From Kimi Raikkonen to Casey Stoner – An Interview with HRC’s Rhys Edwards

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The longer I get to work in the MotoGP paddock, the more it strikes me how many talented people contribute to the show by working behind the curtain while a small percentage of personalities get most of the media attention. Rhys Edwards, whom you may recognize from his frequent position in Casey Stoner’s seat during shots of the Respol garage, is one of many people I’ve met who manage to perform roles of great responsibility while remaining friendly, approachable and warm individuals. When I learned something about his background in Formula One, I assumed he would have an interesting story to tell about his career and how he arrived at HRC, and he was generous enough to let me ask him some questions about his experience during the final GP weekend at Estoril.

Scott Jones: Rhys, you’re Communications and Marketing Manager at Honda Racing Corporation. Many of our readers may not know exactly what that means, so could you give a brief description of your role at HRC?

Rhys Edwards: Yes, I am in between the press and the team. So anything the press needs with relation to the team or riders, these requests come through me. The way we split it at HRC and Repsol Honda is that I have a colleague who looks after Dani’s itinerary, and I look after Casey’s itinerary, so we can give a more personal touch on both. And then if there are any other interviews needed with senior management or engineers or any other kind of media or marketing expertise that needs to be done with the team, that comes to me for approval and then I discuss with Livio [Suppo] and [Shuhei] Nakamoto-san. We look over each case and give a green light or red light, and then go from there.

Over the course of the weekend, I follow Casey’s itinerary very closely. Any time he is with the press, I am there as well to make sure that nothing awkward is asked, or that he’s not put in a difficult position, and just to make things run smoothly.

It is important with Casey, because as many people know, dealing with the press is an element of the job which he’s not so keen on. He is here to go racing. But he understands the importance of it, so with him it is a case of balancing it and explaining which part of it is important, why it is good to do certain interviews.

Since I joined HRC last year it has been a pleasure working with Casey. I think I understand his personality quite well now. We have also become good friends and I understand what he will and won’t want to do when it comes to the press and it has been a good learning curve with him as well.

SJ: You mentioned that you joined HRC last year. What is your background and how did it prepare you for this role?

RE: 2011 was my first season in MotoGP. Before MotoGP I was in F1 for eight years. I actually started off in an agency in London, working on the Vodafone sponsorship of Ferrari back in 2002-2003. And then after that experience, I left to work for a year with the Grand Prix Corporation in Australia. And so I had a quick insight into bikes down there, with the Philip Island race, but just working with the Grand Prix Corporation on a different side.

Then I returned from Australia and worked with a prestigious marketing company called KHP Consulting and Katja Heim, who works very closely with Bernie Ecclestone in F1. And we did a lot of events, marketing for F1, especially with the Bahrain circuit. I moved out to Bahrain to help set up the office there and we worked very closely with the Bahrain circuit to help promote the Grand Prix, but also other motorsports activities in the Middle East.

However, my goal was always to be team-side and I figured if I get as much experience as possible it would give me a better foundation for when I did reach my goal, to understand everything that is involved.

So I returned to the UK after being in Bahrain for a year and a half, and I was hired by Renault F1, who were then World Champions with Fernando [Alonso]. I was at Renault for just over a year when I was approached by Ferrari. And it wasn’t a black and white decision that I was going to take it, but at the end of the day, it was a role that seemed fantastic and I definitely wanted to take the opportunity.

So I left a job that I really loved at Renault with a great team of people, looking after the title sponsor ING, and set up camp in Italy moving to Ferrari. In the beginning, I was in at the deep end. I didn’t speak any Italian at the time and it was pretty tough.

But it was a great experience for me, a really great opportunity for my career, and I loved it. I worked closely with Kimi [Raikkonen] and became friends with him, which I think prepared me a little for my role with Casey, as Kimi’s somebody else who doesn’t really enjoy the PR-side of their job too much.

Then after about a year at Ferrari some issues came up. There wasn’t quite the same belief in the changes they wanted to make. Eventually I walked away, as it wasn’t what I went there to do. I didn’t really want to wake up in five years time still doing the same thing. I didn’t see the growth expectation that I moved there for.

There were a few personal issues as well in the UK, my mum was sick, and so I came back for a few months and sort of reassessed the situation. Which was when I then got a phone call from Livio [Suppo], whom I had met at Wrooom [Ferrari and Ducati’s PR event each Winter] when I was with Ferrari.

He asked me what I was up to at the moment and I said, just moving back to the UK. All my stuff was still in storage in Italy. He said, well, I am looking for somebody, and you’ve been recommended, and would you be interested in coming to work in MotoGP?

And I said, that is actually something I would love to do, because I was considering my next move. And after being at Ferrari and F1, I wasn’t sure what my next step would be. I needed a new challenge. But motorsports is what I have known for the last ten years of my life, this would be a great opportunity.

So I flew over to Turin to meet with Livio, and we had a few meetings, and he offered me the job, which was great. So I got my stuff out of storage in Milan and relocated to Turin from Modena!

So far it has been a dream. I love working with the team. Repsol Honda and all the HRC team in Japan, have been really welcoming. It is a much friendlier environment, the paddock here. I have a lot of good friends in F1, but when I left F1 to come here, lots of people said, you’re going to love it a lot more. It is lot more you. It is a bit like how F1 was fifteen years ago. It is a bit more about the racing and not so corporate and stuffy.

And they are right. Since I have got here, I have loved every minute of it. It’s a great paddock with really friendly people, and the racing atmosphere is very similar in the way F1 is, like a big family, but it is a little bit more friendly.

SJ: It is funny that you should say that, I hear the same thing when I go to shoot World Superbikes, that it’s less about the business and more about racing, as well as friendlier.

RE: I think everyone thinks the grass is greener, everyone thinks it is friendlier. There are also many people on the outside, thinking, oh, the more corporate it is, the more money there is, the less friendly it is. But I think it’s also about the people in there. There are a lot of people in F1 who I am a little skeptical about, who they are, what they are after, they want to be there because it is F1, and they don’t want to be there because they love the sport or they love what they do. They are there because of who their dad is, or to be seen in that industry.

I got lucky and get to travel and love my job, but I have got to love what I am doing, and that’s why I left Ferrari in the end. Stefano Domenicali and all the guys in the race team at Ferrari, I am good friends with, and we speak and we text each other when we do well. I am pleased I still have a good relation with those guys, but some of the people in the paddock, some characters I came across, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if I never saw them again.

SJ: Coming from your background in four wheels, was there anything about going to motorbike racing that made Livio’s offer more appealing than just another job with a top motorsports team?

RE: For sure, the fact that it was Livio was certainly something big, because of what he’s done, his vision, having worked with him I feel very grateful. What he achieved with Ducati was incredible and to come and work closely alongside him has been a great opportunity for me.

I was very honest in the beginning with him. I said, I don’t have experience in bikes, I know a few names here and there. I didn’t even know all the grid when I first arrived here, and it’s on ongoing joke that there are a few I still wouldn’t recognize in the paddock now!

But I didn’t come into this pretending to know it all, I came in saying, I’m sorry, I don’t know this world. Even all the press, everyone has been so helpful, sitting down and being really friendly about it. I didn’t want to come across as That Guy From F1, who thought that I knew everything, because that absolutely is not who I am or what I believed.

[I said] this is my experience, this is where I come from, and I don’t expect to walk in here and know everything. And I am still learning a lot now. But the chance to come into another high-level motorsport with Repsol Honda, with HRC, was a logical step for me, for my career. So when Livio offered the job it was a no-brainer for me, I was always going take it, as a new challenge for me, in a new world, but with some similarities.

It was a bit strange, my first test in Sepang, a circuit I know so well from F1, and then being there for bikes, to be in the paddock that I know, but not recognizing anyone was a kind of weird thing. But it was good, and I’ve loved being here since.

SJ: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of that F1 background, I just wondered if you could make any observations about the personalities in the two sports. Do you see differences in how the drivers approach what they do compared to the riders?

RE: Yes, there are lots of similarities, but there are little things that struck me as strange, when I first moved into this paddock where all the riders stay in the motorhomes in the paddock, which obviously doesn’t happen at all in F1, everyone stays in hotels. Bernie wouldn’t have any of the motorhomes ruining his show, which I kind of appreciate, but that is one of the elements that I think makes this paddock a bit more friendly.

The fact that sometimes after the races we go down, and we will be in the motorhome area, and we will have Ben Spies out there and Casey and Cal and Colin. A few of us are really good mates now and we go down there and have a catch up after the race, or go and hang out.

And that’s the kind of stuff that sets in my heart and my head as what motor racing used to be about. I have always been a rugby man, and whatever happens in the pitch stays on the pitch and after you have a beer together. And I see that in this paddock, I like the fact that what happens out there, is fair racing, safe racing, especially when they are putting their lives at risk.

But then afterwards, they come out and they’re friends, and we can have a beer together, and I really like that. In F1, I don’t think you get so much freedom to be able to do that, because the paddock is such a frenzy. If Fernando or Kimi walk out they are going to be leaped on straight away, and then at the end they have to go to their own hotels and media commitments, so there isn’t that same feeling of camaraderie, really. They may be friends, but it’s very hard for any F1 drivers to see each other over a race weekend in the paddock, it just doesn’t happen. Casey comments on it now, saying it is hard for him to do it here as well because as soon as they step out, they get mobbed. But it is ten times worse in F1.

The way the riders and drivers approach the race, I think it is very similar. I didn’t work so closely on the PR-side when I was in F1, I was more on the marketing side. So I had a slightly different observation on the race. And my job over the weekend is slightly different to how it was in F1. But I think there are big similarities, certainly in the level of professionalism and how they approach it themselves. I think the actual paddock feeling for riders and pilots is the main difference I saw.

SJ: So, maybe this is an odd question, but I’d like your opinion. Do you remember when Rossi talked about going to F1, there were all these rumors, and he did a test. Based on your experience, if that had happened, how do you think he would have fit into that world? Both in terms of racing and in terms of the role of being a Formula 1 driver?

RE: Racing… I don’t know, it depends on the car. One of the other things which is huge to see, is very evident to see is that in this sport, the rider really makes the difference. You could put Casey, Valentino, Jorge or Dani onto a less fast, a non-factory bike maybe, and they are still going to be fast. They are very capable, very fast riders.

But in F1, if you put Fernando or Kimi into the HRT car or into the Virgin car, then it’s a big difference. So, here, the rider/pilot makes a much bigger difference that the machine, where in F1 it is the other way around. So I think Valentino going there would’ve been completely dependent on what car he was in. If he was in a good car, maybe he could have been competitive. But you can’t be sure until you see that.

In terms of the media and the world of F1, what Valentino can do with the press is incredible and we can all learn a lot from him. I’m in awe of that, how he handles them. He’s very media savvy and he’s very good with his sponsors. He would’ve been really successful on that side, for sure. He’d be a gold mine and I’m sure that’s why Bernie would be pushing for it. To have that name in Formula 1, even if he were a mid-pack runner, he’d be drawing a lot of attention and a lot of sponsors to the sport because of who he is. So that would be a success for sure.

In terms of competitiveness? It’s anyone’s guess, really. I’m mean, I’m glad to see Kimi coming back and being competitive in a car that is good, sure, the Renault is good, but it’s nice to see him being competitive. Because no one wants to see the good pilots in a slow car because it reflects so badly on them.

And that’s one of the problems at the moment with Valentino. We all know what a great rider he is and what he’s achieved with his nine titles. But he’s obviously having a lot of trouble with the Ducati. We speak about it week in and week out, we read all the press about it. And it’s sad to see that, it honestly is.

[Note: this interview took place before Stoner addressed the retirement rumor in the Estoril press conference.]

SJ: Finally, I have to ask about the latest rumor that Casey might want to retire at the end of this season. Can you comment on that?

RE: To be honest I’m not sure where this rumor has come from but it’s not a big surprise that people have started to talk about it because Casey hasn’t made a secret of the fact that he doesn’t want to be around here for a long time. He’s always said that he’ll stay racing as long as he’s enjoying racing here. And he’s obviously concerned about the future of the Championship, about what’s happening with the CRT bikes, as we all are.

But he’s made no commitments, we haven’t started talking about next year yet. It’s too early, we’re only on race three. We haven’t started any contract negotiations or anything. I hope he will race another year. With regards to the talks of him going car racing, he’s also spoken of that in the past, he loves his V8s, and a bit like Valentino in F1, I’m sure that if he does go and can get a good car then he would be competitive.

But I think the car racing is something you can also do when you’re older, so maybe this is something he’ll do in the future, but our main priority is to sign him up for next year. Retirement, is not something we’ve spoken about, and I can assure you that the talks of retirement haven’t come from our side.

SJ: HRC likes to do two-year contracts, but if Casey isn’t willing to commit for two years, would HRC be flexible to get him for one year?

RE: Our priority is to renew with Casey. If that’s a one-year contract then it’s a one-year contract. Sure, a two-year contract would be better. We would love to secure him for another two years. But if it’s the case that he’ll only do one year then we’ll take the one-year contract. The main priority is to secure him for 2013 and then go from there.

Thanks very much to Mr. Edwards for his time and for the use of some photos from his personal collection.