frustration when you can’t be there with the team or does it actually hinder your job or the proceedings on race weekend? What was your input on the Misano and Indianapolis races for example?
It was mainly phone calls with the guys and a lot of watching telly on those weekends. But, to be frank with you, this team, and any of the good teams in the paddock, would be able to run with one or even two of their key people missing, without even a hitch because the people know their jobs. The guys who perhaps during a race weekend would come and ask me about “Can we get this?”, “Can we do that?” would just make a decision on their own two feet and step up to that, step up to the plate essentially.
You know, I think like in any reasonably well-run business you should be able to make yourself completely redundant and functionality still happen. And that was absolutely the case.
It was very enjoyable to come back at Aragón. It’s a new track and it was a really successful event for what it was. It was an incredibly successful first event for them, and fortunately for me it was a weekend where Alvaro took another step forward.
But whether the bike finishes 3rd, 5th, 8th… it doesn’t make any difference if I’m there or not, the guys know what they’re doing.
With thanks to Paul Denning, Tim Walpole and Team Rizla Suzuki MotoGP