The Dangerous Power Struggle Inside Repsol Honda

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The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island – likely to be known henceforth as ‘The Debacle Down Under’ – taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.

There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez’s disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez’s crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew.

Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn’t come in to swap bikes, but Marquez’s inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner’s crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez’s team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it’s over.

After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. “We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],” Marquez said, but the plan had backfired.

“The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,” Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.

Talking to the Spanish media, Marquez was a little more explicit. “We knew we had to enter on lap 9 or lap 10, and we thought we could enter the pits on lap 10. This was always the plan, to enter on the last lap possible, and we thought this was the last lap possible.” It was not, and that lap would lead to his disqualification.

If the plan had always been to enter the pits on that lap, why was there such surprise? Why, as soon as Marquez crossed the line, could Cristian Gabarrini be seen making the ‘it’s over’ sign to the rest of the people in the Repsol Honda garage? If Gabarrini immediately knew that Marquez would be disqualified, why did he not point this out to Santi Hernandez and Emilio Alzamora?

You would have to guess that there was no communication of the plan – other than perhaps ‘the last lap possible’ – between one part of Marquez’s team and the rest. Gabarrini knew immediately that doing an extra lap would lead to a black flag, yet Marquez claimed that he had not been told what the penalty was.

Valentino Rossi, for example, knew exactly what the penalty was for exceeding the maximum number of laps, but if someone in the Repsol Honda garage knew, they did not tell Marc Marquez and his crew. Clearly, Dani Pedrosa’s side of the garage knew exactly what the rules were, as Pedrosa came in at the first opportunity, swapped bikes, and was straight back out again, but there had been no consultation between the two sides of the garage.

Where does this failure of communication come from? To a large degree, it has to be put down to the arrival of Marc Marquez in the Repsol Honda team. Or rather, to the arrival of his manager, Emilio Alzamora. Alzamora’s arrival at the Repsol Honda team sees two of the most powerful men in the paddock, backing two of the best riders in the world, sitting on opposite sides of the garage.

Most MotoGP fans are by now aware of the influence which Dani Pedrosa’s manager, Alberto Puig, has, both inside Honda as well as inside MotoGP and Dorna. Not all will be aware of the growing power of Emilio Alzamora, manager to Marc Marquez, and the influence he has at both Honda and inside the paddock.

Puig has been a mainstay of both Dorna and MotoGP for over ten years now, spotting young talent and nurturing it ready for MotoGP. Puig helped lay the foundations for the Grand Prix Academy, which then became the Red Bull Rookies.

To this day, he is still involved in the selection process for the Rookies Cup, having a keen eye for young and undeveloped talent, and knowing how to develop the hidden potential of young riders.

He has helped many of today’s top riders climb up through the ranks, helping riders such as Casey Stoner, Bradley Smith, Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias, Julian Simon, and many more make their way through the Spanish championship and into MotoGP. To his credit, he has been blind to nationality, helping riders from around the world achieve their ambitions.

Emilio Alzamora is a relative newcomer, and starting to fulfill the same role. Like Puig, Alzamora now has some of the top young talent on his hands, talent which he has nurtured from the Spanish Championship and into Grand Prix. Though Alzamora does not have the links with Dorna that Puig has, he does have the Monlau structure, a technical education institute which now runs race teams in both the CEV and Moto3, and had previously run Marc Marquez in Moto2.

Alongside Marquez, Alzamora has two of the hottest riders in Moto3 on his books, Alex Rins and Alex Marquez. Then there’s the Estrella Galicia team in the Spanish championship, with Marcos Ramirez and Maria Herrera, currently 1st and 3rd in the CEV Moto3 class. Unlike Puig, Alzamora’s focus is entirely on Spanish riders, which comes as no surprise given that Monlau is a Spanish (or rather, Catalan) organization.

There is a rather pleasing and ironic symmetry in Alzamora mirroring what his young protege is doing. While Marquez has come in to the Repsol Honda garage set on winning the championship and edging out his Dani Pedrosa, Alzamora has arrived inside the HRC structure aiming to wrestle control of the garage from Alberto Puig.

As fascinating as it is for outsiders, it spells real trouble for HRC, as the level of mutual suspicion continues to rise. Relations between the two halves of the garage – at least on the management side – have never been good, but reached an all time low at Aragon, when Marquez clipped Pedrosa and indirectly caused him to crash. That animosity is breeding a deeper sense of mistrust in an already poisonous environment.

When Marquez moved to MotoGP, he tried to bring his entire team with him. That request was turned down, HRC believing that Marquez would benefit from the experience of the crew which had helped win two world championships with Casey Stoner, including one for Honda. That decision has proven to be the right one, as Marquez’s record-breaking rookie season is showing. Yet Marquez has already received approval for three more of his former Moto2 team to join him, leaving just three of Stoner’s former crew in place, alongside five of Marquez’s picks.

Though Marquez’s desire to have the men he regards as family surround him is a major reason for this change, Emilio Alzamora is another major factor behind this move. German language publication Speedweek quotes one HRC insider as claiming that Alzamora had wanted the former Stoner crew out of the garage from the start, as he did not trust them not to pass sensitive information up the chain of command to Honda management.

Team Principal Livio Suppo is the man responsible for bringing Casey Stoner and his crew to Honda, after having worked with them all at Ducati. Suppo is HRC Vice President an Shuhei Nakamoto’s right-hand man, and Alzamora appears to believe that Suppo and Nakamoto are too close to Alberto Puig, and that therefore Pedrosa could benefit from information gained by Marquez and his crew.

Puig has already lost some of his power inside Honda, HRC choosing to ‘clarify’ the former racer’s role alongside Pedrosa a couple of years ago, demoting him from ‘crew chief’ to merely ‘advisor’. Alzamora is looking to push home his advantage, and sees an opening with Honda’s Moto3 plans.

With HRC set to bring out a ‘KTM Killer’ Moto3 machine next season with a much more powerful engine, Alzamora has volunteered the Estrella Galicia team of Rins and Marquez (if, that is, Rins doesn’t win the title and stays in Moto3). Honda know they must have a top team and top riders if their new and more powerful Moto3 bike is to stand a chance of actually beating the KTMs.

If the Estrella Galicia team switches from their current KTM to Honda, Alzamora would become part of the Honda structure, acquire a more prominent role inside HRC, and wield a good deal more influence. At the moment, Alzamora wears MM93 (Marquez’s own merchandising brand) gear in the garage, and is not listed as a team member, as Honda hold his defection from the Suter Hondas to KTM for the 2013 season against him. Running Hondas again would bring him back into the fold.

This simmering power struggle appears to have caused its first casualty at Phillip Island last weekend. When Marquez said that they drew up the plan with ‘three or four guys’, including Santi Hernandez and Alzamora, you can be certain that Alzamora made sure that their plan was shared with as few people as possible.

Whether all eight of Marquez’s crew were in on the plan is uncertain, but you can be sure that Cristian Gabarrini, HRC employee and with close ties to Suppo, at least in the eyes of Alzamora, definitely didn’t.

Hence the Italian’s signal as soon as he saw Marquez cross the line. If Alzamora hadn’t been so fearful that information which he believed could give Marquez an advantage might leak across to the other side of the garage, he might have consulted wider. Alzamora was focused far more on the power struggle inside HRC than he was on ensuring that the pit stop strategy was the right one.

With Puig and Alzamora expending so much of their energy on Machiavellian schemes to increase their own influence and reduce that of the other, both sides of the Repsol Honda garage are starting to suffer. The contrast with Yamaha could not be greater, which is an irony in itself.

Now, though both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi’s garages are separate, both sides are aware that their enemy is the Hondas, and not each other. Between 2008 and 2010 this was an entirely different question, with Rossi and Lorenzo, and their respective crews, engaging in vicious internal infighting, which eventually led to the departure of Rossi to Ducati.

In 2013, there is relative harmony between the two Yamaha men, while the internecine warfare rages in the Repsol Honda garage. While Honda is favored to win the 2013 world title –  unless Yamaha can find something magic to fix their fuel consumption problems, perhaps 2014 as well – the infighting between Puig and Alzamora could end up being very costly for HRC.

Both men are focused on wresting control from the other, their battles extending to all areas of the team, their activities, and even the promotional role which both riders must play. Mutual mistrust has already cost Marquez one shot at the 2013 championship, and if it continues to grow out of control, stupid mistakes as a result of poor information could threaten both Pedrosa’s and Marquez’s championship challenges in the future.

Having two of the best riders in the world in your team is a real luxury, but it is also a major source of problems. Unless the situation is handled properly, it can quickly spiral out of control, with riders and teams focusing more on each other than on their real rivals.

Shuhei Nakamoto has been a transformational leader of HRC since he joined back at the end of 2008, rescuing the factory from its former flailing efforts to build a bike to match the Yamaha, to having two of the three best riders in the world, on what is clearly the best of the MotoGP machines on the grid.

He will have to deploy some of his own Machiavellian guile to put Puig and Alzamora back in their place. If there is no leadership coming from Honda, then the Repsol Team could end up tearing itself apart.

Photo: Repsol Media

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.